While the world turned its attention to COVID, Ukraine, inflation, Twitter and the World Cup, I knew I had a story, despite the stress on social media. The big companies were investing in the metaverse, but that conversation never really happened. Why would they do that? Isn’t that just some kid-friendly alternative to parenthood? I mean, put them all in a virtual space, moderate the language, and they won’t have the burdens of managing block lists. Of course, that was the entire purpose of not showing anything below the waist — but an alternative was what we all looked for. This escape from reality might have seemed foolish, but most people didn’t think it through (knowing general statistics of use, analyzing recent psychology data) and complained about the graphics. Actually, people were sick and tired of marketing on Meta platforms, so they demanded quality content.
The solution, they said, wouldn’t come from artificial intelligence. That can’t be trusted: look at TikTok and how quickly young populations get addicted to it. The behavioral perspective came into scrutiny; but the tools designed to capture more eyeballs, less so. People are right now discussing a ban on TikTok, but that was very early on and it came back into public debate. A Chinese company collecting data on young people can’t possibly happen. What they seemed to miss, though, was that the rhythm of interactions amongst the youth was in fact getting faster. Analysts might propose another debate: how quickly we bond. And psychologist would complement: what constitutes a bond, these days?
The paths people take
I’m among the people collecting data on the youth. And I actually got banned from social media for that reason. It seems that people forgot that was my premise, since 2011, doing research on social media. Without a book to publish, I relied on the academics who knew about my intentions to recommend me a path. I remember, back in 2008, asking a senior professor, Ângela Rodrigues, who got her PhD in 1987, about future research. I learned all my life that you call the elderly the equivalent of Mrs. It’s not like Americans do; it’s something for the elderly exclusively: “senhora”. So I said: “Mrs. Rodrigues, do you think I should study in the Social Sciences building?” And she smiled, answering that was a great idea. I never knew I’d be shifting from transcription of speech to social media analysis.
Today, they advertise me a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan. The concept takes me to the world of “social assistance”, which in many cases we associate with mental health. And my last conversation with my therapist Adriana was very clarifying. I guess I chose a more difficult path. I wanted to participate in decisions taken by social media platforms, because of my background. Maybe I saw myself pointing out that humor is like that because it’s always been: look at the classic poetry of Catullus. Since Ancient Rome, people have used dirty words. Even in poetry. But my job was to investigate how often, with who and where from.
The challenge of contextualizing
When COVID struck us, America was living under the Trump administration. We had witnessed, or at least heard about, a “trade war” with China. Much later on, they’d talk about the shortage of semiconductors — nothing to do with how much you sext. And we’d hear that the major grain producer in the world was suddenly seeing a supply chain interruption. That led prices to spike, and geopolitical tensions, with gas prices following up, to be more widely debated. In the midst of that, people were looking for entertainment, from their homes. But they wanted to understand what was happening too, and a lot of people thought at least one social media platform was designed for that. It’s hard to sum it up, but we’re all trying.
Ask an average American teenager if saying the N-word is alright. This kind of discussion is essential, but we can’t change the culture, especially when there’s a notion of who’s allowed and who’s not. We enter the zone of freedom and restriction. Americans don’t like restrictions on them — it’s the free world. But you’d have to think twice when your companies are responsible for global policy. And that’s where the big problem lies. Accountability, so it seems, was for the people using platforms, not for its creators. We fell for a scheme. Our data has already been sold. Our activity, analyzed by every angle, makes a new company create strategy somewhere in the world, and that’s beautiful. And what are we doing when we question that? The data is the solution, not the problem. But who’s taking a closer look?
Social media policy, education and age-related stress
When I was creating my pedagogical material, I thought about something that happened in my life. I was talking to an underage girl for the first time. I was about 21; at the risk of censorship, I’ll just be honest like I always have and confess that she was 15. But I didn’t learn that until, well, we were past the greeting phase, so to speak. And today that’s an opportunity for the smart; the biggest headache of your life for those who chose that more difficult path. You’d have to look at it the way they do: if people don’t know how to start conversations, let’s teach them — we can charge for that.
Nobody seems to realize that’s barely necessary: everyone has profiles containing all you need to know about them (if not on the surface, in the data collected). But we don’t run technology companies: we’re average internet users. And once we get past the greeting phase, where do we go? That’s my actual job. How to build solid argumentation, how to avoid taking pauses when you speak, how to connect your thoughts clearly and naturally. It turns out that this girl was asking me for something: “I want you to call me a slut”, she said. My conflicts were too big to accept that I wanted her to be satisfied with our virtual play, but I faced them with a whisper, and said the words. She dropped the call. We never interacted on social media, because of the stress.
