Glitz and Glam: Refining Your Relationship to Social Media
Most young people are exceedingly quick to distance themselves from social media. When its influence on their lives is called into question, an enormous of majority of individuals claim to feel a pervasive disdain, bordering on outright contempt, for now ubiquitous platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Looking further, that visceral reaction rarely goes so far as to significantly curtail their use of those same platforms.
We are facing a massive epidemic of attention disrepair affecting billions of people worldwide. Social media platforms compete amongst themselves for our time. Technology companies incorporate addictive and manipulative design features to repeatedly gain and retain our focus, thereby starving young minds of precious intellectual development and supplanting it with endless streams of obsessively curated visual stimuli.
Unfortunately, even if your relationship to social media is so unique as to be fully optimized to reap the benefits of online interaction while avoiding any pitfalls, your mere presence there still propagates the negative cycles for others. This problem truly affects everyone. It clearly and directly touches those who have social media profiles, but also spills over to the shrinking populace who abstain from them; this is because of the absolute power social media holds in shaping our inter-personal relations and public institutions. For example, you may be able to regularly update your online highlight reel, devoid of the jealously or anxiety that anecdotally accompany an average user's experience at varying intervals, but it's still one more flicker in the infinite feed triggering those same problems for others.
Social media has exploded in growth throughout the last decade and that pace is only accelerating. Though the influence that these platforms exert on our daily lives has recently risen to the forefront of cultural knowledge (the 2016 United States Presidential Election is one prominent case), solutions to the impending problems appear few and far between, particularly because the systems we swear off in principle are meticulously designed to regain our attention at any cost. We want to stay away for a day and clear our heads. We want to put less importance on the likes, views and shares we receive. We want insight, clarity and critical thinking to accompany us in navigating those platforms, but we open the apps and we forget all about our goals because the elegant, digital realms are tailored to captivate us. When you let your guard down, they subsume you.
The benefits of broad scale public communication are apparent. There is no room for a realistic expectation of regressing from them. That said, if we are to continue to operate within these systems, we need to consolidate our attention and work together to understand these forms of media. Only then can we hope to use them responsibly. It's a difficult task, but it's the task before us. Mindless scrolling and impulsive sharing cannot go unchecked any longer.
The first important piece in refining your relationship to social media is acknowledging that there are, in fact, issues to be addressed. Tristan Harris, a design ethicist who formally worked at Google, explains the root of this argument succinctly in his brilliant TED talk titled How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds everyday. He says:
"There's a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention."
This point is presently undebatable. Media companies compete amongst themselves for our time. They scout and hire the most promising young talent to make their apps and websites as clean and attractive as possible. We do want our media to look beautiful and be able to navigate it effortlessly, so this is not inherently malignant. Trouble arises, however, from constant updates and added features. It results in an arms race. Most of the major platforms unabashedly promote slightly altered versions of their competitors' same features (i.e. "stories"). To keep you attendant, features take on addictive qualities and appeal directly, without notice, to our reptilian brains.
Snapchat streaks are an excellent example of this, and one that Harris brought to my attention. By adding the ultimately meaningless incentive of raising a number situated beside a cartoon flame, millions of young people instinctively reach for their phones, returning to the platform on a daily basis. The streak indicator measures the number of days that correspondence between two people has been kept up. I've witnessed firsthand that some people do not even use the feature to that end because the messages they send hardly qualify as genuine communication. They take poor photos of themselves or of random objects, oftentimes sending them to other Snapchat users they barely know. I've heard people proudly boast of streaks ranging into the hundreds. Toward the end of the day, if the obligatory message has gone unsent, the platform proceeds to display a small hourglass icon, compelling users to action at the sight of falling sand. Watching a streak increase supplies a feeling of accomplishment, but a hollow one when bearing in mind that any time spent on Snapchat is, for better or worse, time unspent elsewhere.
