Indirect Message Episode 1: Internet Kids

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Is this thing on? [Intro music plays]

 

Hello everyone and welcome to the show. My name is Laci Green and this is Indirect Message, a podcast about how the internet is changing the ways we relate to each other. Thank you so much for joining and for giving this a listen. I know that there are millions of things online competing for your attention 24/7 and I'm grateful for your time. I hope that as the series unfolds, you'll find some new ideas to chew on. You know, some new ways to think about your experience with mass media, the internet, mobile apps, social media and so on. Now, before we begin some podcast kick-off housekeeping. Firstly, I wanted to give you guys a little bit of background about this project. The inspiration for this series comes from a few different sources. The biggest, perhaps, is my experience accidentally becoming an internationally recognized "influencer", as they call it now, in the early days of YouTube. YouTube 1.0. For 10 or so years I fell down a rabbit hole that now feels sort of like a bizarre fever dream, although I am informed: it actually happened. Another inspiration for this series is friends and viewers of those videos who have long encouraged the creation of this kind of project. So a key part of taking this leap was Michael Bruch. He created the dating app Sweet Pea. He approached me earlier this year to put our heads together about a podcast. And, while this is for the most part going to be a one woman show, he's kind of my co-producer at this point and hopefully he'll come on and chat with us in the future about the bizarre world of dating apps. Lastly, this topic, uh, the internet and social media have some sort of weird intrinsic importance to me as a kid who basically grew up online, you know, spent way too much time on the internet. And in a moment that's sort of going to be the starting point of today's episode.

 

My format here is somewhat experimental, but I do know that while this series will primarily be narrated by yours truly, I will also be chatting with others who have interesting and unique perspectives to share and I'm hoping that maybe together we can make some sense of things, find some quiet truths in the chaos of our world. And that includes you guys. I haven't recorded many episodes yet because I wanted to hear from you guys first. I'm curious what you're thinking about, what's on your mind. You know, I want to know where your head is at. You can always email me your thoughts on my website, lacigreen.tv, and I'm also going to experiment a little bit with a phone line. Oh yeah, you guys, uh, for those of you who have never used your phone to literally speak on, now's your chance. You're very welcome. So if you have something interesting or funny or thoughtful to add to the conversation, give me a call, leave me a message and maybe I can include it in the next episode. Okay. I think that about covers my getting started notes. Let's get into today's actual topic.

 

Today I want to share some observations about social media phenomena, some thoughts and research about how it's affecting us and how we might prevent it from taking over our lizard brains. Toward the end of today's episode, I'll be visited by a special guest.

 

Chapter One: Internet Kids

 

As I'm thinking about social media, it's really hard for me not to have a bit of nostalgia here. [Dial Up Sound]

Like a lot of you, I'm a child of the internet. [Viral videos play]

I feel lucky that the early internet had pretty much no rules. You know, this made it very appealing to moody teenagers like myself. We had Geocities and Xanga, Angel Fire, and of course, Myspace, which really lit up my world. This was around the time that instant messaging takes off. Chat rooms become a place to congregate with friends and of course to awkwardly flirt with your crushes. Or in my case, attempt to flirt. RIP harrypottergirl14. But today these communities are long gone. They're these strange sort of digital ruins, echoes of the past. In the meantime, of course, so many more social media communities have cropped up in their place. Maybe you've heard of them. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Reddit. I mean the list just goes on and on. These companies have built new digital playgrounds to play on. Playgrounds that are bigger, shinier, and much more popular than those of the past.

And I honestly think that's what I miss the most about the early internet. It truly felt like an escape. Today, it's the real world that feels like an escape. Near its peak, Myspace had 27 million users, right? Which is a lot. But compare that to Facebook: in 2018 Facebook had 2.3 billion users -- with a B. [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, Facebook has, I don't know what a quarter of the world, as a user base. Not only that, but people use social so much now. I think the average is something like two hours a day on social media. Um, and people are accessing this from their personal cell phone, not from a dark basement, not from a shared family computer. It's literally in your pocket. So all of this has changed how massive mass media really is. And more importantly, what mass media is really capable of. How much influence it really has on us.

