All the beautiful people? How the pressure cooker of social media makes our relationships and problems that much worse

I think I’ve started to resent attractive people. Idly scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, one is inevitably confronted with the beauty of the young or the wealthy or both — bombarded by the kind of desirability that those of us who are ordinary (or worse) will never know. It starts to grate on a person.

That is the kind of lament that I am, in truth, far too old to feel let alone write down. But social media tends to have that effect on us — not just that we can peruse an unending parade of the beautiful, but also peer voyeuristically at the most idealized versions of others’ lives.

A jealousy borne of the hierarchies implicit in modern life is hardly new. But it appears that the social media giants know what kind of effect their products can have. This week, a report from the Wall Street Journal detailed that Facebook commissioned internal research in 2019 that revealed that Instagram contributed to young girls feeling worse about their bodies. Nearly a third of girls stated that when they felt bad about themselves, Instagram made it worse.

There is a certain inevitability to the findings: in the sea of images that produce an idealized body type few can live up to, Instagram is the latest after print, TV, and film to add to the pressure the young in particular face when it comes to the way they look.

All the same, it points to a less-discussed problem with the tech giants: not that they are themselves the producer of social ills but that they intensify them and make them worse.

That isn’t to say there isn’t any criticism to be lobbed at Facebook, Google et al. Far from it, the tech giants seem to have a capacity to not just be aware of the negative effects they cause, but also to do very little about it.

In the case of the self-esteem research, it seems Facebook had good intentions: dig into what effect social media is having, and then address it in the product.

But as none other than Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer of Facebook, theorized on Twitter, what likely happened is that the social research team’s findings got overshadowed by a leadership more invested in metrics — that good intentions “have run into the power of the growth and unified policy teams.”

And it is metrics that are part of the problem. Although Instagram has recently experimented with getting rid of displaying how many likes a post have, there is a basic structure built into apps like instagram that see them run on attention. There is an implicit incentive to post things that draw likes and eyeballs.

For young women, an obvious route to that sort of fame and recognition is to display their bodies. Indeed, there is a growing body of research that suggests that Instagram is not only responsible for the uptake in lip fillers, but for cosmetic procedures in general.

Yet, the kind of sexism that underpins the objectification of women obviously far predates social media.

Instead, it seems what social media does is to intensify and concentrate existing social problems by creating a powder keg in which they get worse.

So the visual, metric-based nature of Instagram fosters an obsession with slim yet curvy bodies. Facebook’s engagement-driven business model cultivates misinformation and polarization. Twitter’s combination of the two both flattens and amps up discourse to turn social debate into a cacophonic mess.

Underlying these processes is an economic system that may be reaching the end of historical usefulness. After all, if young women can sometimes be found commodifying their own bodies to make rent or achieve fame, it is nonetheless capitalist notions of value — that is, something has worth when it can be exchanged for another thing — that drives a certain model of thinking about how we understand the world and our place in it.

Perhaps then the trouble with social media is not that digital networks are inherently bad or that screens or technology lead us astray. Rather, it could be that big tech is merely the logical extension of a concentrated and evolved form of capitalism that seeks to monetize social relations — to extract value out of how we communicate and engage with the world.

Recently, in an unusually frank admission, Instagram head Adam Mosseri compared social media to cars: that cars do in fact cause more people to die than would otherwise, but that there existence is an overall net good.

It’s an insightful comment, perhaps inadvertently so. Because what it points to is that technology that produces broad and deep social changes — much like both the automobile and social media do — can become entrenched and dominant if they are embraced too eagerly.

To combat those consequences, one needs to make hard choices, sacrifices and to rein in tech where it starts to cause more harm than good. There can be beauty in all sorts of technology — but when they manifest the worst aspects of a culture, a society needs to act to counter the ugliness contained therein.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance contributing technology columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang


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