Just Toxic Enough
How much toxicity will social media companies remove from their platforms? Only as much as it takes for you to stay.
“You’re both pieces of shit and I can prove it mathematically.” - Rick Sanchez
Trigger warning: graphs.
Last week I attempted to to define “toxicity” (in the context of social media), by looking at four types of content likely to induce a self-perpetuating cycle of bad feelings. It’s probably the most boring thing I’ve ever published here, but you’ll still probably want to skim it to see what I’m getting at:
I’ll try to sum it up: “toxicity” isn’t simply “stuff that makes you feel bad”. It’s when you make yourself feel bad (or go from bad to worse worse) after consuming some types of content:
Direct & Intentional - When both the poster and the consumer know that the poster is trying to elicit a negative emotion in the consumer.
Indirect & Intentional - When the poster is being dishonest and only they know that they are trying to elicit a reaction.
Direct & unintentional - When only the consumer “knows” they are eliciting negative emotions, and create communities around looking down upon others.
Indirect & unintentional - When neither the poster or consumer is intending to cause a negative reaction, but some broader context (for example, an algorithm) does anyway.
Too much consumption of toxic content, and it will eventually “soak in” and make the consumer (you) toxic too. Then you start posting and consuming intentionally toxic content, and it spreads on the platforms like a self-replicating mind-virus.
An unscientific biology lesson:
But it’s not strictly the content, it’s the context in which that content is presented which is often the source of bad feelings. The algorithms curating your feed on the fly aren’t trying to make you feel bad, they are trying to make you engaged. The way to guarantee maximum engagement is to throw up content most likely to catch your attention.
Consider (broadly) the environment in which the the human brain evolved, and what sorts of things are likely to (forcefully, uncontrollably) grab its attention. Positive stuff, like tasty food or a potential mate, are certainly up there on the list of things likely to pique interest; but it’s the negative stuff, generally speaking, that is absolutely more likely to trigger engagement. What good is a tasty meal if there’s a tiger bearing down on you? What good is a potential mate if you know the cave next door has wealthier, better-dressed cavepeople with interesting cave-hobbies and cave-careers and yet if you look at their cavestagram timeline they also always seem to be on vacation??
Happiness was never the idea
Something rarely brought up in self-help circles (and certainly not in conversations on how to improve social media/the web) is this: happiness is not our natural “baseline” state of being. I know it usually feels like life would be just swell if only all this other stuff didn’t get in the way of our happiness, but the truth is that “contentment” is a temporary elevated state of being that takes active energy input to maintain. The neolithic humans who survived and reproduced to make us did so because they were perpetually dissatisfied. They were always comparing themselves against the other local cavepeople, and were more afraid of tigers than any of them, too.
Our brains are not wired to be happy by default. They are wired to be dirty little gossip queens always on the lookout for predators. They are not wired to be content-with-what-they-have because the cavepeople who were, stopped endlessly striving for more and died in times of scarcity. Dissatisfaction is our baseline. This is why millionaires believe that being a billionaire will finally make them happy, and billionaires believe that being president, or maybe owning Twitter will.1
The cavepeople who’s brains engaged with anything more intensely than sex or tiger-avoidance just didn’t make as many decedents as those who didn’t. The ancestors of all of us alive today were the most status-obsessed, predator-fearing, resource-hoarding hominids of their time. That is who we are (at baseline, at least), therefore any enterprise that stands to benefit from human brain-attention will inevitably utilize these lowest-common-denominators of attention-seeking tactics.
The triple point of toxicity
The observation that “sex and violence sell” is obviously nothing new, so now consider the list of toxic content up above. See the parallels? The social media content most likely to get inside your head and cause you to make yourself feel bad is that base-level attention-demanding stuff: shame, fear, jealousy, violence, anger, etc. Content that elicits these emotions make us feel bad, obviously. But knowing about it was important for our ancestors survival, so it also feels… kinda good? At least in the short-term. Lets call it “enticing”. Or perhaps “bewitching” is more appropriate considering the season.
Obviously if there was an app that served up only the most intense content, it would be overwhelming and fail to attract users.2 Just like eating a diet of pure red meat, users need some "veggies" to balance things out. But what is this toxic-to-nontoxic ratio? How much toxicity can social media companies mix into their feeds before users start to fall ill and leave? Think about it for a second and the question answers itself: The big social media companies will include as much toxicity as they can, right up the level that would cause you to quit. And now with social media rapidly becoming hyper-curated algorithmic media, every user becomes the proverbial camel with straw on their backs, the algorithm ensuring that the amount of toxicity presented is always just one straw shy of the breaking point.
If spending time on social media feels like you are being pushed to your limits, that’s because you are. “Engagement” doesn’t mean anything other than your attention. It doesn’t mean education, it doesn’t mean informing, it doesn’t imply accuracy. The idea is to get your attention, then show you ads. That’s it, really. There’s a limit to how much people can have their attention demanded of them before they check out. And if users leave, then the advertisers leave. (A lesson a certain billionaire is no doubt learning this week.) How toxic is social media? Juuust toxic enough.
The fool’s errand that pursuit of material security will ever lead to happiness is a bait-and-switch evolution pulls on us. Maybe someone should start a religion based around the idea…
People can obviously be “worked up” to a level where they’re demanding a constant feed of intense content, there are many online communities (and a few TV channels) that do this. But it takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. Becoming addicted to toxic content means that you are toxic too.