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Social media: Taming the dark side

HARRY VAN VERSENDAAL

Look at me! Manolis Andriotakis, a tech-optimist author of a 2008 book on blogging and director of a short documentary on Twitter released in 2012, offers pragmatic advice on how to tame the dark side of social networking and put these new tools into meaningful service.

TAGS: Media, Technology, Society, Interview, Books

About a quarter of the global population is now on Facebook, yet only a small fraction seem aware of the world-shattering implications of this reality. Facebook and other social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have irreversibly transformed the landscape of human interaction to an extent that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

They have changed the way we do things.

It’s not all good. In a new book called “Look At Me!” (Iolkos, in Greek), Athens-based journalist and new media analyst Manolis Andriotakis discusses the pitfalls of our increasingly wired world: distraction, obsession, fabrication, ruthless self-promotion, addiction to the dopamine rush, dwindling attention spans (the average time spent on any web page is now down to eight seconds, so chances are that few people will read beyond this point).

Andriotakis, a tech-optimist author of a 2008 book on blogging and director of a short documentary on Twitter released in 2012, couples his warnings with pragmatic advice on how to tame the dark side of social networking and put these new tools into meaningful service.

He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the challenges of virtual living, the lessons of the recent US election, his regular digital detoxes and about how posting too many cat pictures can be bad for your career.

In a recent article for The New York Times, computer science professor and writer Cal Newport said that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media, he argued, weaken this skill because they are engineered to be addictive. Have we perhaps overestimated the role of social media in building a career?

Social media are indeed engineered to distract your attention. You need the tools, the critical ability and the skills to regulate their use so that you do not end up hostage to them. This book is about taking control. Engaging in social media is not some form of meditation; it’s not some daily habit to which you can let yourself go completely. If you allow that to happen, you can be completely sucked in. It happens to me too. Whenever I let my defenses down, I lapse into obsessive use that is very hard to escape.

Career-wise it can be a useful tool to promote your work, to enrich and distinguish your professional identity. But, again, it’s easy to lose focus and indulge in shallow self-promotion.

Is it not elitist to place an arbitrary sense of purpose on people and social media? One person may like posting cat pictures while someone else may enjoy looking at them. Is it imperative that they have a strategy?

Sure. But Newport is talking about career-building. And if you are being screened for a job, having too many cat pictures on your wall could prove bad for your career. You need to build up your defenses, yet the average user doesn’t do that. My point is: Take a step back and think. It’s the case with every new technology. You can hurt other people. You can also hurt yourself.

Are social media nurturing a new type of man? A narcissistic, distracted and hypersexual man at that? Or is this a case of old symptoms manifesting themselves through a new, potent vehicle?

Social media are certainly a new vehicle, but they can also cultivate new symptoms. We are dealing with a new technology that accelerates, empowers and stimulates. It presents us with a challenge. And the manner in which we – as individuals and as a collective – choose to deal with this challenge will determine whether social media will drag us down or help us evolve.

Why do people feel an irresistible urge to share their lives online?

There is something both sick and healthy in the need to share. The healthy part is rooted in the act of sharing, in the need to feel that you are a member of a larger community, and you want to reach out to people. People can, for example, share a health problem because it could help others prevent it.

But there is also a dark side which usually comes in the form of narcissism, self-promotion, or the urge to manipulate other people. I couldn’t say on which side the scale is weighted or whether you can always tell between good and bad.

It seems that “likes” have become a new social currency. How problematic is that?

Likes are the result of a complex psychological mechanism. The shallow, first level is certainly dominant – particularly on Instagram. However, although the volume of likes is not always a safe indicator of actual value, this is by no means exclusive to the realm of social networks. In any case, social media give you the opportunity to make sophisticated content more accessible.

Are people’s online identities the same as their regular identities?

No, you are not the same person. You construct a persona. It may even be a better version of yourself, a sexier, a sharper, more interesting self. Ultimately, the way you communicate your message, the attitude, often says more about you than the message.

Does it concern you that online interaction often eclipses face-to-face interaction?

You might as well be a hypocrite out there in the real world and an honest person in the virtual one. If you wish to construct a lie, you can do so in either world.

Facebook is accused of winning Donald Trump the US presidency by propagating fake news and helping generate the bulk of his campaign’s 250 million dollars in online fundraising. The tech-optimism of liberal pundits seems dead in the water. Are social media value-free?

Well, social media did not help democratize China, where you still rely on VPNs [internet connections that bypass the country’s firewalls and online censorship] to get round its “Great Firewall.” In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. Authoritarian governments can shut down the internet or build bot armies. In fact, it looks like the bad guys can make a more effective use of social media. Trump played dirty and he won. The lesson of his campaign was that playing dirty can be very effective. It’s as if the right to play dirty has been democratized. The question is, how can you outplay these guys? It’s a machine of war.

You like to take a break from the internet about once a year. What do you gain from staying unplugged?

My digital detox, as it were, helps me protect my mental health and my relationships. It helps me refocus. The internet feeds addiction, grandiosity, narcissism. You cannot wipe these out. They exist in all of us, and they exist in me too. The break allows me to reboot and clear my head.

In your book, you raise the issue of the need for digital education. You are basically recommending a way of doing things on the internet. That could raise eyebrows among those who cherish the disorderly nature of the online world.

I am not suggesting here that everyone should conform to a common purpose. I too celebrate the fluid nature of the internet. I would hate to be in a world full of predictable people or people who were serious all the time.

What I have in mind, rather, is a more holistic approach. You need to understand that most of what you do online is build connections with other people. You are not just talking to yourself. What you say can have an impact on other people, it can hurt other people, or it can backfire. Your words are not balloons floating up into the sky.

It would be better not to sleepwalk into the internet. But this is unfortunately how most people immerse themselves in social networks. Inevitably, they fail to see both the risks as well as the opportunities.


You can find out more about Manolis Andriotakis’s at www.andriotakis.com.

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