recent, Who Controls The Platform?

Twitter’s Micro-Slavery

This is a response to “Who Controls the Platform?“—a multi-part Quillette series authored by social-media insiders. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com

In his new book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, tech investor Roger McNamee writes:

“Lizard brain” emotions such as fear and anger produce a more uniform reaction and are more viral in a mass audience. When users are riled up, they consume and share more content. Dispassionate users have relatively little value on Facebook, which does everything in its power to activate the lizard brain. Facebook has used surveillance to build giant profiles of every user and provides each user with a customized Truman Show, similar to the Jim Carrey film about a person who lives his entire life as the star of his own television show. It starts out giving users “what they want,” but the algorithms are trained to nudge user attention in directions that Facebook wants. The algorithms choose posts calculated to press emotional buttons because scaring users or pissing them off increases time on site. Facebook calls it engagement, but the goal is behavior modification that makes advertising more valuable.

The term micro-slavery might provoke some readers to claim an improper and provocative metaphor. On closer examination, the metaphor unequivocally justifies itself. Public health campaigners and medical researchers have long equated the ravages, cruelty, and exploitation of narcotics addiction to chemical slavery. A virtually identical mechanism unfolds in a brain using Facebook or Twitter. Researchers of social media both in the Academy and in Silicon Valley have apprehended for a long time that social media prey on the dopamine rewards system of the brain. Some have used this knowledge to exploit users; others have used it to warn the public of a digital narcotic epidemic. The frisson of delightfully outraged purpose that courses through a user’s nerves as he reads or responds to a post arises from the same brain system that rewards a human being for consuming a healthy meal or organizing his sock drawer. The Hollywood actors who have done mighty work to support the Bolivian cocaine trade in the past can’t put Twitter down now, and that’s no accident.

Digital abolitionists grow more and more strident and numerous these days. Many—including early Facebook investor McNamee—hail from inside Silicon Valley. A raft of articles over the last few years have documented the wave of Silicon Valley techno-elites who, like savvy drug cartel bosses, forbid their own children from using the devices and social media platforms they build, while they encourage their employees to spend frequent periods “unplugged.” They know social media and mobile devices create users, and some have been brave enough to lobby the public for a shift in consciousness.

The slave reaps no substantial or real-world payment for his labor. Chemical slaves to drugs get nothing but misery and poverty in the end. Social media users subsist in an analogous trap, subtle and harder to spot. When it comes to social media, 99.9 percent of users will never see any substantial return on what stacks up to be an enormous longterm investment of time. Users will experience some fleeting stimulant sensations and a smattering of poorly organized—or incorrect—information. “I find out what’s happening on Twitter!” or “I get to promote myself on Twitter!” amounts to self-delusion on par with the vile Antebellum plantation saw that “Slaves get paid in the satisfaction of a hard day’s work and some are even taught how to read!” Such apologetics leverage false but presentable ends to cover horribly exploitive means—means the real ends of which are too embarrassing to admit. The average Twitter user might make the odd connection or get some attention for his business on Twitter, if he keeps at it day after day. In contrast, Jack Dorsey always gets paid handsomely for the user’s time on-site month after month by advertisers. The users work the platform with their attention, and Master Jack goes home with the check.

Unless already famous, the chances of reaping substantial reward from Twitter—such as income or significant growth of attention from others—roughly equal the chances of winning the lottery. And like the lottery, millions of average users chip in and hope, while just a few luck out and get a payout. Those few average users who get a mediocre reward—and even fewer who get famous with a lucky tweet or some such—keep the millions of average users coming back to try their luck every day. The little blue bird runs on the principle of the one-armed bandit and Powerball.

Virtually all users end up losing in the long-term. Most lose hours and hours scrolling through quips and posting burns, sifting through nonsense to find the odd bit of useful information, but mostly for distraction. Like their casino cousins cursed by fate with a gambling addiction, an unlucky minority of Twitter users lose everything on the platform without meaning to. A particularly ill-considered tweet brings down on their heads digital lynching, infamy, disgrace, loss of employment, loss of a spouse, libel lawsuits, and in some countries, criminal indictment for hate speech or threatening behavior. Uncounted thousands of users have operated their mobile devices under the influence of Twitter on the information superhighway, only to wind up with a digital DUI or in an online 25-car pileup.