The instant access we have, the 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it really completely obliterates the influence of TV, radio, newspaper. I mean every other mass media source of the past combined. Not only that, but the change happened really quickly in less than a decade. So if you feel a little shell shocked by it, you're not alone. I think we can all acknowledge that there are some strange, um, somewhat disturbing sometimes aspects of social media. You know, who are we in this digital world unraveling endlessly on these screens in our pockets? Who do we become there? And what does all of this mean for us as individuals and for our world? There's something interesting that happens every time you post on social media. Every picture, every video, text, post, tweet, whatever creates a digital projection of yourself and over time, all of these little projections create a version of yourself in digital space.

Some people have called this a digital footprint. Your digital footprint may or may not fully represent who you are to those who aren't close to you in person. If you have friends back home or maybe family in another state, even even strangers you've met online, right? You sort of become what you post. You're compressed into this weird two-dimensional version of yourself that's controlled mostly by your phone and that's kind of what's appealing about it. We have much more control over our digital selves than the impression that we give others in real life. The most obvious example of this is how someone looks. You know, online, you can curate photos and videos that present your favorite angles, lighting outfits, things like that, but you can also curate personality traits. Maybe your digital self is more chatty. Maybe you are more political or more spiritual. More funny. You get the idea here online, we can be who we want to be for all of the avenues of self expression that this offers. I often wonder if social media gives us the option to be fully human.


Chapter Two: Trouble on the Playground

Last may, while I was mapping out some topics for this podcast, something explosive happened on YouTube. I've never seen anything like it. It had all the perfect makings of a YouTube drama, betrayal, lies, backstabbing, and of course loads of receipts. Things might get a little dramatic for a moment. So bear with me. In the fallout, James Charles, a beauty guru, became the first YouTuber in history to lose over a million subscribers in less than 24 hours. Now, the drama itself is not the point of this story, but I'd imagine you're a little bit curious. So the cliff notes are these.

James, a gay, white, 19-year-old, boasted 17 million subscribers on YouTube -- and something of a reputation for hitting on bi-curious guys. The pot boiled over for James when another beauty YouTuber, named Tati, posted a video calling him out on this. Tati is a former friend of James. She helped propel his YouTube career, promoted his products, and this is important. She also has her own vitamin brand. In the 45 minute video, Tati accused James of manipulating people's sexuality by pursuing guys who weren't really sure about theirs. She also accused him of engaging in some asshole ish behavior, like brazenly claiming I'm a celebrity. But what really set her off and prompted the video was when James took a sponsorship with a competing vitamin company. So that's the tea. But what happened afterward was cataclysmic. In less than an hour, James Charles had been canceled. Hundreds of videos were made on YouTube about the drama. Some shared leaked text messages and private conversations James had had with lovers and friends.

[Videos Play: James Charles, James, Charles, James Charles, and he is a danger to society. Everything Tati said is 100% true, biggest oopsie on 2019 Tyler, from what I've heard from people, he's not the best person. James Charles tried to mass manipulate you all today. I'm sick and tired of hearing and or seeing James Charles.]

As Tati's video launched toward 50 million views, James lost close to 4 million subscribers. Social Blade's website even crashed because so many people were trying to watch his subscriber count falling in real time. The tone was celebratory and joyous. James is not the first person to find himself facing the angry wrath of millions on social media. Even the slightest missteps can quickly whip millions of people into a faceless, punishing dragon. The phenomenon is now so common (and so baffling) that it's inspired numerous think pieces, studies, and even some books. Why do social media mobs form in the first place? The are probably a lot of reasons for that that depend on each individual situation and circumstance. But one shared trait behind a lot of social media outbursts is moral conviction. If you asked one of James Charles mobbers why they're doing this, they'd probably reply that it's because, well, he deserves it.

