“Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”
— Aziz Ansari on Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics Podcast
The Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the unethical use of data from millions of Facebook accounts has led many to question the ultimate purpose of social media and whether they should continue to use it. While I still continue to use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, I’ve been questioning what purpose they serve in my life for quite some time now.
As I mentioned in a blog post a couple years back, there was a point where I did not have any social media apps on my phone at all, forcing myself to spend time on these platforms more intentionally on my desktop instead. However, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past couple years travelling the world with only my cell phone. This has forced me to reinstall apps like Instagram and Facebook in order to use them at all, which has led to more compulsive social media use than I’m comfortable with.
Now I’m not against the entire concept of social media. I do think that the power of the internet to connect us socially is a very powerful and good thing. However, the way that massive media corporations like Facebook and Twitter have created these proprietary, walled gardens of content focused on sucking as much of our time and attention as possible has little benefit to the future of humanity. I think more and more people are catching on to this every day.
I started to seriously question social media’s usefulness when I read this great Medium post. It was published when Instagram announced they would be moving from a chronological to an algorithmic feed to much controversy. The main point of the article is that instead of paying for content on the Internet with our wallets, we keep it free by paying with our attention. As more and more people have adopted social media in their lives, the more and more time it seems to suck out of our day-to-day.
That’s because these platforms are designed to be addictive. Since most content online is expected by users to be free, we have gone from being the customers of these services to the product, with the advertisers being the real customers. They are paying for our eyeballs to stay focused on their ads, whether they are banner ads, pre-roll video ads or sponsored content.
This has created a landscape where the content itself is not as important as how it engages our attention and get us to click through and watch ads. This has led to the rise of “clickbait” headlines, Buzzfeed listicles and fake news, the latter of which led to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
While this is how the Internet exists today, let’s go back to when I first started using the Internet regularly. In the early 2000s, the Internet was very different than it is now. It was this new and exciting place that compared to now, not a whole lot of people were using. Those who were kids then and on the Internet have fond memories of visiting sites like Newgrounds, eBaumsworld, and FunnyJunk.
What made this earlier time in the Internet different from today is that there was a clear distinction between the Internet world and the real world. If you wanted to chat with your friends after school, you sat down at your desktop or laptop and used MSN Messenger, or texted them on your “dumb” phone and didn’t expect a response right away. There were people who were into computers and the Internet and people who weren’t. Everyone was less connected than they are now.
Then the iPhone came along, and with it the smartphone industry in general, and everything changed. Once smartphones were affordable enough that most people could buy one, the Internet was in your pocket all the time. The distinction between the Internet world and the “real” world began to blur. Eventually everyone seemed to be online. People you used to know in elementary school were suddenly regular Twitter users, and even your grandparents were sharing memes on Facebook. Meanwhile, people only a few years younger than me don’t know what Schfifty-Five is, and that makes me feel really old.
Once accessing the Internet became as simple as taking your phone out of your pocket and opening an app like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, it spawned a collective, compulsive addiction unlike anything we’ve seen in modern society. Suddenly everyone seemed to be looking down at their phones constantly, on the street, on public transportation, in lecture halls and even workplace meetings. All of this would’ve looked absurd only a few years prior, but it suddenly became commonplace everywhere.
Mobile operating systems like iOS and Android work differently than their desktop and laptop counterparts. Shiny, colourful app icons replaced the traditional web browser. Instead of typing the URL of your favourite website into the address bar, you simply pull out your phone, touch the Facebook icon and take in whatever the news feed presents to you.
Obviously, computers and web browsers are still prevalent today, but I would argue that the app era has drastically changed our internet behaviour. In the desktop era, Internet users would develop their niche of favourite websites and message boards, places where they could connect anonymously with like-minded people. In this way, two different Internet users’ activities could differ drastically. Smartphone apps streamlined access to a narrower range of websites in app form, and now websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and Netflix have come to dominate the majority of Internet users’ time online, whether on the computer or on our smartphones.
This is how internet companies like Google and Facebook have grown to become some of the biggest corporations in the world, with valuations of billions of dollars. These services have became integral to the lives of a significant fraction of the world’s population, and this fraction will continue to grow as more and more people are able to connect to the Internet.
Now this isn’t necessarily entirely a bad thing, and up until recently I thought it was entirely good. Facebook connects us with our friends and family. Twitter gives us instantaneous access to news. Instagram allows us to curate our lives with beautiful photographs, and is personally my favourite. But the relationship we have with these apps has become more and more compulsive, far exceeding the initial benefits and becoming a legitimate addiction for a lot of people. The worst part is that creating this compulsive behaviour is totally intentional. It is how the apps are designed, it’s how they do business.
Take Snapchat’s controversial app redesign, which was so disastrous that a single tweet from Kylie Jenner made the company’s valuation fall more than a billion dollars. Almost everyone found the redesign less intuitive and Snapchat eventually reversed some of the changes. The reason Snapchat decided to make these changes in the first place was to appease advertisers to the detriment of their users. It’s clear where Snapchat’s priorities are, but their strategy backfired when people stopped using the app entirely.
Every Internet service is feeling this crunch, this need to get their slice of our collective attention pie. There are only so many hours in the day for us to spend on our phones. If you want to be a successful Internet company you have to be the loudest, the shiniest, the most likely to grab attention, regardless of the service you provide or the potential usefulness of your app.
So that’s why I think social media sucks now. It is no longer this new, exciting thing to engage in with others. It is now a daily obligation. Impulsive behaviour fueled by push notifications. It is no longer just a place to see your extended family’s baby photos or catch up on the latest news. It’s turned into a video about a cute animal being rescued, a recipe video we’ll never actually make, or a crudely-made meme that gives us a big dopamine hit in the moment but we forget about by tomorrow. These things have no utility, it is junk food for the mind.
