It is probably no coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg was studying both computer science and psychology. Because due to basic psychological mechanisms, millions of people worldwide are spending a lot of their time on social platforms. Even during sex, as a study conducted in 2016 has shown. However, the practical benefits attributed to social networks play a subordinate role, says English media scientist Marcus Gilroy-Ware in his recent book "Filling the Void". "Wiener Zeitung" spoke to the author about why people waste their time on social networks and how Facebook is  commercialising friendships.

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"Wiener Zeitung": Social Networks cause sleeplessness, loss of time, lack of emotional well being: Many studies have shown that the more people use Social Networks like Facebook, the unhappier they are. Why are we using them then?

Marcus Gilroy-Ware writes about media, technology and society. He teaches digital cultures at the University of the West of England and University of London.

  - © Francis Ware
Marcus Gilroy-Ware writes about media, technology and society. He teaches digital cultures at the University of the West of England and University of London.
  - © Francis Ware

Marcus Gilroy-Ware: Countless studies show positive correlations between the problems you’ve mentioned and social media use, but only very few actually claim to show an explicit causation. Strangely, rather than mystifying the problem, this may be part of the answer. Rather than a simple "social media are bad for you" analysis, it may be more accurate to say that this positive correlation can be accounted for with a simultaneous causation in both directions – a circular process or "feedback loop".

Could you please explain in detail?  

Social media very likely are bad for our emotional wellbeing, in the same way that chocolate is technically bad for you depending on how much you consume, but just as with chocolate and other highly palatable food, we also increase our consumption of it when under duress. So, with depression for example, social media use may make us more depressed—and there are some studies that claim to show this, but depression likely also leads to compensatory media consumption. The same pattern is also possible with other, less serious forms of poor emotional wellbeing, and it’s a cruel thing to benefit from this pattern commercially, when you think about it. So long as there are people desperate to "fill the void" with something, capitalism will continue to sell mostly ersatz non-solutions for a profit, even if these products kill us or make us unhealthy when overconsumed.

If Social Networks are an escape and a compensation: What from and what for?

This is a big question, and there’s only so much space to answer. The short answer is that it is exactly this poor emotional wellbeing that people are seeking an escape from, but this can take many forms. Obviously, people have their own individual circumstances, but what interested me was the societal and structural nature of poor mental health, particularly in the Anglo-American world, where these problems are considerably worse than continental Europe, as Oliver James has documented in Selfish Capitalism. Information for comparison on Austria is limited but in the UK depression is the most treated health condition by the health service,  Besides clinical diagnoses, however, I tried to show in my book that the lived experience of late capitalism entails, amongst its CCTV surveillance cameras, junk food, austerity, and long working hours, a kind of background malaise, as if almost everyone knows that something is wrong, but few are able to identify or articulate exactly what it is.

 What exactly is this background malaise?

This feeling is composed of various colours which mix together to make a nondescript, and rather dystopian shade of brown: extreme uncertainty about the future, a cultural stagnation in which the past is repeatedly rehearsed and there are no new ideas and movements, economic precarity – even for middle-class jobs like academics and lawyers, and a decline in broader social structures of belonging and solidarity, so that we are all "individuals against the world." My book deals with this subject in much greater detail in its third chapter.

Since Social Media are to be characterized by compulsive behaviour and psychological functions: Is it therefore very difficult to leave? Lots of people deactivate Facebook for example, but keep coming back.

Yes, leaving contemporary social media accounts is a bit like if, in order to move house, you were handed a petrol can and instructed to burn down your old house first. Designers of these systems know that the more important aspects of our lives are incorporated into them, the harder it will be emotionally for us to leave. Although Facebook users are now leaving in high numbers, up to a third of Facebook users have reportedly left the service only to reactivate. This really helpfully illustrates an important aspect of this whole phenomenon: we are human beings, not robots. Just as with smoking, or eating junk food, we continue to do things that we know are bad for us. As the great Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud made very clear in his work – the question is not whether or not we should do things that are irrational or harmful, the question is why.

You have stressed the importance of the timeline: What is the subjective emotional experience of the timeline?

Of the many features of Facebook, one of the most important, both for the company and its users is the "news feed." A very similar feature exists on nearly every social media platform, almost by definition. On Instagram it’s just indicated with a "home" icon, Twitter calls it a "timeline," on LinkedIn it’s a "feed," and on YouTube it’s just called "recommended." All of these parts of their respective services do something very similar: They provide a nearly limitless bank of algorithmically tailored content for the user to explore, and in so doing, harvest data in the form of the user’s various responses. Likes, clicks, retweets, saves, comments, are all data collection features dressed up as a means for the user to respond to and interact with those sharing the content and others viewing it. Even whether or not we watch a video or how long we spend watching it is collected.

When Facebook added the heart, the angry face, the sad face, and other responses, they said they were responding to user demand, but really they were engineering a richer harvest of more accurate data for their advertising clients. As far as emotional experience, all "timelines" have four essential features that come together to provide a user experience that, although likely not clinically "addictive," is extremely appealing and difficult to resist, because of the constant emotional stimulation that it enables: familiarity of sources, novelty, variation and abundance. The media themselves may not be familiar, but in most cases they come from trusted sources such as friends, family, and people you have chosen to follow, which provides an important component of trustiworthiness. Interestingly this has long-term consequences too – a 2015 study found that the greater the proportion of strangers followed in Instagram, the greater the likelihood of depression. The novelty, or new-ness, of the content is an essential part of the emotional and affective experience of timeline content. Neuroscience is notoriously complicated, but the growing consensus is that the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which is driven by the brain’s reward-seeking pathways, surges for novelty in this kind of situation.

