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Peer-to-Peer Pressure

There’s a telling scene near the end of The Social Network. Punching air as they watch the company pass the millionth user threshold on a large overhead screen, the young Facebook founders suddenly resemble the victors of another kind of bubble economy—NYSE brokers watching the Dow Jones top a new high.

This symbolism can’t be accidental.“What is social networking,” asks Astra Taylor in The People’s Platform, “if not the commercialization of the once unprofitable art of conversation?” However unprofitable it may once have been, conversation is certainly a goldmine now, at least when conducted at scale; it brought in $1.5 billion for Facebook in 2013 alone. While the service economy long ago created softer, more sociable industries—like retail, tourism, leisure—our own era wants nothing less than to industrialize socializing.

A billion people in the developing world are now set to connect to the mobile web. As the number of cell phones on the planet exceeds the number of people, the Cult of Connection now matches that of productivity. Zuckerberg has even invented his own social form of Moore’s Law, his “Law of Social Sharing,” which predicts how our sharing will exponentially grow with each passing year. Social growth complements economic growth; half of planet Earth may soon be on Facebook.

Driving this social growth is a relentless “peer-to-peer pressure” in the form of alerts, notifications, and reminders from networks keen to attract sign-ups. (The champions are LinkedIn, who’ve “crowd-sourced” the spam email by encouraging users to deluge anyone they know with invitations.) But social growth is about more than new entrants. Users must also be maintained. Enter #FOMO.

“FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) began to hit headlines over the last couple of years as an unfortunate, accidental product of social networking. But is that really all it is? Consider Facebook’s welcome screen, one of the most carefully engineered virtual spaces ever created. It’s designed exclusively to remind the user of everything they’re missing out on—from the precision-engineered newsfeed, to the obsessively curated metrics regarding the progress of Your Pages (what was the reach?), to the “edited highlights” stream of your friends’ activity (Who’s liking who? What are they talking about? Did it mention you?)

Twitter went one better, instilling a “Fear of Being Nobody” by displaying your follower count like a game score (or like the Dow Jones), gamifying your social relationships in militantly public fashion. The result is a user-friendly version of Douglas Adams’s “Total Perspective Vortex.” Adams’s creation sent onlookers mad by reminding them of their cosmic insignificance in comparison to the universe; Twitter tells us how unknown we are in comparison to Justin Bieber (which is perhaps even more depressing).

The truth is that FOMO is integral to the architecture of social networks. It’s the equivalent of the TV cliff-hanger, the MSG in fast food, the cocaine that once went into Coke. It’s the most powerful dopamine-hit compulsion loop of all. Is it really necessary that our social “clout” (or lack thereof) is constantly measured and broadcast to us? Or that we’re sent emails about our “week on Twitter,” with detailed metrics emphasizing just how famous we aren’t? Or that our phones are trained to bleep with every mention of us online?

The result of this peer-to-peer pressure is emotional engineering on a grand scale—a silent but steady rewiring of the human psyche, from Homo economicus to Homo socialis. Evidence suggests that accelerated social growth is creating an accelerated form of socializing—hence we are developing new connection-based dysfunctions such as “email apnea” (shortness of breath while online), “ringxiety” (imagining one’s phone is ringing), and even sleep-texting. Yesterday’s parents were scared their anti-social kids watched too much TV; tomorrow’s parents might despair at how difficult it is to stop them talking.

We all know social networking has enriched our lives in astonishing ways. But it seems a shame that it must be run on for-profit lines that promote insecurity, compulsive phone-checking, and connection addiction. Critics have called Web 2.0 a “social factory.” It might seem alarmist, to conflating jokey Facebook posts with industrial exploitation. But just because networks provide boredom-relief for over a billion people, we shouldn’t forget that they’re also increasingly obligatory, increasingly compulsive, and increasingly resembling a form of work.

Look at the new digital industries—like astroturfing, click farming, social media optimization, sponsored blogging—that rely on the industrial manipulation of social networks. Look at schools’ careers counselors advising students to be on social media or be unemployed. The job-seekers forced onto imaginary social networks in search of imaginary jobs. The clubs that check your social media profile on the way in. The police suspicious of people without Facebook. The musicians and e-novelists forced to turn their life into 24/7 Twitter promotion. The “lumpen commentariat” of citizen journalists desperately shouting to be heard above all the other citizen journalists.

Given all this, the term “social factory” barely seems adequate. At least factories shut their gates at the end of the day.