McLuhan gets brought up a lot in these conversations, but I always like to recommend Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death in the same breath. They knew each other and addressed a lot of the same concerns with media.
Facebook is a great example of unrestrained market effects. People want to reinforce their identities and be entertained. Facebook (and social media in general) was built for that. It’s like taking concentrated endorphins and injecting it directly into the brain’s pleasure centers. Heaven help us for what comes next. VR & AR advertising may soon make social media ads as dated as newspaper ads are today.
But blaming companies for using an advertising platform to access arguably the largest and most tailored audiences available is tough. We’re saying that we want corporations to be moral actors when we ourselves aren’t. Publically traded companies (and really any company in our current capitalist system) are profit-seeking, period. We can wish it was another way, but it isn’t.
Consumers need to decide that they want something more than to just consume, and companies will find a way to cater to it. If you really want to work for a company with a moral center, those jobs exist but they may not pay as well. If you want to spend money with a food producer who uses sustainable farming practices, they’re out there but not at your local major grocery chain. Good journalism exists, but you may have to pay for it and they’re not going to have headlines on Facebook about how evil the other political party is.
We vote with our attention and dollars every day. Social media (and any other media channel that has existed or will exist) simply gives us a way to spend our attention and dollars more easily. If we’re not purposeful actors in choosing to consume the things that make us happier in the lon-term or make us better people, then we really can’t blame companies for giving us what we want.
I want advertisers and platforms to behave both morally and ethically. And I think, in general, I want everyone from educational institutions, government, private companies, and religious groups to share a goal of long-term human flourishing instead of short-term profits.
But we’re only going to get it if we, as individuals, are engaged in that growth ourselves and demand it from the world with our decisions.