Think with me — about Social Media

Narath Carlile
10 min readJul 12, 2022

As someone who cares deeply about my time, and others’ time, as well as modeling good behavior about how to spend time — for my kids, my patients, my students, my colleagues and for my fellow global citizens — I’ve been working hard to be intentional about using my time and energy. It’s impossible to ignore that large numbers of people — including some of those closest to me — spend a lot of time on social media.

At the moment, I don’t spend any time on social media of any kind.

I’ve been having a number of interconnected questions, thoughts and insights about how I might engage in social media, in a way that’s productive and fulfilling, while remaining conscious of how much time I spend, and how to maximize the benefits to me — and society as a whole.

As a kickoff of what I hope will become an irregular series of writings, I want to invite you to think with me, to come along as I inquire about and explore social media, and approach answering some of the questions that emerge.

I also want to encourage you to tell me what your thoughts are about my conclusions so far, especially some of the ones you might think are a bit crazy — but might make for interesting thought experiments, at least!

A quick recap

When exploring a new topic, I always try to start with what’s generally known, what I have already come across in my regular life, about that topic.

It’s clear to me that billions of people who join and use social media can’t be entirely wrong: They must each find some benefit from their use. And social media platforms of all types, whether Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok or any of the others, definitely offer the opportunity to connect with faraway people — family, friends, even total strangers — to exchange information, ideas and views of the world — like we are doing here in Medium. They offer outlets, and audiences, for creativity and self-expression in ways that humanity has never seen before.

It’s also clear to me that there are some pretty significant risks, even harms, that can emerge from using social media. Falling prey to misinformation campaigns, or even targeted information warfare, is a pretty big one, as far as society and the world community go. But there are much more personal harms, like anxiety and depression, and even the development of a negative self-image, that plague social media users in ways, and for reasons, also not seen before in human history.

One thing that worries me most is the limitless memory of internet culture, and its ability to resurface questionable moments from the distant past to threaten a person’s promising future. I believe people should be allowed to learn and grow without having to face allegations of hypocrisy for thoughtfully changing long-held views, and without being called to account years later for youthful transgressions that were properly dealt with in the moment.

And to state the truly obvious, engaging in social media takes people’s time and energy.

What are the companies doing?

I believe it’s also worth noting that the companies behind these social media platforms — multi-billion-dollar empires like Google and Meta — spend massive amounts of their time and energy, and money, to create online environments engineered to draw people in, keep them there as long as possible, and after they leave, keep them coming back again and again, without end.

They’re exploiting key elements of humanity — our social nature, our curiosity, our desire to connect to others, especially when it reinforces or reaffirms our identity and our links to a wider group. They’re engineering software around how we’re built, using our information hunger and our fear of missing out. And they’re learning from how we act: how we respond more to negative experiences than to positive ones, how we focus on recent but rare events rather than older more common ones, and how we prefer to follow evidence that agrees with our existing views while ignoring evidence we might be wrong.

The platforms are different, but they all use an online system to let users send messages to individual other users, groups of users and even all users on the entire platform. They use the links you create — the people you connect with and follow, the people you respond to and interact with, the topics you click on links about, and more — to create a profile of you, which they then sell to advertisers who want to capture your attention, your time and energy. (And, yes, often money.)

There are good people who work at these companies, who don’t set out to exploit people or participate in systems that have the potential to harm society. There are no doubt many workers at these companies who share my values about the world. But within systems in the long-run, workers tend to behave in ways that depend more on the incentives they are offered, than their personal intentions. And the incentives — raises, promotions, stock options, and more — are designed to get workers to maximize the platform’s ability to attract and hold users’ attention for as long as possible, with return visits that are as frequent as possible and also last as long as possible.

My exploration

So that’s my groundwork started.

What I wonder most about is how I might best engage in social media, if I decide to, both to maximize the benefits — to myself and society — and to minimize the harms.

I’m thinking about this from the perspective of an entrepreneur, but also as a regular person and a citizen of the world.

As an entrepreneur

The most basic way entrepreneurs can participate on social media platforms is by having an account, which can be minimal or quite complex, with lots of information on products, menu items, hours and other details for customers and prospective customers to peruse. That can take time and energy to construct and keep up-to-date.

A presence on social media can make it easy for social media users to find the business, and for the business to interact with users in some basic ways.

Businesses can also decide to spend money on advertising to reach other users of the platform. Sending money to the company that runs it is a more active participation in the incentive structure, which turns people’s attention into money for the platform owner.

Of course, business owners who believe they are providing something of value to an intended customer base may justify their participation because they are seeking to alert those potential buyers to this opportunity. (We’ll leave aside the ethical discussions about business owners who do not believe they are providing a product or service that has actual value to a customer.)

In addition, competing businesses may already be advertising on the platform.

One way to evaluate the prospect of advertising is the situation of the users you’re trying to reach. If people are somehow coerced or manipulated into using the platform (for example in countries in which only one social network is allowed and which is heavily monitored), or cannot leave, then you should not participate.

