BLOG 28th February 2022

Zuckerberg blames TikTok. I blame Zuckerberg.

This blog is a guest blog written by Lucretia Devlin. Lucretia has worked in the film and television industry for over ten years as a Producer’s Assistant, Production Co-ordinator and more recently, a Production Manager. Some of the projects she worked on include Game of Thrones, The Mummy and Thor: The Dark World.

This series of guest blogs is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. If you'd like to write a guest blog for us too, we're looking for more voices from the arts, culture and heritage sectors in Northern Ireland to share with us their vision of a changed future. Check out this page for more details.

A couple of weeks ago I deleted all my social media – something, I must admit, I’ve tried and failed to do before. Previous attempts were for a variety of reasons. At times my social media usage felt self-indulgent. I’d put up a new post and would incessantly refresh the page to see how many likes and comments it had garnered. At times I felt I was spending too much time scrolling, so I’d delete the apps and have a social media detox. All attempts to quit were more difficult than I’d care to admit, and all attempts were temporary, lasting no more than a month. This time, however, I have a feeling it’s going to stick - and the reason is WHY.

Simon Sinek posits that we should all “START WITH WHY”. He has a bestselling book on the topic, and one of the most viewed Ted Talks of all time. On a protest march with vegan activists back in 2020 (full disclosure: I’m not a vegan, I was just supporting a friend), they all agreed that you were more likely to stick to veganism if you made it about the rights of the animals rather than for health or environmental reasons. It therefore makes sense to me that the basis of any true and lasting change must start with an impenetrable WHY, and I think I’ve found mine. And in fact, I think a lot of other people have just found their WHY too.

For the first time in its 18-year history Facebook has reported a drop in its active users. The result being a 26% drop in share prices, losing 237 billion dollars overnight. A cataclysmic shift we should all be paying attention to, and one, that for everyone who is not a shareholder in a social media company, we should be rejoicing in. Mark Zuckerberg blames the rise and success of rival social media platform TikTok, but with that excuse he is failing to take any responsibility for his own shortcomings, because the truth of the matter is, Facebook lost sight of its WHY a very long time ago.

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product”. A line that has stuck with me since watching THE SOCIAL DILEMMA back in 2020, a documentary about the dangers of social media and the business models upon which they are built. To expand upon that quote, if a company is not making money off subscription fees or the sale of a product, it’s most likely making its money off advertising. If it’s making its money off advertising, its goal is to have as many users as possible, scrolling for as long as possible. How do you keep people scrolling? You manipulate them. Sensationalism, conspiracy theories and disinformation, these are just some of the methods deployed by these social media sites to keep their users online for longer than they ever intended to be.

In his 2022 book STOLEN FOCUS, Johann Hari interviews Tristan Harris, an American technology ethicist who studied the ethics of human persuasion at Stanford. In this class, the students were “given a small mound of books which explained hundreds of psychological insights and tricks that had been discovered about how to manipulate human beings and to get them to do what you want”. In attendance of this class were Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Tristan and Johann likened the manipulation of a social media user to the same manipulation an audience member undergoes when witnessing a magician performing a trick. The magician makes you believe that the coin has disappeared, but the magician has just made sure you were looking elsewhere when they moved the coin to where they wanted it to be.

There is an unspoken social contract between the magician and the audience, and it goes something like this; entertain me, delight me, show me something I can’t explain, and I’ll forgive the fact that we both know that magic doesn’t really exist. The audience member forgives the magician for smashing up their watch because they know it’s not really smashed up and they’ll get it back as part of the trick. Mark Zuckerberg has been smashing up watches then not putting them back together. In fact, he’s selling them for parts and acting like it’s your fault because you gave it to him freely. He has as overestimated his audience’s tolerance for toxicity, data breeches, misinformation, and divisiveness. His WHY no longer holds up to scrutiny and it’s painfully obvious it’s no longer about keeping us better connected. He has broken the social contract. He has broken the audiences’ trust.

We’re emerging out of the two toughest years in our collective history. A mass awakening of sorts. The Covid-19 pandemic made many of us re-evaluate our lives, our goals and our core values. Captain Tom Moore raised over £30 million for charity by walking lengths in his garden, 500,000 people signed up for the NHS volunteer scheme, communities rallied round each other, delivering food and supplies to the clinically vulnerable. In the last two years we’ve seen the best of us. We needed to. We needed something to believe in.

That, for me, explains a lot of the popularity of ‘lighter’ entertainment content. TED LASSO, BRIDGERTON, EMILY IN PARIS, audiences wanted respite from the realities of the evening news and the horrors that awaited them on social media. It also, for me, explains the popularity of TikTok. In much of the content I’ve seen so far, TikTok seems to be a fun and playful app with dance crazes, lip-syncs and creatively edited videos. The people at TikTok seem to understand their audience, and yet it is still a social media website mired with its own controversies surrounding addiction, content, misinformation, and privacy concerns. The truth of the matter is if it’s built on the same business model as Facebook, it is eating the fruit of the poisonous tree and if the ethics of the company does not hold up to scrutiny, users will eventually flee in the same way they have fled Facebook.

The way I think about it is this. If I eat nothing but takeaway for weeks on end, there’s nothing I’ll crave more than a homecooked, healthy meal. If I spend the Christmas break indulging in too much alcohol, I’ll look forward to Dry January to give my system a break. The social media market has become so saturated with toxic content, it’s little wonder that people are starting to turn away from it in their droves. In the wake of the pandemic, people want to see the best in humanity. They don’t want scare tactics and sensationalism. They don’t want to feel angry or confused all the time. They want to feel optimism, joy, and hope.

The creative industries need to pay attention to what’s happening in the social media markets, twofold. The audience’s appetite for content is changing and the audience’s attention towards the ethics of these companies is shifting. In the same way climate change became the global movement that it did, I believe that we are on the precipice of a crisis point that will ultimately see systemic changes to the business models of these companies and the ways in which we engage with them. The laws surrounding data and privacy are evolving and subscription fees to social media sites have been proposed. Such laws and fees will result in a further market shift but besides that, if you use social media to promote and sell your art, the way you engage with it should be as conscientious, ethical and sustainable as your recycling practices or even your fashion choices. My decision to quit social media may seem extreme, but it’s one I will stand over until the people at the helm of these companies are policed appropriately and held accountable for their poor ethical choices.

In the 2016 biographical drama HIDDEN FIGURES, Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician and human computer at NASA, watches as an IBM computer is installed, threatening to make her job obsolete. Rather than waiting on her redundancy letter, Dorothy studies up on the computer programming required to operate the IBM, thus making herself indispensable and evolving with the ever-changing landscape in her field. As we see a very real market shift in the use of social media, it’s time to think about how social media may evolve in the wake of the pandemic with rising awareness of the ethical failures these social media models undoubtedly have. In what way might social media change and how can we get ahead of that curve? Think about it, otherwise you’re a Blockbuster manager telling your customers that Netflix is nothing but a phase.

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