If any technology has fallen from grace in the past few years, it is social media. Gone are the days in which Facebook and Twitter were praised for their ability to coordinate mass popular movements such as those which fueled the Arab Spring of 2011. Today’s views of social media are broadly hostile to its contributions to democracy, not least by how the deluge of fake news and political vitriol have poisoned reasoned debate. If you’ve ever debated online with a Trump supporter, or a Brexiteer, you probably know what I mean. But the left (particularly young progressives) has done no service to itself by adopting the same angry, intolerant rhetoric, perhaps more worryingly, even against its own kind.
However, not all social media is the same. Recently, I read a comment about how fake news is practically non-existent on LinkedIn, the professional networking site. This raises some interesting questions on what it is about Facebook that makes it so uniquely prone to be subverted by vitriol. However, LinkedIn is not free of its own original sin.
Facebook and our second life
The key point to consider about social interaction on Facebook is the low, in some cases no-existent, negative payoff of bad behavior. By bad behavior I will consider the three main ones that are prevalent on that site (in no particular order of severity): 1) fake news, 2) extremist opinions (mainly racism and misogyny), and 3) hostile discourse. None of these three are present in “real life” interaction, at least in civilized environments, to the degree that they are found in social media and there’s two main reasons for that. The first is payoff. There is a lot of discourse on social media whose content or tone would be met with a punch in the face in real life. If not a punch, at least some other form of visible disapproval that could cause embarrassment or a reputational hit, such as walking out on a dinner conversation, a formal complaint to superiors, etc. People on social media suffer very few consequences for the material that they post or share but in turn, gain considerably from the approval of like-minded individuals which are easier to come across in the global society that the internet creates. Facebook almost makes stupidity a rational choice.
The second is deindivduation, that is the loss of individual identity, usually in group contexts but also in many non-social ones. Deindividuation is an interesting psychological phenomenon, not least because it occurs in situations where it is not immediately obvious that one can separate oneself from our individuality. For example, road rage, a well-known phenomenon in which people generally behave more aggressively behind the wheel than elsewhere. This is despite the fact that a car does not afford its driver anonymity in the same way as a crowd would. In the early days of the internet, deinviduation was almost natural: most social services like forums would allow you to create a new identity based on a handle and an avatar that could have nothing to do with your real life self. To some extent, one can do this in Twitter too. But Facebook is different. We use our real names, and photographs of ourselves. And yet our behavior transforms not unlike if we were using a handle/avatar. Facebook gives us the lease on a second life, and given that the bulk of our online “friends” are not true friends, and that a significant share of our interactions are done outside our walls (say, on news site comments), they are to some extent anonymous.
With the ability to deindividuate, and the lack of payoff for our bad behavior, it’s obvious why Facebook has become the festering sore of humanity. It brings out the worst of us. The “freedom” to comment on anything and everything is a freedom we could do without.
The unbearable sameness of LinkedIn
LinkedIn is the exact opposite of Facebook, for good and for worse. On the plus side, LinkedIn does have a payoff: the reputational hit that you get for bad behavior is considerable. Employers are able to see your LinkedIn profile and would probably think twice about hiring your if they saw that you most of your activity was misogynistic vitriol against your female contacts, sharing Jordan Peterson videos about the “myth of white privilege”, and promoting Flat Earth or other conspiracy theories. Even if you already are employed, the fact that by and large most people don’t behave badly on the site will set you apart quite quickly from the rest of the pack. At McDonald’s nobody cares if you eat like pig: at a dinner party they will even if more than one person at that table eats like a pig at McDonald’s too. This self-enforcement is largely the reason why the three bad behaviors mentioned above are largely absent on LinkedIn which in turn leads us to a good rule of thumb for good behavior on any social media site: don’t post anything that you wouldn’t post on LinkedIn.
Unfortunately, LinkedIn doesn’t solve the deindividuation problem. Although there are more aspects of your life that are made public on that site, such as your academic and work history, it’s still remarkably easy to present yourself as someone you’re not. Namely, the career-focused corporate achiever who knows all the buzzwords and business fads. The result of this coupled with the implicit restraints on bad behavior creates a distinct but almost equally pernicious phenomenon: the remarkable homogeneity – or better put, monotony – of opinion and free thought. Just look at your LinkedIn wall at any moment and it looks like everyone is a globally recognized thought leader preparing for a TED Talk. Markets are great, we need more of them. Big companies are leading technology and innovation revolutions that are helping this family in Africa get running water. Startups, ecosystems, incubators. If you’re not disrupting, you’re not doing it right. Elon Musk is god. The monotonic drivel of corpo-speak and recycled ideas (pick what’s en vogue and repeat it ad nauseum until people think you’re an expert on it) spirals out of control mostly because the more it is spewed, the louder it needs to be to stand out. The result is a race to the bottom in originality and free thinking (particularly in criticism of the sacred dogmas of the business world) that is disguised as a race to the top. Pathetic, but also supremely rational.
Facebook may be the Wild West of opinions and beliefs; lawless, violent, chaotic. It is online intellectual anarchy. LinkedIn, in contrast (and ironically), is self-imposed Stalinism; no deviation from the norm under the threat of a violent death of your employment possibilities. Is either of these preferable? Sadly, no. One can only conclude that the only thing that social media has achieved is the democratization of stupidity.
* To any potential employer who saw this on my LinkedIn profile and now has decided not to invite me to interview… you’ve proved my point.