Public shamings of the past and cancellations of the present are a way to correct an injustice. In colonial America, public shaming was a common tactic to keep social order and enforce moral behavior. Keep in mind, this was before newer conventions, like police came along. At the time, shamed townspeople would have their head and hands bound in wooden pillories so that they couldn't hide their face as the public looked on. Another punishment was public whippings, some of which could be very gruesome. Newspapers would rehash every gory detail for their readers to relish. By 1839 public shaming had been outlawed everywhere in the United States, but Delaware, which as history reveals is a weirdly sadistic state. Delaware's last public whipping wasn't until 1952 and it was legal until 1972 -- a full 133 years after the rest of the country, but even as whippings fell out of use around the United States, other forms of public shaming became popular. Like dunce caps, which teachers used to shame school children during the Victorian era and into the 1920s. Today we use public shaming to express our outrage and enforce social norms as well.

Not with pillories, whips, or dunce caps, but with social media. Like other methods of public shaming in the past, social media certainly seems to have the potential for encouraging brutality against each other. But perhaps there's a silver lining here. It seems to have at least some potential for a positive impact as well. Take the #metoo movement. For example, mass public shaming of harassment and sexual violence resulted in consequences for perpetrators without the public outcry of me to the likes of bill Cosby. Harvey Weinstein and others like them may have continued to commit sexual crimes, but as we've seen, not all social media cancellations are the same and at least some seem to be a misdirection of legitimate grievances for the online magazine. For Current Affairs, Lyta Gold wrote: "These frustrations are about power. Who has it and who doesn't? Canceling doesn't really work. It can't work because canceling itself is an expression of powerlessness. It's lashing out in rage and hurt because people get away with bigoted bullshit all the fucking time and it feels like they always will. The only place where canceling can have a dangerous or longterm effect is for the unfamous."

Gold says and young adult publishing are good examples of this. She says: "There are spheres where the margins are slim and there are real stakes to cancellation. It's gross and tragic when marginalized people compete for scraps, the grossness and tragedy isn't the result of cancel culture, but of the power dynamics at play. The issue isn't that why a Twitter has too much power, but that it basically is none at all. Frustrations turn inward directed at policing the community rather than outward at a publishing industry that pays writers and pennies."

 

So the question becomes at what point does the pursuit of justice go too far? When does it become an excuse for bullying or abusive behavior?

 

Obviously acts that are literal crimes do harm and are worthy of public shaming, but when it comes to bad behaviors of the non-criminal sword, which behaviors and thoughts and words are worthy of cancellation and with social media mobs having the ability to take on a life of their own, in which situations do these public shamings have the intended outcome? While it might go against our gut reactions. It's established knowledge in the world of psychology that rewarding good behavior is much more effective at shaping how someone acts than punishing their bad behavior, which kind of sets up the case for a more positive social media. We should reward the behavior that we like. We should also wield public shaming tactfully. Social connection is a vital part of human health and wellbeing. Isolation and rejection can be deeply painful. Studies have found that it's experienced as a type of physical pain. There's also evidence that being on the receiving end of social media abuse can trigger depression or PTSD. Targets of the mob can lose their ability to put a roof over their head or to feed their children.

While public shaming is irrelative constant throughout history, social media has armed us with more powerful and accessible tools than ever to carry it out and because of that, I think it's important to really think about how we use this tool when we use it. And why was the James Charles outburst really the attempts of 50 million people to get him to change his behavior? Or is something else going on here in 2007, beauty queen Lauren, Kaitlin Upton became a national sensation during the miss teen South Carolina competition. Not for winning but for failing. [VIDEO: Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U S on a world map. Why do you think this is? I personally believe that U S Americans are unable to do so because uh, some people out there in our nation don't have that and that I believe that our ad education like such as in South Africa and uh, the Iraq everywhere, like such as, and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U S should help the U S or should help South Africa. It should help Iraq in the Asian countries. So we will be able to build up our future or ours. Thank you very much. South Carolina.]

