Blog Archives

Is Social Media the New Tobacco?

Social problems arise when initially harmless addictions explode in popularity, and economic problems arise when the long-term costs of the addictions start adding up. Political problems arise when the addictions are so immensely profitable that the companies skimming the profits can buy political influence to protect their toxic products from scrutiny and regulation.

That describes both the tobacco industry before its political protection was stripped away and social media today, as the social media giants hasten to buy political influence to protect their immensely profitable monopolies from scrutiny and regulation.

It’s difficult to measure the full costs of addictions because our system focuses on price discovery at the point of purchase, meaning that absent any regulatory measuring of long-term consequences, the cost of a pack of cigarettes is based not on the long-term costs but solely on the cost of producing and packaging the tobacco into cigarettes, and the enterprise side: marketing, overhead and profit.

(I address the consequences of what we don’t measure in my latest book, Will You Be Richer or Poorer?)

To take tobacco as an example, the full costs of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years is not limited to the cost of the cigarettes: 365 days/year X 20 years X 2 packs (14,600) X cost per pack ($5 each) $73,000.

The full costs might total over $1 million in treatments for lung cancer and heart disease, and the reduction in life span and productivity of the smoker. (The emotional losses of those who lose a loved one to a painful early death is difficult to assign an economic value but it is very real.)

If the full costs of the nicotine addiction were included at the point of purchase, each pack of cigarettes would cost about $70 ($1,000,000 / 14,600). Very few people could afford a habit that costs $140 per day ($51,000 per year).

What are the full costs of the current addiction to social media? These costs are even more difficult to measure than the consequences of widespread addiction to nicotine, but they exist regardless of our unwillingness or inability to measure the costs.

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Are the Rise of Social Media and the Decline of Social Mobility Related?

I’ve often addressed the decline of social mobility and the addictive nature of social media, and recently I’ve entertained the crazy notion that the two dynamics are related. Why Is Social Media So Toxic?

I have long held that the decline of social mobility–broad-based opportunities to get ahead financially and socially–is part of a larger dynamic I call social depression: the social decay resulting from economic stagnation and the decline of social mobility and financial security. America’s Social Depression Is Accelerating

Japan offers a real-world 29-year lab experiment in the negative social consequences of economic stagnation, a top I addressed back in 2010: The Non-Financial Cost of Stagnation: “Social Recession” and Japan’s “Lost Generations”

The conventional explanation of social media’s addictive hold is that it activates the human brain’s reward circuits much like an addictive drug: in effect, we become addicted to being “liked” and to checking our phones hundreds of times a day to see if we received any “likes”.

This phenomenon is known as FOMO, fear of missing out: fear of missing out on some emotion-stimulating “news” or a “like” from someone in our network.

The innate addictive appeal of social media is pretty clear, but is that all that’s at work here?

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The Corporate Lemmings Who Rushed into Mobile/Social Media Ads Are Running off the Cliff

Given that corporations are run by people, and people are social animals that run in herds, it shouldn’t surprise us that corporations follow the herd, too.Take the herd move to forming conglomerates in the go-go late 1960s: corporations suddenly started buying companies in completely different sectors in businesses they knew nothing about, because the herd was forming conglomerates–not because it made any business sense but because it was the hot trend.

Oil companies bought Hollywood studios, and so on. (Ling-Temco-Vought was one of the conglomerates whose success inspired the herd.)

Few if any of the conglomerates hastily assembled in the 1960s survived the 1970s intact. Once the lemming-like frenzy to assemble conglomerates wore off, managers discovered the conglomerates were mostly financial disasters: rarely did the expected synergies or economies of scale emerge, and inexperienced, tone-deaf hubris-soaked corporate managers often destroyed the acquired companies through ill-advised strategies or acquisitions.

In many cases, success was ephemeral: once the economy slumped, growth reversed and debt-laden conglomerates were forced to liquidate, often at a loss.

The dissolution of the conglomerate herd mentality set up the early 1980s frenzy of leveraged buy-outs as predatory financiers staked out the remaining carcasses of flailing conglomerates, bought the conglomerate and profited by selling off its constituent companies piecemeal. The stripped entity was then loaded with debt and sold to the public as an initial public offering (IPO).

Fast-forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the corporate herd was offshoring production to east Asia. On one of my trips to China in the early 2000s, I sat next to a youthful corporate manager in the semiconductor equipment sector. The flight being long (10-11 hours), we were able to have an in-depth conversation about his company’s dismal experience with offshoring production from the U.S. to China and other nascent manufacturing hubs in east Asia.

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So If Half of Facebook Accounts Are Fake… What Is Facebook Worth?

How many accounts on Facebook are fake? Recent estimates of half could be low. Here’s an experiment: open a Facebook account with a name that cannot possibly be anyone else’s real name, for example, Johns XQR Citizenry. Solicit a few real people to friend you, start posting something original every day and see what happens.

Eventually, your friends will inform you that “Johns XQR Citizenry” solicited them to friend him, even though they’re already friends with you. Congratulations, your Facebook identity has been cloned.

