I have just finished reading Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. I recommend the book for digital marketers, although, of course, it isn't a 'transactional' book, like most digital marketing books that sell you 'Ten Ways to Increase your Profits RIGHT NOW.' It is a relational book, discussing one single topic from several angles and bringing a very interesting polemic out into the open. Mainly, what kind of a world are we building with these 'social' tools on the internet? Mr. Lanier believes, as should be obvious from the title, that the direction the software world has taken is not conducive to a human world where dignity, individuality, choice, and critical thinking are valued. He believes that social media platforms, and almost all advertising-driven platforms, are complicit in the process of dehumanizing people.
He is right, of course.
This is not to say that his arguments are without problems or that one should uncritically accept everything that Mr. Lanier discusses in his book. For one thing, this is a shorter book where only one side of the argument is heard. Mr. Lanier does not offer possible counter-arguments to his own positions. This is usually a red flag when it comes to reading these kinds of books. However, in this case, it isn't a 'showstopper.'
The reason it isn't a showstopper with this particular book is that, as internet readers, we are submerged in a constant flotsam and jetsam of discussion about the goodness or 'badness' of social media networks. There are arguments floating back and forth about this topic all over the place, in part because it is the fad right now, and in part because there are genuine causes for alarm.
The noise of the discussion disguises whether we have a real problem in our hands or not. However, cutting through the noise, which this book might help you do in your own mind, is a solid first step toward acquiring a 'beginner's mind' to the problem that can help you evaluate and re-establish your own opinions about it without having to refer to endless websites to check what you think.
Mr. Lanier's discussion, and the fact that it is presented in a book form, allows the reader to acquire well-presented arguments for paying attention to aspects of internet-life that most users simply gloss over, in the same way that you gloss over the view from your window after you've looked at it over and over after a few months, or years. You are used to it, and you don't see it as a threat, so your mind ignores it.
Mr. Lanier's position is that, on the internet, there is no such thing as 'the view is not a threat,' because, by design, the internet as it is growing and shaping up as of this writing, is a danger to the kind of human development that encourages independence of thought, creativity, choice and individuality. The claim is that the organic growth of the current social media platforms, and the decisions these platforms make about how they are going to 'monetize your data' create a format that is mentally and socially toxic and that it is likely to tear down the interactions that individuals have used to create community over time without replacing them with anything that can provide similar results. Instead, replacing them with money-driven, transactionally-oriented, interactions that replace 'free activities' like friendship with money-intermediated activities like 'friendship on Facebook.'
This is the same as if a soda company executive would state that their main competition is the municipal water supply and that they wish to replace it with a constant supply of 'paid for' cola dispensers in the home.
Some people would jump at the chance to replace their water supply with this kind of service. To others, the idea may seem repellent. Mr. Lanier falls squarely on this latter camp.
Mr. Lanier's biggest contribution to the discussion is his ability to explain what an alternative to the current model might be, and, without going into all the details (his is not a policy book, but a polemic), he gives enough of a reasonable explanation to make it plausible to consider alternatives to the current, advertising driven model.
As a digital marketer, the advertising-driven model provides me with several advantages that are quite normal when it comes to diffusing a message through the noise of every day life. You get access to a tool that allows you to scale. The efficacy of the messaging, of course, is derived from the quality of the message and the budget behind it: the ability to repeat it over and over again for a relatively long period of time to create a mental habit in the eyes of the viewer, who is perceived as a passive recipient.
Once we stop looking at the viewer as a passive recipient, then we have to decide what kind of message has the best 'optimized' chance to successfully break through the barriers of attention. This messaging is usually of a 'negative bent,' and has been used for years on television commercials for products such as deodorants, fresh-breath mints, and the like: you have a problem, we sell a solution. Or, we've made up a problem and we are selling you a solution.
With social media networks, the ability to modify the perceptions of the viewer, and create some sort of addictive behavior independent of the individual's choice, are the elements that Mr. Lanier points out and that, as marketers, we should be concerned about so we can make decisions about our own desire to employ such tactics or not.
As marketers, this is our choice. Are we willing to make everything we do entirely transactional in nature, like our fictitious soda company executive, so we can intermediate it via a financial transaction to a third party, which in part could be manipulating our minds to make decisions they like?
You only have to look at magicians to see how the human mind can be manipulated into using concepts that the magician chooses them to have. That's an okay thing to do for an entertainment show, one that has a beginning, middle, and end, but do we want a world where every relationship we have is manipulated in this manner by individuals unknown to us (at least with the magician, he is on stage playing with us and it is an unwritten contract that we provide consent to have our brains scrambled during the act, do we give that kind of consent to social platforms every day, and every hour of the day when we use them?).
A revealing detail in all these discussions is that social media executives seldom allow their children to use the tools, and platforms, that they have created.
I think that the answer to the kinds of questions Mr. Lanier poses, and the kinds of questions that we, as marketers, pose for ourselves, lies squarely on this particular detail in the lives of the executives of Facebook and the other platforms.
Mr. Lanier's book is a solid read, flawed in places, but solid nonetheless and a good way to maintain a 'beginner's mind' on topics that otherwise would fly past us on our day to day activities. Reading it is the equivalent of catching your breath after a long run up a flight of stairs.
Daniel Loebl is an experienced Marketer focused on expanding the recognition of customer value inside a business and keeps a 'beginner's' mind approach to business problems.