|Publisher: Vintage (Paperback)|
Originally Published: 2018
Author: Jaron Lanier
Why should I read a book about the deletion of social media accounts? Won’t getting off Facebook and Instagram make me look like a Luddite in my social circle? How am I going to keep up with the Joneses? What’s going to happen to my public life without social media? If you ever considered deleting your social media accounts, these questions surely would have made you reconsider your decision. If that’s you, then Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is for you.
This book, despite a title that tempts you to judge it as a collection of clickbait articles, offers stellar insights. These aren’t the insights of a psychologist or an anthropologist, but of a Silicon Valley techie who is also a staunch critic of social media.
As the father of virtual reality and one of the most celebrated tech pioneers in the Valley, Jaron Lanier is the right person to opine on the state of social media and its impact.
His incisive and compelling arguments build a watertight case against the disturbing practices of social media giants. Many, on the other side of the argument, however, have criticized this book for being too politically biased. Some have even called Lanier a ranting mad man.
Nothing can be farther from the truth.
It’s a BUMMER world
Before this book came out in 2018, there were already murmurs that Facebook, Instagram, Google, and others were playing hanky panky with user data. And, then it all exploded with Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Coming from one of their own, Lanier’s book took the wraps off and exposed the shady apparatus working underneath the typical Silicon Valley veneer.
Lanier labels the algorithm-feeding social media platforms that indulge in mass espionage on their naive users as B.U.M.M.E.R – Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. It’s a cheesy acronym, alright, but it kind of summarizes the nefarious activities of these platforms.
As social media users, we have been gullible, too. In an inadvertent Faustian deal of sorts, the users, in lieu of free accounts, give these platforms unrestrained access to their data. The BUMMER platforms, then, slice and dice this data and sell it ahead to advertisers.
Quite oddly, while these companies know a lot more about you than you do, they profess to not know a lot about their advertiser partners – their actual customers.
Advertising-led business models spurred this mess
It is clear that our personal information, even something as seemingly useless as our browser search history, is worth billions. Look at the revenues of Facebook and Google. A big chunk of that is the advertising money. Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk have been stealing our data to build their empire.
While Lanier doesn’t directly name individuals, he does hang the blame on the advertising-led business models. He explains that social media founders went astray not because they were bad people to begin with, but because these business models corrupted their intentions.
Today, advertisers pay these platforms to modify users’ behavior. The platforms then track the changes and accordingly, tweak user feeds to get the behavior to change.
Of course, not all advertisers have a sinister agenda, but there are many like Cambridge Analytica out there who would jump on every chance to harvest people’s personal data.
Lanier counts Google as the alpha BUMMER – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Later in the book, he also accuses Gmail of snooping on accounts and reading mails. It’s a dystopian nightmare, but it’s already happening.
Fountains of Tribalism and Racism
Extending the argument further, Lanier says these platforms push latent tribalism and racism. Basically, Facebook, Twitter, and others are a great vent for negative emotions; their systems amplify negativity.
It’s no wonder that the nastiest, most cynical comments get the most attention on social media. Insecure and low-esteemed individuals often turn into fullt-time trolls and bullies, letting their base emotions ride herd over them.
It’s this tendency of BUMMER to foment trouble that has made them the breeding ground for mass-produced frauds, fake people, and bullies. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter have turned people into naked mole-rats. It is like the Stockholm syndrome – you feel a sense of affection toward those who are hell-bent on manipulating you.
Engagement: Euphemism for Addiction
Advertisers and social media firms often flaunt their metrics, the most attractive of which is ‘user engagement’. Lanier clarifies what that actually means is ‘user addiction’.
Massive use of social media, courtesy of our smartphones, induces a form of addiction called anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. Many people can’t have a proper conversation if they are not holding their smartphone in their hands. Alan Jacobs in his book Breaking Book with the Dead questions this Frenetic Standstill.
Journalism has also fallen prey to this beast. Why do you think most of the stuff you come across on your Google feed (which itself is engineered) is clickbait and sensational tripe? When your writer is busy chasing ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ than pursuing a proper story, you can’t expect anything different.
The Insidious Empire
It’s this insidious empire that Jaron Lanier and several others are waging a war against. But like he points out, it’s not a war a few handfuls of activists can win on their own. It’s the users who have to take up proverbial weapons against their manipulation.
I agree with Lanier that the worst scenario for these social media platforms is their users abandoning them. But for any meaningful action to happen at Facebook, Google, another places, people must leave in hoardes – something that looks unlikely.
Before I read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, I thought this might turn out to be one of those books that can be wrapped up in a blog post. Boy, I was wrong!
Every chapter, every argument in this book packs a punch. There is barely any repetitive content. I particularly enjoyed Lanier’s writing style. It is a mix of philosophical musings and superb technical know-how.
Please note that Lanier does not reject the Internet. He does not hate the social media platforms either, he just loathes the business models central to them. If you approach the material with an open mind, you would fathom his assertions are not mere rants, but rather a genuine effort to expose the dark algorithm-driven world.
What did I do after reading the book?
Frankly, I haven’t deleted my social media accounts, but that doesn’t mean that Lanier’s arguments failed to impress me. This book has given me a lot to think about. I have become more alert to the malpractices of social media and other curated and personalized platforms. And, I guess that’s the whole point of the book.
On the face of it, you may get an impression that Lanier’s sole objective is the deletion of social media accounts. It’s not. His objective is to make you aware of the loss of freedom by getting manipulated at the hands of BUMMER algorithms in ways more than one.
Lanier writes in the revised edition’s epilogue that he doesn’t measure the success of his book by the number of social media accounts deletions attributed to it. Even if you don’t decide to delete your social media accounts, this book will at least put you on guard against this vast apparatus of deception.
I am ending this review with my favorite quote from the book: