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or: Why we need to redesign social media for the perfectly imperfect human

The past days media has been filled with the story of Essena O’Neill, the girl who had half a million followers, made an income off her posts and then boldly quit to bring attention to problems spawned from social media.

18 year old Essena caused a media storm after quitting some social media platforms editing many of her pictures to say "NOT REAL LIFE"

18 year old Essena caused a media storm after quitting some social media platforms editing many of her pictures to say “NOT REAL LIFE”

A recent much shared post titled “Why Twitter is Dying” by Umair Haque blames social media for one thing: Abuse. “The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today … I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web”.

And this week while browsing Facebook a prompt with a statement popped up: “Facebook cares about its users”. The answer options ranged from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”. This seems to be topical, even for the big guys.

This question popped up on Facebook WHILE we were reading the Essena post. Interesting.

This popped up on Facebook WHILE we were reading the Essena post. Interesting.

Is social media evil?

Even the untrained eye can see that most social media is not real or compassionate. It’s filled with edited pictures, people seeking social validation, and the hunt for likes and followers. This often translates into images of perfect people and perfect lives. There’s a whole generation of kids for whom “YouTube star” and “lifestyle blogger” are attractive (and well-paid!) professions. Furthermore, our digital devices are frequently mentioned as “the cigarette of our generation” and much of this obsessive phone-time can be attributed to our beloved social media apps.

So yes, looking at the evidence this way social media does look evil.

Is it REALLY social media’s fault though?

To be fair – vanity was not invented by social media. The same portrayal of life is visible in movies, TV, ads, communication by big brands and women’s and men’s magazines alike. Social media didn’t invent self-absorption. People did.

What makes social media special though, and for many people especially hurtful, are two things: 1) it’s more personal, and 2) the implicit “rules” of many social medias encourage this abusive and self-absorbed behavior.

The first one is obvious – we’re out there on social media with our own name (albeit accompanied by fake or improved pictures), relationships and the things we hold dear. And hence we feel that others are too. That’s why it’s difficult to look at social media pictures through the same lens as magazine ads – we feel they represent real people and real lives, even if we ought to know better.

The second one is a sad truth – many social media services are designed and built to capitalize on our human vain tendencies. Likes and follows are encouraged, we’re given tools to make our life look more beautiful than it really is, and the perfect portrayals of others sets the standard for my posts – I’m not “using it right” if my posts don’t “fit in”.

So social media did not invent vanity – it just brought vanity to our everyday life.

Blame the content, not the “form”

Here’s our two cents: Social media in itself is not evil or abusive. It’s what’s happening on social media that is. There’s form and there’s content. What do we mean? Fashion magazines can be called superficial, but the ”magazine form” in itself is not superficial. Nietzsche’s philosophy has influenced many murderers, dictators and the like, but that does not mean “philosophy” as a form (or Nietzsche himself) is dangerous.

In the same way – social media as a “form” is not abusive or self-absorbed, but the products we build out of it may end up with these elements. Being social isn’t bad, and neither is sharing. It’s what the social media design elements incentivize us to do that can end up bad. Just to be clear – we do not think Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are downright abusive or self-absorbed either, but we do see that with the design principles they have, abusive and self-absorbed behavior may arise. Because people are people.

Social media 2.0: Kindness by design

Us founders of YOU-app believe there is something else that can be built out of the “social media form”. Something positive, supportive, and yes – kind. But we believe product design needs to start with a perfectly imperfect human in the center. It needs to start with genuineness, compassion, and a real belief in the good of people. Because when you trust that people will be good – surprisingly enough, most actually will.

That’s how we built YOU-app – to genuinely be the most real, most positive community in the world. With a zero-tolerance for abuse. We do have likes and followers (although there’s now a community discussion going on if we should remove the number of likes, and just write “many likes” and “a lot of likes”. The jury is still out on this one). We still have a long way to go, but the thousands of testimonials we get every week prove that a social, sharing community is and can be kind. Try it yourself.

YOU-heart

YOU-team

San Francisco / Helsinki

2015

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Like the concept of kindness by design? Download YOU-app here and help us make it even better!

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