Upton was an immediate viral hit. Her gaffe dominated the news cycle for days and nearly 70 million people have since tuned it on YouTube. To watch and laugh at the time. My friends and I found it hilarious for weeks and occasionally still, we joked about the Iraq and such as in retrospect, I wonder why making fun of her felt so satisfying. At least part of it came from watching someone beautiful and successful fail so prolifically for all my own moments of stupidity. There's something comforting about knowing, well, at least I'm not. That chick shot in Florida is a German word, meaning harm, joy as in joy at another's misfortune. Curiously, there's no English word equivalent to schadenfreude, but the emotion has been documented throughout history in many languages and cultures. Even my boy Aristotle use the term at epica---wha. Uhhhh...Google? How do you say this one?

Ah huh. Epicaricacy, which refers to enjoying other people's misfortunes way back in three 50 BC. We all experienced schadenfreude from time to time. It's why we find it funny to watch a viral video where someone does something stupid and gets hurt, or when a festival a bit caters to rich snotty kids becomes a total disaster schadenfreude is why watching reality TV shows where people embarrass themselves. We're reading magazines about celebrity scandals can be a guilty pleasure. It's behind that little pang of pleasure when a classmate does worse than you on an exam or a fellow coworker fails to get a promotion. Researchers know that schadenfreude isn't exactly taking pleasure in someone's pain, but taking pleasure in watching them fail. It's a feeling that seems to become more intense the higher someone's social or economic status is. I mean, let's be honest, watching someone who's too perfect, too successful or too rich fail...can feel pretty damn good. It's such a common and potent emotion that the makers of Pixar's Inside Out considered including schadenfreude as a character in the film.

[VIDEO: Your cries of pain amuse me! Schadenfreude, knock it off.] At one point they were considering 26 different emotions for roles and of all the more complex emotions they cut like pride, hope, and the greed director Pete doctor said he regrets cutting shot in Freud up the most. In the end they decided it was just too complex of an emotion for kids to grasp, but that doesn't mean the kids aren't experiencing it. In one study, infants that were only nine months old preferred the puppets punish other puppets that didn't like the same food as they do. One of the researchers, Philippe Roche at says, when you think of normal child development, you think of children becoming good natured and sociable, but there's a dark side to becoming socialized. You create friends and other in-groups to the exclusion of others. All of this suggests that there's a little darkness lurking in all of us, some darker than others.

Well, researchers disagree on an exact cause of shot in Broida. They do agree on one thing. At the core of this motion is to humanization. Dehumanization is when we strip other people the traits that make them human, their ability to feel emotional pain. You know, being prone to flaws and mistakes, the desire to feel safe and accepted. When academics talk about dehumanization, the most common example that's given is usually in war. You know, soldiers might be told that the opposition are literally animals. They're rats, they're vermin. There's all this language that sets up the justification for the violence that they're inflicting on them. This is obviously a really extreme example though. Demonization can also be subtle, like reducing another person online to a cartoon like character, not a real person on the other end because our interactions online are mediated through screens. It makes these dark impulses easier to indulge, and to me it seems at least possible that social media itself is normalizing some dehumanizing behavior.


The good news is that there's a potent antidote, empathy, making the deliberate choice to remember that behind each avatar is a human face behind each gaffe or social media storm, there's a real person who makes mistakes, feels pain, and may be suffering. It seems so obvious, but then why does it feel so good to watch someone fail? Researchers have three theories about the roots of Shodan Broida and our behavior. The first is deservingness theory. This theory suggest that we feel shot in Freud when someone did something we see as morally wrong, so they deserve the misfortune that they're suffering. The second focuses on ingroup outgroup dynamics. We experienced Shodan Freud out when members of a rival group experienced misfortune like during sporting events or a political election. The third theory is NB. This one suggests that it feels good to watch someone we end the getting knocked down a peg. It makes us feel about ourselves and boost our self esteem. And I'll be honest to you guys, when I spend too much time on social media, sometimes a little boost of the old ego is exactly what the doctor ordered.

