Recent events that affected me personally and other events that I simply witnessed made me question the role that social media plays in our world. I had a few interesting conversations about it and figured I add my voice to this topic as well. Especially as it will be an important topic for me as a father in the future.
Let’s start with Adam Smith…what really?
Yes the “Invisible Hand Guy” who wrote another book that he himself actually considered as his more important work. In the “Theory of Moral Sentiment” Smith talks about what governs people’s behavior in society. In (very) short he said that people not only want to be good but they also want to be seen as good. This he argues can lead to a positive feedback loop where people do good, they want to be seen as good so they talk about it and that inspires others to do good as well. Of course some people are more interested in being seen as good than actually doing good. There are ways to “game” the system and we will come back to this later.
So how is this working? Smith had this idea of an impartial spectator that lives inside our breast to use a bit of old-fashioned language. When people consider a course of action they would obviously make their natural self-interest a base for their decision. But they would also consult their impartial spectator. This spectator would metaphorically leave the body and look at us without our own self-interest in a way that a random member of our society might judge our actions. People have to reconcile these two views before they make a decision. The more our actions might impact or simply be seen by society the more we take the impartial spectators view into account.
An example: I might decide to go to the market to buy bread. I know the baker charges 5$ for a loaf of bread which I consider expensive. So my natural self-interest wants me to haggle the baker down to 3$. Now on my way to the market I consult the impartial spectator who might say that people might think I am stingy. Or that people would not appreciate me holding up the line by bartering or that they might think I am not respecting the baker enough to pay his price which they might consider fair. When I arrive at the market I might just decide to not barter at all or to only ask for a small discount. You can see how this works and you can find thousands of your own examples. Even though my self-interest is in saving money because I am really stingy I also want to be seen as a conscientious person who respects the value of other people’s labor.
What are the impartial spectators limits?
The impartial spectator works (within limits of course) because people used to live in a local and personal society. The impartial spectator can only ever incorporate the views of people who you might interact with. If I would visit Scotland and I would come from a culture where haggling is the norm I might have no compunction about bartering the baker down. Although I might pick up on the local norms and being someone who wants to be seen as a good will suppress my desire for haggling. I might also be there for just this one day so I would not care about the other people’s opinions as I am about to leave anyway. So I just haggle and annoy everyone. But even in this scenario I might just want to be seen as good and so I do the right thing and pay the baker’s price. This is why people tip in restaurants when they are on holiday. Not because they expect better service next time but because they want to be decent people.
What has 18th century Scotland to do with social media?
Social Media especially the short form variants like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the myriad of comment sections are a place where the impartial spectator is very weak. It is always a struggle between unfettered self-interest and society’s norms. The impartial spectator helps to channel our self-interest into something that is positive or at least not negative for society. But on social media there is no real society.
People can be anonymous. Something that is quite hard to do even in large cities. A person still has friends, neighbors, colleagues and regular shopkeepers around. Anonymity though makes the impartial spectator unhelpful. It is most likely not news for you that anonymity leads to more hate, aggression and bullying. You can probably figure out what the impartial spectator has to do with it (or rather the lack of it).
People still want be seen as good especially on social media
A big problem comes with being seen as good. Because it is very easy to brag about one’s good deeds, true or not. Sometimes just proclaiming to be for “something” is enough to be seen as good. I would call this being fake good in modern parlance and people in 18th century Scotland were pretty good at spotting the phoneys from the people who really did some (even if just a small bit of) good. Today we do not know. In olden times people would be challenged to prove their good deeds. Today such people can simply block others and their pesky little questions about what kind of good one does by using a hashtag against poverty one day and bragging about the new Iphone the next.
People still want to do good on social media
We talked about fake goodness, what is nowadays called virtue signalling. But some people want to do good on social media. Now posting “I stand with all my transgender allies #transgender #LGBT” is not doing much good if it is not followed by something more tangible. Doing something good takes work, effort, time or money no matter if it is done offline or online. One can volunteer in a soup kitchen or produce well researched videos on YouTube about social issues or lacking the time and knowledge one can simply donate money.
But some people think doing good online involves neither work (i.e. actually doing something or donating money so others can do something) nor the restraints of the impartial spectator. They think doing good involves calling out that others do either wrong or not good enough. We all know the type and I could list a few Twitter handles myself. Obviously this kind of behavior is not doing anyone any good except the person doing it and maybe their audience (more on that later).
See Adam Smith saw that being good and being seen as good are a basic social needs for humans. Even the most depraved and horrible dictator think himself to be good people and wants to be seen as such. Just look at how Hitler had himself photographed patting the heads of little children. And before someone complains I am not comparing anyone to Hitler. I just want to show that Smith’s insight applies even to one of the most monstrous people of the 20th century and how the wish to be good and to be seen as good can be perverted.
Communities instead of society
Edinburgh in the 18th century was, compared to today’s cities, a manageable community but Smith talked about society. Because both are different. Communities exist in parallel and have their own norms and rules while society encompasses all people. The latter’s norms need to be broader and there needs to be more agreement between its members. Most importantly there needs to be an understanding about the truth. Almost all members of society need to be in agreement about certain truths (and those can of course change over time). The common truth needs to be understood between people (this is called inter-subjective truth) in society. As an example everyone in Scotland knew that Britain was an island nation. The truth of this sentence was based on actual ships sailing around and about and not on what the King felt Britain is today (maybe like a tropical atoll).
Now communities have much less need for truth. They can rely more on faith, belief or opinion as long as other people share those. Membership in a community is often (especially today) voluntary. Social Media is not a society. It grows out of people who are members of society but it is a bunch of individuals and communities. This makes it easier to be seen as good because one only needs to find a community that declares one’s favorite behavior or simply the sharing of an opinion as good. Whole communities have sprung up where one person accuses someone of being an <add whatever ism/phobia> and others pile in to attack. Afterwards they all feel good because they did good (purging terrible people from Twitter) and they are seen as good by their community.
Now it is easy to see how this process can go wrong when one measures actions only by their community’s truth and not the truth common in society. Especially when those truths are still under debate in broader society because there is new or conflicting science surrounding it. But the mechanism above leads to insular communities immune to criticism and aggressive towards those who have a different opinion. The human desire to be good and to be seen as good is therefore often perverted in social media and leads to the horrible and hateful things we see today.
What can we do?
I honestly do not know. Maybe we as humans grow and mature enough to incorporate social media into the wider society in a way that is positive and enriching instead of splitting us off into different mutually suspicious tribes. Maybe there is some government regulation that helps or the big tech companies find ways of keeping their platforms peaceful. I have my doubts.
I can give you at least my idea or maybe just my hope. Maybe we realize that social media is way less important for our lives than we thought. Do we really need to stay updated on the latest political news on Twitter? Do we really need to share every spontaneous opinion or emotion with our “friends” on Facebook? Is it really necessary to comment everywhere within seconds of watching or reading something?
Maybe we discover that we do not need social media to be good and to be seen as good and maybe we become more discerning whenever good deeds are proclaimed on Twitter. Then whoever stays on with their perverted need to be good and to be seen as good will simply be ignored because we (re)discovered better ways for this basic human need. Maybe people will remove themselves from the big platforms and join more local ones where there can be real life interactions between its members and so bringing the impartial spectator back and rooting the online community in a (local) real life society.