The Social Media Trap

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People change their behavior when they know they’re being watched. And on social media, somebody can always look at you.

We used to hand-write personal thoughts in our diaries. Even when we dropped our pens and spoke out loud, our thoughts never reached an audience bigger than the friends in our kitchen at Thanksgiving dinner. Even our peers who wanted to keep tabs on us weren’t able to track our every career decision like they can today.

Eugene Wei, the former director of video for Oculus VR at Facebook, says that posting on social media makes people feel like a public company.

“Most celebrities learn this lesson very early on, most companies put their public-facing executives through PR training, but most humans never grew up under the watchful gaze of hundreds of millions of eyes of Sauron…Public companies are restricted in what they can say publicly. The same is true for people who take themselves public. The markets punish companies that stumble, and the judgment of the masses is no less harsh for individuals who do their thinking out loud on social media.”

Building personal brands has turned us all into public relations professionals. Public companies are notoriously risk-averse. Compared to private ones, they operate on short-term horizons and face more scrutiny when they make bold bets. In practice, we now have to justify risky career moves to our friends, so it’s often easier to follow the well-worn path, do what everybody else is doing, and guarantee the approval of our peers.

Public companies and people on social media are always being watched. For public companies, the evaluation happens in the real-time movement of the stock market ticker. Meanwhile, people on social media are judged in likes, comments, and social status. Like the stock market, your social status fluctuates every time you post online. Post a photo of your six-pack abs on the beach in Tulum and your status will rise. Tell your friends that you’re leaving Goldman Sachs to join a growing and profitable company in rural Wyoming, and the backroom gossip will begin.

“Where we had once been free to be ourselves online, we were now chained to ourselves online, and this made us self-conscious.”

24/7 access to social media has over-socialized us. Every action is criticized, every sentence is scrutinized until soon, we get stuck in a prison of fear and risk-aversion. Plus, the Internet has a perfect memory. It only takes one tweet to end your career and permanently tarnish your Google search results. Like public relations professionals, we’ve become hyper-aware of how the masses will respond to everything we say and do.

By creating an audience of critics, all those eyes have changed how we act. Psychologists call this the Hawthorne Effect, and it states that people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched. It was originally discovered in 1958 when researchers tried to study the effect of bright lighting on working hours and break times. Once the study began, worker productivity improved, but it slumped again after it ended. Researchers concluded that people worked harder not because of changing light conditions in the factory, but because they were being watched.

Thus, surveillance is a tradeoff. Under the critical eye of the social media panopticon, people are more likely to follow the rules but also take fewer risks — which creates a stagnant society.

On social media, we create our own Big Brother. The laid-back honesty users once had when posting on Instagram and Twitter in the platforms’ early days is gone now. Spend enough time on both platforms, and you’ll begin to operate with the tact of a corporate communications professional. Both platforms are performative. On Instagram, we judge every post by its impact on our public image, and on Twitter, we have to examine how our ideas will be interpreted by a wide range of audiences — today and in the future — with permanent records of everything we publish. Now that our failures are on public display, we’ve stopped taking risks.

In 1984, George Orwell wrote: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Stuck behind the bars of the Social Media Trap, streams of censorship turn into mental blood clots which prevent the flow of ideas. When we create for an audience of many, we censor ourselves and stop taking risks because we watch ourselves being watched.

Social media has turned us into objects of criticism. Instead of looking at the world, we watch ourselves being looked at. Like celebrities stuck in the prison of fame, instead of controlling our audience, our audience starts controlling us. Crippled by the thought of friends and family criticizing us behind our backs, we stop taking risks and collapse under the weight of paralysis.

The problem is worse on social media platforms where we surround ourselves with people from our past. More practically, people would work on riskier but more ambitious projects if they left Instagram. Trapped by the judgment of our peers, we stop taking risks or trusting ourselves. Over time, the shouts of intuition turn into whispers, and soon, quiet. The self is silenced, the crowd screams, and yet, we hold our ear to the cacophony of judgmental noise.

Seeking Solitude

“Every prophet has to come from civilization, but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society and all that it has to give, and then he must serve periods of isolation and meditation. This is the process by which psychic dynamite is made.” — Winston Churchill

We’ve never had better access to technology, but we use social media to cripple ourselves. In a time when the world is starving for action-oriented risk-takers, we’ve stopped taking risks for fear of social rejection. Study the past, and you’ll see that many of the best opportunities are hidden in plain sight. At every point in human history, our ancestors have been deluded by grand fallacies and blind to grand opportunities. Find what we’re wrong about today. Then bet on your answers. Escape the Social Media Trap, and you’ll find the audacity to silence the critics and march with conviction.

But in an age where millions of people are stuck in the Social Media Trap, how can we summon the courage to take a leap of faith?

Spend more time alone. Our values are formed when we are by ourselves, so it’s hard to have original ideas the judgment of other people is always ringing in your mind. Too many schools teach students what to think, not how to think.

If you insist on using social media, use it to motivate yourself, raise your ambitions, and hold yourself accountable. Curate your feeds, so you can inhabit a world of people who inspire you.

Most social environments reward conformity, but the world needs people with visions of a better future for society and themselves. It needs people who can shatter the chains of short-term judgment of the Social Media Trap. It needs time-travelers who can escape the solipsism of the present, apply the wisdom of history, and challenge the heresies of the present day. It needs people who can inject moral courage into their veins, follow their intuitive compass, and march along a foggy road towards a flourishing future.

I publish a weekly newsletter called Monday Musings where I share ideas like this every week. You can subscribe here.