Social Media — the new Cocaine

Ajay Goel
6 min readDec 29, 2022

Once upon a time, rolling a joint was cool, and the Marlboro man was a center spread. It took decades of research and litigation against the tobacco lobby and its publicity machine to unequivocally announce that “Smoking Kills”.

Today, Social Media (SM) is the new weed that we inhale through the screen of ubiquitous mobile phones, and ‘Influencers’ are the current cool kids. Toxins leach into our social fabric and protective laws are still in their infancy. Legislation struggles to control this new opiate. And like tobacco heydays, the research on SM, sponsored by FB or Google expectedly, remains inconclusive!

The arrival of SM is less than two decades old, but its spread around the world is breathtaking. History speaks of major migrations across countries or continents (India-Pakistan, China–Taiwan, Europe to the United States, Australia, etc.), and the uprooted settlers’ trauma with change. But the migration of humanity to online life is a billion folds bigger. While physical migrations displaced a few million, the online world today accounts for 60% of humanity–shy of 5 billion!

And we have entered this rabbit hole without preparation or precaution.

We naively bought the story of a hyper-connected world, the decimation of distance, and zero communication costs. But like a brilliant scam, there is a gap between the promise and reality. Remember the computers when they first arrived in the 1990s? The technology assured a four-day week, an exponential rise in productivity, and the sun and sunshine at the beach. But what we got instead is a 24X7 ‘always on’ workplace! I believe something similar has happened with the SM experiment — it was meant to intensify and widen our relationship base. The World was to be our oyster. Yet here we are — with a widening chasm in close relationships, polarized positions, languishing alone in our anxieties and depression.

The Law of Unintended Consequences is dancing on steroids.

“You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia. Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.” ― Cal Newport

Most people thought the Internet represented a liberation from conformity where ideas, freedom of information, and creativity ruled. SM promised all that and then added the ‘need to belong’ to the mix! The ‘Like’ button was born — and the online world has not been the same ever since. This is the magic sauce that keeps users glued to their mobile screens. Our online presence gets shaped by stats–the number of followers, likes, or comments on one’s posts. We now search the internet not for knowledge, merchandise, or kitten videos, but for approval.

This need to belong, this craving for validation, this count of ‘Likes’, “+1” or “Retweets” are the new dopamine-inducing drugs. That’s the endorphins kick, the ‘Happy” chemical that makes us to feel good when we are around friends or enjoy a good meal. And this craving for a constant high is addictive, in the same way as cocaine is.

“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product,” says Cal Newport, “Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”

SM puts a premium on conformity with your tribe, and authenticity is discounted. Author Mark Manson came up with the ‘Kardashian Rule’. It says the more popular a person is online, the more society will overestimate them and the significance of their actions. Today a single tweet from Elon Musk can wipe billions off the stock market. Or college girls from a tier II Bihar town copies the beauty regimen of Anushka Sharma. Why would someone want to follow the hairstyle of Anushka Sharma is another discussion, but the point is that SM has enabled the disproportionate influence of a few individuals over vast swathes of humanity.

Neuroscientists say that this craving for constant validation is what keeps us glued to our mobile phones for hours, causes anxiety and depression, and strengthens the information bubbles we inhabit. This is what makes us double down on any argument; this is what makes us oblivious to other points of view.

Vested interest, bad actors, Russians, IT cells, and troll armies have cracked this better than anyone else. They flood the channels with half-truths and conspiracy theories. Fake news is big business and falsehood is pedaled in the name of freedom of speech. Expertise is overrated –WhatsApp university has cures from Covid to Cancer; Instagram is a fake curated stream of consciousness; Twitter is a Tower of Babel.

Traditional gatekeepers (like newspaper editors) are redundant; anyone and everyone can expound or subscribe to a half-assed theory.

Until a few years back one used to hear of ‘ radicalization’ of young impressionable minds with religious zealotry, but now that is happening en masse. We live in our own echo chambers and filter bubbles, unable or unwilling to see an alternate point of view.

“Where we want to be cautious… is when the sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is replaced with ‘likes’ on a post” says a friend (over a cup of coffee, of course).

I do use SM, albeit lightly and find joy in sharing news and trivia with friends, witnessing albeit virtually — how their children are growing up, and so on. Instant communication is a blessing. But along the way, I have also seen aspects of personalities that hardly ever surface in offline/real-life encounters. A timid introvert friend from school days now holds forth extreme right-wing positions, with misplaced confidence. A favorite uncle fills up the family WA group with crazy conspiracy theories. A younger nephew has gone woke with a vengeance, ever signing online petitions for feminism, LGBT, rights of minorities, and whatnot. SM provides a platform for virtue signaling.

Not too far back, in the offline real world, over a drink of one’s favorite tipple, any topic was fair game. It did not matter what ideology one subscribed to; critiquing different politicians or even religion was par for the course. Face-to-face conversations were the most human thing we did. Fully present to one another, we learned to listen. It’s where we developed the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experienced the joy of being heard and understood.

But not anymore — On SM, the middle ground has vanished. You can either disengage, go silent and be called callous or a coward, or you lock horns, double down on your point of view and appear as a pontificating peacock that everyone avoids. And it rarely leaves us in a better place than from where we started.

It’s imperative that we learn to tame this beast, rather than the other way around. Because Social Media is injurious to health.

And the antidote is easy enough — Embrace digital minimalism. Go for a long walk. Meet a friend over a drink. Treasure solitude. Rediscover yourself. Reclaim life.

PS — If you happen to be reading this article online, you’ll notice that right below it, there is a button labeled “like.” Please stop reading and click on “like” right now.

Thank you. I feel much better. It’s good to be liked.

--

--

Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.