Social Media And The Training Of Our Minds

by Samir Chopra

Facebook-reactions-loveOne fine morning, as I walked along a Brooklyn sidewalk to my gym, heading for my 8AM workout, I saw a young woman walking straight at me, her face turned away, attending to some matter of interest. She might have been paying attention to a smartphone, but it might have been kids or pets; the precise details of this encounter have slipped my mind. Unwilling to be run over, clothes-lined, or head-butted by this rapidly approaching freight train, one insensible to my presence, I nimbly stepped aside, infuriated that yet again, on a New York sidewalk, I had been subjected to the tyranny of the inattentive pedestrian.

At that moment of induced irritation, my thoughts were not inchoate, not just an incoherent mess of unresolved frustration; instead, they seemed to arrange themselves into a sentence-long expression of aggravation immediately comprehensible to some imaginary intended audience: “My least favorite pedestrian is the kind that walks in one direction with his attention diverted elsewhere, whether it’s smartphones, kids, or pets.” Or perhaps, “That’s quite all right; you should barge ahead on this sidewalk, your head down, unseeing and uncaring.” This reaction was instinctive; I did not stop to deliberate and compose my verbal reaction in sentence form; my brain responded like a trained machine, a well-primed one; a species of Pavlovian instinctive reaction had taken over my mind. It was not the first time that I had, on encountering something entirely weekday or quotidian, and yet, not unworthy of a mental response, suffered a brief emotional tic and found myself formulating such a summation of my feelings at that instant. The verbal expression of my thoughts did not suggest it was the starting point of a letter to a newspaper or an essay; it had to be concise and succinct.

This was not your garden-variety introspection; it was clearly intended for future public consumption, for a pithy display of my thoughts about a matter of personal interest to those who might be interested. I sensed my audience would be sympathetic; some would chime in with empathetic responses; yet others would add embellishments in their comments and annotations. I did not think this sentiment of mine would be greeted with disapproval; I anticipated approval. Indeed, that is why I indulged in that little bout of composition and drafting in my mind, framing the written expression of my thought to make it appropriately irate or ironic. Maybe the ensuing conversation would feature some cantankerous rants about the smartphone generation, about over-indulgent parents and pet-owners, all too busy texting, fretting over children and dogs and cats; perhaps some of my interlocutors would add witty tales of how, one day, in a urban encounter for the ages, they had stopped one of these offenders, and told them off with an artful blend of the scornful and witty. Perhaps someone would add a ‘horror story’ about how coffee had been spilled on them by someone just like the young woman; and more outrage would ensue. A little chat corner would have developed.

I had been drafting a Facebook status, a tweet.

The folks at Facebook and Twitter have achieved something remarkable: they have made their users regard the world as staging ground for inputs to their products. The world and its events and relations are, so to speak, so much raw material to be submitted to the formulation and framing of Facebook statuses and tweets. The world is not the world tout court, it is the provisioner of ‘content’ for our social media reports.

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The Facebook prompt asks you: What’s on your mind? The Twitter prompt asks you: What’s happening? The two are subtly different: Twitter asks you to act as a news reporter of sorts; Facebook asks you to report on inner mental states (What are you angry about? What are you sad about? Do you find something that makes you happy? What’s on your mind this morning?) But Twitter and Facebook prompts are identical if you consider that what is ‘happening’ could very well be mental events and not just what is ‘happening outside’ at the current moment—though live-tweeting is a honorable method of using Twitter—as well as what happened to you in the recent past. Between ‘what’s on your mind’ – what is inside there?—and ‘what’s happening’ – what’s out there?—we seem to have all bases covered. There is no explicit collaboration between Facebook and Twitter but if these firms were partners then these prompts would collectively ensure a reasonably comprehensive elicitation of mental states and empirical reports. (Other reported Facebook status update prompts are: How are you doing? What’s going on? How’s it going? How are you feeling? What’s happening? Facebook users are curious about which prompt elicits the most colorful responses but no such study is publicly available or forthcoming. Facebook though, knows; with probability one, we can surmise that Facebook collects statistics on precisely such activity; it wants to know and track what sorts of prompts elicit what kinds of information. The ones that prompt the ‘best’ responses—in whatever dimension—will be the ones we will see the most, pitched to us at those points in time when we respond with the most alacrity to such prompts.)

