TL;DR: outrage mobs aren’t a bug. They’re a feature.
A few years ago, Jaron Lanier wrote Ten Arguments to Delete your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Lanier’s book has the helpful feature of being completely unambiguous in its message (when, Jaron, when should I delete them? Oh). I ended up assigning it as optional reading for my undergraduate class, Bubbles. The Thanksgiving break means that students usually patch out that week and miss class, so I run an optional seminar instead. I’ve learned a huge amount from these little liminal-moment seminars each year, and some of them have led to real revisions in my own thinking, see, e.g., my views on University censorship when I was on Jim Rutt’s Currents podcast. In previous years, we read John Locke’s pluralistic Letter Concerning Toleration, but Lanier’s book has the advantage of not needing any coaching in close-reading.
That year the near-unanimous response from the students was to reject the book. Only one student (of ten, or so) had sympathy with the view, and wrote a fascinating (again, optional) essay later that semester. I was surprised by the support the students had for their lives on social media, and while a few of them felt that being on Facebook (or similar Facebook-owned systems) wasn’t quite optional, they felt the benefits outweighed the downsides.
Of course, I didn’t follow Lanier’s prescription either. I had deleted my Facebook account a year beforehand, but had an active Twitter habit. While I felt Lanier’s arguments were dead-on they were not, as the philosophers, say, dispositive: they didn’t settle the matter for me.
My views on this have shifted a great deal, however, and quite rapidly. I want to talk now about the reason I deleted my Twitter account a few days ago, pulling me entirely off social media. For me, it’s the 11th reason, since Lanier’s weren’t enough. (I tend to think in terms of reasons, which can be accepted or rejected, rather than arguments, which attempt to persuade.) From here on out, to be clear, I’m speaking not as a researcher, but a private citizen.
The 11th Reason is that, eventually, the algorithm will find you. This is very bad. It may have already happened to you (and you may not know it yet), but if it hasn’t, it’s basically a matter of time.
“The algorithm will find you” has two parts to it. On the one hand, the algorithm will find you meaning that it will discover you as a source for others, and direct them to you, in potentially disturbing ways. On the other hand, the algorithm will find you meaning that it will discover how to keep you online—regardless of the cost.
The Algorithm is real
Being “found” by an algorithm may seem a little science-fictional, but it’s not.
First, a social media site like Twitter or Facebook is gathering extraordinary amounts of data on you. For example, when you type something into a status-update box, and then delete, this information is transmitted to their servers. The location of your cursor on the screen, your hesitations, where you linger as you doom-scroll—all of [ … ]