This book is an entertaining and fun read for people who want a more nuanced grasp of the problems with social media. Jaron offers novel thoughts that I haven’t read elsewhere, which alone makes it a good read.
I’ll briefly explain his framework for social media, which he refers to as B.U.M.M.E.R. We can then look at each of the 10 reasons to delete social media.
As we all know, social media platforms such as Facebook/Instagram and Google are essentially data businesses. They give away their core products for free in exchange for harvesting data about everything we do. This data lives in the computing clouds and feeds a statistical machine whose main purpose is to capture our attention to sell us ads.
BUMMER is the term Jaron gives to the statistical machine and it stands for: Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.
There are six parts to creating the BUMMER machine that essential boil down to attention acquisition and invading people’s lives to earn money, which creates a faker society. The parts that make the BUMMER machine are mutually reinforcing and optimized with data on billions of users and trillions of discrete actions.
I received the book in the mail along with a few others, and 10 Arguments sat on the coffee table by the couch where I do much of my reading for at least a week. One night after dinner, I was having a conversation with my family, and I read the back cover of the book that summarizes the arguments. We discussed each of the arguments based on this one sentence before I had read the book.
I’ll admit that once I finally started reading it, I had a skeptical opinion about the persuasiveness of the 10 arguments. Not because I love social media and felt obligated to defend it, but because the one sentence summaries sounded too implausible.
For example, could it really take away our capacity for empathy? I’m an adult who has learned empathy over many decades. How could an app on my phone rob me of such a basic human emotion? More on that in argument 6.
This is one of the arguments that seems hard to believe, because clearly free will is essential to our humanity. The crux of the argument is that addiction and free will are opposites. The more addicted (i.e. the more time you waste beyond the very few necessary uses) you are to social media the more you’re sacrificing your free will. To which the obvious response is that you are still exercising free will within social media by choosing what you click on.
Unfortunately, this belief is a fallacy that social media wants you to believe. The book provides more of the details on how behavior modification works. Just remember the BUMMER machine exists to capture as much of your attention as possible to sell you as much as possible, and it decides the content that you see!
In several chapters, Jaron expresses disappointment there isn’t a solution like Village:
One of the main reasons to delete your social media accounts is that there isn’t a real choice to move to different social media accounts….Quitting entirely is the only option for change. If you don’t quit, you are not creating the space in which Silicon Valley can act to improve itself.
The problem facing society is not the internet, smartphones, smart speakers or artificial intelligence. The core of the problem is how two companies make money that creates perverse incentives and corrupts people. Jaron observes that only two tech giants are fully dependent on ad revenue: Facebook (which owns Instagram and WhatsApp) and Google. There are smaller companies such as Twitter and Snap that are ad-revenue dependent, and other companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft that are partially dependent.
To make a difference, you don’t have to give up your technology, just quit the accounts that sell your time as a product.
Don’t take offense to this argument. First of all it doesn’t apply to everyone but tends to be more pronounced the more addicted you get (like someone hiding a gambling addiction). The novel insight in this chapter is how social media algorithms can turn us into not nice people using evolutionary characteristics in our old, animal DNA.
Specifically, humans still possess triggers or switches that makes us act either with a Solitary mindset or a Pack mentality. The Solitary mindset is logical and able to see the bigger picture. The Pack mentality is where you focus (even obsess) with status, pecking order and identifying with ‘your people.’ The Pack mentality drives engagement which creates revenue for social media, so guess what the algorithms promote. This is what tempts us every time we login and can bring out our worst tendencies.
It’s highly likely you’ve heard the term Fake News and it’s fascinating to read about how purveyors of fake news pull it off. While Jaron doesn’t explain all the details he makes the point that “when people are fake, everything is fake.” In this context, he doesn’t mean superficial but literally fake.
When you see reviews before buying a product or likes when choosing what to read, it’s likely that a substantial portion of those and possible all of the ones that started the trend were fake. That is to say generated by bots because someone wanted to spread a new story or an influencer who purchased the ‘likes.’
