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The dose makes the poison

8 September 2021

I’ve gone back and forth about the utility of social media companies. They connect people and create opportunities otherwise impossible to access. On the other hand, they have created a host of negative side effects that leave us all a bit worse off for having used them. Are these companies, on balance, helpful or harmful? The best thing I’ve come up with so far is: both.

At a basic level, these companies make useful products. However, I think they go too far. They work very hard to get people to use them past what’s actually good for them.

Imagine if people used Facebook at healthier amounts. Say, thirty minutes a day. The company would still be successful, the people running it rich. Which is as it should be, Facebook makes something that has some value to us. People want to connect with others across space and time. Facebook makes that possible. They just wouldn’t be as profitable. Their share price would be lower. They might not have even made it onto the stock exchange.

It’s this pursuit of more, more, more at all costs that is one of the core problems with the current culture. They couldn’t content themselves with making a social network people liked. They wanted more. So they filled the platform with ads. They induced us to spend more and more time on the platform by engineering it to hijack our psychological weak points. The cost of those actions for all of us is worsening mental health, frayed communities, and an eroded ability to resolve modern challenges.

This extends to companies of other types. Imagine if people ate fast food once every week or two instead of every day or, god forbid, multiple times a day. Would McDonald’s have as much cash as they have now? Imagine if people shopped only when they needed something instead of to satisfy impulses. Would Walmart and Amazon have the share prices and market cap that they have today?

For the laws and institutions to change, the culture has to shift first. Culture is upstream of everything else in a society. If you change the laws but not the culture, eventually the laws will change right back. For a sustainable business ecosystem, a culture of “enough” needs to be cultivated. We need people who want to do good work for fair compensation. People who understand that the biggest reward for work is the process itself, and the fruits of domination have a bitter aftertaste. We need people who don’t confuse numbers in a bank account with real wealth; the skills, relationships, and tangible assets that provide for you and yours.

The dose makes the poison. There’s plenty of room for much-needed innovative products and services. We just need to have the companies serve us instead of the other way around.