If Facebook were a food, it would be the very last bits in the bottom of a Doritos bag – intensely flavourful, but also kind of gross and not as justifiable a pleasure as a whole, crunchy chip. It's fun, but essentially unhealthy – or at least that's the impression I have after reading a slew of stories about social media's many foibles.
Most notable are the regrets of its earliest adopters. Last week, The Guardian ran a meaty piece featuring people such as Justin Rosenstein, who helped create Google's Gchat program and Facebook's Like feature, and Nir Eyal, who spent years designing tech products that tickled the human tendency to form habits. The majority of these tech luminaries expressed dissatisfaction with what they once loved, and some cowered in outright fear of addiction. Mr. Rosenstein compares Snapchat to heroin, while Mr. Eyal uses a timer to cut off his family's wireless every night. Other Silicon Valley types worry about their kids' attention spans, sending them to pricey schools that ban mobile devices.
Outlets from BuzzFeed to the London Review of Books also put Facebook on blast recently for everything from surveillance to aiding the destruction of democracy. The core issue is the treatment of Facebook's two billion monthly users, who know almost nothing about the data it's collecting about their lives – or how that data is sold.
Tech companies can figure out when we're bored or sad, then notify us of a Like or Favourite when we're most vulnerable to the hit of dopamine. They're also willing to sell that information, apparently without much discretion: After first minimizing the effect that Russian-funded propaganda had on the U.S. election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is co-operating with government investigators.
None of this makes social media sound very healthy, though The Guardian interviewees swear they didn't set out to foster addictions to fake news. I believe them. In its early days, I experienced social media as a whole, raw food, a fascinating way to hear the unfiltered voices of people in movements such as the Arab Spring and Idle No More, one that rightfully challenged the condescension of legacy media.
Now, whether by design or accident, much of it is unsatisfying to consume. My once-favourite platform, Twitter, has become the world's biggest publisher of new works on violence and racism, but I've been reluctant to leave it entirely. It's still fun on occasion and besides, one of its most proficient hatemongers is the President of the United States.
Most days, I still check it multiple times, but not today: I'm taking part in #WomenBoycottTwitter, spurred by the suspension of the actor Rose McGowan earlier this week. McGowan has been very vocal about the Harvey Weinstein scandal on the platform, and the reasons given for her suspension don't hold water. That Twitter finds it easy to silence a sexual assault victim while letting countless misogynist trolls run amok is unacceptable. I'll be reading beautiful essays and whole books – some of which I found through social media links – instead of logging on.
There's been much talk of regulating services such as Google, Twitter and Instagram, especially in Europe – perhaps through publishing or advertising regulations, if not more toothy avenues such as hate-speech law. But before we decide how best to rein in its unhealthy aspects, let's consider exactly what kind of vice it is.
Is social media an opiate, like Mr. Rosenstein says, one to be banned outright? Alcohol seems like a better analogy: enjoyable, or at least tolerable, to most people in moderation, and too embedded in society to eliminate. After all, complete social media abstinence isn't an option for most people who want to know the world in 2017.
Which is why social media is actually more like food than a drug – a broad category of sources with both helpful and harmful possibilities.
Like food, social media can nourish us in the right company. But it can also be addictive – or at least a crutch for our vulnerabilities. Those weaknesses are exacerbated by inequalities of access that leave some people more open to manipulative messages or unhealthy choices.
Government policy should aim to even out this access, prioritizing people over corporations and publishing research into risks and benefits so that individuals know enough to feed themselves well.
Right now, social media is a fluorescent junk food, its bright exterior concealing a scary, unhealthy truth. But I believe true online connection and information still exists, somewhere under the manufacturer's additives.