August 08, 2022
The age old understanding of social media’s harms is that it manipulates our desire for the approval of others as well as our natural tendency to compare ourselves against others, to form an addiction to platforms that monetize our attention.
Today, with the growing shift towards privacy protecting regulations on our devices, social media apps turn to AI driven algorithms to predict what content their users will engage with. As AI models trained on our individual behaviors become more effective at inferring how likely we will be to engage with a particular post or video, they surpass the predictions that can be gleaned from a social graph of what our friends are watching, liking, and sharing.
Apps like TikTok are built on a subtle but fundamentally different model than Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Although these platforms are also moving towards an AI-powered feed, the TikTok generation of social media relies on AI to surface content that they predict their users will engage with, often with little correlation to what content others in their network are engaging with.
This is not to say we have reached the point where social media is absolutely not social. Rather, the patterns of engagement have been rewritten on the new generation of social media. Instead of creating and posting content for those in their network, these platforms find that the primary form of engagement is through users discovering content and sharing it via DM to their friends.
Perhaps this new form of media will alleviate the classic toxicity of social media that is based on feeling left out and comparing oneself to one’s peers’ perfect digital lives. Rather than superficially engaging with hundreds of followers at once, these platforms encourage us to exchange content we’ve discovered through DMs. Hopefully that can spark a more genuine and human conversation. But perhaps this is just one more way in which we let our minds be controlled by what others decide to show us. Like cows in meat factories, all we can do is gaze at our feed and eat to oblivion.