SF Chronicle: What we can do to heal the nation

Originally Published: San Francisco Chronicle (December 30, 2018)

Facebook Friends:

We need to talk. Your social media habit is killing America.

Now, I don’t want to sound like a Luddite or your scolding mother.

Trust me: I’m hoping you’ll like this and maybe even re-share. But the fact you’re reading this here, on your news feed, is a big part of why this holiday season we’re thankful for Robert Mueller and the midterm election results.

It’s directly related to why the country is tearing itself apart and why so many other Americans suddenly seem like “deplorables” instead of citizens with whom we might strongly disagree.

I don’t mean to be a downer (especially since research shows social media can be enough of a downer by itself). And to be fair to Mark Zuckerberg, the problem actually predates social.

Too much TV is also problematic. The problem is that the time we used to spend hanging out with neighbors and participating locally is now largely spent watching TV and scrolling our feeds. This might not sound like a big deal, except for the fact that one of the best predictors of our health and prosperity is the quantity and quality of real-life connections in our community. Virtual “friends” just aren’t very good substitutes.

I know, I know: You’re working longer hours and commuting longer distances, all to make ends meet in an economy that has only supported meager wage growth for average families for the better part of three decades. Meanwhile, health care and college payments are crushing — as are the mortgage payments you’re making to keep up with the American dream. You get home and you are tired. Scroll your feeds, watch TV, and you can turn off your brain.

But see, that’s the other problem: As we consume more media than ever before, and with algorithms ensuring we see more of what we like so we’ll click on more ads, we’re not just tuning out, we’re retreating into information cocoons. When we’re out in the community, sometimes we have to put up with that crazy neighbor down the street. On our feed we can block him and on TV, change the channel. We don’t have to learn how to get along — an essential prerequisite for a democratic society.

You might think that one answer is to read more local news. But here the tech monopolies are hurting us again. As we’ve embraced digital services, we’ve enabled Facebook, Google, and Amazon to capture more than 60 percent of the $100 billion digital advertising market. Meanwhile, because social media enables anyone to become their own polemicist and publisher, local news faces an additional unfair advantage: a deluge of free content. This helps explain why in the last 10 years, newsrooms have shrunk 45 percent. The result: In our information cocoons, we’re being local-information starved.

The net effect all of this is a weaker social fabric and a tribalized politics that looks like, well, what we see on our TVs and feeds. And this matters because, in a tribalized environment, it’s much harder to find agreement on what to do about the challenges we face as a consequence of the digital revolution — stagnant wages, rising inequality, and growing monopoly power.

Ironically, however, for all of its ills, social media may still be part of the answer. After all, it can be a powerful tool for mass mobilization. It can also be a powerful way to disseminate local news coverage — local papers just need a way to share in the digital advertising revenue.

And just as “equal time” rules ensured balanced political coverage for half a century on radio and TV, we might consider developing algorithmic equivalents.

Whatever the answer is, can you first do me a favor and share this so I get lots of likes?

Bernie Zipprich lives in New York City, where he’s focused on innovation strategy and business transformation. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.

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