#137: Cigarette Beach

I’ve noticed more people comparing social media to smoking lately, which is a compelling but limited analogy. The parallels are obvious: Both feel great at first but worse as time passes, demanding increasingly constant, compulsive consumption to achieve diminishing payoffs. Both are bad for you in general. Both are engineered and marketed to be irresistible and addictive. People quit both constantly, or talk about quitting, and frequently relapse. Both—and this is what I think people are getting at when they compare the two—are likely to fare poorly in historical hindsight. The reputation of cigarettes has already collapsed, just during my lifetime; social media currently occupies a much earlier point along the same trajectory, but many of us await a comparable movement that will force us all into a healthier mode of digital existence. Health and wellness are hallmarks of the present zeitgeist, or at least the pre-pandemic zeitgeist, but that largely remains confined to our bodily condition, while our terrible internet habits rage on.

The similarities between social media and smoking mask larger differences that seem more important: The essential quality of smoking in 2020, more striking all the time, is its disconnectedness from anything but the immediate here and now, its purely unproductive, almost meditative nature. There is absolutely no benefit to smoking a cigarette, aside from a brief, ephemeral buzz, and no hope of pretending otherwise. Twitter (or Facebook, or Instagram), in nearly absolute contrast, reels us in by dangling the promise of meeting all of our highest needs, from esteem to self-actualization—more like a spiritual casino than an endless series of Parliaments. Social media presents the possibility of friendship, career opportunities, laughter, insight, an audience, potentially a big one, and makes us feel gross as we chase the best gifts that life has to offer. Smoking, on the other hand, promises nothing except momentary relief punctuating a continued pursuit of the void—but at least you know that the product is not you.

The best “techlash” essay I’ve read in a while is Max Read’s excellent Bookforum review of Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine, which attribute’s Twitter’s problems to our own collective “death drive.” In contrast to so much recent tech criticism, which blames tech companies for designing addictive and exploitative platforms, Read recognizes that the primary fuel for social media toxicity is us—that we’re constantly begging for more and nobody is forcing us online as much as we’d like to imagine they are. The techlash narrative, from this perspective, reads more like an excuse for our bad behavior. “Whatever dark future we hurtle toward, we are copilots on the journey,” Read writes. Twitter’s flaws are well documented and need no repetition here, but it’s hard not to argue that they derive at least as much from the people who use the site as they they do from “dopamine feedback loops” (how could Twitter be manipulating us when they barely even add new features?). Twitter absolutely amplifies some of our worst qualities, but doing so is intrinsic to its nature, and essential to its appeal. Without that, it just wouldn’t be Twitter, and we wouldn’t be using it. We have calm social media like Pinterest, but we’d rather be on the loud, chaotic platform. If we see someone smoking today, we no longer assume they’re a hapless victim of Big Tobacco, but someone who ought to know better after decades of public information campaigns. I think it’s possible—and this is a topic for a longer essay—that in five or ten years, people who spend too much time online will seem similarly misguided (to some people, we already do). This year, we don’t have as many alternatives to staying logged on, but someday, when we do, we can at least admit that we’re choosing this ourselves.

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