4 Reasons Social Media Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

For all the "disruptive" wonder social media has wrought, it’s important to recognize its limitations. Here are the top reasons social media isn't the be-all-end-all, and why we shouldn't settle with the connective tech we have.

1. It's Superficial

Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Foursquare and all their other compatriots are wonderful for a degree of connection and community. It's cool that I'm in touch with people from high school that I otherwise wouldn't be. Social media lets you keep memories and shared experiences about your nutty French teacher alive, or share a snarky laugh with someone you never spoke to in AP Physics.

I like that I know what my roommate in college is up to. It's great that she seems really happy, settled and generally rocking out at life, and it's legitimately heartwarming to see that documented in pictures. If Facebook didn't exist our connection would be zilch. Freshman year is fun and formative, and you only have one roommate who saw you roll off your loft and caught the high points from your Urban Outfitters Friday night collection. Obviously that's not the only reason social media is groundbreaking, fun and sometimes empowering, but it's worth remembering what you're seeing about people from past lives is how they seem via a cultivated montage of photos, articles, check-ins and updates. This is all well and good. I'm not advocating that everyone should start staking their virtual claim on hospitals and funeral parlors. But you have to admit, it encourages a culture of superficiality and comparison. And it's not like that doesn't exist in excess already. It's worth noting that the rise of narcissistic personality disorder and depression correlates with social media's increasing infiltration. It can be difficult to keep your head straight when it seems like everyone you know is just constantly having SO MUCH FUN. On top of this, social media adds a weird layer of potential for constant performative behavior. I've had friends admit they look forward to some events more because of the Instagram opportunities. It's hard to be fully present in the moment if you're thinking about how you want the moment to look.

2. It's Not Actually That Representative of Public Sentiment

What's trending on Twitter is probably not an accurate sample of the national (or international) pulse. A specific segment of people get their news, and tweet their views on the medium but according to a Pew Research Center report from March, "Twitter users aren't representative of the public." In fact the reaction to events on Twitter can at times be at odds with the public opinion. Users are generally "considerably younger than the general public." In Pew's news consumption survey, nearly half of the adults who posted opinions on Twitter were younger than 30. They're also more likely to lean left and tweet about something they disapprove of.

It's additionally worth remembering that not everyone in the U.S., let alone around the world, has access to the Internet. A 2012 study from George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs says that one in five American households don't have ready access to the Internet. The lack of access is more common among low-income households; 99% of households making above $150,000 have access to the Internet, as opposed to the 57% making $15,000 or less. 2% of adults in the U.S. have a disability that makes it impossible for them to get online.

Only a specific demographic actually sits and works at a computer all day. According to a technology survey by NPR online, about half of employed Americans under age 60 with incomes less than $30,000 per year use a computer at work.   

We need to look at what the Internet does, as opposed to what it means. When it comes to social media, does it actually democratize the flow of information and let anyone voice their opinion? How can it, if the population with greater access to Internet (the people with more money) and/or more time to spend on the Internet (people who sit at a computer for work) have the means to voice their opinion more frequently?

3. Data Mined from Social Media is Meaningless Without Context

Quid co-founder Sean Gourley said, "Data needs stories, but stories also need data. Data, when it's put up in front of you as a number, it gets stripped of the context of where the data came from, the biases inherent in it, and the assumptions of the models that created it."

Social media (and the insights gleaned from it) doesn't let you get to know people inside and out. It offers a snapshot and a number to get crunch, nothing more. Social media exists on a public plane, and there's a lot that gets left unsaid due to the necessities of privacy and security. There's also only so much that can be understood about another person without sustained and persistent face-to-face interaction. And that's a good thing.

Kate Crawford also rightfully points out that the numbers mined from social media that are put into data sets are subsequently subject to the inherent biases of the statisticians doing the crunching. What social media offers isn't rich in human context, and it doesn't allow for purely objective analysis, either.

No one's arguing the significance of big data, polls, statistics, and smart usage of "data exhaust." But if we rely on these impersonal, distant and often mis-apprehended sources of understanding, we risk overlooking and averaging out the human experience and we waste technology's potential to democratize information and create a more human-centered world.

4. It Can Ossify the Social Hierarchy it Claims to Uproot

If people with more money and more time at computers have more regular access to the Internet, data plans, and social media, they're more likely to have more Twitter "followers," which results in their opinions getting weighed more than others. It also means what they say will reach more people, and/or get re-tweeted more times, solidifying these power structures. In fact, the top 15% of Twitter users account for 85% of all tweets.

Much of the Twitter landscape is dominated by people who work in media and journalism. This makes sense. But with their low starting salaries, these fields tend to be populated by white, upper middle class, college-educated folk. Another hoard of Twitter followers is allocated to people with jobs that put them in the spotlight. Again, this makes sense. But does giving those people more of a voice really disrupt the status quo? And how much in-depth conversation is really had between people in positions of power and their fans and followers? It is naive to think that the social stratifications that exist offline don't manifest themselves online.

It's also pretty uncommon for people to regularly interact with others outside their preset social networks on social media. Your Facebook "friends" are largely an ecosystem created by the extended connections you've made from your personal work, school and social community. I don't know anyone who regularly reaches out to random people who are totally different from them on any of these mediums.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Amanda Sperber

I research media/communication, development and humanitarian crises.

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