Brain researchers and those with unusual common sense have noticed that Twitter produces much the same effect on good judgement as drugs or a gambling compulsion. To watch full-grown adults turn into excrement-flinging six-year-olds, put on a hazmat suit and open up any hashtag. There, responsible men and women—including those with awesome educations and much to lose—deploy grade-school sarcasm, slander, baiting, slurs, impudence, mixed metaphors, and threats toward … strangers. The spectacularly gifted and high-IQ billionaire Elon Musk recently called a stranger on Twitter a “pedophile.” Musk will soon make that “pedophile” a moderately rich man. A handful of celebrities who leapt on Twitter to dog-pile Nick Sandmann—the MAGA-hatted 16-year-old whose smirk reported round the world—probably will not get off so easy. Sandmann soon may face the agonizing decision of how to divide his time between the former mansions of Kathy Griffin, Jim Carrey, and Bill Maher. A few wily and stable celebrities navigate the emotional maelstrom of Twitter and reliably manipulate it to their advantage, like pushers able to resist the “product” of their business. Most other famous users wind up offering shamefaced mea culpas for their Twitter transgressions, in the spirit of Mel Gibson after his drunken anti-Semitic Malibu highway rant years ago.

Many will argue that Twitter users volunteer to participate. Of course they do. The party-goer who tries his first bump of blow volunteers to participate. Many smart and otherwise savvy African warriors probably could not resist the temptation to “Come aboard and check out my big Dutch canoe!” Such casuistry ignores the social pressures and ignorance of unfamiliar dangers at play.

Strictly speaking, slaves from Greek and Roman antiquity to the American colonies didn’t have to do as they were told, either. They could have refused to work—period. They just had to make peace with the pain and physical nonexistence that might follow if all the other slaves failed to follow suit and render an evil system untenable. Most of the time, only a few Spartacus-like souls will take such a risk. Human beings generally prefer even an oppressed existence to acute pain and nonexistence, rising up only occasionally. Ask any teenager for the score today: he who drops out of social media and limits himself to the nutritious Real World risks social nonexistence and psychic pain—no friends, no dating prospects, no idea what’s going on. Professional adults find themselves pulled into a treadmill dilemma, too. Anyone whose work or social life touches the information economy in any way feels he must participate enthusiastically on social media or risk falling behind in his profession, even if he hates Twitter and wants to take a shower after touching it. He must toil part-time in the Twitter micro-slave economy according to that economy’s uncompromising rules…or risk shelving with the Amish.

Ancient slaves had one advantage over today’s Twitter micro-slaves: they were neither in ignorance nor confusion about their slavery. They could put their hands on their chains. Most Twitter users do not apprehend the extent of their micro-exploitation or neurological confinement. The confusion evolves from a brilliant twist to micro-slavery that drug slingers pioneered and social media platforms perfected: chain up the mind, not the whole body. If you chain up a man’s body, you must house him, feed him, and guard him every minute of every day. That’s a lot of overhead, and terribly inefficient. Chemical brain-chains make a man feed and house himself, then toil part-time for Master Jack with little supervision or correction. The occasional “Violation of Community User Guidelines” lashing cuts the backchat and puts the fear of digital nonexistence into most wayward users.

A strung-out user must grasp his brain-chains before he can throw them off. That’s just the first step on a tough road. Any recovering drug or social media addict will explain there’s a categorical difference between spending a week sawing through an iron fetter and slogging through the agony of chemical withdrawal and rehab to escape back into the free world. Even after apprehending his brain-chains and finding the will to break them, the would-be Twitter runaway won’t possess the confidence to follow through and reclaim his peace of mind. Other users and Master Jack have inculcated in him the belief that his chains are a modern social survival tool, without which he supposedly becomes a Neanderthal who cannot talk to his friends, land employment, nor—in the case of Twitter’s kissing cousin the dating apps—find sexual release or a spouse.

If the reader hasn’t noticed, all roads lead back to fear. Fear of missing out, fear of scorn and loneliness, fear of painful withdrawal, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of being understood the wrong way, fear that others will have their say on Twitter without someone to correct their immoral use of data and benighted views. God forbid a stranger posts 280 characters on the Internet that goes unchallenged and causes democracy to perish.

Human beings do their nastiest, cruelest, foulest, stupidest work hyped up on fear and its distillates. No wonder America’s political enemies find Twitter such a gift: fear makes Americans turn on one another. Twitter runs on angry fear, and it stinks of the stuff, inside and out. In Judeo-Christian tradition, the forces of evil were embodied as The Accuser (Aramaic: satana). Today, Twitter stands as the premier destination for anyone with a particular accusation, or just an accusatory grudge against his society and fellow man. On Twitter the jealous, resentful, cruel, bored, cowardly, oversensitive, manipulative, suggestible, destructive, and mentally ill find their anti-paradise, a rich Valley of Hinnom in which to whip up or join in fear-juiced lynch mobs, so they can all get their collective fix watching some unfortunate burn. Those who used to pack round the executioner’s stake now just reach into their pockets and tap the little blue bird. Twitter is the epitome of sadness and banality, a virtual prison packed with inmates abusing one another to display dominance and ease their jones.