In this context, it is a minor wonder Facebook took so long to respond to its users’ complaints that the ‘Like’ button was not granular enough. Its users wanted to tell Facebook more; they had a richer variety of responses to offer—I wish there was a ‘dislike’ button! I wish I could like this a thousand times! I wish I could tell you how much I liked this!—but Facebook’s interface would not let them. My sympathies were with the complainers. In the bad old days, my ‘Like’ button was terribly overworked; it did double, triple, quadruple duty; there was not enough granularity of expression in that atomic expression; it did not capture the range and variety of social interactions it facilitated. Now, Facebook users can ‘love’ a post; they can be ‘angry’ at what it talks about; they can be astonished and say ‘wow’; they can be ‘sad’ and make a face dripping with tears; they can find it funny and laugh out loud ‘ha-ha.’ Now you do not just ‘like’ a post; you can ‘react’ to it. These, and others, are the templates that Facebook provides us for our reporting ‘work’; these are the ontological categories with which we are sent forth into the world to report back on what we see and hear and taste and feel. (A truly flexible interface would let users make their own emojis by mixing and matching, by combining emotions to show the ambiguity the world can evoke. How do we show ‘mixed feelings’ or ‘bittersweet joy’ or ‘nostalgic’?) They make the world for us; they bid us look at the world with their lenses. We think of the world as something to be fed through these maws to emerge on ‘the other side’; we are the sausage makers.

Facebook is constructing a map of our mind: At what time during the day did you enter which status in response to which prompt; What online or offline event did it follow; What succeeded it; Where were you when you did so; What were you doing; Who you were you with. We are prompted to assist in the construction of this map, and we are complying. We are being interrogated; and we are complying. We are conditioned to do so; our responses are reflexive. In realistic art, we sought to capture the world as it was. In Facebook and Twitter art, we capture the world as expressed in status report and tweet. Supplied by well-trained users. Those monkeys banging away on typewriters? That’s us.

These forms of social media work because they have granted us an incentive scheme of sorts. We can pour out the most ‘inconsequential’ thought that flits across our mind and see whether our friends will ‘like’ it or ‘react’ to it or ‘pass it on’ with stamped approval by retweeting it. My almost-five-year-old daughter, as might be expected for someone who has started to speak with some volubility, makes, and has made, many outrageously funny and perceptive remarks. Besides responding to them with delight, I look forward to sharing those pronouncements of hers that that will provoke squeals of approval from all and sundry among my friends and acquaintances, thus receiving implicit and explicit congratulations on having created and reared such a brilliant child. Such responses are a wonderful inducement to share the particulars of our daily lives.

Through this scheme, we have been provided a means by which we may seek confirmation whether is there any ‘value’ to the constant stream of observations—all those thoughts and sensations—that pass through our minds. An old caustic take on the novelistic productions of modernist genres claimed that we were merely being subjected to the transcription of a stream of consciousness, but that, of course, is what the daily Facebook or Twitter feed is, a stream of consciousness rant of truly epic proportions. Sometimes ‘stream of consciousness’ was a term of abuse; now it is not. Our thoughts are not trivial, so I’m not infected by the urge to yell at those who share, “Keep your damn status/tweet to yourself.” Many of these shared thoughts are singularly penetrating and many poetic insights lurk among them. One day, a twitter aphorism harvester will find coruscating gems in those trillions of terabytes of statuses and tweets. Today’s triviality is tomorrow’s profundity and vice-versa; share away.

(The status photo and video, complete with annotation and witty caption, is a visual variant of the textual status. ‘See something; say something’ takes on a whole new meaning. See something, Facebook or Instagram it; step back and let the comments roll. This never ending stream of photos enables a great deal more than just friendly interactions among friends and family; every photo uploaded to Facebook and Instagram is harvested by bots and finds its way to the data banks of the NSA and the FBI and the CIA, there to be processed and used as learning data for face recognition software used to track criminals, schoolkids cutting classes, or brown terrorists plotting their next attack on American interests.)

In meditation and mindfulness sessions, we become aware that an endless stream of thoughts parade through our mind. This state of affairs suggests a sci-fi variant of our current social media tools: an automated Facebook status and tweet harvester, perhaps part of the software on a chip embedded in our brains at birth, which in some not-so-distant future would post them—as they occur—on the social network of that time. This would automate what we strive to do now: think angry, witty, sad things; rush to enter them on our social media statuses. Our thought-harvester could involve us in the decision-making loop for posting: You have just had this thought; would you like to share it? You are now experiencing this emotion; would you like to share it? Perhaps such an embedded social media chip could ‘live-stream’ in the literal sense: a multi-media, multi-modal streaming of our stream of consciousness.

So we are being ‘asked,’ by social media, to make our interiority external, and we are happy to do so. There was a time when we needed to write the novel, with its richly imagined interior mental spaces, to enable this kind of inspection; then came psychoanalysis with its couch and undirected free association. Now Facebook’s status feed and your timeline offers access to those reports, all made available voluntarily. We log in, lie on our virtual couches, and chatter away. Here be novels and soliloquies and free associations indeed.