When you do a search, you find a half-dozen “Johns XQR Citizenry,” and every one of these cloned accounts is completely empty: no photo, no content. They were obviously set up for the sole purpose of cloning your identity to propagate spam to your friends list and then their friends’ lists.

So you flag the clone accounts as per Facebook’s instructions, and the (automated) response comes back “the account you flagged does not violate our community standards.” So in other words, cloning identities on Facebook is just fine.

Next, you try to find some way to report the cloning to Facebook–there’s isn’t any way.

How difficult would it be for Facebook’s vaunted AI screens to identify cloned accounts? Same name, empty account, delete, block the IP. How hard is that?

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Want to Heal the Internet? Ban All Collection of User Data

I’ve been commenting on the cancerous disease that’s taken control of the Internet– what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism–for many years. Here is a selection of my commentaries:

800 Million Channels of Me (February 21, 2011)

The New Facebook Buttons: Promote, Despise, Abandon (November 1, 2012)

How Much of our Discord Is the Result of the “Engagement” Advert Revenue Model of Social Media? (October 24, 2017)

Are Facebook and Google the New Colonial Powers? (September 18, 2017)

Hey Advertisers: The Data-Mining Emperor Has No Clothes (September 15, 2017)

The Demise of Dissent: Why the Web Is Becoming Homogenized (November 17, 2017)

Should Facebook, Google and Twitter Be Public Utilities? (March 5, 2018)

Should Facebook and Google Pay Users When They Sell Data Collected from Users?(March 22, 2018)

The Blowback Against Facebook, Google and Amazon Is Just Beginning (April 27, 2018)

How Far Down the Big Data/’Psychographic Microtargeting’ Rabbit Hole Do You Want to Go? (April 25, 2018)

If you’ve followed any of my analyses, it will come as no surprise that I’ve concluded the only way to restore the health of the Internet is to ban all collection of user data. That’s right, a 100% total ban on collecting any user data whatsoever.

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If You Want to Survive this Election with Your Mental Health Intact, Turn Off the “News” and Social Media Now

Since elections are extremely profitable for traditional media / social media corporations, your sanity will gleefully be sacrificed in the upcoming election–if you are gullible enough to watch the “news” and tune into social media.Elections are extremely profitable because candidates spend scads of cash on media adverts.

The greater the discord and derangement, the higher the media profits. The more outraged you let yourself become, the more time you spend online, generating insane profits for the corporations that own whatever platforms you’re addicted to.

Seeking an echo chamber of people who agree with you? We got you covered. Attracted like a junkie to emotionally corrosive “news”? That’s our specialty! Want an outlet for your spleen? That’s what we offer, because “we connect people” (haha).

In other words, if you have a self-destructive attraction to anger, helplessness, frustration, bitter unhappiness and derangement–then by all means, watch the “news” and soak up social media. But while you’re destroying your mental health for zero positive gains, please recall that six corporations plus Amazon zillionaire Jeff Bezos own the vast majority of the mainstream media–a truly frightening concentration of power in the hands of a few whose sole purpose is to maximize profit.

This concentration of media control creates the illusion of choice— the same elite-propaganda spin is everywhere you look; our “choice” of “approved” (i.e. corporate) media is roughly the same as that offered the Soviet citizenry in the old USSR.

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Addictions: Social Media & Mobile Phones Fall From Grace

For everyone who remembers the Early Days of social media and mobile phones, it’s been quite a ride from My Space and awkward texting on tiny screens to the current alarm over the addictive nature of social media and mobile telephony.

The emergence of withering criticism of Facebook and Google is a new and remarkably broad-based phenomenon: a year or two ago, there was little mainstream-media criticism of these tech giants; now there is a constant barrage of sharp criticism across the media spectrum.

Even the technology writer for the Wall Street Journal has not just curbed his enthusiasm, he’s now speaking in the same dark tones as other critics: Why Personal Tech Is Depressing.

The critique of social media and mobile telephony, has reached surprising heights in a remarkably short time. Consider this article from the Guardian (UK) which compares Facebook and Google’s social media empire to world religions in terms of scale, and unabashedly calls them addictive and detrimental to health and democracy: How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy.

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How Much of our Discord Is the Result of the “Engagement” Advert Revenue Model of Social Media?

Few would deny that social discord is rising. The proposed causes range from wealth/income inequality to the rise of polarizing political ideologies and the Trump presidency.

A few commentators are starting to question the role of social media in this dynamic, and specifically, the advertising based revenue model of social media. This advert-based revenue model is based on two principles:

1. If an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.

In other words, if you’re not paying for the service or content, then your personal information (harvested by Google, Facebook, et al.), your time online (i.e. your “engagement”) and the content you create and post for free (videos of your cute cat, expressions of outrage, etc.) are the products being sold to advertisers at a premium.

2. The more discord content sows, the more advert revenue it generates. In traditional media, audiences were measured by visitor impressions on websites, the number of web searches made for key words, the number of viewers of a TV program, the number of listeners to a radio station, and so on.

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