On January 6th, 2021, I was ready to step away from working in tech and digital. Not in a contemplative way. I actually started writing my notes for the conversation I planned on having with my business partner. I wasn’t holding big tech entirely responsible for causing the attempted dismantling of American democracy and all the violence leading up to that day, but I could no longer ignore its involvement.
Digital had started feeling dirty to me long before it turned political. For years, I had been witnessing the addictive mechanisms in social media platforms through my friends, family, and myself. I watched those that I love the most become unable to put their phones down for a ten minute stretch, even when the content being consumed was ultimately making them less happy. I watched loneliness deepen, harassment prevail, and depression sink in. I saw otherwise level-headed acquaintances become politically radicalized and enmeshed in conspiracy theories. I was heartbroken to learn that people I believed to have a solid moral compass had succumbed to blatant racism.
How did things get so bad? It’s not a very complex question once you begin following the dollars. Let’s start with the $86 billion of them that Facebook grossed in 2020, up roughly $15 billion from the previous year. In the FTC’s current anti-trust case, Facebook claims that there is no case, because the product is free and without limits in quantity. Amen to that. Whether you call it the attention economy or surveillance capitalism, if the product is free, it simply means that you are the product. Your attention and data are the value proposition, and the advertisers are their customers. And while everyone loves a cute puppy photo, nothing garners more attention and engagement than opposition and anger.
Once that secret sauce of outrage spills into your feed, the algorithms whisk it up and amplify it, fact or fiction, as long as it perpetuates discontent, disgust, and division. Attention equals ad revenue. In a speech at the Anti-Defamation League, Sacha Baron Cohen described Facebook as the “greatest propaganda machine in history.” He went on to say “If you pay them, Facebook will run any ‘political’ ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect. Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”
YouTube’s auto-play backed by its recommendation engine does the very same job of keeping users watching hours of content while the ads are pumping. This is best achieved by the same psychology of fueling engagement through enragement, which is often provoked by misinformation and extremism.
Twitter waited 47.5 months into a 48 month term to suspend an infamous account that had been spouting misinformation, invoking hate, and inciting violence the entire time. But it sure was driving engagement and ad revenue. Unsurprisingly, when put under criticism, they claimed it was just too difficult and expensive to effectively control the raging wildfire of misinformation on their platform. After the events of January 6th, when the insurrection failed and the world witnessed one of the most sad and embarrassing days in American history, Twitter pulled Trump’s account. After a handful of other key platforms followed suit, Zignal Labs discovered that the absence of this single account reduced the spread of election fraud misinformation by 73 percent. Not so difficult after all, but definitely damaging to ad revenue.
Young women seem to be hit disproportionately hard by the attention economy in the areas of depression, self-harm, and suicide risk when they participate in consistent long-term use of trending social media platforms. Sarah Coyne is an associate director of the school of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In one of her studies, she “found that girls who started using social media at two to three hours a day or more at age 13, and then increased [that use] over time, had the highest levels of suicide risk in emerging adulthood.” Suicide rates in teen girls recently hit a forty-year high. And that was well before the pandemic.
When it comes to gambling addiction, it’s the young men that are statistically prone to becoming snared in apps that cater to such inclinations. Robinhood, which currently faces over 100 lawsuits in the aftermath of the Reddit-fueled meme stock squeezes, is also “free.” So how does a free product for novice investors signal a $40 billion pre-IPO valuation in the secondary markets? They sell your order flow, and encourage you to trade and trade often. Incidentally, this is also the fastest way for a novice investor to lose money. To put a number on it, only 5% of all day-traders make any money at all over a twelve year period, and many of them are far from being new to the game. But that’s okay because if things go south on Robinhood, they can just trade on margin like Alex Kearns. Beginning in high school, Alex took roughly $5,000 in cash from summer jobs and birthday gifts from relatives, and started trading on Robinhood. At age twenty-one, this kid had a negative balance of $733,000. Robinhood demanded payment of $170,000 due in a few days. He sent a panicked email because the demand notice nor website had any customer service number for him to connect with an actual human to explain his predicament. He received an automated response in reply, and believing he had ruined his life, killed himself.
My answer for reconciling all of this with my conscience was to cease participation on most of these platforms whose business models are predicated on perpetuating discontent or preying on the vulnerable. Being in the business of tech, this creates a bit of a conundrum since most of this market is spinning around many of these very companies and services. Companies that have accrued so much cash, that they consider government lawsuits and fines as small costs of doing business. I buried my head in the sand until finally deciding I wanted to leave tech altogether.
But then something changed. A few key people in the industry rekindled many of the underlying beliefs I had about tech. Such as it being critical to addressing climate change. That tech will revolutionize education and provide access for those who didn’t happen to be born brilliant or into the right families. That the same platforms that spread misinformation can also bring people together to stand up for equality. That tele-health will eventually expand to reach any patient with a data connection, as we witnessed when antiquated regulation fell to the wayside during the COVID crisis. When team sports and gyms became unavailable options to keep active, the connected home-fitness space saw huge leaps in scale. Those who were fortunate enough to continue their work from home did so using platforms of which many had never used before, but may now never work without. Entrepreneurship continued to flourish, seeding the next wave of American small businesses, only because the mentors, tools and information were made accessible through technologies that didn’t require in-person meetings or the aging analog scaffolding of doing business. Socially, tech has just as much power to unite as it does to divide. We just desperately need to evolve the regulation, incentives, and attention towards empathy.
To memorialize my commitment to Building Good Things, we have started recording The Good User Experience. This podcast is committed to telling the stories of people and businesses that leave a net-positive imprint on the world, and how they’ve harnessed tech to make it happen. We’ve kicked it off with just Eric and myself, but have a long list of folks that we cannot wait to speak with. You may also note that we are displaying a lot more social icons than we used to. Yes, we’re going all in. We will wholeheartedly amplify the voices of equality, critical thinking, science and fact-based journalism as it relates to tech, and continue to encourage other entrepreneurs to do the same. On a grand scale of time, we’re only in the infancy days of tech. We will undoubtedly continue to face big challenges, but there is so much good to be done.