Another example, again paying credit to Harris, is the "slot-machine" feature of social media, which he described at length on Sam Harris' podcast, Waking Up. When loading a page on social media, there is an almost imperceptible delay between the content appearing and the notification or message indicators popping up in the corners. That brief moment gives way to anticipation and intensifies the proven result of dopamine flooding your neural pathways when a notification is finally displayed. This is comparable to the moment of anticipation between pulling a lever and seeing the spinning symbols come to a complete stop on a casino slot machine. Unsurprisingly, social media platforms have assumed the same addictive quality as gambling. You've probably had the sensation of awakening from an internet binge like coming to from comatose. The next time you catch yourself surrendering to the lure of social media, note how often you refresh the feed and glance at the notification icons, unconsciously wishing for another burst of excitement to quell that insatiable ache for connection.
At this point, you may be wary, imagining these factors amount to my outright repudiation of all social media, but I hold something more selective in mind. Turning once again to Harris on the topic, he says, "[I}magine if we used all of this data and all of this power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus... to put our attention to what we cared about... to have the conversations that we need to have for democracy."
We have been presented an indispensable tool. It's far too promising to shy away from, but we need to ensure responsible use. The onus has been placed on our generation, like it or not, to apply the potential contained in these infant internet platforms to our burgeoning world in a way that maximizes human potential and well-being. Our collective decision on the matter will resound far into the future, shaping the face of our world and the cultures of generations to come.
In an expertly written article for Wired magazine titled Escape the Matrix, American journalist Virginia Heffernan proposes that the foremost means of reaping benefit from social media while discarding the accompanying garbage is by increasing media literacy:
"The trick is to read technology instead of being captured by it."
In this same vein, she goes on to distinguish the ordinary from the augmented, a feat our still-evolving brains have difficulty completing when faced with intoxicating snippets of news or attractive images. Because we struggle to instinctively compute the difference between a lived experience and a digitally rendered one, we have to differentiate those extremes consciously in real time.
"To read novels, hear recorded music, or scroll through Instagram is not to experience the world. It's to read it. But we forget this over and over... Our eyes are still adjusting to the augmented reality of everyday life mediated by texts and images on phones... We can climb out of the uncanny valley by recognizing that the perceivable gap between reality and internet representations of reality is not small. It's vast."
This is to say, my photo of San Francisco is not San Francisco. It's a conglomeration of red, blue and green pixels passing for a digital replica of San Francisco. It elicits a reaction upon viewing, but lacks the detail and dimension the city holds in real space.
You can apply this knowledge to your benefit simply by reminding yourself that what you see online is a limited snapshot of the moment being shared. This alleviates all kinds of stress when feelings of jealousy, anxiety or confusion arise amid your social media usage. When shown an image of a beautiful beach sunset or a cool party, we make all kinds of assumptions regarding the circumstances there and what it means about the person who posted it. The image, however, is one permanent fixture in a huge sea of experience. We lack the capacity to identify anything beyond what we see. We know nothing about the ache in their back from walking on that beach all day or the stale smell of beer on their clothes where someone spilled on them at the party.
You can't look at my photo of San Francisco and become instantly attuned to the strange depression I was feeling. (Following one of the best weeks all year, my friends had left the day before and their sudden absence affected me.) You don't experience the conflicting urges to both stay in California forever and also to leave as quickly as possible. You don't taste the 12 shots of espresso I drank in a 3 hour window while drafting this essay (probably the reason I hit the road at nightfall and drove without stopping until noon the next day, at which point, I slept at a rest stop in the Bonneville Salt Flats and later woke to extreme disorientation).
Status updates provide us with incomplete pictures at best. We can only know so much by observing a carefully curated internet profile. Just as a movie shows us patiently deliberated, heavily edited and specifically framed situations within the narrow confines of a screen, social media presents the objects that others determine they want you to see, organized from top to bottom by the technology companies who utilize algorithms to determine what order will keep you scrolling for the longest period of time. Appreciating this critical distinction is a necessary step in reconciling the discrepancy between existence on social media and a life in full color.