Different age, same issues
You might wonder: did she want to hear a more masculine voice, sounding like a guy who’s in charge? But of course you’ll point out: “so, let me get this straight: how old was she, then?” — and I would have to say I don’t remember. And that’s the reason why I don’t include a discussion of the word “slut” in my pedagogical material. Far from my personal narrative, my work is where I refer to policy that I think needs an update, but use a lot of moderation to address what nobody’s addressed yet.
Maybe I need a change of mindset. Working in America, of course my videocalls would pose a security risk to myself — but how exactly is it any different here? If I was among teens, I could play a game: “we have some words here, and I need you to put them in the OK circle or the NOT OK circle”.
They would need to discuss among themselves. You’d barely talk, just observe. And maybe you’d be surprised. I don’t speak English as a first language, but I tend to think that they’d be okay with “bad bitch”, “baddie”, “hottie”, “daddy”, “babe”, “thick” and so on. Is it the role of the teacher to ask: “so it’s okay if someone calls you a bitch?” — and then hear them explain: “I mean, yeah, it’s not a bad word for me, but a baddie is more like a girl who does what she wants, so I’m totally fine with it”. And the thick girls would get called thick and that would be fine. I wonder if that would cause social media stress.
Real life and media projections
But that’s not how the world sees it, and not how policy makers do either. Maybe that’s because of social media attention. Call someone famous a slut because of an Instagram picture, and watch what happens. You might get banned if you do it too often. You’ll get reports and the platform’s AI will send you a warning saying that “people don’t use this kind of language”. Disinformation, ladies and gentlemen. They absolutely do. And that’s the soft version of the game, as I’m sure you’re aware. Misrepresentation of teens can has been addressed within the media and within the legal frameworks, but not exactly as the core reason of moderation agencies, and probably not a minor point of stress at a social media company’s decision-making working spaces, not the spaces of regular users on social media, who might take this very seriously — or not.
We’re having to deal with a debate that says it’s okay to call your recently added contact a “whore” (if she’s showing interest), but not a “disgusting whore” (because, obviously, that’s detrimental to the pleasures of interaction, dangerously aggressive and demeaning). Twitter policy was updated so that users would be prohibited from using “dehumanizing language”. And we have to wonder: where’s the research? As of now, it’s in the hands of the second richest man in the world. Things happen fast, don’t they?
WFH, NSFW and social media stress
I’m just gonna go trashy for a bit: “wanking from home, no stress from work”. Seems legit? Of course that kind of language comes from a certain construct and niche. The people who were first looking for other people to have a flirty conversation might know more than you do. But first of all, not everyone uses the word “wanking”, and we seem to find a problem with those who are opposed to the practice of masturbation by all means. Second, of course we know it’s working, not wanking, that puts money on your bank account — not the wank account. If only there was a wank account… but here’s the last part: “not safe for work” is a term that users found to describe sexual content. How did we not notice that imposing work policy in our homes would become an issue?
Needless to say, the cases of domestic violence sore high during the worst periods of the pandemic, because people were just not getting along very well. We need our friends. We also need privacy. When deprived of these things, we became a wreck of nerves. But it wasn’t only that: in China, they made biometrics for everything, and today we see news about how you need your phone to use the subway. Should we copy that model? Americans certainly don’t think so, but Alexa wants to be in your toilet. Doing what, you’d wonder? Maybe that’s the appeal from Peloton, isn’t it? Such a great idea.
Problems you could be facing
Instead of feeds of news, you’d get a monitor of your health. At 2PM, you have a meeting. At 5PM, you’ll check on progress with a synchronized Calendar. Then you might be ready to go home, or have to stay in for a little longer. But you see, you’re not in the office. You might be ready to go watch TV. And what if your kid is playing X Box? Imagine if, in those massively online games, someone takes over their account that ends up compromising your work.
Instead of an earnings chart, or a marketing funnel with a projection of CRM, you’d have Kirby, Thanos or maybe an AK47. That would be distressing, wouldn’t it? But that’s not related to social media — the stress you may get from the situation of being at home and attending to way too many things at a time might be the reason why you’d feel on the verge of a breakdown.
Of course, there are many distractions at work. But the office used to be a space where people focused on their task at hand and the management informed the highest performances would be rewarded. Not everyone works at an office, of course. Then, it begs the question: what’s our reward? You’re probably baking bread all by yourself, if you live a happy life; maybe you’re asking for a lot of delivery food; if you’re not unemployed and on the margins of society, maybe at a lower level you’d open a tuna can and mix it with mayo, then some crackers to follow. But in terms of data, you have to keep things separate.
How exactly do we separate work from social media?
Do we? Should we? While the former refers to the culture, the latter refers to policy in development, constantly updated. The contexts which I referred to at the beginning are routinely coming back on our feeds, and ignoring them became a habit. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re not interested or do not care. My life is separate from Ukraine. The fact that I eat rice and beans, maybe not quite. What we can do is to focus on the important, practical stuff. But you see, that makes us work too much and forget to live life. The life that a technology-immersed society envisioned for us doesn’t take into account that maybe I won’t be in the mood to get the latest financial developments in Europe. Hell, I’m in Brazil! But the global economy cares.