Some will argue these analogues and concerns about Twitter world are overstretched and alarmist. Perhaps—but alarm isn’t always alarmist. Most people have either seen or heard tell of appalling outcomes connected to social media, particularly among the young. Pick your metaphor: micro-slavery, drug addiction, slot machines, the lottery, child exploitation, torture lust, prison…there is nothing good here. Denialists who retort, “Ahcktually…there are good parts to Twitter” bring to mind optimists of old who opined: “Burning that supposed witch wasn’t all bad. I got to warm my hands!”

The inherent instability of slavery, fear, and dependence necessitate a collapse and reckoning eventually. The center cannot hold. Digital micro-slavery is no exception. All that remains to determine is time and the final cost: how much micro-tragedy and micro-nastiness will it take before a moiety of users in the West find the Spartacus inside and tell Tribune Jack Dorsey to pound sand and find his labor elsewhere?


Alec Cameron Orrell is an accomplished sophist and poor financial prognosticator living in Los Angeles. He is not on social media.

 

83 Comments

  1. Sydney says

    Great piece. I look forward to making my teenagers read it. Thanks for writing it.

    • They’ll have no choice if you just drop a tweet of it into their twitter feed!

      • david of Kirkland says

        Teenagers follow their parents tweets in what world?

  2. Nina Alvarez says

    You’re going to get some pushback for equating this to actual human slavery; they really aren’t the same thing. But the chemical slavery connection was potent. Overall what matters is the message. It was a significant wakeup call for me, especially realizing that getting social media famous is equivalent to winning the lottery.

    • John Starbuck says

      How many times have you come across those who equate an expression which is deemed offensive, justifiably or otherwise, to physical violence? In the author’s defense, his use of the word “slavery” is meant figuratively, whereas the former is meant literally.

    • @ Nina
      Many slaves were endentured, they willingly went into slavery? Maybe it was that they were offered, free transportation, higher wages after serving the indenture, or lessening of a prison sentence ect.

      What is your definition of a slave?

    • ga gamba says

      I see what Mr Orrell is attempting to put forward, but ultimately a person who chooses to use addictive drugs or chooses to use social media had that initial choice slaves didn’t. “Hi, I’m here by choice to be the slave,” likely was a statement rarely, if ever, said.

      I think dependent or addicted are the words fitted for purpose.

      • D.B. Cooper says

        Clearly you don’t subscribe to Kanye’s view of slavery… viva la Amistad

      • Because the term slave describes an ancient common law civil status, we know that slavery was common amongst the Anglo-Saxons at the time of the Conquest and was continued, unchanged, after 1066. Under the common law, one could become a slave in one of two ways; either by selling one’s self into slavery or by becoming a prisoner of war. The surviving records from Anglo-Saxon times suggest that taking on slaves in times of famine or scarcity and freeing them after a term of years or in one’s will were considered acts of Christian charity. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 provide a concise summary of the common law with respect to slavery:

        “91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.”

        No fine distinction seems to have made between indentured servants, slaves, pressed men and lawful prisoners. After Preston, and as late as 1653, Cromwell was selling captured Scots Engagers and Irish Confederates into slavery in the Caribbean sugar plantations. Perhaps that is how Alexander Hamilton’s ancestor arrived on St. Nevis. In 1646, a Dutch ship landed a few Africans in Boston and offered them for sale. The Africans were seized by the Magistrates and returned to Guinea with a note of apology assuring the reader that the Bay Colony would not tolerate “man stealing.”

        Under the English common law, one’s civil status was inherited from one’s father and if the father was unknown the child was usually presumed to be, or after trial found to have, the civil status of freeman. At least one Black slave in Virginia argued this point and was judged to be free in the early 1660s. Common law slaves had access to the courts and could petition for redress of injuries. If a slave was subjected to cruel treatment or intentional injury or disfigurement by his master, the law directed that after trial on the facts, the slave should be freed and damages paid to him. One author, Allen D. Boyer, speculates that the popularity of apparently collusive actions to try title in the 16th C. was to extinguish any suggestion that the grantor or his ancestors were slaves. Boyer speculates that Sir Edward Coke’s grandfather might actually have had the civil status of slave.

        That sort of slavery was replaced in all the English colonial plantations after 1662 when Charles II allowed those colonies to change the common law by denying slaves all civil liberties and by establishing that amongst slaves, the child inherited the mother’s civil status. That was the kind of slavery that was papered over in Art. IV, § 2 by lumping bond slaves along with voluntarily indentured servants and convicted prisoners by calling them all persons held to service or labor.

        Up to the 1850s, most Americans had no idea how awful slavery had become in the states that began as plantation colonies.

    • Janet says

      Yes, I think a gambling addiction is a much better analogy than slavery

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        There are some strong similarities there, to be sure.

        The gambler rolls the dice hoping for the emotional rush of a win.

