The only social media platform that I regularly use is Facebook, which already puts me behind the rest of my generation who’ve been steadily gravitating toward Instagram (also owned by Facebook) since 2015. But, even though I’m not the worst offender for social media usage, I am nonetheless self-conscious about how frequently I visit these sites, and the daily revelations about social media’s negative effects suggest that I’m right to be. Some psychologists, like San Diego State University (SDSU) professor Jean Twenge, have flagged social media as the root cause for increased rates of depression and suicide among teenagers. Electoral results like that of Trump and Brexit have highlighted how websites such as Facebook only exacerbate our already-polarized epistemic bubbles. And, worse still, social media has been instrumental in the propaganda campaigns aimed at the persecution of cultural minorities in places like Myanmar. If this wasn’t already enough reason for you to delete your social media accounts, Silicon Valley luminary and virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier, offers us a bit more motivation in his recent book: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. What is striking about Lanier’s latest manifesto is how, instead of only attacking the obvious and much-criticized cabals that are Google, Facebook, and Twitter, he focuses on how we, the users, actively contribute to the world’s social media malaise through our continued endorsement of these platforms.
Here’s an implicit assumption that I, and all other non-Luddites, make daily: the solution to our technological problems is just more and better technology. We tend to think that smarter and better algorithms will solve any and all issues that we face concerning online behaviour and security. Some, like cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow, have argued that this is a positive and inevitable fact of the digital revolution. But Lanier warns us against such complacency, remarking that, even though Social Media executives like Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya have voiced their mea culpa for creating the behemoth that these platforms have become, we can’t just stand around waiting for Silicon Valley to save us. “If you aren’t part of the solution,” Lanier writes, “there will be no solution.” But of course—and he acknowledges this outright—there’s a certain privilege in being able to quit cold turkey. For some of us, social media is instrumental to our jobs, or keeping in touch with family, or being up-to-date on the latest memes, but Lanier argues: “If you have the latitude to quit and don’t, you are not supporting the less fortunate; you are only reinforcing the system in which many people are trapped.”
Despite the book’s strong initial arguments about our own complicity in creating network effects (other people are only on Facebook and Twitter because we ourselves are on Facebook and Twitter, and vice versa), and how social media has turned us into a bunch of pavlovian dogs salivating for Likes, Argument Two of the book begins to alienate the reader by introducing a contrived and distracting acronym: BUMMER. It means “Behaviors of Users Modified, and made into an Empire for Rent,” and Lanier uses it as a shorthand for the Google/Facebook business model whose deliberate aim is to manipulate their consumers’ behaviour. This acronym, which Lanier oversalts on every page from this chapter onward, quickly loses its meaning through its oscillating usage as noun, verb, and adjective. Just when Lanier hits his stride with an interesting point, you’ll be confronted with curiously unpleasant and aggravating passages like this one:
Of the big five tech companies, only two depend on the BUMMER model. Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft all indulge in a little BUMMER, but they all do just fine without depending on BUMMER. The non-BUMMER big tech companies have successfully diversified. There are plenty of reasons you might want to criticize and change those three companies, but the amount of BUMMER they foster is not an existential threat to civilization.
He goes on to use this acronym another five times on that same page.
Of the book’s frequent missteps, one more stands out especially: the regularity with which you can expect to encounter footnotes that offer solely URLs linking to further reading. For instance, in the section titled “Social Media is Making You Unhappy,” Lanier provides links to thirty-three different websites and journal articles in the span of eleven pages, and rarely does he clarify what these articles are about. Presumably, he expects his readers to set the book aside, go online, manually type in the web address and figure it out for themselves. As I sat with my hardcopy opened in front of me, running into URLs on nearly every page, I wondered if I maybe should have purchased the E-Book for easy access and clickable links. Or maybe Lanier was merely embracing the communicative aesthetic of his digital-aged subject? Then I wondered: isn’t this just a remarkably lazy way to avoid expanding on his subject? Any of these could be true.
On the upside, when Lanier isn’t overusing his new coinage to maximum obscurity, his points are clear, well-informed, and concisely articulated. What he lacks in prose style, he makes up in knowledge and earnestness. It’s easy to be intrigued by sections which echo previous arguments about “Data as Labor” from his better-known, more complete works like Who Owns The Future. For instance, in argument eight, titled “Social Media Doesn’t Want You to Have Economic Dignity,” Lanier urges us to reconsider whether it’s really a good exchange to offer up our personal data for free access to these platforms, and he envisions a model of social media where we pay for websites like Facebook and Google, while, at the same time, we are also reciprocated for our online data contributions in the form of nano payments: since it’s really us human-folk who create the all of the online content, anyway. Lanier writes:
If you bring insight, creativity, or expertise into the world, you are on notice that sooner or later BUMMER will channel your value through a cloud service … and take away your financial security, even though your data will still be needed … it is possible that when we enter into a new era in which people are paid for the value their data brings to the online world, then that world will become less dark and crazy.
This book, however, doesn’t go deep enough or capture the breadth of what Lanier actually knows. For instance, in a section where he discusses the phenomenon of Gamergate, he claims “Gamergate became a feeder and model for the alt-right,” (which is a sentiment I tend to agree with) but instead of expanding on this point, he simply offers you a link for where to buy Angela Nagel’s book (although he never mentions her by name), Kill All Normies, without offering any further details.
Ultimately, Lanier’s book functions as a suitable introduction for anyone who owns a social media account but may not actually use the internet often enough to be familiar with its downsides. However, if you’re someone like me, for whom the internet occupies a large portion of your waking life, you’re probably already familiar with a number of Lanier’s central points: social media incentivizes asshole-ish behaviour, it loosens our grip on truth, the companies that own these platforms consolidate power by manipulating us and making us ever more dependant on their presence, etc. I ultimately came to this book in search of some additional insight into these complex problems but found that Lanier only offers cursory evidence of their existence.
Shortly following the publication of this book, Jaron Lanier was a guest on author Sam Harris’s podcast—a format which Lanier happens to think is one of the only internet phenomena still unmolested by “BUMMER”—and the two had a discussion in which Harris voiced this concern:
As a writer of books, you find yourself continually in competition with free versions of yourself, so, if you give a TED Talk, your TED Talk is going to satisfy some certain number of people, that they don’t even have to read your book. [edited for clarity]
Here’s the thing: Harris is right. Much of what I encountered in this book, I already knew, largely from listening to Lanier on other podcasts or in his recorded talks on YouTube. Ironically, though, it didn’t stop me from buying the book, it just left me feeling disappointed that I did. So, what I’m saying is this: you could spend 18 US Dollars to buy the one hundred and forty-six paged hardcover book (which takes less than four hours to read), or you could stow your wallet, and maybe find that you’re satisfied with just hearing him talk about it here: