Op-Ed: Ditch the Machine

Social media has been on my mind a lot recently, and I have to admit: I have deep concerns about what it is doing to us culturally in both a general sense but also the design culture in particular. I had the chance to talk at length about this topic with my friend Arnaud Marthouret on his podcast series Single Serves, where we explored its effect on traditional media as well as architectural criticism, and to be blunt, things look bleak.

Social media is engineered to support content that generates strong reactions, otherwise known as “engagements.” It amplifies content that hits strong emotional registers, like joy and indignation, which is why you see so many posts about babies and puppies alongside hate speech and “alternative facts.” Filter bubbles reward people with more of what they want, narrowing fields of vision and creating echo chambers of reinforced belief. It rewards comfort and predictability, and does this with hearts and emojis, shares and comments. Sober, measured accounts of anything have no chance on social media.

Social media works powerfully in the service of motivation and horribly against the service of deliberation. This is clearly not good for journalism, or social discourse, or democracy. Or, for that matter, design. This fact was chewed on at length over a lunch I had with another friend of mine recently, a senior associate and design director at a major Toronto design firm. He told me how concerned he is now witnessing design juniors coming into visioning meetings for new projects armed with reams of examples they found on Instagram. This is the opposite of the proper design process, he feels. Inspiration doesn’t come from just recycling what you saw on someone else’s feed, especially when that feed is not an objective archive of a range of work, but the expression of an algorithm engineered to promote what you already like.

To combat the growth of design echo chambers, he is instituting a new project at his firm, brilliantly called No Shopping For Precedents, and the mandate is simple: do not come to a vision meeting with social media references. Just your own ideas. Good design needs both motivation and deliberation, and social media is not designed to give you both, which means designers much actively work to limit the creation of filter bubbles by looking for unconventional friends and sources. Good ideas will never come from confirmation bias.