DENISE BALKISSOON

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - NEWS - DENISE BALKISSOON dbalkissoon@globe­and­mail.com

So­cial me­dia is a vi­tal part of liv­ing in the mod­ern world, but it’s best in mod­er­a­tion.

Ab­stain­ing from Face­book and Twit­ter isn’t an op­tion if you want to be in­formed in 2017. But we’ve all got to cut down

If Face­book were a food, it would be the very last bits in the bot­tom of a Dori­tos bag – in­tensely flavour­ful, but also kind of gross and not as jus­ti­fi­able a plea­sure as a whole, crunchy chip. It’s fun, but es­sen­tially un­healthy – or at least that’s the im­pres­sion I have af­ter read­ing a slew of sto­ries about so­cial me­dia’s many foibles.

Most no­table are the re­grets of its ear­li­est adopters. Last week, The Guardian ran a meaty piece fea­tur­ing peo­ple such as Justin Rosen­stein, who helped cre­ate Google’s Gchat pro­gram and Face­book’s Like fea­ture, and Nir Eyal, who spent years de­sign­ing tech prod­ucts that tick­led the hu­man ten­dency to form habits. The ma­jor­ity of th­ese tech lu­mi­nar­ies ex­pressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion with what they once loved, and some cow­ered in out­right fear of ad­dic­tion. Mr. Rosen­stein com­pares Snapchat to heroin, while Mr. Eyal uses a timer to cut off his fam­ily’s wire­less ev­ery night. Other Sil­i­con Val­ley types worry about their kids’ at­ten­tion spans, send­ing them to pricey schools that ban mo­bile de­vices.

Out­lets from Buz­zFeed to the Lon­don Re­view of Books also put Face­book on blast re­cently for ev­ery­thing from sur­veil­lance to aid­ing the de­struc­tion of democ­racy. The core is­sue is the treat­ment of Face­book’s two bil­lion monthly users, who know al­most noth­ing about the data it’s col­lect­ing about their lives – or how that data is sold.

Tech com­pa­nies can fig­ure out when we’re bored or sad, then no­tify us of a Like or Favourite when we’re most vul­ner­a­ble to the hit of dopamine. They’re also will­ing to sell that in­for­ma­tion, ap­par­ently with­out much dis­cre­tion: Af­ter first min­i­miz­ing the ef­fect that Rus­sian-funded pro­pa­ganda had on the U.S. elec­tion, Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg is co-op­er­at­ing with govern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

None of this makes so­cial me­dia sound very healthy, though The Guardian in­ter­vie­wees swear they didn’t set out to foster addictions to fake news. I be­lieve them. In its early days, I ex­pe­ri­enced so­cial me­dia as a whole, raw food, a fas­ci­nat­ing way to hear the un­fil­tered voices of peo­ple in move­ments such as the Arab Spring and Idle No More, one that right­fully chal­lenged the con­de­scen­sion of le­gacy me­dia.

But whether by de­sign or ac­ci­dent, much of it is no longer ter­ri­bly sat­is­fy­ing to con­sume. My once-favourite plat­form, Twit­ter, has be­come the world’s big­gest pub­lisher of new works on vi­o­lence and racism. Yet I still check it mul­ti­ple times a day, oc­ca­sion­ally thought­less about how of­ten I pull down to re­fresh. The de­signer of that fea­ture, Loren Brichter, told The Guardian that he turns off his phone nightly at 7 p.m., a move I’d do well to em­u­late.

I still do get some plea­sure out of Twit­ter and I’d feel ir­re­spon­si­ble ig­nor­ing it en­tirely, since one of its most pro­fi­cient hate­mon­gers is the Pres­i­dent of the United States. What I want is to feel like I’m in con­trol, not ma­nip­u­lated. I’ve been carv­ing out time to ex­er­cise my own dwin­dling at­ten­tion span on beau­ti­ful es­says and com­pli­cated books, many of which I found through so­cial me­dia links.

There’s been much talk of reg­u­lat­ing ser­vices such as Google, Twit­ter and In­sta­gram, es­pe­cially in Europe – per­haps through pub­lish­ing or ad­ver­tis­ing reg­u­la­tions, if not more toothy av­enues such as hate-speech law. But be­fore we de­cide how best to rein in its un­healthy as­pects, let’s con­sider ex­actly what kind of vice it is.

Is so­cial me­dia an opi­ate, as Mr. Rosen­stein says, one to be banned out­right? Al­co­hol seems like a bet­ter anal­ogy: en­joy­able, or at least tol­er­a­ble, to most peo­ple in mod­er­a­tion, and too em­bed­ded in so­ci­ety to elim­i­nate. Af­ter all, com­plete so­cial me­dia ab­sti­nence isn’t an op­tion for most peo­ple who want to know the world in 2017.

Which is why so­cial me­dia is ac­tu­ally more like food than a drug – a broad cat­e­gory of sources with both help­ful and harm­ful pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Like food, so­cial me­dia can nour­ish us in the right com­pany. But it can also be ad­dic­tive – or at least a crutch for our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Those weak­nesses are ex­ac­er­bated by in­equal­i­ties of ac­cess that leave some peo­ple more open to ma­nip­u­la­tive mes­sages or un­healthy choices.

Govern­ment pol­icy should aim to even out this ac­cess, pri­or­i­tiz­ing peo­ple over cor­po­ra­tions and pub­lish­ing re­search into risks and ben­e­fits so that in­di­vid­u­als know enough to feed them­selves well.

Right now, so­cial me­dia is a flu­o­res­cent junk food, its bright ex­te­rior con­ceal­ing a scary, un­healthy truth. But I be­lieve true on­line con­nec­tion and in­for­ma­tion still ex­ists, some­where un­der the man­u­fac­turer’s ad­di­tives.

SHAILESH ANDRADE/REUTERS

Tech com­pa­nies can fig­ure out when we’re bored or sad, then no­tify us of a Face­book Like or Favourite when we’re vul­ner­a­ble to a hit of dopamine.

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