The Plight of the Social Animal

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson
5 min readFeb 11, 2022
The Plight of the Social Animal, an article about human vulnerability in the face of social media
DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images (custom texture and thumbs up icon via MRM Illustration)

In The Social Animal (2018), authors Aronson and Aronson delve into reasons behind our desires to like, love, and connect with another.

The writers start their Chapter 8 with a statement; one acutely relevant to users of social networks in particular:

“People want to belong and feel important; we want to be liked” (p. 461).

This hard-wired human quality, one most of us as social animals seemingly share, is at the crux of what tends to make the social media world go ‘round and ‘round.

While we naturally aspire to like and be liked, to connect, and to feel important, these qualities flow and ebb uniquely per individual; most of us experience these powerful and fluctuating undercurrents to some varying degree.

Our very longing for social acceptance and adulation is what’s helped make the “Like” and “Follower/Friends” capabilities instant hits across social apps far and wide. Such features have long been baked into social platforms by design; they’ve been carefully and purposefully crafted onto mainstream social networks because the designers of these platforms knew then, as they still know now, what Aronson and Aronson make so abundantly clear:

Humans want to be liked, loved, and belong.

Points of social app interface and feature inspiration

Our innate desires serve as powerful points of inspiration for other, now-ubiquitous social media features such as groups, reactions, favoriting, sharing, and more; such features feed our natural wants and needs to give and to receive social nurturing.

Given these prosocial propensities, it’s no surprise we often feel special or joyful to learn something we’ve shared on our social news feeds has generated interest, comments, reactions, likes, or shares from our friends and connections.

But like the 90’s rock group Poison 🎶🎵🎸 reminds us: every rose has its thorn.

This indeed is the case for social apps where the opposite effects of “liking” can and do occur. This is especially true for some individuals (adolescents in particular) who feel disappointed, competitive, jealous, insecure, and even severely depressed when their social posts don’t get liked or loved, especially when compared to the likes and love they perceive others to receive (Knispel, 2020; “Instagram’s decision to hide “likes” is getting dislikes,” 2019; “How does social media affect your mental health,” 2020).

As the old saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

We can apply the spirit of this old saying to social app developers and designers who’ve explained they never set out to deploy evil, human-harming features or cause vast, societal harms by way of social tech (Newton, 2017).

Case in point, the developers of the original “Like” state they had no idea the “Like” capability would be used or experienced in ways they never imagined or intended (Lewis, 2017; Taylor, 2019). Some are rocked with guilt at having helped built “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works” (Newton, 2017).

Underscoring these sentiments is Justin Rosenstein, credited as one of the developers of the Like button at Facebook and of Gmail chat at Google (Newton, 2018), who acknowledged “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” (Newton, 2017) — like the “Like” button — despite their well intended, positive utility, can incur unforeseen societal harms and detrimental psychological effects (Lewis, 2017).

In 2018, Rosenstein emphasized this point by stating that it’s “very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences” (Newton, 2018). His fellow former colleague and first Facebook President, Sean Parker, admitted similar concerns about social media during a 2017 Axios interview, adding: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains” (Allen, 2017).

These admissions and revelations, which go back at least 5 years or so, directly speak to what renowned media scholar Sherry Turkle so clearly expresses in her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, via the following passage: “We have not assessed the full human consequences of digital media. We want to focus on its pleasures. Its problems have to do with unintended consequences” (p. 16).

Finding the balance between “pleasures” and “problems”

As a positive technologist and cyberpsychologist who believes (humane) technology plays a vital role in our everyday lives and that benevolent cybertechnologies can — and do — yield much good in our world (despite their intense scrutiny focused more on its problems), I share the growing sentiment that we must learn to find some kind of balance between the “pleasures” and the “problems” brought forth by digital media.

While no one has a crystal ball, the plethora of negative outcomes, societal harms, and unintended consequences from social media in particular are well documented. Headlines and big tech firms alike believe the “finding balance” conversation starts with regulation, a dominant theme even Meta is promoting with its series of “Open Conversation” commercials.

As digital media consumption and spread keeps (exponentially) increasing rather than decreasing, the time is beyond here for public policy folks, big tech, ethicists, and other key players to come together and get the regulation ball rolling 🙏🏽.

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References

Allen, M. (2017, November 9). Sean Parker unloads on Facebook: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”. Axios. https://www.axios.com/sean-parker-unloads-on-facebook-2508036343.html

Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). The social animal. Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning.

How does social media affect your mental health. (2020, February 26). McLean Hospital. https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health.

Instagram’s decision to hide “likes” is getting dislikes. (2019, November 11). CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/instagram-decision-to-make-likes-private-getting-dislikes.

Knispel, S. (2020, September 24). Getting fewer ‘likes’ on social media can make teens anxious and depressed. NewsCenter. https://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/getting-fewer-likes-on-social-media-can-make-teens-anxious-and-depressed-453482.

Lewis, P. (2017, December 12). ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia.

Newton, C. (2018, March 28). The person behind the like Button says software is wasting our time. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/28/17172404/justin-rosenstein-asana-social-media-facebook-timeline-gantt.

Newton, C. (2017, December 20). In 2017, key Facebook builders disowned their creation. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/20/16800842/facebook-2017-russia-scandal-news-feed-criticism-defectors.

Taylor, C. (2019, June 19). The ‘Like’ doesn’t mean what you think it means. Mashable. https://mashable.com/article/like-button-inflation.

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Thanks for reading!

I write about human-technology interaction, mediated technologies, and cyberpsychology **but** I also enjoy writing about wide-raging topics that have absolutely nothing to do with these subjects. Check out my Medium lists to see if there’s anything more I’ve written that you might enjoy 🙏

my websites

cyberpsychologist.media
media/cyber psychology, behavior design, and more
mayrayadir.com
creative writing, visual artistry, and self publishing

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Mayra Ruiz-McPherson

Cyberpsychologist • AI Researcher & Ethics • Qualitative Futurist • Visual Artist & Creative Writer • Bookworm & Cilantro Lover