Our preoccupation with the inherent evils and joys of social media technology is, I think, slightly misplaced. An article published in Science last year described a curious experiment: MIT researchers set up two online social networks to encourage healthy behavior. In the tightly clustered network, participants interacted with a clique of “health buddies”; in the randomly clustered network, each buddy had no relationship to the other. Incidentally, the first condition proved to be more effective at diffusing and reinforcing healthy lifestyles offline.
Among other things, the research implies that the type of online network we join influences the quality of our relationships. And each network necessarily involves the judgments and personalities of the people who constructed it.
This isn’t a new concept. Most critics covering the rise of Mark Zuckerberg dwelled on the irony that Facebook’s creator was in fact a shy and self-conscious person (or, if you believe Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, egomaniacal and vaguely autistic). Writing in the New York Review of Books, novelist Zadie Smith rather brilliantly deconstructed the site as an imprint of that personality. She wrote:
It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)
Ultimately, a movie like The Social Network is “a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”
Zuckerberg is, of course, just a scapegoat. The concern with him underlies a larger, unique concern with social media: that as each of us settles into our preferred platforms, we come to understand our relationships (and by extension, ourselves) not from behind the screen, but through the filter of anyone’s experiences but our own.
Rohit Parulkar is a research assistant in health policy studies at AEI. This post is part of a series tied to today’s AEI debate between Tyler Cowen and Roger Scruton on whether social media destroys human relationships.