The Influencer's Dilemma: Social Media's Game and its Influences
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Why it's impossible to be happy with social media and what to do -- a guide for creatures primed to fit in.
It was tough being an early human. Food was earned by encountering great danger and vulnerabilities, the environment was extremely harsh, and there was no organized music. When James Lafferty McElroy and Odark (that's what I will call them), two of these early humans set out to find food, their journey quickly became what James Bond would call a suicide mission. But packed with the power of their community - saving each other from danger, their chances of survival weren't as bleak. (i) They did not know where to find food, so when they randomly came across their survival juice, euphoria ensued and so did relatively good physical health. (ii) As you can imagine, if James Lengthy McDonald and Odark were ostracized from their community for some reason, their chances of survival quickly neared zero.
James and Odark's story tells you a lot about what was important for humans to survive. (i) reward and gratification (food) - even if it came stochastically-timed and was variably distributed. (ii) the primal urge to fit in - in the worst case, to avoid death. Social media's mechanism design perfectly subsumes these evolutionary traits and takes advantage of it through insidiously designed feedbacks. It's important to note, no matter your current personal stoic philosophy, that the urge to fit in and seek rewards and adulation from society is a deeply ingrained consequence of James Laugh McColumns and Odark's will to survive. It's not difficult to recognize how social media's business model largely revolves around our need to fit in in an increasingly cyber consumed society. But it's one of the worst compromises we've made in the longer term. Haven't you noticed?
The Influencer's Dilemma
Social media preys on evolutionary traits. With each new post on Instagram, Twitter, etc. we're hoping for some specific payoff. Likes, retweets, "you go baby squirrel, fight that shark" positive comments envelop payoffs in the form of social acceptance, adulation, and in general a pretty good dopamine rush. Depending on your friend circle, and the online community (among other things) that you most closely interact with, there are varying incentives and motivations for posting, improving the quality of your posts, even going as far as to scheduling your posts to maximize engagement.
Consider yourself as player 1 and the rest of your community as player 2, there are broadly two classes of actions.
Action A: Ignore (for the most part) social media and decline to post or commit to keeping up this social game, or posting completely independent of any other factors (which is not really how we interact with social media).
Action B: Optimizing your posts - trying your best to improve the quality of your posts and maximizing positive engagement with your content. Maybe a better song cover, higher definition pictures of your cats, etc.
If you observe the payoff matrix for this game, considering two players (you and others on social media) and two actions A and B as defined above, it will look a little something like this:
The exact magnitude of payoffs doesn't matter, I have chosen them arbitrarily, it is the payoff's ordinality that matters which is conserved. You can decide the exact magnitude according to your preferences and also understand the exact nature of actions A and B from a personal point of view, but it will closely resemble this matrix.
The gist is basically this: if everyone decides to minimize their efforts expended on social media, everyone gets a pretty good payoff. If either one, you or someone else stops expending the effort and one of the players continues to expend more effort, they get higher engagement and exposure for sure. It might not matter between your close friends, but this is a vital loss for businesses and independent artists or creators who primarily turn to social media to gain exposure and draw attention to their work.
By now you realize that everyone's best response is to continue to post more and better quality content (2,2 in the matrix above). This state is the Nash Equilibrium of this game.
If this payoff matrix looks familiar to you, it is the famous Prisoner's Dilemma [Wiki, Video]. But social media is a more inimical form of the Prisoner's Dilemma problem. A solution to Prisoner's Dilemma is to basically repeat the game many times, and that gives the players a chance to realize that cooperating (action A) is the better choice to receive a larger payoff in the long-term. But with social media, this Influencer's Dilemma is more subtle. Not only is the game repeated every day of our lives, but we start playing it at a larger scale than before - more followers, more engagement, etc. and this is a positive feedback that prevents people from playing action A. As a result of which, we step into the game ready to optimize our social presence, again and again.
We are stuck optimizing our fabricated social presence for a game that has no global maxima. As soon as you start doing well on social media (however you define it - more followers, more likes, etc.) your presence grows and now you play the game with bigger stakes. This iterated game goes on and on and it's not trivial to recognize that there is no way to win, in other words, to find a global maximum. As your social presence grows, your payoff distribution shifts towards favoring action B. Due to this non-stationary distribution and the offsets to payoff towards action B's convergence, we are now heavily affected by this game, with no fixed way to win.
Much like life, everything that you end up doing is a local maxima and that doesn't fit well with our over-optimizing generation.
The Influencer's dilemma can be seen as a byproduct or even a cause of the attention economy. This game incentivizes everyone to create content that catches the eye quickly and hopefully provides a positive offset to your payoff. As a result of which we are now obsessed with content absorption, and content creation at grand scales. You can see this in fake clickbaity headlines, ads, or even Donald Trump's tweets.
This game incentivizes social signaling through posts to showcase your political or philosophical inclinations among other things, but it does not incentivize a careful, nuanced analysis of any topic. It is not surprising then, that social media is the easiest, most pervasive weapon to use to polarize opinions and people. Headlines are the new news, tweets are the new public service announcements, and aesthetics are disguised cosmetics - all in a system that largely preys on primal urges to fit in and receive gratifications.
Finstas (Fake instas) provide an important insight. We are willing to create alternate social presences to rid ourselves of the pressures of playing the social media game without compromising the payoffs. Finstas are usually made for showcasing the "real" you to close friends. It's a declaration and request for implicit permissions from people to post multiple times a day (which is a sin on your real account), with no pressure on quality and preclude the effort expenditure that comes with playing the actual social media game at a larger scale from your real account.
Many people predicted (to varying degrees) our obsession with mediums like these. In 1962, Marshall McLuhan coined the term "Global Village" in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media. The term refers to daily production and consumption of media, images, and content by global audiences. McLuhan was at the forefront of producing literary works about media and its role in society. It's easy to see how in this "Global Village", social media serves as a catalyst for social change and in many ways is the new default structure of future societies. McLuhan also talked about how these mediums by themselves contain more information about our societies than the content they deliver. Our interaction with these mediums, our obsession with content, over-optimizing our signaling abilities, the unfortunate Nash equilibrium which governs social media, and our implicit promise to try and fit in in this new world to the best of our ability, are all great sources of philosophical and practical lessons about humanity.
Perhaps social media was just a catalyst. A catalyst for creating an illusion of connectedness for a species that increasingly became disconnected. A catalyst for this unbeatable game, where every time something on social media engenders negative feelings in us, we forget that the world is not a zero-sum game.
Social media made possible a mass exodus from doing things to signaling things at a larger scale than ever. And as signal-obsessed species (think college degrees, clothes, etc.) we needed this like James Longevity McAlexis needed food. This was the subtlest mass exodus in the history of humans. While in the past, "fake it 'til you make it" was an easy but temporary hack to life, "faking it" can now easily be the end goal itself. It's very clear that social media's mechanism design doesn't allow depth or nuance.
Maybe the best way to beat the social media game and find depth in connections instead of signaling through content, is to not play this game at all.