This weekend, football teams across England are uniting in a boycott of social media to protest the ongoing abuse that many players receive on these platforms. This is the latest step by players and officials in some of the world’s most popular and high-profile sports leagues to do something about what has become a toxic problem.

Players are routinely the targets of hateful comments and insults of the most vile nature, spewed out by anonymous social media users, emboldened by their anonymity to ignore any norm of civil behavior. Much of the abuse is racial in nature, and persists even in the face of sustained efforts by many people and organizations over decades to rid the game of racism.

This boycott comes as more and more people in the public eye are stepping away from social media. Chrissy Teigen, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Andy Murray, Kanye West and Alec Baldwin are just a few world-famous stars who have decided that enough is enough, and that they don’t need the ugliness of social media in their lives anymore. As (irony alert) “influencers,” these names will influence those who believe social media is having serious negative effects in all sorts of areas — a feeling that is growing more and more widespread.

Over and Out

In our new book, Monster — Taming the Machines that Rule Our Lives, Jobs, and Future, we included a chapter that discusses the likelihood of people turning off  their social media. When we wrote this chapter in 2018 (getting a book written and published is a loooooong process), the idea seemed unlikely but interesting to contemplate. Now in 2021, it is clearly becoming less unlikely. In fact, my coauthor Paul Roehrig has since joined the list above of social media defectors.

In fact, the perspective on which we landed — that social media won’t be turned off by politicians but that people will just drift off — is seemingly becoming more prescient. As we wrote, “The next thing will come along, and social media will go the way of all things — cave painting, real tennis, opera, music hall, radio, movies, newspapers, books, TV — in becoming less cool and less interesting and a small flatlining niche that’s far removed from the mainstream of where the action is. People will drift off and find other things to do. And then, 20 years after the fact, politicians will act — as they did recently with the cookie, regulating its use decades after its introduction.”

A Social Media Referendum

Assuming that the social media platform companies themselves won’t take effective steps to clean up their platforms, and that government-mandated regulations will take years, if not decades, to hit the statute books, anyone or any organization offended individually or generally by their experience on social media really only has one option: like it or lump it. Call it a boycott, call it “off,” call it what you want. People and organizations of good will, will increasingly lump it, and find other things to do.

Among these will be new ways of connecting. Clubhouse, an audio-only conversation platform, is the hottest app in inside-the-rope-tech-circles currently, and recently closed a round of funding valuing it at $4 billion. Substack, a newsletter platform backed by top VC house Andreessen Horowitz, has taken a seemingly old-fashioned idea and made it the place where cool, edgy writers and commentators (Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, et al.) can escape “Big Publishing” and traditional social media.

The Light Phone, meanwhile, is a simple 4G LTE phone, designed to be “used as little as possible.” Funded through one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns of all time, the Light Phone is simply that: a phone that is light — physically and metaphorically. It lets you make calls, text, see a map and set an alarm. No email, no apps, no video, no social media. In an era when our phones have become globally ubiquitous, making a phone call is typically the least used feature. As such, the Light Phone is a redux antidote/detox to social media addiction.  

A Tough Love Letter to Big Tech

The need for connection is, of course, at the heart of the story of social media — and how we “tame” it is central to the thesis of our book. Social media tapped into our very human sociability but in doing so, it also tapped into other less positive human attributes. When used responsibly, social media can be a wonderful thing. Particularly now, during the pandemic, it has been a lifeline against isolation and loneliness.

But social media has unlocked the narcissistic rage that humans (some, most of the time; most, some of the time) have felt since time immemorial, which has historically been repressed (into back pain or atrial fibrillation) or expressed in other ways (abuse and cruelty at a micro scale, war at a macro scale). It’s a narcissistic rage that people feel toward a world indifferent to them and that doesn’t recognize their talent/ genius/uniqueness. Now, this deeply human characteristic can be funneled straight into the phone at the moment it’s felt. Social media — ever present in your hand in the socially distanced checkout line or the car — has become the medium for all the world’s rage: unfiltered, unfettered, uncontrolled by the traditional inhibitor of having to say something to someone’s face.

Now, consider how Instagram often monetizes the 16-year-old girl’s rage that she’s not Kim Kardashian. Think of how Twitter monetizes the rage of the 50-year-old man who feels he’s not rich enough and that the “elites” are more interested in the rights of transgender folks than him — elites like sports stars, movie stars, politicians, bosses, etc. Anyone in fact, on the other side of the screen, becomes a target for this rage — a rage that is without beginning or end. Unfathomable.

Of Football & Feelings

So, this weekend, as you settle in for Manchester United vs. Liverpool or Burnley vs. West Ham, and fume at other aspects of the issue with “off”—  offsides; VAR be gone! — ponder on what steps we can take to ensure that social media platforms elevate the best in us. One idea we suggest in our book is a social media licensing program, akin to Twitter’s blue verified badge system, for all social media platforms, so that free speech is protected but free speech has to be owned.

Steps like this can ensure that football stars and actors and ordinary civilians like you and me can use social media in the way that it should be used, and its founders intended. Now that would be a result worth cheering.

Adapted from a blog published on the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work website.  

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more