How Social Media designs us.
Eine Arbeit über die direkten und indirekten Einflüsse soziale Medien auf Menschen und ihr Kommunikationsverhalten.
STUDIERENDE Xiangyi ShenSEMESTER WS 2019/20ART DES PROJEKTS Masterthesis
Social media, as its name implies, is a tool created by people to meet their needs for social contact. With the emergence of Internet, digital social media has completely broken the limitations of time and space, making real-time communication possible over a long distance. Be it digital native or digital immigrant, be it at work or in life, social media is able to satisfy the needs of different groups of people in multiple forms. Obviously, the massive interconnectedness makes collective labor easier and achievable. For instance, Wikipedia is the collective work of hundreds of millions of online users. However, Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal in the beginning of 2018 offers a glimpse into the ambitions of capitalists and politicians. The precise control of desires and needs, the automation of thoughts. We seem to bask in the euphoria brought by social media, but are unaware of the price we pay for it. Personal privacy pales in comparison to quick gratification.
Before I lose the power to decide my fate, I couldn’t help asking: How does social media design us? How has social media changed the way we communicate and behave? How has it invaded our lives and affected our way of thinking, our perspective, our autonomy and our independence? This project is composed of several sections: analysis of existing data, the experience and feeling of ‘self experiment: offline in a week’, the observation and description of surrounding mobile phone users, and the discussion on related topics with people from different fields. In the end, the relationship between people and tools will be extended from people and social media. It is expected this paper can describe the new phenomenon triggered by digital social media and its underlying motivations from the perspective of a designer and ordinary users, and in the meanwhile figure out how ordinary users can avoid the trap of capitalists and politicians.
01 Bad but good to use.
On the basis of data from eMarketer, the number of social media users continued to rise within the five years from 2016 to 2021. But a report from Deloitte shows that 52 percent of all Nordic consumers have experienced negative side effects related to the use of their smartphone. That number increases to 88 percent for consumers who think they use their mobile phone too much, and falls to 37 percent for consumers who believe their smartphone use levels are appropriate. The spread of the Internet and mobile devices has also brought people’s attention to the negative effects of these new technologies. At the beginning of this project, I collected second-hand information from journals and consulting companies and made these information to intuitive charts. According to the charts, it is self-evident that the harm caused by mobile devices, the Internet and social media not only contains eye strain, dry eyes, blurred vision, headache, neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain and other physical discomfort, but also rests with the risk of obesity, gliomas and depression. What is worse, over half of the Internet users have experienced cyberbullying. In addition, social media, being a medium and a way of obtaining information, also affects users’ online and offline behaviors and even their political points of view. Social media is both harmful and helpful so that users usually hold ambivalent attitudes toward social media. Despite that users have been aware of negative side effects of these tools, they continue to use them. It’s not that users do not know what the negative side effects are. It’s just that the joy and satisfaction brought by these new products make it harder to resist against them. Is this a normal phenomenon? Or has the general public been addicted?
02 Do we really need social media?The challenge ‘offline in a week’
Nowadays, social media has been an indispensable part in our daily life. We can’t imagine how inconvenient life without social media will be and how much it would affect our lives. To prove the necessity of social media in our daily life, I experienced living without social media for one week. Generally speaking, during the week-long challenge, my online activities were severely restricted. Although I could use the Internet as a repository (watching movies, for example, without exchanging information with other Internet users), online contact with others was prohibited. The social media I usually use includes WeChat and E-mail for contacting people, Instagram for sharing life moments, and Wikipedia for reading. Since I have been accustomed to social media, I came across a lot of discomfort at the very beginning of the experiment. To ensure the normal progress of daily life, I began to try to use some offline ways to socialize and acquire knowledge: phone call avoids endless chatting; in spite of limited resources in the library, paper books are reliable source of information. In essence, my life has not been much affected after I have adapted to these “alternative approaches” for the reason that the needs for one medium can also be satisfied by another kind of media. The obvious difference between digital social media and traditional social media lies in the timeliness of information transmission, which I have also experienced deeply in the experiment. Because the types of media available were limited during the week-long experiment, the cost of connecting with people who were distant increased (additional charges or waiting time for calling or writing letters). It is also because of the higher cost of contacts, all what I have received within the week is high-quality information, and the total amount of information I received decreased a lot. In a word, I have made social interactions of higher quality and become more attentive. By the end of the experiment, I found I did not miss any important information and realized that this challenge was actually not as difficult as expected. Therefore, suppose one day the Internet actually disappeared from the world, it may not cause any panic as being offline does not mean disaster. The demands of socialization and connection will be satisfied by the substitutes of digital social media. It is worth noting that people should not be dominated by social media, and that social media should be used as a tool to make timely contact, rather than as a passive and timely information receiver.
