Visual Culture

Redesigns Won’t Easily Remedy the Toxicity of Social Media

Jacqui Palumbo
Aug 23, 2019 5:43PM
Grace Weaver
the vision (after Gauguin), 2015
Thierry Goldberg Gallery

Last month, Pinterest offered an unusual feature for its users: short exercises meant to promote emotional wellness, from deep breathing to practicing gratitude. Noticing the number of users searching the site for ways to cope with stress, Pinterest’s team offered up a more meaningful solution than pinning a motivational quote. “We know that life isn’t always so inspiring, and things on the internet aren’t either,” explained the site’s product manager, Annie Ta.

Pinterest isn’t the only social media site to try to refocus on positive engagement this year, with design changes that center on community and wellness. Facebook tweaked its logo and prioritized event and group pages over the News Feed. Its subsidiary, Instagram, is beta-testing hiding public “like” metrics in several countries, sending influencers into a panic. Twitter’s first desktop redesign in seven years focuses on “delight” for users, according to its developers. It comes at a time when the company is revising its hate content policies and deleting millions of fake accounts.

Pinterest's new well-being activities. Courtesy of Pinterest


Can redesigns save any of these sites? With privacy policies under government scrutiny, millennials looking for ways to disconnect, and Gen Z growing up with new apps like TikTok, the old guard is facing a crossroads. It seems much too late to pivot to wellness and positive engagement; each platform thrives on monetizing your identity and holding your attention, whatever the cost.

The most egregious recent abuse of the attention economy is YouTube’s AI algorithm, which serves up increasingly extreme content to keep you watching. The New York Times recently reported the algorithm’s disquieting role in radicalizing Brazilians. Even Pinterest, home of mason jar inspo boards, has a toxic underbelly built on circulating images of the idealized life. It promotes the exorbitantly consumerist wedding industry and can’t rid itself of the pro-anorexia communities that migrated from Tumblr.

This year, in particular, public opinion on Facebook has soured, following founder Mark Zuckerberg’s U.S. Senate hearing in April on data privacy and disinformation. The month before, Zuckerberg signaled a major change ahead in a lengthy mea culpa posted to the company’s blog. “As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” he wrote. “Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication.”

Dr. Margaret Duffy, a professor of strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism, doesn’t think it’s so easy to backtrack. Social media sites at their core tap into complex human behaviors. In 2015, media outlets splashed headlines across the web that using Facebook could cause depression, based on a study by Duffy and other researchers from the University of Missouri. They found that when people go to Facebook to lurk on others’ profiles, they can develop feelings of envy, which can trigger depression. “The evidence continues to be strong that social media, in general, has a deleterious effect on individuals, especially people who might be somewhat vulnerable,” Duffy said. Since their study, more data has supported the notion that anxiety disorders have spiked in younger generations, and that teenagers are becoming increasingly isolated and depressed. The upward trend correlates with the rise of social media, though researchers are still studying causative links.

Facebook's recent redesign to prioritize group pages. Courtesy of Facebook.

“We know from behavioral psychology that people feel somewhat unfettered when they’re online, even if they’re using their own names,” Duffy said. She also pointed to “social proof,” the act of emulating others, as another phenomenon that isn’t so easy to shake. “In an online situation, it can be even more powerful and more toxic because it can be so concentrated,” she said. To solve the issue “would require a huge reengineering of the social media model.” Duffy doesn’t have too much faith that tech execs have our best interests at heart. The changes they’ve implemented are more concerned with evading government regulations than their users’ wellness.

In an essay from Trick Mirror (2019), New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino attributes our woes not just to social media, but to the internet at large. “As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance initiative,” she writes. “For anyone to see you, you have to act.” The architecture itself is to blame; it emphasizes the value of personal identity above all. Even if you do delete your account, you’re still living in a world shaped by the internet, “a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource.”

Facebook's recent News Feed redesign. Courtesy of Facebook.

Sites that capture our attention and our data are built on persuasive design. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are intentionally designed to be necessary to our lives—to make us loyal, if not addicted, Duffy explained. Some of the decisions that these companies make to improve the usability of their products can have resounding effects. “I think that the proposition that social media—or any other technology—is neutral, is wrong,” she said. “It has certain characteristics that can be negative or positive, and some of those characteristics are engineered without too much thought.”

The news feed, “like” function, and timeline shook up our online experiences when Facebook introduced them. If Facebook follows through on Zuckerberg’s idealized vision, it could lead to another significant shift across social media platforms. Some overhauls can cost you your audience. Digg experienced it after its 2010 redesign, when users picked up their memes and headed for Reddit. Tumblr is going through it now, post-nudity ban. But the right feature can lead the charge. It takes bold actions, not just bold manifestos, to effect change on a society that has already been rewired.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.