September 03, 2020 • By Sydney Charles
The Center for Digital Transformation (CDT) at The UCI Paul Merage School of Business discussed social media with Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Sinan Aral in the second episode of their Digital Leadership Virtual Series. Moderated by Center Director and Professor of Information Systems and Computer Science Vijay Gurbaxani, the conversation featured an exclusive look at Aral’s new book, “The Hype Machine,” which examines the social media industrial complex.
1. Social Media is not “good” or “bad”
Aral resists a simple categorization of the effects of social media in favor of a more nuanced approach—exploring how social media has played an active role in shaping our politics, economy and health.
He cites the negative impact of social media in relation to the 2016 election, Twitter hacks and COVID-19 misinformation.
He says: “There is a wealth of misinformation about the COVID pandemic, just as there was a wealth of misinformation about measles before that, and this information is propagated in systematic ways through automatic software robots and through people.”
But social media can also be harnessed for good. For example, when a massive earthquake occurred in Nepal, Aral explained that Facebook’s “safety check” feature resulted in the location of many people that were deemed missing. Social media also plays an important role in social movements such as Black Lives Matter.
2. Social Media is Built for our “Social Brains”
Social media is vital for staying connected to friends and family. During the pandemic, many online services –– such as Netflix, YouTube and Facebook –– have seen an influx in sales. Aral said, “Today we cannot live without the indispensable technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to connect us to other human beings around the world.”
Social media plays on the brain’s subconscious need for social interaction. “The reason why our brains are so advanced is not because of manipulative dexterity or logical reasoning, but because of sociology,” explained Aral. “Our social hierarchy is so complex, that our brains need to be able to discern much more social information,” Aral said.
Humans are fifth order intentional, and because social media is “a cacophony of social signals,” our brains’ ability to consume, process and distribute these social signals is inevitable; a phenomenon Aral explains as similar to “tossing a match into a pool of gasoline.”
3. Social Media’s is an Addictive “Hype Loop”
According to Aral, the ability of social media to connect and drive human behavior is called the “Hype Loop.” Aral said, “The machine senses what we read, who we friend and what we buy, and uses that information to optimize functions for our engagement and our continued use of the technology through friend suggestion algorithms, feed algorithms and advertisements.”
Our digestion of these suggestions and our ability to act on the information received from social media platforms is “the loop that drives behavior.”
4. It is Possible to Achieve a Middle Ground
According to Aral, we can achieve the promise of social media while avoiding the peril with the hype machine, however, society must adapt to the disruptive tendencies of social media.
Aral said, “Humans play a huge role in this: the laws we design, the business models we pursue, the norms that we instantiate while using this technology and the code we write that designs this inside the social media industrial complex itself.”
5. Interoperability Could Increase Competition in the Market
Interoperability is the ability to port your information between different social media networks, a notion, Aral explained, that is both critical and challenging. He said, “In my mind, interoperability means being able to interoperate between different social networks, and to take your social network connections with you from one social network provider to another.”
This change has the ability for increased competition between companies in the same fields. For example, Aral explained, the ability for people to now change their cell phone providers or carriers without altering their phone number is the direct result of number portability; this change increased competition and business between cellular carriers around the world.