Beware Social Media

Prof. Kevin Sharer

Two billion people worldwide have enrolled in Facebook, and it is fair to say most of them have used the service.  Many have integrated Facebook and its services deeply into their lives.  While Facebook is the dominant social media product, there are other providers in America and around the world.  But allow me to focus on Facebook, since it is the biggest and most profitable.  Some have observed that younger users are moving to other products involving photo sharing, avatar creation, gaming or yet undiscovered means of online interaction, eventually reducing Facebook’s dominance.  But my hunch is that Facebook’s reach, financial power, acquisition strategy and ambition mean it will be a force for the foreseeable future.  Simply put, Facebook has become a giant force in society.  You already know this.  You experience it.  How should you as an individual, leader, citizen and parent think about this medium?

The good news:  Social media has connected, informed, amused, empowered and enriched the lives of many of its users.  It has also created wealth, provided jobs and offered a creative outlet to people who might otherwise be isolated.  It has supported freedom of speech and social/political coordination. The fact that social media has provided benefit to society in many ways is undeniable.  Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s two leaders, are admired, respected, received by heads of state, vastly wealthy and lecture society on a range of topics.  They are enormously influential people, and sincerely believe in their product, their service to society and their desire to be a force for good and progress.

But, but, is there a darker, more sinister and cautionary take on this that we, our society and perhaps even our government should be worried about?  I think so.  Social media taps deeply into, and potentially, manipulates, at least three conditions of the common human experience.   (1) We are all insecure.   (2) We have, to a greater or lesser degree, habitual or even addictive tendencies, and (3) we seek safety.  Insecurity is rooted in a need to be accepted and part of the group or tribe.  Some would say our fear of being cast into outer darkness to a place of permanent shame and isolation is universally existential to humans.  In outer darkness, no one knows us, no one wants to talk to us, no one wants to hear us, no one wants to love us.  Heavy stuff, but perhaps this fear is embedded in every psyche. Habitual or addictive behavior goes well beyond substance abuse.  Just watch a teenager with her cellphone.  Or worse, try taking it away from her.  Not only have you interfered with her habitually constant social interaction, you leave her feeling that she is in that outer darkness!  As to safety, our affiliation around shared beliefs, common interests, values and concerns allows us to create a comfort zone where we can be safe.

So, humans from the cave onwards have sought comfort, tribal affiliation and the chemical payoff arising from our addictive wiring.  All of these basic human conditions support and reinforce our most primal drives to survive and sustain the community and the species so they are not entirely negative.  But when they are activated in ways that cause us to behave in self destructive, mean spirited or damaging ways trouble ensues.  When they crowd out social involvement and interpersonal connection they impact the culture and flexibility of a family, a company, a country.

The drive to safety through social media has a dark side as well.  It seems to me that social media can and too often impacts our self-worth in profoundly damaging ways.  How often do you look at your phone?  How many of your friends create and sustain a false image of their life where all is wonderful sending the subtle message that your life does not measure up?  How many people only read material reinforcing to their established beliefs, “news” that aims to manipulate, that may not even be factual?  How many people are falsely accused, isolated, bullied or shamed by unaccountable others?  The list of deeply disturbing practices that threaten safety goes on and on.  Now, Facebook has recently acknowledged these issues. They assert that they care and will take action.  Time will tell.  But, I’m not optimistic, since their enormously profitable business model depends on maximizing the number of precisely targeted eyeballs for their customer’s ads.

Here’s what you can do.  Examine your own habits and acknowledge your level of dependence.  Decide if you want or need to change.  Do you substitute true human face to face interaction too often with superficial social media or text posts or messages?  Leave your phone turned off.  Do not put your phone on the dinner table.  Ban phones from meetings.  Read more widely and critically including credible sources with which you disagree.  Think deeply about public policy issues and their implications for Social Media.  Should these monopolies be broken up?  Is fake news a problem that demands oversight and if so how within our sacred right of free speech?   Should children be shielded from these tools?

We have not touched on the consequences of ill-advised, often alcohol fueled photos, videos, messages and posts for your career.  There are more than a few things that, when used well, enrich life but when ill-used are destructive.  Count social media among their number.  Beware.

Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.