Social media became stressful when we started comparing living standards, but that only came with the possibility of communication. Naturally, those who could speak the language have led the way; but do these people know where we’re going? It matters to point out: this is, absolutely, an expectation. But most people are planning their next trip, instead of thinking about giving back to their communities.
The social media we see when looking for content on hashtags or accessing what the algorithm machine feeds us is a whole list of “gym” related videos, “hot” girl pictures or even “motivational” quotes to reproduce and “leadership” advice for us to apply. We know that is very different from a personal videocall, where you let go of everything around you. You might stop to say: “that was my neighbor’s kid”, or “sorry, there’s a construction going on here”. Being real, though, we don’t categorize adult content as social media because we don’t want groups of people to know what we’re looking at late at night. And then, what we have is words that sound a lot different than that.
What are social media companies doing, then?
There is a term called “whistleblower“. If there’s anything wrong happening inside a company, institution, conglomerate, enterprise, government: you can speak out. It’s hard to compare Julian Assange reporting on war crimes to Edward Snowden revealing a mass-surveillance program designed to spy on basically anyone with internet access. After them, since we’re talking about social media, came Frances Haugen and Peter Zatko. When people realize an ethical line has been trespassed, they act; but most of us do not, again, because social media has become a synonym of stress for those working closely with goals in security, brand identity and user experience.
In a more routine-based analysis, that might not be a case for concern. Everyone’s enjoying themselves. We laugh at stupid things. We share without caring — which might be a problem, but only if you’re picky. Socials and society are not the same, we all get it by now. Teaching people how to be more honest is probably worth the go. But that’s a role of parents, and some teachers are legally prohibited from doing so. That raises the question: what can we talk about? Aren’t we supposed to, collaboratively, improve social media? Isn’t the whole point to have a safe space for everyone, not just the ones willing to post and manage their content?
With content management, comes content moderation. You wouldn’t like to receive an overly intimate DM, so maybe you’d have to avoid posting a certain kind of picture. Probably because of stress, social media hasn’t done that work. It hasn’t said to people: “look, if this is how your page looks like, but you may get unwanted attention”. Instead, it introduced a list of things you can do. Instagram introduced restriction tools in 2019, but that doesn’t mean what a teenager allows is totally fine. They might have a circle where they allow just about anything, and we just don’t know about it.
But it’s not social media’s role to spy on teenagers. They can talk as much as they want. The problem is split into two main factors: whether to act when abusive language comes into play; whether to inform that language is being tracked. Teenagers took notice. The number of people who prefer communicating by taking random pictures of their ceiling is considerable. They also talk, not type: a case of paranoia, without a prescription or a word with the therapist. But it turns out that robots can help you solve issues, and so can algorithms. If you want motivation, trust TikTok to show you what’s up — or Reels on Instagram.
What these companies are not doing is to inform the population, regardless of age, how their data is an asset. We have new stuff getting traction. It’s not just the news shifting from one place to another; it’s an unsatisfied userbase of real people. Businesses may follow. For example, Pete Buttigieg has joined Post. Neil Gaiman, massively active writer, has gained a major following on Mastodon. These are less talked about events on the internet. But what we still don’t know is whether Twitch is a preparation for other kinds of livestream, for example.
So, what’s the social stress all about, then?
Well, we still need to talk about sex work. But we should reach common ground with the people involved in it. That is a hard task: are you going to contact them directly? How did you get to know them? What makes you think they have the time? If they reply, what’s the conversation going to be like? Do you have a skeleton for an interview? How do you think your questions will make them feel? Are you sure you can publish this stuff? How about the language moderation? Who’s going to be the audience?
We know that not everything on the internet is about sex. Increasingly, productivity tools ask for our data (just a click to sign in from Google) to integrate with other services. Once you do that, you’re good to go — but didn’t they just retrieve information about your entire life? Maybe you just have to accept it. And some people won’t — ever. Some people will say: privacy is an unalienable right of the worker, the citizen and the individual in equal measure. Does that have a solid legal standing? And what does the culture reveal? Further, in a context where so many rights are being taken away, how do you make the argument that this one should stay untouched?
The whole point of stress might be what we wanted to do with our lives 10 years ago and how we look at it now. And you can’t go back in time. Maybe some of us decided to fight for things that are, for sure, going to make the web a better place. The social media stress comes when we navigate different ages and their experiences, but not exclusively. We should think about our own experiences. In the end, we’re not looking forward to learning more about how kids play these days. It might be a problem if they’re carrying a dagger to school. But taking that aside, there’s no reason to worry. Unless we find a video on YouTube where a student practices ripping off a pillow with Swiss knife. Then, maybe some pills can do the trick, followed by a good conversation with mental health professionals.