03 The digital world needs digital human beings.
For the sake of objectively describing the impact of social media on people, I tried to observe and record the mobile phone users around me by means of sketches as well as the behaviors of non-mobile phone users, so as to compare the differences. Considering that photos may involve personal privacy, I employed hand-drawn method instead of taking photos. In addition, sketching can better reflect the focus of the picture. During the 48 days from November 15, 2019 to January 1, 2020, I completed a total of 270 pieces of sketches, which were observed and recorded randomly instead of using rigorous academic research methods. Among these sketches, 234 pieces are related to people online and 70 pieces are about people offline, which will be compared from the perspectives of quantity and behavior. First of all, it can be seen from the differences in quantity that people’s dependence on mobile phones and the Internet is a common phenomenon, regardless of identity, circumstance, age and nationality. In order to summarize the behavior pattern of mobile phone users more intuitively, I made a mosaic processing of sketches, and some details were omitted in this process. It is very shocking when all the sketches were placed together. From this intuitive overview, it is not difficult to discover that no matter where and who, the focus of mobile phone users is on the mobile phone, which leads to many problems. Specifically, there are safety concerns about absent-minded walking and driving; Parents’ predisposition to their phones leads to a lack of attention to their children, which results in an intergenerational transmission of behaviour (i.e. focusing on smart phones rather than listening and caring). What’s worse, it will exert negative influence on children’s psychological development, and wrong education methods give rise to children’s exposure to electronic devices at an early age, which is harmful to both body and mind. I share, therefore I am. Alone Together……
It seems that in an age that advocates efficiency, multitasking is of necessity and is a desirable state that everyone longs for. However, diffusing one’s energy is bound to bring about distraction and neglect. Paying too much attention to mobile phones means paying too little attention to other current issues, including ignoring the surrounding environment, the emotion of peers, and even avoiding interaction and communication with oneself. The concept of attention economy indicates that our limited attention will be more occupied by software developers. It seems that both contents and forms are tailored to our instinct, and are thus irresistible. People’s concentration on the virtual world in the mobile phone gradually deprives the value of real world around. Maybe the digital world needs digital human beings. Before you take up your phone, try to remember what you could have done on the road, at the station, or in the queue in an age without mobile phone. Please take a break, observe your surroundings, or just do nothing at all. Sometimes single-tasking does not necessarily mean inefficiency and boredom. It can also imply focus and enjoyment of the moment, more respect for others, more understanding of oneself, and more company from parents to their children.
04 Humans, not social media, are to blame.
In order to find out the motivations and reasons behind the use of social media by different groups of people, I interviewed professionals from different fields (namely, students majoring in psychology, junior high school teachers, marketing staff of training institutions, designers working on related subjects), as well as ordinary users. Due to the limited space, I have summarized the comments from interviewee, which have been presented as graphic.
