Does Social Media Make Us More Human, or Less?
Social media seamlessly weaves authentic human connection with virtual fiction, so we should approach it with caution
Scrolling through Miquela Sousa’s Instagram account, you’d assume she was an average 20-something social media influencer. And maybe she is, except for one thing—she isn’t real. She isn’t made up of flesh, bone and a healthy level of confidence like most social media influencers. Instead, she’s made of pixels and artificial intelligence. Miquela is an entirely computer-generated influencer. In her CGI form she “attends” fashion weeks, travels the world and advertises cars. She impersonates human influencers, but she is not human.
Virtual “humans” like Miquela are taking an active role on social media, entering the influencer sphere and advertising for companies. This raises a question: Has social media made us less human? In other words, as we interact alongside “nonhumans” online, does the nature of these platforms dehumanize us? It’s not so much that the platforms themselves are good or bad; the answer lies in whether we choose to use these tools to further human connection or to replace our need for community.
Social Media Expands Human Connections
Proponents of social media emphasize its ability to uplift humanity. For instance, social media has long been a safe haven for people who feel they cannot find anyone like them in their local communities. Possibly no group knows this better than people with rare diseases and their families. Online communities can be a lifeline for individuals connected by a similar condition but separated by miles of physical space.
Lucinda Andrews, mother of a newborn baby with an extremely rare genetic disorder, referred to the “enormous sense of relief” she felt when she made online connections with other parents of children with the same condition. These parents “knew exactly what I was going through,” she said. “There have been times when I’ve been really low and it makes all the difference.”
And during times of crisis, social media has the capacity to bring local people together around a cause. For example, during the 2022 baby formula shortage in the United States, parents flocked to Facebook’s local parenting groups to exchange information on where they could find specific formulas. Users shared pictures of formula brands they had spotted on the shelves at area stores. These communities coalesced quickly, united by a common need and a sense of gratification from helping one’s neighbor.
In these examples, we can see how social media supplements and expands our real-life connections and communities. The global nature of the platforms allows us to create communities around common interests and struggles, no matter community members’ physical location. But these online communities should always be a supplement to the core human need for interaction with other humans in real life, never a replacement.
Social Media Blurs the Lines of What’s Human
Despite these benefits, social media’s detractors express great concern about its tendency to divide people and to reduce them to a set of characteristics. One of humans’ defining traits is their desire for relationships and community. Many observers are nervous about the implications of expecting online sources to exclusively meet this need for human interaction. When we do have this expectation, social media becomes a replacement for our core human requirement of connection.
Never was this more obvious than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Expecting our isolation period to last only a short time, previously in-person communities moved online in droves. Studies show that this shift resulted in mixed outcomes. The transition from human interaction to online communities had the capacity to decrease the anxiety, stress and loneliness associated with the lockdown. There were positive effects such as increased social support and social capital. However, an increased use of social media was also associated with a rise in self-evaluated depression and anxiety.
Another major threat social media poses to our humanity is its reductionist pull. To better match content with users, social media has tried to reduce our humanity to our qualities, interests and roles. The platforms use these categories as fundamental to the algorithms that show us the content and advertisements they believe we will enjoy. Some may even remember the early days of Facebook, when we were asked to fill out lifestyle and interest questions like a dating profile to assist the algorithm.
This functionality reduces us to categories by classifying us according to the things that we like, the stage of our life, our job and more. Behind the scenes, we are represented by neatly checked boxes that ensure we are shown the best content and, more importantly, the best ads. And these categories are how we recognize and relate to other users on the platform.
Not only do the platforms themselves benefit from these reductionist categories, but users now demand them as well. They want online creators to “stay in their lane” and only discuss the few topics they originally presented themselves as interested in. When creators expand their interests to wider fields, many face backlash from their followers. In “Swipe Up for More!,” Stephanie McNeal details several accounts of social media influencers caught in this vicious cycle of wanting to discuss more than what made them famous—revealing other aspects of their humanity—yet facing immense criticism and follower losses as a result.
Humans or Brands?
There is a third, less frequently discussed threat social media poses to our humanity: the increasingly blurred lines between human and brand interactions, with the rising trend of companies seeking to be perceived as human and humans seeking to be perceived as brands. As a result of influencer culture, individuals are realizing their power in the marketplace to become media empires and businesses in their own right. Companies, on the other hand, fear that if they are perceived as cold and institutional, they will lose relevance and the ability to influence online discussions.
At its most innocent, this trend can be traced in the warm and friendly tone that many corporations have adopted online. A good example is Slack, a cloud-based team communication tool. Slack’s own branding guidelines state that the company aims to use “a more conversational, human tone” in its marketing and communications.
But the trend has snowballed, to the point that a good corporate social media account might be defined as one that engages like a human. We laugh when Wendy’s roasts someone on Twitter. We talk about the many companies adopting the “bae” trend around the watercooler. Granted, we may balk when a company like SunnyD controversially taps into a dark human condition such as depression, yet we’ve generally accepted the way companies mimic human traits and interactions online, welcoming the strategy without much reservation.
Meanwhile, many humans are striving to become brands online. In 2008, a time of economic uncertainty, influencer culture began to take root online as the emergence of social media platforms offered fame and financial opportunity to creatives willing to turn talents and social capital into income. Since then, this world has exploded. Today, 86% of young Americans wish to be social media influencers, and online courses promise to teach them how to achieve this dream.
Individual influencers have attained their status by turning their personal brands into cash. A great example of this is Jimmy Donaldson, better known as MrBeast, one of the highest-paid creators on YouTube. He has turned his YouTube fame into a business empire, and he was reportedly seeking a $1.5 billion valuation last year. The businesses associated with MrBeast now include a virtual restaurant brand and a chocolate company. Donaldson has transformed himself from a human engaging on social media into a giant corporation with multiple businesses and product lines.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Considering the temptations social media presents to replace real-life human interactions, reduce us to categories and blur the lines between human and corporation, what’s the right way to understand social media and its impact on our humanity? More pressingly, what should we do about social media? There are many conclusions one could draw from the evidence I’ve presented.
Some people favor a heavy-handed regulatory approach to social media. Congress has considered many regulatory policies aiming to limit its use in various ways. But such an approach would ultimately fall short, for many reasons. One key reason is that policy tends to be a poor tool for handling technology: Policy changes lag years behind technological changes, and they often prevent us from experiencing the benefits of innovation.
Instead, I look to social media users themselves to police their own use of this technology. As we’ve seen, there are many beneficial ways to supplement our real-life communities by building online communities to engage with others through social media. If we fail to set proper boundaries, however, we can fall into traps that isolate us further from society and confuse us about who we are.
Rather than looking to government policy to keep us safe, let’s take the initiative to clarify in our own minds the purposes of our social media use. Let’s exercise caution to avoid its pitfalls. We must ask ourselves whether our actions online are improving our lives or distracting us from real human connection or even from recognizing other individuals as wholistic and complex humans. This is the healthiest way to realize our full humanity and keep social media in its place, as a tool that can be used for good or ill.