If we set out to design a highly addictive platform that optimized the most toxic, destructive aspects of human nature, we’d eventually come up with social media.
Social problems arise when initially harmless addictions explode in popularity, and economic problems arise when the long-term costs of the addictions start adding up. Political problems arise when the addictions are so immensely profitable that the companies skimming the profits can buy political influence to protect their toxic products from scrutiny and regulation.
That describes both the tobacco industry before its political protection was stripped away and social media today, as the social media giants hasten to buy political influence to protect their immensely profitable monopolies from scrutiny and regulation.
It’s difficult to measure the full costs of addictions because our system focuses on price discovery at the point of purchase, meaning that absent any regulatory measuring of long-term consequences, the cost of a pack of cigarettes is based not on the long-term costs but solely on the cost of producing and packaging the tobacco into cigarettes, and the enterprise side: marketing, overhead and profit. Will You Be Richer or ... Best Price: $10.99 Buy New $11.55 (as of 05:55 UTC - Details)
(I address the consequences of what we don’t measure in my latest book, Will You Be Richer or Poorer?)
To take tobacco as an example, the full costs of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years is not limited to the cost of the cigarettes: 365 days/year X 20 years X 2 packs (14,600) X cost per pack ($5 each) $73,000.
The full costs might total over $1 million in treatments for lung cancer and heart disease, and the reduction in life span and productivity of the smoker. (The emotional losses of those who lose a loved one to a painful early death is difficult to assign an economic value but it is very real.)
If the full costs of the nicotine addiction were included at the point of purchase, each pack of cigarettes would cost about $70 ($1,000,000 / 14,600). Very few people could afford a habit that costs $140 per day ($51,000 per year).
What are the full costs of the current addiction to social media? These costs are even more difficult to measure than the consequences of widespread addiction to nicotine, but they exist regardless of our unwillingness or inability to measure the costs.
Consider the devastating consequences of social media on teen suicides. Here is one such story: Tragedy.
Then there’s all the lost productivity as social media addicts check their phones 150+ times a day, interrupting not just work or school but intimacy, up to and including sex.
The psychological attraction of smoking is the core of tobacco marketing, of course; no tobacco company sells cigarettes on the benefits of nicotine addiction. The pitch is that smoking cigarettes is glamorous and attractive because it’s “adult” and forbidden.
Anything that has the double allure of the forbidden and the glamorous is extremely compelling to social animals such as humans, who seek to “stand out” via glamour and risk-taking to heighten our social status, which plays such a life-changing role in the selection of mates and our position in the pecking-order hierarchy. Pathfinding our Destin... Buy New $6.95 (as of 11:36 UTC - Details)
Social media shares certain aspects of these dynamics. While it’s not exactly glamorous, social media enables otherwise average individuals the golden opportunity to “stand out” and raise their social status by attracting more “likes” and positive feedback than other consumers of social media.
In effect, social media offers an extremely compelling megaphone to individuals whose social status in the real world is modest (due to the “long-tail” distribution of opportunities to become socially prominent or wealthy, which are increasingly concentrated in the very tip-top of the social hierarchy) to increase their social status in the digital realm via social media.
Compare the ease of social media to the traditional paths to social prominence: building a business or career to attain wealth, community service via leadership roles in organizations, gaining high visibility in conventional media via extraordinary good looks, athletic or artistic talent, etc. Each of these is an extremely demanding path, one that few people attain, and hence the relatively few at the top of the heap.