For the social-media business, this new year is one of grim tidings. Every day, it seems, pioneers in the field are offering mea culpas – airing regrets, expressing caution, apologizing for a technology that seems to have run amok.
One former Facebook executive recently conceded that the network is "ripping apart the social fabric." A former engineer has warned of a looming "dystopia." Another veteran admitted that the company is "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." ("God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he added, portentously.)
Across Silicon Valley, insiders have lately been raising similar concerns, and fretting that the business model of social media may be undermining the well-being of its users. A growing body of research suggests they have a point.
Among the young, social media may be playing a role in rising rates of depression and suicide. It seems to induce feelings of envy, anxiety and inadequacy. It appears to reduce self-esteem, inhibit sleep, interfere with schoolwork and (of all the ironies) encourage antisocial behavior. Some two-thirds of kids now say they wouldn't mind if social media didn't exist. And who can blame them?
The problem is that it's hard to quit. Armed with vast troves of data, companies have deduced clever ways to keep users on their sites. They've developed powerful tools – push notifications, "like" buttons, auto-play videos, and so on – that exploit quirks in human psychology to create something close to addiction.
Add all this up and an uncomfortable truth emerges: People are being drawn inexorably to a product that's making them feel terrible. A number of solutions have been mooted for this dilemma. Try "digital detoxes," say some. Develop new ethics and standards for software designers, say others. Use Facebook more, says Facebook.
In the end, though, it is up to the social media business to make its products more humane and less exploitative. Its leaders might take a cue from an older and humbler technology.
Inscribed on the wall of the Old City Post Office (now the National Postal Museum) in Washington is a relevant verse by Charles W. Eliot, called "The Letter":
"Messenger of Sympathy and Love / Servant of Parted Friends / Consoler of the Lonely / Bond of the Scattered Family / Enlarger of the Common Life / Carrier of News and Knowledge / Instrument of Trade and Industry / Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance / Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations."
Those may seem like lofty aspirations for the business of clicks and likes. But fundamentally, writing a letter and logging onto Facebook are expressions of the same ancient desire: for human connection. As a new year dawns, it's worth reflecting on how to meet that desire – without making everyone miserable in the process.