It’s not hard to find that social media is not as bad as expected. Its badness is the consequence of the wrong person using the tool incorrectly. The neutral and positive characteristics of the tool far outweigh its disadvantages. There is no doubt that the proper use of tools can bring a great deal of convenience to life. However, everything has two sides, where the creators and users of social media often see the back of the coin. For example, the “community” has both assimilation and tolerance. If one is addicted to the tolerance of the Internet and not willing to accept new ideas, it is because the role of assimilation is greater than the role of tolerance. The notion that social media can lead to social assimilation is blind, which can only say that social media is wrongly used as a tool to reduce differences among individuals. The misuse of tools is counterproductive and amplifies the negative effects of social media, whether motivated by individuals or groups (business and government organizations), unconsciously or intentionally.
05 How tools reshape us?
Indeed, sociality is a human characteristic. At the same time, everyone is an independent individual. Does this easy connection allow us to ignore the attributes of human independence? People seem to have become reluctant to be alone and unable to afford to lose connectivity. Digitalization has realized the dematerialization of communication. However, due to the limitations of technology, there is still a gap between the density and accuracy of information conveyed by online social communication and offline social communication. With the rise of VR, AR and projection technology, the simulation of reality is bound to become a trend. Perhaps the future will be like The Matrix, humans will live in the electronic world where the real and the virtual are indistinguishable. But in the context of this topic at this stage, people are still living in the real society, and can not be completely divorced from the reality. In short, online virtual social interaction cannot replace offline real social interaction, which is just the extension or supplement.
Living in a world full of artifacts, people with different needs in different times are satisfied by the tools they create. Humans have always believed that their dominant position is unshakable, but failed to realize that tools are reshaping humans when they are created, which has gradually integrated into human life and become an extension of humans. The tools created by man is far more than simply meeting the needs. It has unlimited and open possibilities that can be continuously explored in development, far exceeding or deviating from the creator’s expectations, and even changing humans or creating new humans. According to William Morris2, machines on the assembly line enable workers to adapt to their rhythm and dehumanize them. As Marshall McLuhan put it, medium is the message. On the one hand, humans create tools to work. On the other hand, artifacts also adjust the content of the original message. This is a world of design. People live under the filter provided by artifacts, which contains the expression of the artificiality, so that the world they come into contact with is not the most primitive, but the world shaped by tools. However, the emergence and development of new technologies now not only change human behavior, but also have a step-by-step impact on the human mind.
The constant development of digital social media and the Internet has made it possible to communicate regardless of time or space. Initially, these technologies and tools are developed with good intentions, but later diverge. The digital social media of mobile phone, a convenient carrier, causes people to have a strong dependence on it in a short period of time, which can ostensibly understand the world and broaden their horizons, but actually restrict people by the effect of big data algorithm. People use social media every day to improve their understanding of the world. They are happy to receive information similar to their own cognitive preferences, and think that their understanding of the world is consistent with the reality. However, they do not realize that this is only the push of content that conforms to their preferences after the accumulation of data by the algorithm. People become frogs at the bottom of the well, but do not know it. This invisible barrier exists in the network, which makes the world more fragmented and disintegrated, and the thinking among individuals within the group keeps assimilating.
Adhering to the supremacy of efficiency, the original time structure is constantly divided into smaller units. Social media content is constantly being “optimized” for “split-time” formats. For example, text is converted into more digestible images, and video duration is constantly curtailed. Unlike previous reading and thinking, people’s needs can be met quickly on today’s social media. In the long run, quick gratification and short-term attention become the norm, and the work that requires long-term concentration becomes more and more difficult, eventually leading to thinking as a luxury.
