April 18, 2019
Over the weekend, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced on a podcast that she was quitting Facebook as part of her efforts to cut back on her social media use more generally.
This was big news because the 29-year-old AOC is famous for her skilled leverage of these platforms to connect with her constituents and drive the national conversation on issues she cares about.
What captured my attention more recently, however, is the apparent disconnect between the way AOC explained her social media moderation and the way the national media reported the story.
My hometown paper, The Washington Post, for example, lumped AOC in with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and Steve Wozniak, noting:
“Both technologists parted ways with the social network amid a user boycott and as the company faced a congressional inquiry over the Cambridge Analytica controversy, when it was revealed that the political firm had improperly obtained personal information from millions of Facebook users.”
The same article then elaborated:
“After a rolling series of scandals involving the misuse of personal data, hateful content and misinformation, many Facebook users have also changed the way they use the platform”
Here’s the thing: misuse of personal data and hateful content were not the reasons emphasized by AOC for why she quit Facebook. She instead called social media a “public health risk” that too often leads to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.”
I keep encountering this same mismatch between real social media users and the press coverage of these services when I’m out promoting Digital Minimalism.
The press coverage of our culture’s growing disillusionment with social media tends to focus — like the article cite above — on policy issues such as data privacy, or political issues such as the definition of hate speech.
By contrast, when you talk to actual users about their concerns with these services, they tend, like AOC, to instead talk about their addictive nature, and how this compulsive use keeps them away from activities they know are more meaningful.
When AOC mentions isolation, anxiety, addiction, and escapism, most heavy social media users know exactly what she’s talking about.
On the other hand, when the press reports on this issue, they’re more likely to turn their attention back to Cambridge Analytica — a phrase I almost never hear mentioned by the students, parents, teenagers, retirees, artists, coders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and athletes I’ve been talking to about digital minimalism over the past three months.
Putting politics aside for the moment, we should applaud AOC for being so forthright about the complicated tensions generated by social media. These tools played a big role in her rise to national prominence, but they’re also diminishing the quality of her life (not to mention the quality of life of hundreds of millions of other users obsessively entangled with these apps). The issue here is not clear cut, but it also can’t be ignored.
To me, this is the real story about how the social media juggernaut is currently renegotiating its place in our culture.
I think we’ll all be better served once the national press recognizes this reality, and turns more of its attention from the spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg testifying about data privacy and AI-driven content review, and toward the more nuanced and more human issues encapsulated by the surprising story of a 29-year-old social media rockstar who finds it necessary to escape the very techno-world that made her.
In other words, the important story is not the fear that social media companies will improperly use our data; it’s instead the fear that they’ll subvert our primal drive to cultivate a meaningful life.