Social Media: 8 Tools For A Revolution From Within.
I’m pretty sure we all know by now that Social Media can be bad for you. The genuine benefits of connection and stimulation come at the even steeper cost of manipulating our behavior and fracturing our society.
The obvious solution is to leave, to go cold turkey. But I just don’t think that’s feasible for me, and probably a lot of other people too. Social media is too fundamentally ingrained into the fabric of our society. It may even be professionally necessary. Sometimes the addiction trumps the knowledge that something’s bad for us: 41% of male doctors in China smoke.
I wrote a short takedown of exploitative Social Media behavioral tactics in 2017. And if anything my social media usage has increased since then. Locked-down inside during COVID it went positively parabolic. I’ve been using the Moment app to track my screen time for years. It’s not enough; all it does is make me feel guilty.
But it’s not always our fault. It’s not a fair fight. We literally have some of the finest minds in human history working night and day to make you touch the small screen in your pocket more. Hundreds of billions of dollars of capital depend on it.
I recently watched the compelling-but-clunky Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma and resolved to write a short piece with some thoughts and tips.
If we’re not going to leave the Hotel California of social media, how do we make the outright behavior manipulation less effective? How do we improve the quality of our online experience? Here are some ideas, mainly for iOS users. I’d love to hear from you.
- Greyscale your phone. This is a cracking tip suggested by my wife. You can create a shortcut to greyscale your phone screen with 3 clicks of the home button. It massively reduces the visual appeal of notifications and scrolling colorful content, especially Instagram.
- Delete the social media apps. I deleted Instagram a long time ago and have never really missed it. Then you only need to worry about browser usage…
- …Time-limit browser usage. You can do this with iOS Screen Time- within Settings. This is a (deliberately?) cumbersome but powerful tool. You can outright block sites with no utility but high addictiveness. E.G. Reddit. You can then set a daily time limit for Safari. I’m trying for two hours a day. We’ll see. You can also schedule daily ‘Downtime’ periods. Almost everything is initially blocked off with a prompt if you really need to access it. If you need an answer to something during that time, you can ask Siri rather than open a browser window.
- Read articles outside of the browser window. For reading longer articles: save them into the Pocket app, don’t read them in the browser. For the discovery of new content, you could use phenomenal email article aggregators like The Browser. Subscribe to email alerts for Substacks from writers you like.
- Reduce ALL computer-generated notifications to zero.
- Predetermine the salience of your human interaction. We justifiably turn to social media for connection, but let’s tip the balance in our favor. Mute group chats across all platforms that are unlikely to have urgent info. Create smaller group chats with people you want to have specific ongoing discussions with. My family-specific WhatsApp group means I have less need for Facebook’s dubious news feed.
- Increase the quality of the apps you do use. I try to spend dead time on the Kindle app reading books. There are also a bunch of apps that give you new skills (I’m trying a freediving app that helps build breath-holds right now).
- Select your own content. As one of the Netflix documentary experts notes: try not to click the algorithmically suggested videos on YouTube, but use the search bar instead. If someone else is suggesting content for you, that opens the door to them slowly manipulating your preferences.
The final, and perhaps most important consideration, is how to reduce our polarization on those platforms that allow for open debate.
4 quick suggestions:
- Fact check and bias check everything you post beforehand- especially if it’s news or political content. No source is perfect (even my beloved BBC). Ground News shows the volume of reporting on stories from across the partisan divide. I also haven’t used it much yet, but AllSides claims to show both sides of the debate at once.
- Remember that engaging with inflammatory content automatically boosts it, even if your engagement is itself outraged (“Look how stupid this is!”). It also ensures you get served more of that content.
- Try to seek out intelligent connections from outside your ideological bubble and share their content. Bear in mind each one of us is being served an often radically different reality from everyone else.
- Try and keep discussions civil and inquisitive. Ask the kind of questions that elicit thoughtful responses. A cracking example: “What have you experienced that I haven’t that makes you believe what you do?” Via the always wonderful Morgan Housel. This fulfills 3 core functions. Firstly it has the delightful ability to expose anyone who gets their opinions second-hand via cable news or social media. Secondly, it makes a direct appeal to personal experience, opening up emotions not facts. Thirdly it might actually make you reconsider your own opinions.
We are entering a future where we will be continuously presented with a map of the world that is filled with insanity, outrage, and monsters. The map is not the territory, but the irony is the more we think the map is real, the more the territory will change.
The last point I’ll make is about addiction. Addiction typically meets a need. If you work out what specifically YOU need from social media, and solve for that, it prevents the creep of social media using YOU for its needs. For me, the need that is met by social media is a deeply ingrained desire to look intelligent. It’s a bit embarrassing. But from my earliest days, I saw a route to parental love and popular approval through academic achievement. That has followed me through to adulthood. I get significant ego-gratification from people telling me they find my social media content clever or interesting. I can still meet that need by sharing articles, but I can also diminish the dopamine feedback loops by time-limiting my access to the responses. Once you become aware of the deeper need, you can be smarter about selectively feeding it.
Protect your attention, it’s literally the only resource we have.
“Our only choice, our only power, our only means of self-creation and world-creation, is our power of attention. In other words, at any given moment the only thing we are actually choosing is where to place our attention. Everything else is automatic.”- Charles Eisenstein.