Review & summary of Jaron Lanier’s 2018 book on why we should be quitting social media in its current form
Last year, when watching The Social Dilemma, one of the interviewees stood out to me amongst the other, more typical big tech insiders. Jaron Lanier, with his long blonde dreadlocks and his dynamic way of speaking, appeared at first glance to be an ageing hippie who might recall his acid trips or his travels to an Ashram in India in his youth.
Whether he took such journeys I do not know, but the content of his speech suggested that the “ageing hippie” stereotype was far from his full story. As it turns out, Jaron Lanier is a Silicon Valley insider sometimes known as “The founder of Virtual Reality” for his work on VR tech in the 1980s. He is currently Interdisciplinary Scientist at Microsoft Research, has written bestselling books relating to the philosophy of technology, and somehow manages to compose and play music to a professional standard alongside his tech career.
Jaron Lanier was included in the cast of The Social Dilemma, along with voices from the Center for Humane Technology, due to his speaking out about the dangers of social media (in its current form). He set out these concerns in his 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I wanted to understand more about his views than I could gather from short segments of The Social Dilemma, so I decided to read his book.
In the introduction, Jaron Lanier takes inspiration from cats. Cats he says, are popular on the internet because they are independent, unpredictable and live life on their terms. Unlike dogs, cats are not easily trained, and therefore represent an ideal we should aspire to when we go online and are exposed to social media platforms which attempt to manipulate our behaviour in order to sustain themselves through selling ads.
Through Jaron Lanier’s ten arguments he explains the many ways in which social media can cause difficulty for us, both individually and collectively. It’s worth noting that the arguments are not against all forms of social media, but the currently popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others which use targeted advertising to sustain themselves. In theory, there could be a social media platform which helps us communicate with friends and family for which these arguments do not apply.
What are Jaron Lanier’s 10 arguments for quitting social media?
Although the book presents ten individual arguments, each in its own chapter, these arguments build on each other, so are best read in sequence. I suspect Lanier was aware of the irony of giving his book a clickbait-y title and format of the sort that increases engagement on a social media platform.
The first two chapters really set up the rest of the book, providing context and terms that are used throughout the book. The define the concept of behavioral modification and discuss platforms which do this, which Lanier terms BUMMER platforms.
Argument 1: losing your free will
In the first argument, You are losing your free will, Lanier argues that the popular social media platforms are all based around a core process of behavior modification. The platforms need to get use hooked so that we use them regularly – this is one form of behavior modification – the platforms themselves can be addictive. Once we are hooked, then they show us advertisements which tend to be highly targeted based on various data collected about us through regular usage. These advertisements are also a form of behaviour modification which can have an impact on us as individuals and at a collective level, where corporations, our government or foreign governments can manipulate our political views just as easily as they influence our buying behaviour.
Argument 2: behavioral modification empires for rent
Argument two, quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times, requires a bit more context to understand, but unfortunately in this chapter, the context is not provided here. Presumably for Lanier, writing in later 2017 it was so clear to him that we are living in insane times that it did not need to be explained. Writing in America where Donald Trump had recently become president, perhaps that was the insanity he had in mind. He does not mention Trump in this chapter, but later in the book makes it clear that he found Trump and in particular his social media habits disturbing. Whilst I tend to agree, something like 50% of the voting public would have disagreed with the assessment that Trump as President is a form of societal insanity (unless they were voting for insanity).
It would have been helpful for this chapter to set out a clear (and preferably non-partisan) context for the term “Insanity of our Times”. Was there something in particular was it that made 2017 more insane that the pre-social media early 2000s, which saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was followed by US wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq (despite that country having no significant links with terrorism)? Perhaps the insanity of 2017 was not more insane, just a different kind of insanity.
Even without a clear context however, the chapter is significant, because it introduces a term which Lanier uses throughout the book: BUMMER. This stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent” – but clearly it is the implication of the word “bummer” that matters more than the terms that make up the acronym.
Lanier describes Facebook, Twitter, and Google as BUMMER platforms because they are all sustained through a targeted advertising model which requires us to spend significant time on the platforms, to the extent that advertisers with enough money can significantly modify behaviour of the platform’s users in a measurable way. He proceeds to list a number of disturbing qualities that BUMMER platforms tend to have, but offers hope in that not all big tech firms are not fully dependent on the BUMMER model. He points out that three of the big five tech firms: Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft (whom Lanier works for) are less dependent on targeted advertising than Google and Facebook.
Argument 3: unhealthy interactions
At this stage in the book, Lanier has described how BUMMER social media platforms work and proceeds to describe some of the unfortunate consequences of the BUMMER model in more depth.
Argument 3 is that social media is making you into an asshole. Lanier makes the argument that brief online interactions in public tend to cause conflict (or alternatively, people are artificially nice and avoid discussing anything substantial to avoid such conflict). Whereas in a real life conversation, a long-form article, documentary, or book, there is space for nuance, this is not the case for the short messages people have time to post on social media.
Lanier sees the problem not only as a lack of nuance, but that when we are online we are involved in “pack” behaviour, rather than “solitary wolf” behaviour which he sees as more liberating. In a pack, we want to protect and improve upon our social status, and when it seems necessary to put others down to do this, we often do. There may be some evolutionary advantage for this kind of pack behaviour, but for most of us this is probably a less productive use of time on the global stage of Twitter than it is for our local pack, for example at work. Lanier believes our more creative and worthwhile pursuits occur when we embrace our individuality, and therefore we take the opportunity to eliminate the pack-like interactions of social media from our lives.
It occurs to me as I write, that I am also engaged in a form of pack-like online behaviour. Although the process of writing is solitary and mostly offline, I know that I will publish this online and share it on social media, and that I would be happy if it receives “likes” and increase my status a blogger. I know that if someone were to criticise my blog post on social media or in the comments, my initial reaction would be to want to defend my work and my ego, and when doing this I might sound like an asshole. But I think that it’s far more effective & fulfilling than sharing views directly on social media, since here there is space for nuance, and the majority of my time is spent in this solitary & creative mode of writing rather than engaged in interactions with “the pack”.
Argument 4: undermining truth
Argument 4 is that social media is undermining truth. Here Lanier points out that the online ecosystem consists of a large proportion of fake people: many of the likes, followers, comments & reviews that are used to imply popularity to both human users and the algorithms that surface popular content are fake. Some of this fake content may be created by bots, some by low-paid workers (for example, to get around captcha technology), or directly by business owners who wish to promote their own wares. This is not rare at all: inspect any popular Twitter account and you’ll discover a significant number of followers are suspected bots. Lanier also mentions fake news here: on social media, clickbait articles which are less truthful and often wrong tend to rise to be most popular.
Argument 5: on social media, what you say loses its context
Argument 5 is that social media is making what you say meaningless. The idea is that what is shared on social media has far less context than the real world, or other forms of media. If I listen to a talk, read a book, or watch a documentary, there is sufficient time to establish context, so that the views expressed are understood. On social media that is typically not the case: only tiny snippets are shared. A link to a news article with a clickbait title, an opinion, a meme. All of this is mixed together and interspersed with ads.
Algorithms are not just showing these randomly, they’re targeting you to maximise usage: this can often lead to showing you things without context to create controversy, which increases engagement. Disagreements and animosity may be created between you and your friends, when in a real conversation, with full context, you would have come to understand each other and find common agreement.
Argument 6: losing your capacity for empathy
This argument about the lack of context on social media is extended a little further in argument 6: social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. When the things we share on social media don’t have context, we only see small fragments about our friend’s views, usually selected or by algorithms or where our friend was influenced by an algorithm to share something. As in real life, everyone has a different perspective, but on social media this can be more extreme as everything is personalised to us by algorithms. Without having experienced the same inputs as others, it becomes harder to understand their perspective, and we end up in echo chambers where we see the people in other echo chambers as crazy.
Argument 7: social media tends to make people less happy
Argument 7 is that social media is making you unhappy. It’s a simple argument because there are many studies to back this up. Facebook even demonstrated that they could impact the emotional state of users to be happier or sadder by showing more positive or negative posts. Facebook now acknowledges that social media can make people less happy, but argues that it’s about how we use social media. This is almost certainly true, but perhaps for many people, healthy use of social media may be more challenging than quitting.
In this chapter, Lanier explains what makes him unhappy about social media: this mostly revolves around the feeling of being ranked. We are ranked on social media through a count of the number of friends, or the number of likes our posts receive. Lanier dislikes this feeling because he feels drawn into wanting to “win” at these games, even though he finds them ridiculous.
Argument 8: earning a living in a world of social media
Argument 8 is that social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. Since users do not pay for these platforms with money, and they rely on small advertising payments for user engagement, the only way to make a living via “BUMMER” social media platforms (eg as a YouTuber) is to be one of the top stars. Whereas with a paid service such as Netflix, vast numbers of professional people are supported by the platform to film new content.
Lanier explains how zero-cost platforms came to exist because of various ideals around the freedom of information and how the advertising model was found as the most obvious way to fund these platforms. He begins to describe alternative business models involving payment for services and explicit control of personal data sharing, but there is not enough space here to do so convincingly, and the few paragraphs given to this seem to raise more questions than they answer.
Argument 9: social media and politics
Argument 9 is that social media is making politics impossible. Lanier discusses how the early adopters of social media platforms tend to be young, educated and idealistic and this made political engagement via social media seem very positive in the early years. But in more recent years, as social media reached a far wider audience, becoming a multi-billion dollar industry, the political consequences of social media have been more chaotic.
An early sign of this was the 2011 Arab Spring, where revolutions in the middle east were linked to organising on social media. Unfortunately, the outcome of those revolutions turned out to be a disappointment: return to military rule in Egypt, ongoing war in Syria, and the destabilisation of Libya. The persecution of the Rohingya people Myanmar, which was ongoing as Lanier wrote the book, was also linked to the rise of social media in that country.
Since Lanier wrote the book in 2017, politics has not improved: the US in particular became more polarised and chaotic, culminating in the Capitol Riot of January 2021. In the age of social media echo chambers, it’s hard to remain hopeful of building understanding and consensus between liberals and conservatives.
Argument 10: on social media as religion
The tenth and final argument is that social media “hates your soul”. In this chapter, Lanier compares BUMMER social media to a religion. By this point, much like the clickbait articles which must have inspired the name and structure of this book, it begins to feel tedious and the argument seems to be a filler to get to ten. Don’t skip this chapter however… the way Lanier highlights the creepiness of big tech firms by looking at how in their corporate mission statements they place themselves at the centre of all reality, is an enjoyable take on a disconcerting topic.
At just under 150 pages, this is a short and snappy book, which might just convince you to quit social media. As the book’s conclusion says, you do not have to stay quit forever: you can consider it an experiment to see what you learn, and return later if it doesn’t work out. Lanier accepts that people are not going to quit all at once but feels that some people quitting makes a difference as it challenges those at big tech companies to move towards different business models. More immediately, he sees personal benefits in disconnecting and asserting your individuality (“being a cat”).
Has this book convinced me to quit social media? For the most part no, but I do walk away from this book convinced that today’s social media platforms are far from ideal and seeing the need for change. I will continue to be on social media, partly I have social media accounts for this website to help to reach some of the people who might find these posts beneficial. I did recently decide to quit WhatsApp though, since I see no need to use a messaging app owned by (and sharing data with) Facebook when there are better, more private options available (eg. Signal).