 

Chapter Three: Age of Anxiety

Here to chat with me about social media, self esteem and mental health is none other than my sister. She's a therapist and a social worker who works with teenagers. I thought it was kind of funny the other day when we were texting and you were like, yeah, you know I just completely deleted my Facebook and I'm not using social media anymore. Yeah, I actually got kinda jealous of you really? For a minute. Yeah because I wish I could do that. Why'd you quit? Oh well it was too much pressure. What do you mean I'm pressure to check what everyone's doing. Pressure to like upload pressure to comment. Family member getting mad if I don't know what's going on cause I should have read the post. Oh God, someone got mad at you for that? Yeah. I don't know. Just like God forbid I didn't get on and I didn't read the whole book that was written in a poem. Yeah, it's like the end of the world and I mean I honestly think you should really go back the last 40 posts on their page.

You owe that to everyone. All 800 Facebook friends. That's exactly what I'm saying. Like I know we're being, we're joking about it but that's what it feels like. How do you feel social media has impacted your self esteem? The positive side is that there is room for self-expression and the ability to kind of like connect with people. But at the same time there, I feel like the negative might outweigh the positive because there's so many ways for people to alter their appearance. My friends don't take a snapshot picture anymore without a filter. Like the other day I was talking to one of my friends and she wanted to, she didn't want to FaceTime. She wanted to Snapchat FaceTime because she could throw a filter on. And I'm just like, if it's just me, you know? And she's like, I know, but it looked so gross and this and that.

And it's like, well, like when did that become a thing that like we look so gross, we have to put like a cat filter on us. So you didn't know what made me, well, I wonder to what degree that's being caused by social media because you know, people have always kind of tried to alter their appearance. It does seem possible, at least that social media is giving people ways to, um, remedy like quick remedies for self esteem issues. But in the long run, I wonder if that's making things worse because then you have everyone using filters and face tune and you know, all this stuff that makes the whole environment on social media less real, right. Virtually anything that you can change on your body, there's an app for, it'll do it for you. That perception can only be played on for so long before someone is, you know, they're hiding behind the facade and I think it catches up to people and they get scared to, um, maybe see, see someone that they met on Tinder and real life, almost like you have to compete with this image that you put out on social media for everyone.

What about the same sort of expectations that come up from seeing everyone in your social group? For instance, getting married or having a baby or traveling around the world or, you know, live leading these interesting fast paced, um, ideal lives, like FOMO, like fear of missing out. Yeah, FOMO is part of it. They're really, they live in their life to the fullest. You know, I'm laying in bed, I took a shower an hour ago. I still haven't gotten out of my towel and I'm just there like, wow, I really suck. I really need to up my game, you know? Oh my gosh, this happens every day. Um, where I'm like, I should, should I be having kids now? Am I getting too old? Do I need to freeze my eggs? Um, why am I not married? You're only 27. I know.

So how do you think stuff like this is impacting people's mental health? So UCLA has sent a lot of studies on this, this specific study. They took teenagers that were ages 13 through 18, and they found that for this age group receiving a high number of likes on photos, um, or just getting a lot of notifications in general on their phone, um, renders a surge of dopamine in the brain, which is a chemical that's really consistent with a lot of addictive behaviors. It's kind of what keeps people going back, let's say like if they were only spending 15 minutes of, so on social media, they were getting their dopamine surge two weeks down the line that they need to do a half hour instead of 15 minutes cause they're not getting that same surge, you know? And so it's kinda like building a tolerance to social media that kind of makes it sound like social media has drug like properties.