Variation is equally important, because if the media are unpredictable and varied, there is an even greater incentive to keep checking, because the likelihood of novelty is increased. As for abundance, all timelines are engineered to be virtually unlimited in the amount of available content. While scarce content would lead limited user engagement, abundant content (given that it is also novel, varied, and from familiar sources) is much more tempting because no restraint is needed. A fuller account of this analysis, including a lot more of the scientific research that informs it, is provided in detail in the second chapter of the book.

Social media are most of the times for free or at least named for free. However: What users give is not money, but data, from which companies like Facebook or Google gain their profit. Why do people still downplay this development or even ignore it?

The first thing to say is that, as the book points out in its fourth chapter, capitalism functions best when nobody questions the terms of the exchange they make with capital, so the best way to achieve this, from capital’s perspective at least, is to obfuscate that exchange process. The book goes on to say "the most dangerous version of how our relationships with capital are obfuscated is when you don’t realise you’re participating in an exchange at all. Since we do not pay for most [social media] services, we are distracted from the idea that they are businesses or that money is being made."

As far as possible, the entire process of using Facebook, Twitter and Google’s services makes the revenue extraction aspect of their business invisible, except of course for the growing number of ads themselves that appear in the timeline, news feed, or similar. In other words, the experience is designed to feel as much as possible as though the consumption of all content in the social media app or website is on a "something for nothing" basis. Log in, get media, pay nothing. Who protests or complains about a situation in which they are getting something for nothing? Secondly, as I have outlined above, the use of social media (and other media, such as YouTube and Netflix) is compensatory and habitual for many users, so these users have no private incentive to change their behavior or habits unless something else can replace social media within these patterns.

The timelines of Social Media, esp. Facebook or Twitter, mix entertainment and information: Are these two compatible at all? Does the focus on emotions also explain the easiness of how fake news can be spread?

This is a very important question, especially given the concerns about "fake news" that began to whirl around us in 2016. Even if the web is claimed to have its origins in sharing "dry" information, it has become apparent that the role information has in a media ecosystem that is now so dominated by content, much of it user-generated, that is not information centric needs to be addressed urgently. Indeed, the fact that factual news content are consumed or accessed via an architecture that is designed to arouse, and profit from, our emotional responses to digital media is a real problem. A lot of people don’t realise how much traffic Facebook refers to the rest of the internet, but it’s pretty staggering—25% of all web traffic comes by Facebook alone, and 32% from Social media as a whole. This incompatibility between a emotion-harvesting marketing tool and the measured accuracy that journalism claims to provide is also a reminder that whatever Facebook says about wanting to solve the problem of "fake news," they never will, because that would mean drastic sacrifices within their business model—a business model which just earned them $17 million for the last quarter of 2018.

Under certain circumstances Social Networks can have positive effects:  They help keeping in track with family, friends from far away, show news etc. Be it how it is: people use them for a variety of reasons. What do you recommend for using Social Media?

Academics, analysts, and writers can do much better than divide the world up into "good" and "bad". Junk food tastes good, and smoking (apparently) feels good. If there was nothing useful or stimulating about social media platforms, nobody would use them. As above, the issue is not whether there are or are not practical benefits, but the fact that as social media platforms worm their way into our lives, they become the portal via which we access our world. My recommendations would be that if you must use social media, stick to the media-related practical benefits it provides, but do not let it mediate any aspect of your personal life. I have permanently left Facebook and strongly urge others to do the same, but I still use Twitter to follow the news and gather information about the world.

Also, as the Arab spring has shown, Social Media can support political activism. Nowadays, however, the focus is mainly on how Facebook facilitated the victory of Trump or the outcome of the Brexit referendum. How do you explain this shift?

Any serious scholar of Egyptian or Tunisian politics will not accept that social media were a cause of the Arab Spring, if asked—this is largely a technocentric, liberal fantasy that ignores the tight organisation, terrifying risks and sheer graft involved in challenging a brutal sovereign government. What experts on this question do accept is that social media were able to act as an accelerant in these upheavals and provide an important morale boost. Exactly how much depends on whom you ask, but as Evgeny Morozov pointed out in 2011, overstating the efficacy of social media in events like these likely undermines their ability to contribute to democracy in this way.

I’m not sure I agree with the question’s assertion that the focus has shifted much. Whether the Arab Spring, Trump’s election, mental health crises or other major global events, I think there will always be people who, whatever happens in the world, overplay the significance of technology, as though it somehow has agency of its own, whilst ignoring the more complicated structural, political, economic and social drivers of change. This is particularly the case in a world where "ideological" has become a dirty word.

Do you expect limits in the future? Has our dependence on Social Media become irreversible?

The very presence of social media platforms in our world, is a symptom of that world, which we can analyse in order to learn something about that world. How much we regulate them will depend on how healthy and effective our democracies are. I believe very much that regulation to protect ordinary citizens from capital’s ruthless desire to exploit our unhappiness and insecurity for profit are an important part of what democracy should entail, just as capital’s exploitation of our hunger and need for shelter are, or should be, regulated. But that battle will never be over.

On the other hand: Facebook is just an app.

Facebook is not "just an app." It is a platform, website, and series of products designed to attract and then sell our attention to advertisers, and to extract as much information as possible about us in the process, in order to know who will pay the most for that attention. The cynical intention of Facebook, Instagram (post 2012 acquisition), and Facebook Messenger’s design is to arouse our emotions as much as possible, because they know that emotion means import, and import means attention and a central position in the lives of users.

Facebook want "friendship" to be synonymous with Facebook "friend" status, but what they don’t say is that they also want break-ups and falling-out to be Facebook-mediated as well. They want to be your whole life, so that they can run targeted advertising in your whole life, even if you are lying wide awake at four in the morning with anxiety. As long as your response to this situation is to reach for your smartphone and begin scrolling, they (and their shareholders) will be happy.