Accepting the magnitude of a few select companies exerting such strong influence over our observations, ideas and beliefs brings us to understand the addictive potential of operating within the spell of the ever-glamorous internet. Breaking the trance means engaging in active analysis of new media and "reading" feeds instead of reacting to them. This refinement opens a new pathway of perception and enables us to use these familiar tools in newly authentic ways. It also emphasizes the eminent danger you have narrowly escaped, raising a concern for others who have yet to reach a similar state of understanding.
Timothy Snyder eloquently describes those dangers in his recent best-seller, On Tyranny. The book explores how democratic institutions can gradually erode and give way to fascist regimes if citizens fail to remain vigilant against the forces that threaten it. You may not immediately associate social media as a culprit in the case to install a dictatorship or strip away human values, but any technology to diminish personal interaction and promote the spread of misinformation is an enemy of freedom. Bear in mind that the sole objective of these multi-billion dollar, for-profit corporations is to expand their own businesses by increasing revenue. Your own personal contentment or ultimate well-being is entirely inconsequential to them. The only part of you they value is the time you spend on site.
Snyder wrote the following about television, but it stands in for social media here with the same effect: "Television [or social media] purports to challenge political language by conveying images, but the succession from one frame [post or status] to another can hinder a sense of resolution. Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens... The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when entranced by visual stimuli."
Reiterating Harris' view from earlier, social media is a tool we can use to attain superhuman goals, whether that be maintaining contact across geographic distance, discovering relevant information or exercising democratic ideals through debate and discussion. Used unwisely, however, the same tool can do harm, and we must proceed carefully.
Snyder provides concrete recommendations for refining our relationship with this new media. Making a claim nearly identical to that of Heffernan, he suggests that we consciously choose and closely inspect our media, lest we be consumed by it.
"Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else... To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading."
His prescription for remaining tactful in navigating these treacherous and uncharted territories is to "[f]igure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Take responsibility for what you communicate to others."
That last item is especially poignant. Once you refine your relationship to social media, you also need to change the way that you use it. This means exercising discretion in the content and frequency of your posts. Creative individuals pursuing careers in art and business often seem to have a particularly difficult time with this. I can personally attest to it.
After using social media for a few years in high school, I deleted my profiles and kept it that way from ages 17 to 19. I knew nothing about reading the internet intelligently, but acted with conviction on a recurring impulse to step away. The platforms had tremendous and terrible control of my attention and happiness during the course of my teenage years. Removing them for a period of time allowed me to learn and grow without the added social pressure of crafting experiences in order to obtain likes or followers.
It was only for the purposes of promoting creative work that I eventually returned to social media. It's been a bumpy ride since then, but I'm currently situated in a position where I can benefit from a couple of popular platforms, using them primarily to share links to my work on other websites.
One helpful choice I've made in regulating my social media usage has been turning off notifications. Without sound alerts, vibrations or banners, the platforms have no way of summoning me. I am no longer at their beck and call. I use them when I want to use them and typically schedule that time in advance to guard against informational tidal waves when surfing online. Furthermore, I typically opt for one social media-free day each week. It helps my overall disposition to employ that reprieve and admit I'm not missing anything, nor am I being missed by anyone.
Rather than distancing yourself from social media in principle alone, urge yourself to put it into practice. Pick an amount of time you want to allow the companies that are competing for your attention each day. Hold yourself accountable to that. You can choose how and when to give your attention. Make sure you read your feeds as representations of moments in time; avoid viewing them as life itself. The images you see are only conglomerations of red, blue and green pixels.
Take responsibility for the ideas you communicate, bearing in mind that many people have yet to reach your same conclusions. Allow yourself breaks from the visual barrage and increase your time spent reading. Explore this topic further and contribute to ensuring responsible use of these tools, preserving the democratic institutions in which all can prosper.