Yes, it does. You know, I think it was, I think it was bill Maher, he's a talk show host. Um, awhile ago he compared social media companies to the new big tobacco. Oh that they were sort of pushing us, you know, these drugs essentially that harm us in some way but feel good or make us look cool or whatever. Um, and our specifically designing the social media products that they make to be addictive. Right. So it keeps you coming back for more. So like I have a girl that I see and she'll tell me she has, she puts a lot of emphasis on her Instagram and she really put her mood is really reliant upon the for photo, got a certain amount of likes. The downside is that if she doesn't have enough likes or if she's not reaching where she wants to kind of go, um, she's kind of asking herself, what did I, what did I do wrong with this photo?

What can I do differently next time to get the same amount of likes I got in this photo? How old is she? She's 1616. Yeah. So that can make a teenager feel pretty anxious. Oh yeah. You know, a lot more of our therapy sessions are revolving around social anxiety, which has always really been a problem among teenagers. But now that they have their phone, which is a source of comfort for them in social settings, they get really anxious when they don't have their phone or can't use their phone. When you're working with teenagers who are dealing with some sort of social media related anxieties or depression, um, what do you tell them? You know, many of the, like the pressure that teens are feeling from social media or normal, some of the things like wanting to fitting the importance of who's friends with who, uh, who's dating, who, you know, this is nothing new, but we're seeing that social media certainly exacerbating these anxieties and these pressures.

And I th I, I think it's kind of because they're taking place in different spaces that can kind of amplify them. Yeah. Like make you fix on it, fixate on it more on social media than if you were dealing with this just at school right now. It's all the time and you have access to it all the time. Right, right. I mean, they can check to see their, their friend count or who's friends with who or who's unfriended who, um, you know, at any time it's, I'm shifting their, their focus and certainly away from things that they should be doing, like their homework, you know? Well, you know, we certainly had a lot of distractions from doing our homework too, so I can't really blame them for that. This is true. This is true. Not what, what can we do? I mean it seems this is kind of how things are for teenagers and social media is always going to be there.

Is there anything that can be done? Absolutely. I think that, let's say they're having trouble with their sleep because they can't get off their phone, you know, and that's a kind of a quicker fix. You can work on getting them to shut their phone off earlier and in the nighttime. But if it's something larger, like they're having self-harming behaviors, um, a lot of it is dealing with a deeper problem. So like getting to the root of where social media is becoming a harmful force in your life. Right. And really unpacking that [inaudible]. Yeah. Is it anxiety with body image or fear of not living up? Is it fear of missing out and uh, they feel like they need to be in and get a lot of likes and have friends. Um, is it that they're engaging in self harming behaviors and they're finding platforms that really glorify these behaviors or blogs or websites that, um, help, uh, support people that are anorexic or who can lose the most weight, you know, so kind of taking them down that road to figure out where they're at and what, what exactly is the problem.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to, uh, make sure comes to light here? Um, I think it's important that teenagers and young adults and adults alike understand that it's not about how many friends you have on this platform. It's about who you can call if you're in a real crisis. You may be able to say that you have 5 million friends on Instagram, but how many people do you have that you could drive over to you at this point in time and kind of like have a meltdown with [inaudible]? Do you like that one? I love that one. It's not unusual to be flung between feeling happy, anxious, interested, disgusted and lonely all within just a few minutes online. And while we can't control the chaos online, we can control how we use it as massive and exhausting as the internet might feel some times it can also be a place to find friendship, humor and hope its earliest scrappiest days should always serve as a reminder that we can get out of the internet. What we put into it. On the next episode of indirect message, I'm joined by Tom Nichols, the author of the depth of expertise which really driving this in my view is that people are being driven by narcissism. During our thoroughly delightful conversation, we explore how the internet is changing our relationship with the truth. I'm so looking forward to this one and I hope you guys enjoy it. Make sure to subscribe or follow indirect message on your podcasting app to join us and I will see you guys then.