But if you like junk food for the mind, I’m not judging you. If you enjoy sharing this stuff with people you know and don’t see a reason to stop, you don’t have to listen to me. But if you’re like me, you feel exhausted every time you log into Facebook. Your desire to catch up on your Instagram feed far exceeds your enjoyment of the pictures flashing across your eyes. Being on social media doesn’t feel good anymore, and it’s taking up more of your time than you’re comfortable with. So if you feel this way, what should you do about it?
Remove as many social media apps from your phone as possible
This for me was step one. If it feels like too much, at least remove the apps from your home screen if you’re on Android or off the first page of apps if you’re on iOS. This adds an extra step to accessing the apps, making them less impulsive. It doesn’t mean you have to stop using the apps period, it just means your social media time will switch to desktop or laptop only.
This creates that disconnect from Internet world and real world like we used to have before smartphones. Unfortunately, some apps like Instagram and Snapchat either don’t have a desktop version or have limited capabilities compared to the mobile version. For example, you can’t post from the desktop version of Instagram, and I can almost assure you that this is intentional.
Disable push notifications on everything other than the essentials
Again, this helps control the impulse. How many notifications do you get in a day? Think about how your time and attention is unnecessarily fragmented every day because of this. This is what the companies want, but it sucks for you. The only notifications I have turned on are for calls, SMS and Facebook messages, but what the “essentials” are for you depends on what’s important to you. Remember when you install new apps, notifications are usually turned on by default. When that first notification comes through, think to yourself “do I really need this app interrupting me all the time?” Most of the time the answer is no.
Charge your phone somewhere other than your bedside
For many people, checking social media is the last thing they do before going to bed and the first thing they do when they wake up. An easy fix for this is to charge your phone in a room other than your bedroom. It prevents you from reaching for your phone impulsively when you don’t really want to. This has been a huge game changer for me and I wish I started doing it sooner.
If you want to take this an extra step, set a reminder on your phone an hour before you go to bed and turn off anything with a screen. Wind down by reading a book, meditating or journaling instead. You’ll quickly realize how good it feels to disconnect and unwind. If this isn’t a possibility, you can use an app like f.lux to reduce the amount of blue light on your screen throughout the day, which can improve your sleep quality.
Go through your social media accounts regularly and unfollow people
It’s very easy to follow people on social media, but when we unfollow someone we often face resistance. It’s a bit easier to unfollow a famous person with millions of followers, they’re not likely to notice. But what if it’s someone you used to know, like someone you went to school with but haven’t talked to in years? These are the trickiest to unfollow because by following them on social media and liking their posts from time to time, it makes us feel like we’re keeping in touch with them. We aren’t really though.
In Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, he explains how liking posts on social media is so quick and easy to do that it’s a way less valuable currency than we often perceive. If the person from school who you haven’t talked to in forever likes your post on Instagram, and their face shows up in your notifications, you get a hit of dopamine and feel like you’re connecting with that person. But are you really? Occasionally, these people will actually comment on your post, or initiate an online conversation about it, and that’s a sign that they truly care about keeping in touch with you.
But social media has done such a good job streamlining social interaction that the act of “liking” something is effortless and has lost its meaning. I’m sure if you went through your Facebook friends or Instagram followers, you have at least a few people that fit the criteria I just described. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but you should probably unfollow them. It might sound cruel or antisocial, but think about it this way. How much time do you spend absorbing these peoples’ online activities every day? In a day it might not seem like a lot, but it quickly adds up.
In my parents’ generation you often forgot about these people, they became pictures in a yearbook. Now, we’re subjected to every vacation and cute thing their dog does. I no longer believe that this is beneficial or even good for our mental health. Not only this, but it takes time away from focusing on our true friends and what’s going on in their lives. When we focus so much on the lives of people that have nothing to do with us anymore, we begin to realize how selfish an act it ultimately is. So go ahead and unfollow them. It’s less pictures to scroll through, and chances are they won’t even notice.
Install the News Feed Eradicator for Facebook Chrome extension
I did this a while ago and have never looked back. It removes the News Feed from the desktop version of Facebook and replaces it with an inspirational quote. You still have access to the rest of the site and it has transformed my Facebook experience into a much more intentional one. Have you ever gone on Facebook to remind yourself what time a party starts and get caught up in something on your News Feed for fifteen minutes? Me too. Make sure that you go to your family and close friends’ profiles and mark them as “Close Friends.” This will make their updates appear in your notifications, so you don’t miss out on content that is truly meaningful.
This is just a good thing to do in general, but it’s something that has helped me get over my social media addiction. If you notice that you’re going down a tunnel on YouTube or Facebook, stop. Focus on your breath, the feeling of your feet touching the floor, or any other sensations in your body. Just stop for a few seconds and then continue doing whatever you were doing if you want. The point is to recognize when you’re engaging in impulsive behaviour, because often we don’t. Often we’re just on a mindless, pleasure-seeking binge in the moment that makes us feel worse in the long term.
As I’m writing this, net neutrality was recently killed in the United States. If the Internet continues on its current trajectory, the massive media corporations that currently dominate the Internet will only grow in power. It will be more difficult for new startups and services to rise up and dethrone the big guys. As more people gain access to the internet, the more people will sign up for services like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter which are designed to absorb as much of our time as possible.
So if I’ve convinced you that this is a bad thing, try to be more mindful of the time you spend online. Support online services you use regularly financially if you can, as this sends the signal that consumers are willing to pay with their money and not just their attention. Social media doesn’t have to suck. If we change the relationship we have with it into a more healthy one, we’ll all be better off for it.