9 February, 2023
Miguel Pereira

I’ve always thought that social networks bring us closer to those we have far away and distance us from those we have closer to us. They allowed us to keep in constant contact with friends and family in different parts of the world, or to be inspired by talent anywhere on the planet, while at the same time they kidnapped the conversations with our partner, our family or our close friends. Who hasn’t seen those groups of teenage friends on a Saturday afternoon gathered in the park, in silence, each immersed in their cell phone.

Now, with the death of social media as we understood them to give way to viral networks, as Carlos Molina explains very well in Multiversial, we lose track of the content of our friends and close people, and it is an algorithm that decides what we are most likely to like. On the walls of social networks it is increasingly difficult to see the content of our friends. That genuine free will with which we used to browse social networks is subtly giving way to the power of algorithms. Somehow we suffer from that ‘nudge’ that Cass Sunstein and Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler talk about in the book by the same title. Applying the concept to social media, the platforms, with their ‘libertarian paternalism’, become the architects of our decisions (‘choice architects’), even if we are not fully aware of it.

I read with astonishment the list of the 5 most viewed videos in 2022 on TikTok, the most successful social network today, and I just can’t believe it: the most viewed video of the year features the French pastry chef Amaury Guichon preparing a chocolate giraffe. It has over 309 million views (yes, 309 million; 4% of the world’s population) and 23 million likes. The second most viewed video shows a squirrel eating nuts and filling its cheeks with seeds. It has more than 200 million reproductions and 35 million likes. And the third is Spanish singer Rosalía chewing gum while the song ‘Bizcochito’ plays. 159 million views and 17 million likes. That’s how Humanity spends its time nowadays.

I myself am sometimes surprised by my own behavior. I go to bed at night with the intention of reading a book for a while, Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, for example, but before that, I take a last quick look at my cell phone and check my social media. Half an hour later I realize that I’ve wasted half an hour of my life on nonsense, that I’m too tired to read, and I fall asleep. No one can say that I haven’t made my own decisions, and, yet, we can´t deny the platforms’ intention to retain me by offering me content I’m most likely interested in –and generating advertising inventory in the process.

Where is all this leading us? Does Humanity need to see more squirrels eating nuts, more chocolate giraffes and more singers chewing gum, or more attention to female authors like Maggie O’Farrell? Are we becoming culturally anesthetized, or are we becoming intellectually richer thanks to massive access to more artistic and visual references than ever before in history?

I cannot be hypocritical. I myself have benefited professionally from social media when I founded with other partners Social Noise, an agency specializing in helping brands connect with their audiences in these environments (currently integrated in the creative brand consultancy Darwin & Verne). But that was a different time. Right now I don’t know what to think anymore. Couldn’t all that intelligence be redirected for the intellectual benefit of society? Couldn’t that ‘libertarian paternalism’ of ‘Nudge’ be applied to educate us better? Or is this a utopia of someone very naïve, like me, who doesn’t use TikTok?

Please, send me your thoughts.