        The social media user sends a post into the void, hoping for affirmation.

        Sometimes the affirmation is benign (you post a cute picture of your new puppy or baby). Sometimes it isn’t (you post something designed to stir up a lynch mob).

        Both seem to rely on the Skinnerian concept of intermittent reinforcement.

      • Mechan B says

        @ Janet
        With gambling you have a chance of winning which is a large part of the addiction.
        With twitter or Facebook you do not have a chance to “win” by typing away. Reality is that they are making money off of your data as a consumer and ads to an extent. Sadly it is your human addiction to dopamine is their meal ticket not yours.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Getting trapped or stuck in a rut or being emotionally addicted is not the same as being subjected to a forced trap. Coercion and force mark actual real slavery, whereas these are not. I mean, we think in our native language, yet to say we are enslaved by our language makes no sense. You can say they wasted their lives on twitter, but perhaps they were as engaged in that activity as any other.
      Like all fake slaveries, it’s easy to leave. If you are worried you won’t be in the twitter-addicted crowd, then you aren’t worried about being addicted to twitter. Anybody stuck in twitter is a twit I have no need to concern myself with.

    • Saw file says

      In this case: “the medium is the message ” is apropos

  3. Farris says

    I dislike Twitter Facebook and the different permutations. I get the drug and gambling addiction comparisons. I found the slavery comparison a bit tortured but not out of concern for some imagined micro aggression from the descendants of slaves. As I once posted what little I see on Twitter seldom rises above the intellectual gravitas of graffiti. However I could also say the same for gossip rags, daytime television and reality television.

    • @ Farris
      What is your definition of a slave?
      I’m not being argumentative, beyond the fact that whilst knowing that I live in a country where slavery has always been illegal, we now get accused of slavery? And as a woman, financially dependant on my husband, I totally disagree with modern ideas regarding the patriarchy .
      Without agreed terms of reference how can any conversation between people continue?

      So what exactly, constitutes a slave?
      And what about Libya? Or is that a different story?

      • Farris says

        @Anita

        I would submit the definition of slavery as being subjected to involuntary servitude.
        I don’t believe having the luxuries of high tech devices and abusing those devices to one’s detriment constitutes slavery. In fairness the author did not say that either, rather he drew an analogy that I found somewhat strained.

        • Farris says

          And even though you didn’t ask…My analogy for social media would be two dogs endless sniffing each others’ behinds

          • david of Kirkland says

            And like those dogs, it’s not a bad thing, just something that turns out to be part of human nature that others wish were not the case. Habits, good and bad, are everywhere. Losing face among other slaves (twitter users) by stopping is not death or beatings, just quiet and more time and energy to focus on valuable tasks rather than playing juvenile.

          • Saw file says

            @Farris
            “My analogy for social media would be two dogs endless sniffing each others’ behinds”
            GOLD!

    • david of Kirkland says

      Force labor and control of your life by another is entirely unlike a choice you subsequently decided you wish you hadn’t made. Slavery is a nonsense comparison compared to addiction, which is already too strong, as it’s more like a bad habit for gossip and anger.

      • Peter Kriens says

        Interestingly the Dutch word for ‘addicted’ is ‘verslaafd’, which directly translates back to ‘enslaved’. Maybe that is the reason I find the metaphor apt.

  4. bumble bee says

    I have never been on social media for the exact reasons mentioned. Then of course there is the plain old idiocy of what people post that makes SM quite ridiculous. Remember all those who thought anyone would care what they had for lunch? Then there is the issue with selfies that really have led to not only those narcissists who have been too stupid to see that they are too close to the edge and have fallen to their deaths, as well as other manners of dying for a picture of themselves. Then we have to deal with the latest memes from duck lips to any other stupid challenge that injures or causes death (tide pods). Now we have Momo, that provokes kids to injure or kill themselves.

    If one was to tally up how dangerous SM really is, either through injury or death, it could be considered a public health crisis. Then we have the other side of the coin, where terrorists have posted videos of beheadings as well as a platform to spread their propaganda and hatred. Add to the list, pornography of the sickest degree, snuff films, bullying of children until they see no way out except suicide.

    Another issue as discussed is the ruination of livelihoods, families, friends, as well as becoming a place to generate mobs to attack a perceived enemy or engage a situation that leads to conflict.

    It has also created a false sense of community which is the binding agent on why all the stupidity is still around. Even the most depraved, sick individual can find their “people”. This in turn creates a sense of what they are doing is not so depraved and sick. Which eventually leads to the normalization of it and more want to join. People’s sense of belonging and affirmation is also the drug that keeps people on SM. If I see another, “Like me/us on Facebook” it’ll be too soon.

    If groups and businesses would stop using SM, it will be a good start. No longer will mobs descend on a business and either put it out of business if it is small, or cause larger corporation to fold to some outrageous demand because a few hundred people did not like something they did or said. Now we have reached a point where businesses are virtue signalling to get customers.

