'We need social media systems built to enhance our shared humanity'

5:37 pm on 6 January 2021

By Jessica Berentson-Shaw*

Opinion - Last year, after a few years of a pretty active life on Twitter, I left the platform for good.

Social media apps. Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest, Line, Twitter logos.

Photo: 123RF

In the last eight or so months I have not had a single unproductive anxiety provoking or angry interaction with a person who I have never met. By any measure of human relationships this is a good one.

By the time I left the platform most days I was pulled between wanting to be part of interesting and relevant discussions and a grinding anxiety about the unpleasant exchanges that might occur.

There was, and still is, much that was expansive and nuanced on the platform. Despite that, I felt part of too many dehumanising and polarising connections. There was not enough that was positive and constructive, and there was little joy in it.

While it doesn't always work this way, it is how people have designed social media to operate.

To find our disagreement, what we can't understand in others and to amplify it. To allocate each of us to oppositional positions and develop our outrage about those positions.

On social media, it is our attention to things that make us angry, outraged and fearful that makes the most money for people who run it. Outrage and fear leads humans to arguing, to sharing content, to amplifying it. And it is this process that generates data about us that is then sold to those wanting to get their information to our newsfeed.

Social media companies have designed polarisation into the system. With polarisation comes a lack of spaciousness and generosity towards others' views, to finding common ground.

Recently, I became aware of the #BeanDad fiasco. A thread on Twitter that caused such outrage that it spilled over into other social media spaces, blogs and the news (who would want to be THAT guy?).

In an unedifying series of 23 tweets a father told us how he had denied his hungry nine-year-old daughter baked beans for lunch for six hours until she learned to use a can opener. During this marathon "teachable moment" he provided no guidance, did not show her how to use the opener, and refused to help when she got distressed.

Much has been written about why people were so angry about his tweets and the writer of the tweets doesn't require further attention (the less said about him the better).

What does deserve more attention is how we are encouraged to respond to each other's ideas and worldviews on social media and what it does to our society and democracy.

Encapsulated in both the story and #BeanDad's retelling of it is a "tough love" worldview.

In this strict father school of learning and development, kids learn best when there are big challenges and significant negative consequences to motivate them. This is how they will become self-sufficient in a hard world.

The alternative is the nurturing parent worldview. With the right support, respect for the child, and a collaborative approach, children will learn how to successfully navigate the world and manage themselves (and tin openers). In reality, for most people, there are elements of both of these worldviews to find agreement with.

Boundaries and challenges are important to children's development. As important, is respecting them as people, responding to their distress as we would another adult, and teaching in a collaborative way.

But the current social media structures don't work that well if we have nuanced discussions to try and find what we have in common with each other, the worldviews we share.

It "works" (makes money), if we polarise into camps of "them and us", if we judge each other and if we fail to make room for each other's humanity. The shareholders benefit if we accept those extreme and one dimensional positions we see amplified as representing a majority view and argue it out from there.

We can of course reject this process. In many social media pockets, some of which I am part of, there are people working hard to reject exactly this set up. It is a pleasure to be part of such groups when it works.

Yet systems shape our responses, and it is hard work to go against the current structures. It is why asking individuals to "deactivate" or "ignore" the harm they experience won't work in the long run.

So despite my frankly joyous experience in turning off Twitter, what we need are digital and social media systems built to enhance our shared humanity. Ones that capture and amplify our humour, our care for each other and our mutual endeavour.

It doesn't mean we should all agree by any means. But we should demand more of the people who create and run these systems to help us do so constructively. We should demand social media systems that minimise harm to people and that help us shape disagreement into something nuanced, deeper, and more expansive.

As opposed to those that lead us to something smaller and meaner. People built these systems to take us in a particular direction and with the right conditions the tracks can be relaid to take us in another direction. Because who doesn't want more dad tweets like this one?

* Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of the research and policy collaborative The Workshop and is a research associate of the Public Policy Institute at University of Auckland.

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