What if social media could change lives for the better?
That’s a question I’ve been asking this past year, studying the market and analyzing trends with Facebook, Twitter, and everything in between.
For the most part, social media hasn’t changed significantly in years, not counting the radical design update Facebook went through. We still post kitten videos just as often, and the basic features of liking and sharing posts hasn’t changed. Twitter is so stagnant that the CEO recently became bored and left.
Sadly, there’s a reason nothing has changed, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
One expert told me the whole idea with apps like Facebook and Instagram is to be as predictable as possible; we often like the same old thing. Author Jonah Lehrer released a stunningly insightful book recently called Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution. The book is all about what captivates our attention and why. My favorite example from the opening chapter has to do with mystery writer Agatha Christie faking her own death. That’s one way to catch the public eye!
Social media is the reverse of that, regurgitaing repetition and monotony. Lehrer noted how we love things that are familiar and routine because learning something new takes time and effort. “We want a newsfeed that tells us everything we believe is right,” he told me, summarizing the last 18 months of misinformation campaigns, unreliable source data, and outright lies in one simple sentence.
The problem, he says, is that we eventually fall into a rut of predictable routines and don’t even realize we prefer not to live that way.
His book is all about the wonder of the unknown, explaining how magic tricks, unusually effective rules changes in sports, and wonderful new young adult books have captivated millions. He argues that introducing mystery into life makes everything more engrossing and helps us thrive, even if it takes some work on our part.
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In our conversation, we talked about “good obsessions” that lead to startling discoveries. We try something new and it changes our life. I’ve noticed how the ruts of daily life are easy and at times they seem so compelling, but when you learn something new (say, cross-country skiing), the rewards are much greater. We experience a sense of wonder that propels us forward and gives us more purpose.
That doesn’t sound like the social media we all know, unfortunately.
“I don’t think Facebook is in the business of building a news feed that captures the wonder of life,” says Lehrer. Yet, he suggests there is a better way.
Social media companies could start introducing some mystery and wonder to our feeds, educating the masses and helping us become better humans. You see a small glimmer of this with the donation features of Facebook, asking us to consider giving money to worthy causes. It’s not enough, though. Our feeds are still dominated by sketchy links and long explanations of complex topics by people who don’t know how to screw in a light bulb, let alone thwart a global crisis.
In the end, we have to decide between obsessions. On the one hand, there is the curation of curiosity, the tidbits of life that enthrall us and help us change and grow. It’s good to be obsessed with those. Social media could become more about the mystery of the unknown and helping people discover new things, which may have been the original intent all along. One the other hand, there are negative obsessions, the ones that are familiar and don’t do anything to educate us or challenge us. The whole point of Instagram is to not expend any effort, other than moving your thumb. The reason these apps are so addictive is because they are so familiar.
There’s such a great opportunity for social media to become more valuable, even to the point where we rely on it and would even pay for the privilege. There’s a reason why Facebook doesn’t charge us a dime. It’s all free because it’s nearly pointless.
My hope is that someone will finally realize these platforms can be a catalyst for real change and growth, and that a sea change in our feeds suddenly wakes us all up. Maybe it starts with what we all post next on our feeds.