    Each person that leaves SM not only personally benefits, but dwindles the impact it has. If no one reads a tweet, does the tweet have any impact? No, and that is where we all need to start by getting off SM.

  5. Mikael says

    I new it! That’s it, no more social media for my kids. Back to 8 hours of TV a day, like in the good old days.

    • Tersitus says

      Cut the whole cord, Mikael— take them outside to play. Leave your phones.

    • @Mikael
      Make it an old B and W one with a choice of next to nothing, and yes, let the kids have cake, sorry
      TV?

    • Angela says

      The latest research ive seen discussed shows that for biys social media doesnt have much of an impact, but fot Junior High age girls it might be having a tremendous negative impact. Boys are much more likely to directly bully each other but the more passive aggresssive nature of girl bullying and gossiping make social media the perfect tool to torture young girls, and that’s not even getting into the mote narcissistic problems with middlr school kids on social media.

      Jonathan Haidt has a lot of data showing gigantic spikes in female self harm among them Gen Y who happened to get to middle school just as social media became ubiquitous. Violent self harm used to be mostly a boys club but young girls have caught up in a dramatic way. I’m glad I have boys.

    • MadKangaroo says

      Or, Mikael, you could do things like these with them: work on an old car, go camping, build things, fix things, play games, talk, hike, fish, read, play sports, kayak, hunt, paint, sew, mow, rake, tend a garden, chop wood, cook meals, clean house, travel, go to concerts, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

      You get the picture. Do. Real. Things. Together. I see far too few “families” that do this, and the results are painful.

  6. Peter Schaeffer says

    Take a look at “People Still Spend an Absurd Amount of Time on Facebook”. The number are amazing. I try to keep Facebook under 2 hours per year (and generally succeed.

    • Angela says

      I’ve kept it under 2 hours for the last decade. The last time I used it was just to delete a bunch of embarrassing stuff I wrote in my early 20s.

  7. Thomas Barnidge says

    I have a sister that has no cellphone, no facebook or twitter, and lives over 1600 kms away. I talk to her about every six months. If she had social media accounts, we could communicate more before we both check out.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      It doesn’t sound like she wants to talk to you more than twice a year. You know, before cell phones and the internet people were able to communicate regularly, and usually in a much more meaningful way that trading stupid photos of random crap and political memes.

      • david of Kirkland says

        And if they could do social media, they could also do hangouts or skypes or email or…. She’s just not that in to you.

      • Nostalgic says

        You know, this is true. Letter writing and letter reading were arts which literate people, at least, cultivated. To sit down and reflect at some length on how the last month of your life and the world around you in which you have lived has proceeded, with a view to communicating to someone you care about and who you can hope cares about you, is a morally, spiritually and intellectually uplifting exercise. It can, if done carefully and sincerely, improve both you and your correspondent. I could almost support a facism which outlawed Twitter except for emergency messages in the public interest.

    • Saw file says

      No telephone either?
      Does she live in the middle of a forest/jungle?
      Seems strange…

  8. All roads lead back to fear indeed. Fear of Facebook and Twitter. So, let’s avoid them and spend hours reading and commenting on Quillette instead. Oh, wait…

  9. “… he who drops out of social media and limits himself to the nutritious Real World risks social nonexistence and psychic pain—no friends, no dating prospects, no idea what’s going on.”

    I knew men like that before there was social media.

  10. Illegal use of worn-out 90s metaphor – ‘accident on the information superhighway.’ Ten yard penalty, repeat first down.

  11. Sam says

    Exactly what is needed: an uncompromising stance on this garbage. I see the denialists to which the author refers everywhere.

    Please write again.

  12. D.B. Cooper says

    A few wily and stable celebrities navigate the emotional maelstrom of Twitter and reliably manipulate it to their advantage, like pushers able to resist the “product” of their business.

    The author’s (Orrell) rhetorical wit gives the piece a nice touch, and though Orrell doesn’t connect with every swing, I think he has more hits than misses. Banter aside, one area I would like to have seen discussed in more depth (or at all) are the criteria – be them personality traits, age, gender, environmental pressures, etc. – that lead to or make an individual predisposed to developing social media (SM) addictions.

    In the passage above, Orrell suggests that some individuals are able to negotiate SM without falling victim to it, though he doesn’t say why or how such individuals are able to accomplish this feat – I’m taking it on faith their SAG-AFTRA card has nothing to do with it.

