Porn and social capital

JB asks:

As an economist, what unique perspectives do you bring or how do you weigh in on the increasingly anecdotal if not manichaean (morally bipolar) debate of porn-good / porn-bad? Is porn’s ubiquity symptomatic of a larger cultural dysfunctionality that has yet to be articulated in clarity, and is porn’s popularity a (or the) cause of this so-called “sex recession”?

If you’re interested in the role of sex in society and our sexual habits, then read the linked article above to think over the many reasons why younger people may be having less sex, fewer partners, and (perhaps) unfulfilling relationships.

Out of all the possible reasons listed in that article, I would emphasize how younger people are stressed about success, their “place” in social groups, and the paradox of (too much) choice. Back in the 90s, it wasn’t so easy to browse dozens of potential hook-ups per hour or compare your “success” to hundreds of “friends” and influencers filling social media feeds. Back then (and for all of human history), people hooked up according to their choices from a local pool of potentials. These days, you can compare yourself to the (artificial) profiles of far more people and get distracted/attracted to “horny locals” who are only a few clicks away.

Sadly, young people today are going to be less confident (and thus less attractive and less experienced at sex and relationships) if they get trapped in a downward spiral of “everyone has love… except me.” We see this problem at its worst with the InCel (involuntary celebrate) “movement” of guys who blame women for withholding sex. InCels didn’t exist 20 years ago (in any meaningful way) because it was harder to lust vicariously. With nothing to distract you at home, you went out and met other humans who were also looking for some action.

Turning to porn, I think that it is worsening this problem by creating false impressions of how people meet (“Hey pizza guy, how about anal?”); the role of romance, flirting and foreplay in sex (pizza guy is busy — drop your pants!); and conflating pay-for-view transactions with give-and-take relations.

I’ve never been a fan of porn (or prostitution), but I can see — as an economist — how there will be supply to meet demand. The drop in the price of porn has led to an increase in its variety and rate of consumption, which has probably had a negative impact on young men (usually) who spend time consuming porn rather than awkwardly learning how to flirt. (Girls tend to be more comfortable with the nuances of communication, but I’m sure those skills are underdeveloping as they too turn to social media fantasy, selfie narcicissm, and text-jibberish chatter.) Does porn contribute to cultural dysfunction? Absolutely: It offers an escape for guys trying to avoid the awkward phase of making themselves vulnerable by asking for others’ attention. It’s much easier to live in a fantasy relationship, just as it’s much easier to pretend you’re talking to someone by liking their update or texting some emoji’s.

(The alt-sex scene is different, but I think that gays and lesbians are experiencing similar issues. When it comes to trans-, queer- and gender-identity, I think that sex and relationships are going to be complicated by social norms and psychological wandering. Feel free to comment.)

So my one-handed conclusion is that porn is not the problem, nor the solution, but a symptom of young people having a harder time learning how to let go, take a chance, face rejection and get laid. We need more of this.

And a random question: First of all, is social capital a valid notion? And if so, why does it seem that social capital is not transactable via social media? Said differently, why is it impossible to actually make new friends on Facebook, get a job through LinkedIn, find a companion on OKStupid, etc? No matter what stage of trust one is at with someone else, it would seem that our social capital can only be accrued and spent in handshake transactions. And so, what can social media do for social capital at all? Simply squander it through embarrassing hyperbole or tactless attention-grabbing screeds?

This is a good question on one of my favorite topics. I’ll begin by referring you to my post (“Social media is neither social nor media“) but add a few more comments in response to your particulars.

First, social capital is indeed a real and important type of capital. People with more social capital are better insulated against shocks (insurance), better able to find work and other resources (information) and happier (collective identity). The bad news is that there is no short-cut to social capital: Money can’t buy you love. Relationships and trust need time and commitment.

Second, markets tend to displace social capital (relationships) by supplying substitutes at lower (transaction) costs. Thus, we can buy food from the store rather than bartering with the neighboring farmer. Thus, we hire babysitters for our kids and put grandma in the retirement home rather than living in extended families. In many cases, these market substitutions are better, but we also lose positive externalities (unintended benefits) when we replace relations with transactions. That’s why I worry sometimes that we’re overdoing it when it comes to outsourcing.

Third, most social media companies are promising something for nothing while manipulating you and selling your data. If you want to see what they really do, then read their financial and investor-facing documents. Facebook is NOT “connecting the world,” it’s selling advertising. LinkedIn is NOT about your career, but revenue from HR departments. OKCupid is NOT about love, but selling your personal details to marketeers. I can guarantee that any reader on this post is more likely to get friends, jobs and romance by meeting people face-to-face (at parties, bars, through friends, etc.) than putting in a few more clicks.

Fourth, social media has lowered the cost of connecting, which means that any given “demander” will be overwhelmed by supply. Influencers have so many friends that they cannot possibly say “hi” in response. Companies advertising jobs need bots to filter thousands of applicants. Attractive people on OkCupid and Tinder spend so much time saying no that they miss opportunities. Even when they do take a chance, they are nearly always tempted to drop someone with a slight flaw for a virtual perfection who pops into their feed.

(Stronger labor markets, btw, are reducing noise in this system as companies compete for workers and employed people waste less time on social media fantasies.)

My one-handed conclusion is that social media companies are making our lives worse by giving us false hopes, wasting our time, and selling our data. As above, I suggest spending more time in meat-space and less time in cyber-space.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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