If you take Facebook as an example, they want to ensure you stay on their platform for as long as possible, and therefore they’re going to try to please you by showing you things you like, or they think you might agree with. But if you just hang around with people who agree with you the whole time, then you’ll never be challenged, and never look for other ideas or solutions.
"I went to the Harry Potter Experience, and people were walking around like zombies, videoing everything on their smartphones... why do you want to experience it through a screen?"
So you could say that social media is making us more stupid, because it’s making us more closed-minded. This could be seen in the polarisation around the EU referendum and the US Presidential election that happened in 2016; there was a lot less empathy and tolerance for the other side of the argument, and a lot more extreme views either way.
There was an experiment carried out recently where they showed a side-by-side comparison of a ‘Red’, pro-Trump, right-leaning Facebook news feed compared with a ‘Blue’ (pro-Clinton, more left-leaning) feed. It was a great illustration of how you often only get to see what the algorithms think you’ll want to see. I saw it with my own Facebook around the time of the EU referendum. The feed of a friend who’d voted differently to me was full of all kinds of rubbish – but then they probably thought the same about mine!
Because of the focus on photos and wanting to share as much about yourself as possible, it might mean you’re not getting much out of the actual experiences you go through other than seeing it as a photo opportunity. I remember going to the Harry Potter Experience, and people were walking around like zombies, videoing the sets and the props on their smartphones. I remember thinking “Hang on – you’ve seen the films with all this in, so why do you want to experience it through a smaller screen in real life?”.
"Are emoji a sign of dumbing down? Potentially. I find it worrying that someone might not be able to articulate what they want to say by only using words."
There are studies that show the more you video something or capture it in photos at the time, the less you’ll remember after the event, as your brain doesn’t commit it to long-term memory. You’ve externalised the experience rather than stored it in your internal memory. You’re never going to go back and look at all those Harry Picture pictures on your phone, so what’s the point?
Are emoji a sign of dumbing down? Potentially. I never really use them in regular conversations. I find it worrying that someone might not be able to articulate what they want to say by only using words. The only way I use emoji is a game I play with a friend where we’ll explain a film in emoji, and the other has to guess the film, but that’s done in an ironic way!
On the plus side, social media makes the world seem like a much smaller place. It enables you to stay in touch with people you have met all over the world, gives you a running commentary on the daily activities of your friends and family, and it means consumers and brands can engage on an equal playing field. For all the downsides, there are a hell of a lot of ups.