People are immersed in the convenience and joy of social media created by technology, and completely unaware of the cost. In the online world, people no longer have privacy, becoming naked and transparent. The entered information, browsing history, and shared location are stored as data permanently. Over time, algorithms can make recommendations based on big data, such as you might like this, what you should learn, what you should know, an what should you buy. People embrace the gift of big tech, allowing it to invade their daily lives and basking in its efficiency and convenience. However, these are only the first step in the automation of thoughts. It is not unpossible to think about being outsourced to a tech giant. For example, in the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, voters have been manipulated unconsciously. Therefore, the truth is that people use free will as a bargaining chip in exchange for the cheap benefits of social media. These real-life episodes have much in common with Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. People readily accept the preconceived fate, ideas, and classes as early as birth. The society is orderly and peaceful. If someone goes off course, it can be solved with drugs and alcohol. With the intervention of social media controlled by big tech, people are gradually domesticated into individuals without privacy, long-term attention and the ability to complete a lot of thinking, which makes it easy to manipulate deep emotions and desires. People are not innocent of causing this situation today. People, both abusers and victims, sacrifice their futures with the private data, give up freedom to capitalists and politicians, and ultimately succumb to their autarchy. While advances in technology are beneficial, they pose a threat to freedom. Do people need to do something before the Brave New World comes?
As a graduate student majoring in design, I have been thinking about some problems. What are the responsibilities of the designer today? What new message can I bring to this project? What role does a graduate program play in society? Degraded people are using advanced technology because of their obsession with material life and the neglect of spiritual satisfaction. Therefore, I think the difference between the graduate stage and the undergraduate stage lies not only in the professional expression, but more importantly in the degree of thinking about problems. Designing a more comfortable chair can actually bring physical comfort to people. However, with the development of society, new phenomena or problems have more complexity and duality, such as identity, immigration, globalization, digitalization and other topics worth discussing.
After two semesters of research, I found that the causes of these problems caused by social media are too complex to be improved by the designer alone. I have also seen in some design exhibitions that many designers try to express their own discussions of this phenomenon in design language, such as perceiving themselves through meditation, and letting people learn to enjoy solitude through the space of isolated signals. I understand the intention of the authors and know that there is a lot of thinking behind the project, but unfortunately these are not directly reflected in the works. Another point is that the solution proposed by the author is not suitable for everyone. In today’s environment, social media and fragmented information constantly reshape people into individuals unable to think deeply, making people habitually ignore the deep meaning behind things. In this context, speculative design becomes the design of appearances, and the processes of “thinking” and “debating” are ignored. Therefore, the expression of design should also be adapted in accordance with human characteristics, which should be a more intuitive discussion and an objective description of the phenomenon. Due to the complicated but controversial causes of current phenomena or problems, it is difficult to think of a universal solution with traditional design thinking. Therefore, I think the most reasonable way is to visualize and professionally express the design process and problem thinking, so that the audience can see and carry out the deep meaning of the work. Only in this way will they try to avoid the negative effects brought by social media according to their own conditions, or carry out the second creation based on the original works. Designers tend to act as researchers to let the audience understand the current state through more intuitive design expressions and think about corresponding solutions based on their own needs and preferences.
I am a relatively traditional person. My papers, including the first draft, are done with pen and paper. I remain neutral on new technologies and digital social media. The convenience brought by technological progress is certainly good. In today’s big tech and the future portrayed by the government, I see a scene similar to that in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, in which people immerse themselves in the “real” World depicted by social media. The assimilation and fragmentation of social groups intensify conflicts and contradictions. Personal privacy is used to arm the enemy for convenience and stability. It is such a terrible thing that the decision-making power of fate is unknowingly given to others. It's not comfortable to see the reality without using social media and understand the true nature of the world, but it doesn’t mean people are not qualified. There is no need to force everyone to make changes, but everyone has the freedom to choose. In order to avoid the occurrence of thought automation and mental control, it is necessary to recognize the seriousness of the situation, regain the dominance of tools to people, master the social media, have quality social interaction, learn to be alone, and ensure the diversity of information sources and purposeful usage. It needs to be made clear that humans cannot be separated from real life after all. Social media is just the expansion of offline life, rather than the substitute.
Finally, I want to end with a line from Morpheus in The Matrix, “this is your last chance. After This, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill -- the story ends, You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill -- you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes”.