Social media users who report on their feelings or their observations are not merely hankering for approval; those two spaces now suggest themselves as precisely the places where such reports should be made. That is not just because we often do so; it is because we see others do the same thing, all the time, everywhere. My ‘reporting profile’ is quite typical in its variety: I report encounters in the subway, sights seen on the street while walking, cute remarks made by my daughter, entertaining classroom encounters with my students, the latest political controversy of the day. These are all grist for the mill. Sometimes when I finish a workout, I feel the urge to report how I’m feeling; sometimes I feel I should describe the meal I’m eating; sometimes I feel, as I walk into the lobby of a theater, that I should announce to the world that I’m finally here, and have made it to the viewing of a movie everyone has been talking about. If you do not react to a newsworthy event with an update, you risk looking like you did not care. It does not matter if our status update is a mere chiming-in; by writing a Facebook status on a ‘newsworthy’ event, we ‘check-in,’ we attend a roll-call. A social media status is an act of social participation, an interaction with the world. As a friend put it, “If Socrates was right that the unexamined life is not worth living, we seem to be in an era where the unpublicized act is not worth doing; or worse, did not happen at all.” If something happens in the world and no one responds to it on Facebook or Twitter, did it really happen?

Now, we see the world differently, made up of check-in locations, of situations which need responses to. When I look at the world, I see it through a social media filter: Is there anything here I could draw upon and use? What in this situation is amenable to formulation as Facebook status or tweet? I’m overcome by the urge to report, to translate this ‘reality’ into status or tweet. ‘Reality’ is at its most disappointing when it does not present material suitable for usage in a status or tweet.

When the first portable cameras were invented and people went out into this world armed with them, they took hundreds and thousands of photographs. Those who viewed these photographs were stunned; so much of the world had been captured and frozen, in so many revealing ways, bringing its many hitherto hidden dimensions to light. The galloping horse’s feet that Eadweard Muybridge’s movies had displayed made equestrian flight visible as never before; we realized there was much more than meets the non-camera-trained-eye. As social media users, we pay closer attention to the world as status and tweet composers and correspondingly, report much more about it; what our ‘friends’ show us may reveal aspects of the world we had not noticed before. A map of the emotions, of the various affects and experiences, of the various changes in psychological dispositions during the day, is drawn for us; we are invited to aid in its preparation, to inspect it and comment on it. We feel compelled to provide our own maps in exchange. By reporting on what we see and observe and feel during the day, we construct a cartography of affect and desire and anger and rage and frustration and love and longing and sadness.

But maps alter the world we see; they make us see a world in a very particular way; they are infected with selection biases all of their own. If reality is socially constructed, the Facebook status and the tweet are its new dimensions, its new axes of interaction and action. They offer us a perspective and a lens through which to view this world; they tell us what is to be condemned—that which gets the most ‘angry’ reactions; what is funny—that which got the most guffaw icons; what is to be approved—that which gets the most ‘shares,’ the most ‘likes,’ the most ‘RTs.’

When we write a Facebook status about an event—as opposed to writing a blog post about it—we shrink the event into manageable form; we reduce its complexity, its many facets and dimensions. (Some users write posts that are hundreds of words long on Facebook; the majority write short reports and one-liners. There is virtue in conciseness and in being succinct; many Twitter poets spend considerable time polishing their 140-character tweets into a distillable aphorism.) The picture of the world that emerges is of one that is capable of being captured so. The world is now the world as witnessed in social media, described and annotated in a very particular way, fitted into particular formats—those made available by the social media tools we use.

Of course, while we rush to social media to tell the world what we saw, we often only tell the world what we saw if we think we will get enough positive feedback from it. We are popularity seekers, of the kind provided by our ‘friends’ and ‘followers.’ There is a hierarchy of likes: the positive comment is still better than the like, and even better than the ‘love’ emoji; the retweet is infinitely preferable to the ‘like.’ We still prefer explicit communication to the terseness of the icon. By witnessing our friends’ reactions to our posts we realize which sentiments are safe to express, and which ones are not. We censor ourselves and bite our tongue when we notice our friends are outraged about something we do not care about or even approve of. We cannot bear to spend all day responding to critique and arguments. We mold ourselves according to the demands of our social media network. ‘Task modification’—doing your work differently because your computing tool requires you to—is a well-known problematic phenomena in interface design; ‘user modification’ is a new twist in this old tale.

