The Solution to Social Media (Privacy, Security and Mental Health)
Social media and other online platforms and communication tools, have become a great cause of concern in recent years. What may have intended on bringing people together and creating a sense of community in these strange times has fundamentally become a destructive force on society. The numerous issues with social media from privacy to health effects have been outline on many other places before but many of the purposed solutions such as federated platforms, fall short of addressing the underlying issue.
Problems with social media
To fully understand the issues with social media it is important to discuss the business of big data. Data has become the new oil and is a multi billion-dollar industry in 2021. The purposes of collecting data on users are numerous from advertising to potential customers to the more nefarious uses of trying to control and influence people. Regardless of the intentions behind massive data collection there are a number of side effects. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have a pretty clear financial incentive to gain your attention for as long as possible. By directing your attention to their platform they can make more money from ads, have you engage with other users on their platform and gain greater insight into what makes you want to click. This feedback loop triggers that deep reward system in our brains that make us want that dopamine rush that notifications gives us.
This emphasis on gaining our attention has at best made us more dependent on a service that doesn't give us any benefit, and at worst has changed our behaviour and caused mental health issues. Unlike other products or services where we can simply not use them or choose another company, the nature of social media makes it so only a few platforms exist since most users gravitate to the platform with the most users. This monopoly means that there is no incentive for these platforms to change their behaviour and no real way for new players to enter the game.
None of this is even taking into account the serious privacy and security risks that social media platforms pose. Just recently over 533 million Facebook users had their data leaked and another 500 million users on LinkedIn had their data leaked. Social media sites are a single point of failure where users willingly and liberally throw their most intimate details away, which makes it a great target for hackers. This isn't even addressing the shady things the sites do themselves "above board" such as the cambridge analytica scandal or the alleged cases of google pushing certain political issues through the use of searches and ad campaigns.
We should ask ourselves what is the true purpose of social media or technology as a whole? The internet like all other invention was created as a tool for people to communicate, learn and perform any number of tasks. Looking at the state of the internet in its current form its easy to miss this as every site from Youtube to Twitter is used by people to mindlessly consume content for the sake of consuming content. Instead of using these sites to learn something or discuss when we are meeting up we binge-watch series and get stuck in youtube black holes.
The article that really made me start thinking about this topic is an article written by Ross Ulbricht. For those of you unfamiliar Ross was the creator of The Silk Road and is currently serving 2 life sentences without the possibility of parole for this completely non-violent offense. Ross laid out a vision and design for a social media platform that could not only protect users privacy but place back the control of content into the users hands. One of the most popular solutions to social media being discussed these days is federated/decentralised sites. I've even discussed this topic myself and made tutorials on how to set up federated sites. The sites themselves are hosted by many different users and allow people to communicate with (or block) any of the users on other federated sites. Both these solutions help to tackle the issue of privacy and security by just not giving user data to these giant corporations. However neither of these address the underlying issue of the state of the internet in its current form. In many cases people gravitate to these platforms because regular social media has become too restrictive on what you can post. It is not unusual to find these small federated sites are complete echo-chambers and contain the kind of stuff that makes you wish you could bleach you brain.
The Only Solution is Not to Play
The internet is a tool like any other technology in that it should preform a purpose. As it stands today, social media for the most part does not serve any purpose other than consuming media. It is important to ask yourself what is the actual point in any of the sites we use, and if there isn't any the best thing to do is to avoid them at all costs. There is no point in mindlessly giving away the most intimate details of your psyche to a platform that doesn't do anything in return. Do you use social media to communicate with friends and family? Maybe you use it to talk with people with similar interests via platforms like Discord? Maybe you just use it to kill time since the world is currently locked down? Whatever the reason is, ask yourself "why do I use social media and do I need it at all".
Whatever the TRUE reason is you will find that there are many privacy-respecting alternatives. Instead of using facebook messenger or whatsapp, use signal or matrix. Instead of mindlessly browsing youtube and netflix, use an RSS feed to keep up to date on your favourite creators. Instead of using discord or talking with people on your favourite sumerian carpet-weaving image board, try using federated social media sites (or better yet host your own).
Many people in the privacy and security space discuss the technological aspect of why we should avoid/use certain services. This often overlooks the crucial task of determining the WHY behind the decition. There are many guides out there that will lead your hand through your privacy journey but before you start researching what the best alternative to the sites you use are it is important that you go without them for a while. By avoiding social media for a short time you will find that your time is significantly more productive and that you truly do not need to use them for 99% of the case. Minimising your online behaviour can have some tremendous benefits on your life.
Most of the current solutions to social media are just over-complicating the problems and replacing them with something just as bad. Some things do not require a solution, only a clean break.
Stay happy and stay private.