Anti-Social Media

It's like electronic crack, and there's no 12 step program for it.

Anti-Social Media

I got into a silly Facebook argument with a couple of old media friends, or in one case, more of an acquaintance, the other day. For all of you in Houston, I'm not going to name them, but it was a relatively minor example of why perhaps Elon Musk should buy it as well so it can slowly die.

In fact, the bilious billionaire was the reason for the disagreement. I read something about Elon's big rocket launch the other week and made, what I thought was a light hearted post. Here's what I said...

"If reports are correct, when the big SpaceX starship launches this week, they will replace the word "liftoff" with "Excitement Guaranteed." I hope they're wrong, but if not, it's another reason I hate Musk."

Most people got into the spirit of the thing, in fact, our Texas Outlaw Writers El Jefe Chris Newlin pretty accurately predicted the gobbledegook they used to describe the rocket blowing up. His ideas were, "Dazzling Detonation," "Turbocharged Spark," and "Fiery Thrill." Pretty close to the Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly that Musk's gag writers came up with.

Too bad we couldn't rapidly reassemble.

I have mentioned before that getting to know some of my former colleagues on Facebook after they retired, revealed a lot I didn't know, namely, their politics. Some, I could have guessed, but others are more liberal or conservative than I knew. And, frankly, that's a good thing in journalism because if I didn't know and saw them every day in the newsroom, the audience didn't either.

Now, I thought the point of the post was replacing the traditional "Liftoff" with some sort of vapid, showbiz phrase more suited to a promo for "Shark Week." But one of my former colleagues got this out of it...

"You hate Musk?"

Now, one friend came to my defense, keeping it light by remarking, "Doesn't everyone?" But I simply replied "Not a fan." But that wasn't enough, and thus began an inexplicable argument, which another old media acquaintance joined in, which got political and honestly, a little nasty. And it's just the kind of thing that unfortunately, Facebook is very good at. I am guilty as well for not simply dropping the matter and moving on, but I did try to wrap it up with something we could agree on.

I think we can agree you can admire achievements and still find the achiever a schmuck.

You know, like Charles Lindbergh or Henry Ford. Of course, that didn't wrap it up, and for no good reason, things are now tense with old friends after arguing about a guy none of us actually know.

"Hey, you guys settle it. I'm busy losing money."

This is Facebook at it's worst, and the worst is pretty common. Even a silly observation will be picked apart for its political value to one side or the other. And I  confess that I, too, got sucked into this silly fight. I want to stipulate though, that I do find great pleasure in some of the groups I belong to on many subjects, and I have reconnected with old friends, colleagues and classmates through FB as well. But it, along with other media like Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok are, in my opinion, destructive in many ways.

Perhaps the largest group of victims are teenaged girls. Thanks to filters, photoshop and the Kardashians, they have an unrealistic view of themselves and their peer group. A very good piece in the Atlantic put it this way...

Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social-media platforms proliferated and expanded. Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.

And it's not just the unrealistic body images they perpetuate, it's the mindless cruelty. My daughter had a rough time with a handful of girls when she was in middle and junior high school, and that was in person. Take away the reticence an in-person confrontation imposes and make it all anonymous. We have seen, and in my profession of news, done too many stories about girls driven to extremes of self harm and depression, even suicide due to the insults and cruelty of others. This chart tells the tale...

And now we find the effects on boys may be almost as rough. Unreal body images that supposedly are the only ones girls desire, are just as demoralizing for guys as for girls. And, the folks at Facebook know it. In a 2019 internal essay, Andrew Bosworth, a longtime company executive, wrote:

"While Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation."

Moderation is not what that age in life is noted for, if we all think back. On reflection, I'm lucky I wasn't a teenaged dad, a drunk or dead. Well, teenagers who were texting friends on their flip phones back in 2010, are now gazing at absolutely unrealistic photoshopped images that make them think Margo Robbie wakes up looking like that, never mind Louise in 3rd period algebra. And guys think all their peers have 6-pack abs and Brad Pitt's hair. Well, back then I did, of course, but that's beside the point.

Add in the mindless and petty cruelty that seems to be the exclusive domain of American teens and it's a pretty depressing way to celebrate turning 17. When I was in Jr High, there was a nasty trend called "slam books." These were like cruel class annuals in that the names of various classmates were put on each page, and the book passed around so everyone could add a venomous little remark. The administration had to finally ban them and threaten suspension if caught with one. It's low tech, but had that element of anonymity we find on the web now.  

But, you can't put toothpaste back in the tube, and I frankly don't see a way to unwind social media. That pesky first amendment thingy certainly gets in the way, but mainly, there is so much money sloshing around. Well, OK, less at Twitter these days. Add in AI, artificial intelligence, and deep fakes, and even I can look like Tom Cruise. I can see in the future that is like the blackjack table at the Sands. You take your chances.

"No, really. I'm fifty-ish."
"Yeah, me too."

And let's be honest. Trying to moderate how much your teen uses their phone is as likely as Lindsay Lohan chairing an AA meeting. All in all, it's a tough time to be a kid. Oh, I know, there have been tougher ones, but this problem is unique. And our girls and boys are the lab mice in this little social experiment. So far, it isn't going well.

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.