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'The Internet Made Me Do It': Stop Blaming Social Media for Our Behavioral Problems

At the most fundamental level, all the Internet really does is make it possible for people to share information and ideas faster and more efficiently than earlier modes of communication.
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The Internet is destroying our national parks.

That’s according to Lorna Lange, the spokeswoman for Joshua Tree National Park in California, anyway. Lange spoke to New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer, who wrote a depressing story about the recent uptick in graffiti on public lands. According to Lange, park personnel are blaming social media for the rise in vandalism. “In the old days, people would paint something on a rock—it wouldn’t be till someone else came along that someone would report it and anybody would know about it.” Lange told the Times, “with social media people take pictures of what they’ve done or what they’ve seen. It’s much more instantaneous.”

As a man who spent his childhood camping, I find this defacement of such natural beauty sickening, but I'm just as unsettled by park officials’ explanation for the increase in vandalism. Does the immediate gratification of posting a photo to a social network really “stimulate the impulse to deface,” as Barringer writes? Park officials seem to think so, even though there’s no data in this article to suggest a direct correlation between social network activity and criminal behavior (although researchers at University College London are looking into it) and the only explanation offered by some officials, like Saguaro National Park superintendent Darla Sides, is that they “just haven’t seen this type of vandalism in the past.” The mentality here is nicely distilled in a tweet by Times reporter Jenna Wortham: “Is social media to blame for the spike in vandalism in national parks around America?

This is how social media “makes” us do things: by making it easier for us to fall prey to our own impulses and our habits in a space where risks and costs are relatively low.

Is social media to blame? Rhis is the question of our time, it seems. Is social media making us less social? Is it making us dumber? How about lonely? Is social media making us lazy? Is it making us depressed? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A new technology becomes widely adopted. People start to see new types of behavior. The technology is immediately held responsible. Without Facebook, I would be happier. Without Twitter, I would be more productive. Those two South Korean exchange students who etched their names into Inscription Rock at the El Morro National Monument in New Mexico in 2011 wouldn’t have done it if Facebook hadn’t been there, begging them to brag.

But there is an important question somewhere between these official statements and click-bait headlines: Can social media actually “make” you do anything? It’s an important question if only for language’s sake; the way we talk about how humans interact with technology shapes our attitudes toward human agency.

A significant body of research has been devoted to exploring how electronic media directly impacts our cognitive abilities, from our attention span to our ability to multitask. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (which grew out of the aptly-titled feature, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," in The Atlantic) is probably the most recognizable recent text. But the effects of prolonged Internet usage on the human brain do not appear to directly (or immediately) translate into permanently higher rates of negative behaviors like delinquency, laziness, or depression.

Dr. Gary Small, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Memory & Aging Research Center, wrote to The Atlantic asserting that the plasticity of our brains will actually allow "digital natives" to adapt to constant exposure to media, offsetting any short-term problems; research published by Small in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in response to Carr’s article in 2008 indicated that Internet usage could actually stimulate activity in areas of the brain associated with complex reasoning. Additional research since then suggests that the Internet doesn’t “make” us drastically different people by reprogramming our brains—certain cognitive abilities may shift, but no drastic swings in behavior have been recorded.

Social psychology provides a more compelling explanation than social neuroscience. At the most fundamental level, all the Internet really does is make it possible for people to share information and ideas faster and more efficiently than earlier modes of communication. As institutions, social networks do this by lowering the transaction costs (namely distance and time) that keep people from engaging one another offline. Phenomenologically, it makes the world smaller: people are "closer" and we can reach more of them with much less effort. This fundamental change has made so many modern social phenomena possible, from communication between activists and protesters throughout the Middle East and North Africa to random acts of pizza. In every instance, a social media success story is defined by efficient collaboration to achieve a set goal (Mancur Olson would be proud.)

Even then, most social networks aren’t explicitly designed to turn you into a revolutionary or a Good Samaritan, or even impact your behavior at all. The only real imperative that comes with social media is to share. As businesses, sites like Facebook sustain themselves by monetizing your personal information and preferences (books, movies, and your "social graph"). In terms of architecture, they accomplish this by building a site that encourages interaction without you knowing it. This is the design philosophy at the heart of Facebook, according to an excellent report by my former colleague Alexis Madrigal:

"We tend to think of everything in terms of social design. The box, for us, is a vehicle to allow one person to communicate with another. It's entirely about who's on the other end of that box, not really the box itself," Facebook designer Russ Maschmeyer told me in a different conference room. "Our overarching design goal is to make that box as invisible as possible, so that your content is the thing that's most important."

Maschmeyer’s description is eerily reminiscent of the most delectable one-liner from Inception, delivered by Leonardo DiCaprio's character in a long conversation about the process of shared dreaming: “You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and fill it with their subconscious.”

This is how social media “makes” us do things: by making it easier for us to fall prey to our own impulses and our habits in a space where risks and costs are relatively low. Is social media making us rude? No, you were already rude, but the Internet is a great place to be a jerk. Is social media making you racist? No, you were already racist, you just found somewhere to express it that wasn’t the dinner table or the office. Is Facebook to blame for the rise of cyberbullying? Not really: your local bully has always been a bully, they just found a place without the watchful eye of a teacher. Are you an addict? No, you’re not.

We pour ourselves into the social space, and we take seriously what we get back from our multitude of connections. This has been the case with all media for years, really: “Individuals’ interactions with computers, television, and new media,” asserted Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves in 1996’s The Media Equation, “are fundamentally social and natural, just like interactions in real life.” Even on the most mundane level, social media shapes our self-perception, so far that a well-crafted Facebook profile can stir feelings of positive self-worth, while an excess of negativity in one’s News Feed can reinforce negative feelings in those with low self-esteem.

How social networks are structured still matters in reinforcing those connections. The social media experience is so personalizable that users take advantage of networks to connect to others with similar interests and experiences, and the the algorithmic guidance of Google search or Facebook’s social graph can lead users into a particular ecosystem with its own set of norms. (“Architecture always has an agenda,” as Astra Taylor puts it, “whether you’re talking about urban planning or software design.”) It allows people to find like-minded communities of political activists or programmers, child pornographers or drug dealers, who share and reinforce their values. “For better or worse, people judge others based on their associations,” found danah boyd in a 2007 study of youth and social networks. “Group identities form around and are reinforced by the collective tastes and attitudes of those who identify with the group.” Those networked publics shape us by reinforcing certain types of behavior; hours spent there have the same impact on our sense of self and the way we engage with others as any other repeated games, from the office or house of worship or schoolyard.

Joshua Tree spokeswoman Lange, despite her lack of data correlating the increase in graffiti at national parks to some sad trend, actually displays a somewhat nuanced understanding of how social media induces certain types of behavior. Social media didn’t force someone to do what they did, but a particular set of norms and expectations made it possible for someone to devalue a natural landmark. At the same time, identifying social media as the sole problem has wider ramifications for discourse on how technology impacts society by shifting responsibility onto the larger structural force of The Internet, this inescapable vortex of cat photos and status updates that crushes free will and transforms our kids and coworkers into sickos and psychopaths. In reality, the networks we occupy influence us as much as the expectations of those we're surrounded by, but not by depriving us of our agency; reifying The Internet—more like a despotic Leviathan and less like Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand—is a failure of the sociological imagination (which, more often than not, translates into a failure of policy to address problems like vandalism). The Internet isn’t destroying our national parks; even if the sudden uptick of graffiti ends up being driven by some twisted version of planking (or gallon smashing), Facebook won’t be to blame.