TLDR : Use social media carefully, and drop it if not useful
There has been a recent tech-backlash by people in the industry. Issues to do with attention manipulation, the advertising model and ‘the race to the bottom of the brainstem’ led by prominent technologists such as Tristan Harris
A summary of the literature :
- Social media is designed to deliberately maximise time on site and be addictive. You have top level psychologists working at these companies to ensure this. Examples : Youtube ‘watch next’, Facebook’s colour scheme, Pull to refresh, Snapchats’ stories features. This is discussed in several books.
- Several studies are being released correlating excessive social media use with mental health issues.
- The explosion of fake news. The word of 2018 was ‘fake news’
- Algorithmic selection of data resulting in echo chambers and promotion of confirmation bias
- Algorithmic selection of posts to promote outrage rather than nuanced discussion
- Outbreaks of violence driven by false information
- Advertising model misaligning incentives
You basically have an algorithmic supercomputer pointed at your brain trying to get you to maximise time on site
Social media is getting a beating. But I think it is here to stay.
I want to explore if there is a way to use social media effectively. The internet and technology has democratised the tools of distribution. You can literally write code, write thought, create content without going through an intermediary. I think this is a net positive. But as with any new technology, there are growing pains.
These are just a set of rules and thoughts about using social media sensibly.
1. Understand that Nuance is Lost :
Use social media to link to longer form content, videos and discussions The click bait, 280 character, medium can only convey so much information. It is prone to misintereptation. People posting opinions without any real discussion. Just broadcasting a particular viewpoint.
This just leads to shouting without any real discussion. The solution is instead to use it to maximise serendipity by linking to external content.
Content like blogs, videos, essays etc.
On the internet, there are some incredibly smart people making content. Some of the best educational resources are on YouTube. The library of Alexandria is at your finger tips, it’s just lost in a sea of noise. It’s like we are living in Borge’s infinite library on the internet. We just need to separate the signal from the noise.
2.Careful of Who You Follow
You are the average of the 5 people you associate with most. Most of your views actually come from people to follow and admire. Either consciously or unconsciously you select pieces of information and choose to believe it rather than reasoning from first principles.
This is adaptive. If you were to reason everything from first principles you simply would not have enough time. For example, with the Big Bang, I take that as a given theory because I respect the work physicists do. But I couldn’t explain it from first principles. A lot of my beliefs I just take at face value.
So knowing this, who you choose to listen to is of paramount importance. You tend to simply adopt the values and habits of those around you. If you surround yourself with hard working people, it just ends up rubbing off on you.
I can’t tell you who to listen to. But always be skeptical, and where-ever you can, try reason from first principles.
3.Switch it off
Use tools like Screen-time to limit time on site. Deliberately make time to check it rather than impulse checking Apple is my favourite. To call me a fanboy is an understatement. Apple don’t make their money off time spent on their devices. They simply make money from selling devices. They have no incentive in the race for attention.
They’ve shown that they are thinking about these topics, with the release of tools like Screen time. You can limit the amount of time you spend on the sites, and you can schedule ‘downtime’ where you can’t access the app.
They have also made privacy a priority. For all these reasons, I’ve literally never owned an android phone. I went straight from flip phone to iPhone.
Regulate how much you spend on these sites. So many times, I’ve been lost in YouTube. I wake up and realise I’ve spent 3 hours watching funny cat videos. The algorithm plays me like a fiddle. Get some autonomy back, switch it off when you don’t want to be distracted.
4.Create rather than Consume
Use social media as a way to create and share rather than consume It’s really easy to consume content. Much harder to create it.
I think you learn a lot more from creating and doing rather than just reading or watching. If you want to learn how to code, go build something. If you want to learn how to take good photographs, start taking photos. If you want to learn how to make videos, go make a video. If you want to write, write something. Don’t just passively consume media.
One project of mine is to become a better writer, so I started this. I found I was just reading other people’s blogs or books. This is useful, but I learn infinitely more reasoning through topics myself, rather than just watching someone reason it through themselves.
Obviously you start off bad. But you learn through doing. For example :
Instead of using instagram to follow ‘influencers’ (only recently learnt that such a thing exists), you can post your own photos. I really admire Instagram and how they’ve democratised the art of photography. Anyone can take photos now, and post them. You can learn by doing.
5.Don’t trade the mind for the moment
Switch off or don’t look at your phone when talking in real life. You want to 100% be present I love computers. I pretty much spent my childhood on computers. But the computer didn’t follow me around in my pocket all day, providing limitless entertainment back then. It wasn’t a competition between engaging with reality and engaging with a computer.
When talking with someone, don’t look at your phone unless showing something etc. This is basic etiquette.
6.Use tech to educate, not distract
I can either pull out my phone and habitually look at Instagram or Facebook and mindlessly scroll.
Or I can habitually look at ‘Medium’ or the Kindle app, or Instapaper or certain subreddits, or insightful Twitter accounts, or listen to audiobooks or podcasts and watch educational YouTube videos
You can literally read the majority of written word, the stored collective wisdom of civilisations and generations on a black rectangle in your pocket. This is magic.
You can choose how to use tech. It is simply a tool.
Conclusion : Techno-optimistism
I think social media can be used more judiciously, as a way to follow people you really admire, and to keep in touch with friends and family.
The danger lies in not thinking about how you use a tool.
Hopefully I’ll rethink and revise some of my views on the topic in the future and update!
2021 Update : How and Why You’re Using Social media
Why (in order of importance)
- Incentive to create something
- Keep up to date with lives of those you interacts with IRL
- Para-socially follow creative individuals for inspiration
- Validation (some part must be acknowledged) – being seen
- Don’t have the app installed on phone
- When I want to make something, I open it and post
- Active use > Passive use