So I was out at the movies the other night, one of millions who have been enjoying the new Black Panther movie. We got there early, in time to be indoctrinated by the pre-show entertainment. One of the ads surprised me – it was for Twitter. Ads promoting social media platforms are not really that common. But even more surprising was the basic message of the ad – trust our algorithm.
The ad, titled Signing Up for Twitter, starts off in the upstairs bedroom of a man who is clearly in distress. He is pacing his bedroom floor, talking worriedly to himself. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t understand this!” We see police vehicles and a gathering crowd of curious neighbors in the street below. A man with a Twitter-branded bullhorn begins to speak. “I’m here to help! Don’t worry. It’s just Twitter. Just press the [Get Started] button and pick a name.” When the distressed man insists his name is Kenny G and frets about his name not being available, the Twitter negotiator outside suggests the username NotoriousKennyG. That one’s available.
Then he moves to the next screen. “Now it wants to know my interests? I don’t have any interests.” The negotiator reminds him how much he likes Zambonis. Emboldened, Kenny runs downstairs, excited now. He then clicks on other categories like entertainment, science, the universe, comic books, movies, sports figures, and K-pop singers. As he does this, a K-pop group outside sings in chorus “thanks for the follow!” Los Angeles Lakers basketballer Lonzo Ball suddenly appears at his window saying the same thing and throwing him a basketball. As he opens his front door, he sees the crowd chanting “follow, follow, follow!” The negotiator encourages him: “Follow everyone Kenny. Come on, Kenny. You can do it. Just follow all! Press the button.” Kenny slowly lifts his finger toward the Follow All button on the Twitter app. He presses it and the crowd erupts in cheers. He steps out and embraces them. “Thank you! I’m going to follow every one of you. This is awesome!” he gushes. In the extended version of the ad, we see the man running up to the negotiator in the street as he is leaving. “Wait! Wait! Am I ever going to see you again?” The negotiator smiles. “Yea, of course you will. Follow me, mate,” he says, holding up his phone. The ad closes with a call to action: Let’s sign up. Let’s get started. Let’s go Twitter.
Troubling things can happen when we trust social networks. Why? Because in trusting them, we are letting them do our thinking for us. Or rather, we are letting their algorithm think for us. An algorithm is simply a set of rules for solving a problem or making a decision. But in the hands of multi-billion dollar companies with little transparency or government regulation, algorithms become powerful tools for guiding public opinion and influencing behavior. We saw this during the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. Russian trolls posted doctored images and messages all over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram designed not just to influence the election but to sow mistrust, anger, and confusion in the American public. These agents utilized algorithms that allow advertisers to micro-target people, ensuring that their false news and misleading messages would be seen by millions of people. We’ve also seen how terrorist organizations will use social media to spread propaganda and find new recruits. Algorithms make it easier for similar types of content to be found through suggested videos, pages, or posts. And because algorithms work to connect users who may have common interests, it becomes easier for people engaged in harmful ideology or behavior to find one another and be encouraged and emboldened by similar content.
Now I’ll be the first to say it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to social media and the algorithms that power it. People are using this technology every day to share what’s going on in life, connect with people who have the same interests or life experience, and find old friends and relatives. Those are not bad things. We can and should use social media, but it should be a use that is informed by the dangers of misuse and overuse. And we should limit our time and set boundaries, knowing that when we use social media, we ARE the product. Every interaction we make is tracked, stored, and monetized for profit. These platforms are free to use, but the cost is very real to our privacy and our identity.
A final note on this curious Twitter ad. What actually helps this distressed man stop feeling anxious isn’t his phone. It’s the crowd outside cheering him on and the patient, friendly negotiator getting face-to-face and personal with him. Ironically, Twitter is showing us that community – real human interaction – is the key to good mental health. But Twitter isn’t a real-world community. It’s a virtual one. Following people on Twitter doesn’t really connect us to them. It may add their news and updates to our personalized filter bubble of content online, but it doesn’t give us that real human interaction we all need to find peace, inspiration, and fulfillment. So make less time for social media and more time for social interaction in the real world.