    Do the precursors for SM addiction mimic those of illicit drug addiction, alcohol, sexual/porn, food, gambling, etc.? Furthermore, does the ability(ies) that allow immunity to SM addiction lend itself, or mirror in some significant way, towards having a similar immunity to other addictions? Is it the absence of certain criteria (innate or environmental) that grants or allows an individual to have such immunity, or is it the presence of certain criteria (innate or environmental) that grants or allows an individual to have immunity? I would think – and it is a guess – both (absence & presence) are possible, although the latter (presence) of the two seems more likely.

    Why?

    No good reason. But I would think that the individuals who aren’t “addicted” to SM are those who are likely to have (all else being else) above average intelligence, who are prone to philosophical skepticism, inclined to rational discourse, not given to bouts of anxiety or emotional difficulties, and most importantly who are generally intolerant and contemptuous of using and/or reading vague and innocuous inspirational quotes that are almost always taken out of context b/c the context was either not known or counterproductive – but usually not known. That’s my guess, anyhow. Just as an aside, I would bet Quillette readers are overrepresented in the “non-SM addicted” cohort.

    Obviously, I’m not suggesting that certain precursors are a necessary prerequisite for having an addiction of any stripe; nor am I suggesting that having certain qualities – such as those mention above – grants one automatic immunity to addiction’s outrageous fortune. I can appreciate the simple fact that even in the absence (or presence) or certain criteria, a person may nonetheless become addicted to any number of external stimuli. Taken from this view, it may be that everyone is, at least on some level or to some degree, capable of becoming addicted given the right circumstance(s). Come to think of it, I believe I’ve read that individuals with above average intelligence are more prone to alcoholism; which may suggest (assuming intelligence inversely correlates with SM addiction) the precursors of SM addiction do not necessarily mirror the precursors of drug addiction (or at least alcoholism).

    • david of Kirkland says

      And that’s why addiction or habits makes a better analogy than slavery. Like comparing people to Hitler, you just lose the point when you choose the hyperbolic.

    • Brill says

      I’ve been listening to Johann Hari lately, the man seems to have a good perspective on addiction. What I believe he would say is, the people who have meaningful activities, friendships, and loved ones in their lives don’t get addicted. He was speaking about drugs like heroin, but one could easily use the same argument here. Addictive substances (or social media addiction, video games etc.) are not an end in themselves, they are used to avoid painful real life problems.

      So to your question about who gets addicted, it’s not innate qualities or philosophy, it’s essentially meaningfulness in your life. I would venture that the less you have, the more likely you are to get addicted to something.

  13. Corsair says

    This is the best article I’ve read on Quillette.

  14. Jezza says

    @corsair
    I agree, it is bold and trenchant. I was a bit bemused by Bumble Bee’s references to SM. How, I wondered, does Sado Masochism come into this? Is “SM” a brilliant layered metaphor underlining the abusive behaviors of facebookers and twitterati? It took me a moment or two to realize this is not the case. It just refers to plain old Social Media. Sigh. Please forgive me; I’ve had a hard day.

  15. I was briefly on FB but couldn’t find any logic in liking the dogs or political statements of people who had not communicated with me since, in some cases primary school.

  16. What I find interesting on this site is the difference between different Anglopheres and classes.

    In the working class for example, nobody cares about social media, and only use it as a cheaper way of communicating with friends and family, when our kids were teenagers they were only allowed half an hour of SM, on the big old computer in the living room.

    All coupled up and married with kids in their 20’s. Without SM?

    If you need an app, or SM to date, whatever that means these days, then maybe you are too immature to date? Most definitely too immature to engage in activities that might result in sexual activity. Possibly resulting in a child or an infanticide

  17. scribblerg says

    Your brain’s neuro-biochemistry is activated by all kinds of stimuli. Just looking out at a body of water ahead of you activates it. When I hear this kind of terrifying talk, I just want to scream.

    Even heroin addicts aren’t properly conceived of as “slaves”, and certainly Facebook users are not either. Read The Biology of Desire, you’ll find the vast majority of science today finds very clearly that addiction has a component of will in it. Seeing an addict as a slave who’s not made the choice to be an addict is to not understand how one becomes addicted in the first place. Helpful stat: Only 15% of people who use heroin become addicts. Huh, how could that be if one is a “slave”?

    I had high hopes for Quillette. The reality of it is quite disappointing. Wannabe elites sermonizing and justifying and preening, that’s how it looks to me.

    • Scribble, one good thing about quillette is a well-informed readership, always on the lookout to call bullshit, as you just did. And then there’s the lack of censorship, so I can use the word bullshit.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds interesting. Addiction is a fascinating topic. When I used to smoke, I saw it as an excuse for an excuse. And I loved the ritual. I think there must be something religious about addiction, which is maybe why AA uses spiritual language in their recovery process.

      • scribblerg says

        And thank you for your thoughtful engagement. Addiction is best seen as a behavioral problem. All behavioral problems have a neurological component, and then you add in the chemistry of the substance involved and it’s effect. Depressants, stimulants, opiods, synthetics, canabanoids, the effects vary.

