Above: Askeladden by Theodor Kittelsen. Credit: Public domain.

The Social Experiment

Social media (Instagram, Twitter, etc.) is a vast social experiment. (Each app can be considered as a research experiment that is being carried out with human participants.) The point being that the outcome of an experiment is unknown. Nobody knows what the social impact and consequences of these smartphone software apps will be--the future is unwritten. The owners and/or code-writers don't know, they are in the same position as every end-user.

These apps have brought with them among other things: a weird precipitous culture of dumbing-down (the distinction between an evidence-based opinion and a casual one has been greatly diminished to the point that many perceive the two as essentially equal and interchangeable); a toxic abusive atmosphere in which insult-and-counter-insult has been normalized as an ordinary way of reacting to frustration (abusive behaviour is rampant, it's not just the obvious trolls); a tendency for friendships to be recalibrated in terms of an emphasis on envy and jealousy (and a commensurate denigration of empathy).

After five years we can see already some of the consequences: social media addiction, cyber-bullying, the denigration of the intellectual and the expert, increased social isolation. And, arguably, the toxic atmosphere of brutalizing insults and horrifying cynicism that is becoming everywhere de rigueur in the real world. (Of course, if anyone, anyone at all, no matter how much of an expert, were to claim that the current unprecedented level of interpersonal violence on, say, the streets of London, should be understood as a direct consequence of the mass social experiment of social media, they would be mocked and derided as a fool.)

It is interesting to note that at no stage did the state (in any Western liberal democracy) attempt to compel the software owners of social media to place a clear and unambiguous warning message on the app reminding the user that they are participating in a social experiment which has risks associated with it, and which may produce as-yet-unknown consequences.

(10 November 2018)