Jaron closes the chapter with “save children; delete your accounts,” referring to how it frustrates him as a parent how false information is having a negative impact on kids’ futures.
For words to have meaning they require context. If you see a house burning and yell “fire!” that has a very different meaning than the same words yelled in a crowded theater where there is no fire.
On social media, context is determined by algorithms that choose audiences for content. Whether it’s news, quotes or other posts, the communicator doesn’t know who the audience will be, and the recipients don’t always have the full background for context. News outlets and others try their best to game the statistical machine, but are ultimately beholden to the platform creating the context.
Finally, back to argument six referenced in the introduction, and you may have guessed this is my personal favorite. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feeling of another person. People have feelings in response to their environment and experiences. For the first time in human history, when we engage in a digital environment, we no longer share the same experiences as those physically around us.
It took awhile for that to sink in after I read the chapter. With real world events, newspapers or even the nightly news, we’re accustomed to having shared experiences that help us relate to and empathize with family, friends, and society at large. With social media, everyone’s feeds are customized and targeted for their individual preferences and behaviors. So a husband and wife, who a decade ago may have watched a news broadcast and talked, could now be absorbed in their own digital worlds. One could be fed with one news article and one may see some fake news and argue vehemently with different experiences and “facts.”
Kids are being raised in an environment with less understanding and more arguing to ‘score points.’
Jaron starts by citing research that shows “the world is not more connected, but instead suffers from heightened sense of isolation.” There’s even a study from Facebook’s research team that ‘practically bragged’ that they could make people sad without them knowing why.
It is counterintuitive that social media companies want you to be unhappy. Remember how the goal of these companies is BUMMER, that is to say capturing your time to make a profit. The BUMMER machine uses statistics and trillions of data points to show you what is most likely to keep you engaged. The BUMMER machine doesn’t care about whether you are happy or unhappy using the platform as long as you use it more.
Unfortunately for us (remember the free will argument?), the algorithms have learned that content that tends to make us unhappy or angry are best for them to maximize profit. Ouch, that hurts.
Social media is biased towards stars. Akin to professional sports, social media platforms provide fabulous wealth to stars with millions of followers or advertisers with big budgets. There is very little benefit to the broader economy and a bad bargain for users.
He offers a useful counterpoint of recent innovation in media that could work for social media. Instead of free video on YouTube for example, Netflix and HBO have convinced users to pay a monthly subscription for digital content. Rather than providing a livelihood for the YouTube channel creator, the paid subscriptions provide jobs for hundreds of people per production.
Jaron looks forward to the day he can pay for Facebook, Google or Twitter:
When social media companies are paid directly by users instead of hidden third parties, then they will serve those users. It’s so simple.
This chapter is best summarized by “neither left nor right, but down.” Meaning the BUMMER machine doesn’t promote a point of view. It isn’t liberal or conservative. Social media, with it’s fake actors, promotes paranoia, irritability and anger.
This has been witnessed first hand in America with our recent elections. Social media has had far reaching consequences in countries around the world. Jaron believes the negative effects on democracy are slowing human progress towards a safer and more free world.
This is a complex argument that weaves the others into a broader world view. If you’re sufficiently intrigued to still be reading, you may want to order the book and benefit from all the wisdom (order from Amazon).
Here’s one quote from this chapter regarding Facebook’s new statement for purpose:
[quotation from Facebook] “every single person has a sense of purpose and community.” A single company is going to see to it that every single person has a purpose, because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.
I found Jaron’s point of view to be original and persuasive. While he has decided to not support companies that sell his data, it is up to each of us to be informed of the concerns and decide what works for us.
This summary has included many references to social media and BUMMER. A quick reminder in conclusion. Social media and BUMMER are defined here as companies that survive exclusively with advertising revenue. Jaron makes abundantly clear this means Facebook and Google, although he refers to them generically as either social media or BUMMER, which I did here as well.