        But what is the same is that fact that these payoffs get grooved into the striata of our brains and we anticipate and associate so much pleasure to them. Smoking is a perfect example. You know you can quit any time – but you don’t. But we aren’t allowed to think of heroin addicts this way. Ask this question: Why do so many opiate addicts return to use after they’ve “detoxed” – meaning they are not longer physically craving the opiate to be comfortable? Easy: THEY JUST WANT TO GET HIGH.

        The other truth that doesn’t make it through is that something like 80% of addicts and alcoholics are people with severe psychological disorders or diseases. Many untreated childhood victims of trauma end up in rehabs and AA meetings. I heard a heroin addict state it once in an AA meeting. “A heroin addict is really just someone who’s willing to go to any lengths to feel a bit of joy and relief.” Note the setup is that one has to be miserable first to become an addict. While not the entire truth, it’s a very good insight to start with.

        Instead, all the social planners on the left want to pathologize it and the moral buffoons on the right want to criminalize it. But straight, accurate, honest talk? Not available on the subject.

        And now we pathologize social media usage. Fyi, I know this data as well or better than the author, I hold an executive position in a tech company in the social media space…The author’s complaint is that Facebook is exploiting us by manipulating us, but he cannot face that humans have agency and actually love this game called social media.

        He makes the absurd statement along the lines “working class doesn’t use social media for anything more than communications”, lmfao. Does he not understand how Insta and Snap work? That their main draw is user generated content? And that these features are used largely by women and girls? Across all demographics, as long as they are able to have a smart phone? Communicating is a nice to have, but the draw is the UGC as we call it in the biz.

        I guess that’s another element here. I’m in the biz, and not at all impressed with this sophistic analysis either. And that’s what I’m encountering a lot of on this platform. Preening much more than critical thinking.

        • jakesbrain says

          “A heroin addict is really just someone who’s willing to go to any lengths to feel a bit of joy and relief.”

          “The face of evil is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: Wouldn’t you? Yes, you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need. Because you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in a position to act in any other way. Dope fiends are sick people who cannot act other than they do. A rabid dog cannot choose but bite. Assuming a self-righteous position is nothing to the purpose unless your purpose be to keep the junk virus in operation. And junk is a big industry.” — William Burroughs

    • tarstarkas says

      We await from you the best article on Quillette ever written.

      • scribblerg says

        I’m game. I know, I’ll write an essay on the tedium of dealing with douches in comment sections, and I’ll cite your comment as an example of the “ankle biting” phenomenon I observe so often on the web. Sound good to you?

  18. Pingback: For Facebook & Twitter – Hate Is the Whole Point! | Joel D. Hirst's Blog

  19. I agree with the argument itself but the author really weakens it by comparing it to slavery. I realize it’s sort of tongue in cheek and sort of copying the ‘microaggression’ conceit but it just pulled away from the argument for me. Slavery is a) life-threatening (it kills you and the value of your life is dependent on your monetary value to the owner) and b) not your choice either in becoming a slave or leaving slavery. To compare to social media is any way is facile.

    Twitter is ludicrous. I literally know no one who uses it. It’s one of these things that a vey small proportion of our society uses but they happen to be the ones in power–media, those building business platforms and branding themselves, politicians doing same. The media echoes it because it is cheap to do so and keeps them relevant. All this has nothing to do with being addicted to it, micro or macro. It has to do with the users entering into a Faustian bargain and then bemoaning when their souls are stolen.

    As far as other social media – FB and so on – I loathe it but am never pulled in even tough my brain is made the same as everyone else’s brain. That’s because I am not a believer in In Groups and Out Groups; I am not a collectivist. It’s the collectivists who are drawn to social media because social media encourages not merely fear but, more importantly, a feeling of easy belonging and easy Good and Bad Guys. If you crave easy belonging with no work, and are willing to be cruel & simple minded online, if you value appearance over reality (my family is so happy! My marriage is so awesome! Look at us), then social media is for you. This doesn’t have to do with our brains needing dopamine per se. It has to do with the character of the individual and their own values and the way they choose to be rewarded and to live their lives.

    People choose social media more out of a Faustian bargain at best, and a pathetic need to be liked & approved in the most shallow way. This isn’t slavery, unless you mean being a slave to your basest instincts.

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  26. david of Kirkland says

    Too many people who can’t apply critical thinking towards their own lives…something about the unexamined life may come into play among these mental slaves to fads and narcissism.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      You don’t seem to comprehend the issue at all. It isn’t about critical thinking and self-awareness (but yea, you’re probably the smartest guy ever and you could never be manipulated, if that makes you feel good about yourself); social media is a plague that exploits our basic weaknesses. This is hardcore psychological warfare funded by billion dollar companies that could care less about the damage their businesses do to us as individuals and to our democracy.