But if they are getting value from the social network and are choosing to continue to participate, and you can provide value to them, then you can meet them in their community, and share information about your product and its benefit to them in a way that is clearly identified as promotion — and is not deceptive, manipulative or coercive. That strikes me as an ethical approach.

It’s still useful to keep in mind that advertising involves directly paying money to these organizations. They may offer certain types of advertising products or services that don’t suit the business’s needs, or its ethics, and it’s worth making conscious choices of what types of advertising to buy. In addition, by controlling how much the business spends, and when — and at times even withholding spending, such as during the #StopHateForProfit campaign against Facebook — a business can use its participation and influence in an optimal way, while reducing any inherent harms that may result from the social network itself.

Choice is another key element. If people have more choices of which social networks to engage in, they will be better able to meet their own needs, rather than simply making the best of sparse or limited offerings from platform companies. Businesses might want to consider engaging in more than one social media network, to help support the idea that users should have opportunities and choices about how and where to engage online.

As an individual

When things get personal, I tend to start playing around with hypotheticals to explore the boundaries of my understanding and my ideas.

A key principle, for me, is maintaining a choice of whether, when and how to start to participate, and to continue to participate — or not. Another important principle is to ensure that my own sense of identity is not distorted by my engagement online, and that whatever I find in digital space does not keep me from engaging in the rich, physical world, especially with my real-world networks of close friends and family — who also need my time and attention.

I’ve come up with some ideas about how to gain some of the benefits — which I currently miss out on by not participating at all — while limiting the possible downsides. Some are fairly basic and might even seem simplistic, but I hope you’ll follow me where I go and play with some of these concepts yourself.

  1. Continue to practice meditation and be intentional about centering myself in my own self and surroundings. This will set a tone for how I approach online interactions of all types.
  2. Continue to consciously spend time and energy engaging in the rich physical world, especially with those close friends and family I enjoy so much in person, and with this wonderful life-filled planet we all share.
  3. Use social media for pre-set limited times only, ideally only certain specific times of a week or month. If I find myself wanting to expand the time I spend, or thinking about social media when I’m not using it, I’ll consider that a helpful warning sign that I need to think more deeply about whether I am gaining benefit or developing an unhealthy dependence, and take action accordingly.
  4. Consider creating a social media account with the intention of using it only for a predetermined period, like a month or a year, and then deactivating it — along with a predetermined rest period before I would reactivate the account and engage again. I might announce this publicly ahead of time, and deactivate or delete my account and its content at the appointed time. This would let me ensure that I could stop easily and not become too attached to my online experience, and test how easy it is for me to delete my presence from social media. If I find myself resistant to stopping or deleting the information, I will see that as a signal that my participation may not be solely of my own choosing anymore. (Of course, if there’s a great photo or piece of text, I can save that for private use, while still deleting it from the more public platform space.)
  5. Consider creating a particular persona for my social media presence, one that is intentionally for public consumption and is explicitly different from my actual self — without being misleading about my identity. This will help me decide what about myself I want to make public, while also leaving myself free to develop and grow into who I am meant to be — rather than who my audience might want me to become. It may be helpful for me to conceptualize this character as one particular aspect or attribute of myself I want to explore online, like “intrepid reporter” or “budding scientist.”
  6. Decide beforehand what kind of promotion I would consider doing. Many social media stars, for instance, make money from endorsements or placements of products they don’t actually use. That seems to me like it would be a violation of trust, like selling out a friend. Deciding up front what ethical boundaries will apply online will help me protect myself from unethical practices.
  7. Be very wary of the idea of “likes” or other online praise as a validation of my actual true self. I will think deeply about living a wonderful, happy, fulfilled life with the real people who are in it already, or whom I might come across in time. I will recognize that likes are a pat on the back, and be sure to reinforce my own inner strength to maintain my sense of self, and of fun, regardless of whether my posts generate a lot of feedback, or very little.

As a citizen

There’s one more element I want to explore, which is the idea of participating in social media as a citizen. It’s definitely tempting to see an opportunity to easily meet with a wide range of fellow citizens, and engage in debate about current issues and events.

But it’s not clear to me that every profile on social media is held by an actual human representing their actual values and views. There are automated accounts, and accounts created by humans being paid to play a particular role. It can be very hard to tell whether a post is the authentic view of an actual person, or if it’s paid propaganda or information warfare.

In addition, information I disclose about my views, or my location or involvement in community affairs, could be used to target me by political opponents or even government agencies in ways that I would not want.

It’s for this reason that I have one more idea:

  1. Make an account for use as a public citizen — perhaps a separate one for that persona, as distinct from my more personal journalist or scientist character — and label it with a year to identify it. Then I might delete that account every year or two and create a new one for further public engagement.

Conclusion

Finding a way to balance the benefits against the detriments strikes me as the right approach. I definitely want to avoid wasting my time and energy, falling prey to misinformation, and fixing or manipulating my sense of self.

I plan to try at least some of these ideas myself, and I’ll let you know what I learn next. Now, please let me know your thoughts, so I can think with you too.

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