How to Turn Social Media into Healthcare

Ask Gen Xers like myself about social media and we’ll gush about how we thought it was going to lead to a democratic utopia, creating a global consciousness where everyone sees eye-to-eye. We had hope that it would enable us to work towards a greater vision for humanity.

Ask us now and we’ll lament about just how amazingly wrong we were.

We didn’t predict Russians interference in elections, hyper-polarization, a decline in self-image, or a whole new breed of bullying and exploitation. Just where did it go wrong?

Most people have opinions on this, and most people’s hunches are right. The extra layer of anonymity that is present in popular platforms (via usernames and anonymous posting) removes a layer of humanity. For most people, our friends aren’t really friends, and likes are at best a tepid endorsement of our content. Capitalism got its pound of flesh by making advertising the business model, famously turning users into the product. These “public” goods are mostly run like monopolies by profit motivated, privileged white men.

There is nothing that shows me that social media is getting better…so how can it possibly become healthcare?

Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation

Let me back up a bit and tell you about the type of healthcare I think social could be good for.

Right now, we are facing an unprecedented and increasing epidemic of loneliness and isolation. This epidemic has been the core focus for the US Surgeon General’s office, which produced these graphs in their watershed advisory report titled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

Since 2003, social isolation of individuals has increased by an average of 24 hours a month. Companionship has decreased by an average of 14 hours a month. Social Engagement with friends has decreased by an average of 20 hours a month. Social engagement with others has decreased by an average of 10 hours per month. A lot of these charts show a sharp dive when COVID began, accelerating an already downward trend that doesn’t seem to be recovering. This truly is an epidemic.

The negative health consequences for individuals and communities are astounding. Conversely, the benefits of having a strong support group (generally defined 3 or more close friends outside of your family members) are equally impressive.

Social connection decreases the risk of premature death more than quitting smoking or drinking, more than losing weight or exercising, and more than reducing air pollution. Let that sink in.

But the benefits don’t stop there…

  • Social connection increases the odds of survival over a 7.5 year period by 50%. This in part is thanks to fewer deaths from shootings, lower suicide rates, and fewer heart attacks.
  • Connection decreases political and ideological polarization.
  • Connection increases volunteerism, civic engagement, and disaster response.
  • Connection decreases the risk of dementia in older adults by 50%.
  • Connection improves academic and job performance outcomes.
  • Connection decreases community violence and increases community prosperity.

Why stick with social media?

Social media still does some things really well that could help us tackle our epidemic of loneliness, but it also does other things that are directly contributing to the problem. I believe the solution might be as simple as cutting out the harmful parts and replacing them with authentic relationship-building tools.

First, let’s talk about the parts of social media that are worth keeping around in a future platform.

  • Social media makes it easy to acquire and spend social capital. In this future network, you could still create and grow groups on the fly. You could still have a post go viral and then get a lot of new followers who are then more likely to pay attention to the next post.
  • Social media is also a shortcut to building trust. The version of people you see online is likely to be a polished or sanitized one, but you can quickly cyberstalk individuals to know what they are all about. (Some things are hard to fake, even on social, after all.)
  • Finally, social media provides some sturdy scaffolding to build connections on, and it has a long memory. Think of it as digital infrastructure.

Using social actions to build connection

Now, let’s think about the bad parts of social and what to replace them with in order to build stronger connections.

We’ll start with the downsides of anonymity mentioned above. But suppose we replace the “media” in social media with “actions.” Instead of sharing information, one shares meetups, mutual aid, volunteer opportunities, acts of kindness, and dozens of other activities where people actually can meet one another. I’m a big fan of the saying, “Friends are the people who show up,” and we’re all familiar with the idea that “actions speak louder than words.” A social network built on actions is one where real people meet to do real things around common interests that inspire them. The anonymity factor disappears.

The next issue is the business model. How can you expect people to trust each other and the system when their information is being sold to advertisers? Instead, we need to flip the monetization around. People who are open to new connections have already embraced a spirit of generosity. The business model needs to allow people to contribute to the system (not just monetarily) so that they are true customers. Chances are they’ll be happy to do so, because people will pay for things they value and that are valuable to them.

The third problem, institutionalization, may be the toughest one to understand. The end user needs more agency. To put it another way, we need to deinstitutionalize these systems. A system that excels at building relationships will operate at the grassroots level. This means that even in a group setting, individuals should be able to introduce actions, allowing ideas to percolate from the ground up. It means that you shouldn’t have to be a 501(c)(3) to collect funds, for that requirement stifles the capacity for mutual aid. There are dozen of little examples where these systems are setup to meet the needs of institutions over those of individuals. Relationship start with individuals. This change also means more accountability for the individuals involved. It will be clear who the actors are in a transparent, deinstitutionalized system.

Helpspring is Healthcare

Hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and design have led us to the conclusion that the “social” part of social media still has value when shared actions are what happens on the network. This shift explains why we think of Helpspring as being a healthcare system, even though it will do so much more.

Our epidemic of loneliness is a foundational problem that undermines anything else we are trying to accomplish as a society. People need friends. Friends make for stronger communities. Stronger communities are more equipped to face the world’s biggest challenges.

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