      • Exactly, nakatomi plaza. SM was designed and perfected by thousands of engineers to maximize the time that people spend on it. Nothing is by accident. Not the anger, not the loneliness, not the obsession, not the segregation by tribal affiliation…none of it is an accident because all of it harvests info and makes money.

        The beginning of SM may have been innocuous, but in tech time, that is ancient history. SM in its current form is a malevolent and utterly demoralizing monster that will wind up desolating our societies.

        Oh, and to all the sharp tacks saying the slavery analogy is inept…put your sarcasm goggles on and read the article again for fuck’s sake.

  27. PaulNu says

    Humans are response machines. Our genetics and our experience have shaped us into machines that have no choice but to respond one specific way to any given stimulus. It isn’t easy to take advantage of that fact because for the most part we can’t control all the stimulus someone receives, and we can’t know how they will respond. That is changing over time. People who want to manipulate us are getting better and better at it. This trend will continue.

  28. We’re it not for social media, I would not have discovered Quillette – nor become a subscriber.

    So there’s that.

    • @Banister’s You would have discovered something else, which could have been better, or worse. There is no way to know. Your statement is a moot point.

  29. codadmin says

    Isn’t an ‘accomplished sophist’ the same as ‘talker of bollocks’?

  30. Saw file says

    Giid article.
    I’m only on social media (fb) to keep in touch with people I actually know. Friends and relatives.
    And a few groups that are either thoughtful or hilarious, plus a few msm news ‘pages’.
    Anything else they try to feed me is a blur
    It’s easy to forget that those in the third world don’t have many viable options. Email isn’t terribly effective for communicating with social groups easily.
    .

    • @Saw I have heard this before. But the people you keep in touch with on facebook, surely have e-mail, instant messaging apps and the smartphone’s capability to make and receive phone calls.

      And what is this “third world” you speak of? Have you actually been there? They are just as “connected” as any American.

  31. Jean-Pierre Rupp says

    I subscribed to Quillette yesterday, adding a monthly monetary contribution, and then read this piece: the worst article to have been published on the platform that I am aware of.

    Twitter is not micro-slavery, it is a public repository of short messages contributed by anybody with minimal curation. There is no more to it than that. Whatever nastiness is there is ‘our’ own doing (not mine, I don’t have a use for Twitter myself).

    Claiming that people need Twitter or social networks in order to find work or get a mate is hyperbolic madness. Do people really think that an active Twitter account is necessary for professional and personal development? Is this true and I am the mad one?

    Saying that Twitter users are addicts that are helpless to quit goes in the same vein as the self-victimization state of mind that social justice cultists are trying to cultivate and that Quillette has been rightly criticizing all along. Have Quillette editors changed their minds and now wish to promote such ways?

    This article goes against the quality standards and tone I expect of this platform. It’s pure rhetorical garbage.

    • scribblerg says

      Well said, Jean-Pierre. I think the proper word to describe this piece is “tripe”.

    • It’s true there are jobs that pretty much require use of Twitter – e.g. if you’re building a business platform or branding yourself – but if you remember that it’s pure business as opposed to morally meaningful in any way, then you can simply use it as another tool. I do have an account because my own profession requires a presence, but I rarely go on Twitter, and when I do, I look at posts of people I enjoy reading for analysis with a good link.

      I do think mainstream media makes this 1000 times worse by legitimizing Twitter as though it were a real force – “Twitter went crazy!” “”Twitter controversy” – and amplifying its power 1000 fold. If mainstream media weren’t so lost and lazy – if they actually hired enough staff, knew what they were (hint: not social media), and weren’t palling around with Silicon Valley execs and sucking up to them – then this issue would disappear. So it’s not really the users at all.

      I have to wonder what the actual stats are. What percentage of people even use Twitter and FV at all? Of these, how many use it significantly? Of these, how many use it purely as a business tool? Of the remainder who post as a social online conversation, how many get hysterical and sucked into the false world? These remaining people are who the author is talking about. What percentage is it of the total population? I would wager very very low. If it’s so low, then how can we say it’s ‘slavery’ in any way or even ‘addictive,’ in that our brains are all the same?

      No, it’s another thing altogether. It’s a way of enabling a very small minority have far more power than they really do.

    • trash_muad'dib says

      well the author is listed as an “accomplished sophist” in his tagline, so I think this article is supposed to be taken with a grain of salt.

  32. Excellent article.

    And my personal piece of advise to you: move out of Los Angeles. It is an overpriced, overrated superficial hellhole.

  33. Ironic Optimist says

    “The term micro-slavery might provoke some readers to claim an improper and provocative metaphor.”

    Yup.

    Well, from the magazine that gave us an article on “concept inflation” what do you expecte.

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