Social media sets up competition among its users; it cannot but. We see the activity on our friends’ pages, how they attract admirers and compliments, and we crave the same. We seek to outdo them, to deliver a bon motmore tightly, more acutely polished than the ones they do; we wait and wait, waiting for that perfect opportunity, for a moment that will let us deliver the goods to the waiting crowds. Stand-up comedians have long relied on the overheard conversation, the glimpsed absurdity, the awkwardness and sheer awfulness of social encounters to supply them with their best material. So do social media users; everyone wants the applause, the cheers, and the acknowledgments—and for that, you need the right ‘material,’ which the world and our friends provide. Social media users are not engaging in behavior that differs markedly from that of a writer. If you ever felt like you need to be careful around a writer because your actions and your words could show up in her next book, do not be surprised if a Facebook friend begins her status with a ‘overheard/saw someone say/do…” We have become suppliers in a logistical chain that terminates in status or tweet.

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The structure and features of social media systems are set up to shift a great deal of communication, previously imagined to be private, to public spaces, available for inspection by your ‘friends,’ all in the name of ‘sharing.’ These systems set out to provide a means of social networking and communication with an architecture designed to induce behavior in its users that would violate conventional privacy norms. For instance, Facebook’s default options were set for maximum information exposure and changing them required opting out via a complicated, cumbersome interface. This has had precisely the effect its designers had in mind: user behavior observed on Facebook established new social norms for information sharing, which then facilitated the conclusion the modern social networker was not as concerned with privacy as his forebears. This conclusion in hand, Facebook could defend itself against the charge it violated the privacy of its users by pointing to their behavior. The trap had been set; Facebook users walked right into it.[1]

There is something undignified, grubby, and sordid about the whole business: this massive machinery of communication, all tricked out in its many glories, with its complex software and hardware and intangible protocols, all dedicated to selling us goods. It is a cosmic letdown of sorts to realize that our communications with family and friends, our passionate and informed political discussions, are merely there to inform advertisers of what our preferences, are, so that they may more accurately direct their trinkets and baubles at us. Something important happens on social media—we are, after all, communicating with each other—but we realize too, that we are being used. A social network is a good thing; one used for advertising, controlled by a corporation, and used to spy and surveil us, is not.

I have no positive theory to offer here; no suggestion of an alternative system, a new social network. (Competitors to Facebook, like Google Plus and Diaspora, are anything but.) But we should be aware to what is happening to us, and how we are changing. That sensitivity, at least, should help us navigate these new, uncharted waters of communications and relationships, and ultimately how we see the world, and ourselves in it.

We should, above all, realize that we are being trained. We speak constantly of ‘machine learning,’ of how we are ‘training’ our machines with large data sets so that they can become smarter, better thinkers, more adept at solving problems; we do not seem to consider that the machines and interfaces we interact with are training us. Modes of communication force our communiques into the formats they require and permit; we are learning to express ourselves in Facebook statuses and tweets. We are becoming different beings as our relationship with our informational environment is changing. Modern debates on artificial intelligence proceed on the presumption that we will remain static while machines continue to change and ‘take over us.’ If the world we live in is one that our machines will be able to ‘take over,’ that world will be unrecognizable to us, because we will be unrecognizable to our present selves. Part of that transformation will come about because we will have been trained to think, read, and write differently by the machines; these machines, their technology, the systems and rules and laws and techniques that sustain them are constitutive aspects of ourselves and our societies; radical changes in them induce radical changes in us.

We are used to looking at older photos and exclaiming in surprise and wonder at how much we have changed; those photographs have never captured the changes in our interiority. But a history of our social media interactions most certainly will; we might be surprised to see what we are becoming and have already become.

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[1] The prime example of Facebook’s privacy-damaging architecture is the Wall. This has been a feature of Facebook ever since its inception, and nothing quite shows off how privacy norms have changed than the way that Facebook users use it. From the very beginning, Facebook urged user X to ‘write something on Y’s wall’. Note, write on the Wall, not ‘send them a message’. That is, write them a public message that everyone can see. Soon enough, Wall messages had begun, and very quickly, a pattern emerged: what people used to write in email messages was now being written on Walls. Dates are planned, medical test results discussed, break-ups commiserated over, the list goes on. Similar behavior is observed in the comments spaces of Facebook posts. Here too, users engage in communication which might have previously remained confined to email messages. These are users who are acculturated to speaking loudly and openly in public. Facebook has changed some policies in response to vociferously expressed concerns over its architecture but the features listed above are not going anywhere, and indeed, have never served as a focal point of any these complaints. They are as important as its default information-sharing options in changing our collective, social, reasonable expectations of privacy in social spaces.

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Samir Chopra is Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His academic interests include pragmatism, Nietzsche, the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, philosophy of law, the legal theory of artificial agents, and the politics and ethics of technology. Samir blogs at The Cordon, ESPN-Cricinfo, and at samirchopra.com. He can be found on Twitter as @EyeOnThePitch.

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