I can’t remember the moment it became a problem. But things creep up on you. I can’t remember the moment I stopped reading fiction books. Or the moment I stopped blogging and started taking pictures of my coffee. I can’t remember the moment I could no longer watch a film all the way through on my laptop. I can’t remember the moment I stopped reading long form articles, and consumed most news and media in a stream of 140 characters.
I can’t remember the moment I stopped loving the internet as a place to create and communicate, and started to hate it.
But as a teenager, I loved the internet more than anyone. I grew up with blogs, Livejournal, fan fiction, DIY websites, DeviantArt and chatting to strangers. I can’t remember the exact moment I started to feel out of control, when the word “addiction” became a normal word to describe our relationship with social media and smartphones.
I knew that when Facebook arrived, something changed. It brought the world online, for better and worse, although there were a few warning signs before. But then when did email become a problem? Twitter? Netflix bingeing? Refreshing the Guardian website several times a day, an hour?
I knew that something was wrong. And it felt like this was the way it had always been, not for a handful of years, but decades. Evening after evening would begin to feel the same. The malaise spread from evenings, to mornings, to afternoons, to whole weekends, to most moments when I wasn’t at work, outside the house, at an event or with someone else.
My first step was to blame myself. I blamed myself for lacking the self-control to change. I thought, ‘wow, everyone else seems to be coping, why don’t I just deal with it or delete my accounts?’ But that didn’t work. Every time I deleted Twitter, I’d just start a new one. Every time I used Twitter, I’d feel good for a short while before spiralling into a misery hole (even the entertaining, funny stuff began to feel shit).
Small changes weren’t working. I needed something more drastic.
A turning point
In 2016, I went cold turkey. Except for work, I gave up the internet for two months. After 3 days, I felt transformed. The world opened up. I was shocked by how much time I had back.
It was a lot easier giving up everything than Twitter alone. I forced myself to find alternatives. My daydreams returned. Life came back to me like an old friend.
It was a novel experiment, although it began to grate after a few weeks. But I’d made a breakthrough. An alternative relationship with the internet was possible. I’d proven it.
Turning my anger outwards
The great thing about getting angry is that you are much closer to changing. And, as of 2018, we’re a lot more angry.
Facebook and Twitter lost their innocence in 2016.
It’s one thing feeling like you’re wasting your own life, but it’s a whole other thing when you feel like democracy has been hijacked.¹
Prior to 2016, we were able to use the mythology of the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring to convince ourselves that, in spite of how shit social media often made us feel on the inside, that it was (on balance) a force for good on the outside, especially for progressive causes.²
And, because social media was all about us, a mirror of a Millennial generation so thoroughly screwed over by traditional guardians of power, it felt like ours. Sure, there was a lot of sexism and racism being tolerated on the platforms — but we could just clap back.
But the Cambridge Analytica revelations made it impossible for us, as consumers, to ignore how traditional modes of power and money, when paired with disruptive technology, can help to divide society and translate into hard power. Who has responsibility when things go wrong? What happens when our experience of politics is shaped by algorithms that form filter bubbles? How can personalisation (surely a dream for consumers, tech companies and advertisers) make elections less transparent? How does this, in turn, affect (or reflect) the wider media and how individuals participate within it? What happens to our culture when the aim is to get as much attention as possible in a winner-takes-all exchange?
In short, what happens when algorithms begin to reflect and reinforce the most short-sighted and prejudiced parts of human nature? And who profits from it?
Attention, the missing part of the puzzle
Amidst the rise of social media, so few of us paused to ask, “how do social media companies make money?”³
The answer is: by selling your attention to advertisers.
The ads side makes sense. We know that social media has ads, and that advertisers pay for ads to appear on our feeds.
We know that there are many benefits to social media too, so viewing ads in exchange for having access to these services for free makes sense. For the benefit of advertisers and consumers, Facebook wants to make sure ads are as targeted as possible. They’re a necessary evil, but they’re not hugely intrusive and don’t stop us from stalking our latest crush or espousing our political views.⁴
But I think it’s more difficult getting to grips with the relationship between ads and attention.
Because, in the attention economy, we don’t actually pay much attention to ads. We pay attention to a lot of other things: ourselves, our friends and family, news articles, the latest memes, amusing videos.
We pay attention to whatever entertains us or makes us angry or makes us laugh or whatever notification pops up on our screen in-the-moment. And we have algorithms that are constantly trying to work out how to keep our attention and make us return.
The point of the attention economy is not about paying attention to ads per se; it’s about making sure users return to a platform and stay as long as they can on the site for ads to be served on their feed.
The exchange is indirect.
Attention and addiction
So what has this got to do with feeling out of control of your social media use?
Addiction = attention.
What is reinforced again and again and again, from Silicon Valley engineers and designers, is that these tools were designed to be addictive.
The Centre of Humane Technology, which focuses on the negative impact social media has on mental health and society, is full of former Facebook and Google defectors.
Sure, the Founders of these projects may not have deliberately been designed to get Trump to the White House or for Brexit to win the referendum (old-fashioned money, power and propaganda techniques were able to do that), but the logic of attention means that pre-existing weaknesses can be exploited.
In this sense, I’m less concerned about the political content and outcomes (as horrific as some of these are) on these platforms, but how the logic behind the attention economy can exploit our social and psychological vulnerabilities for profit and power. This, in turn, can shape every part of our lives — from how we view ourselves, our friends and the world around us.
When I came across this quote from Marcus Pincus in this article, my face flushed with rage:
“Maybe I’m too close to it all, but I think when you pull the camera back, none of us really matter that much. I think the internet is following a path to where the internet wants to go. We’re all trying to figure out what consumers want, and if what people is this massive echo chamber and this vain world of likes, someone is going to give it to them, and they’re going to be the one who wins, and the ones who don’t, won’t.”⁵
This obsession with giving what the consumer wants, based purely on engagement, is a toxic way of shaping our relationships and politics. What strikes me about the Pincus quote, however, is that it erases the human hand behind these algorithms, and makes badly designed digital spaces seem inevitable and objective.
We’ve entered a different era of consumerism — one that eats us up from the inside.
We’re all attention merchants
In my darkest moments, my biggest fear is that we’ve internalised the values of the attention economy as our own. When we post, we mimic the behaviour of mini attention merchants and digital marketers.
But instead of getting paid with money, we get paid in little dopamine hits in the form of likes, comments, views. And we dish out attention to our friends and content we like, in the form of likes, shares and views.
Whenever I get a notification, it is like a mysterious present, which, when unwrapped, reveals a delicious morsel of attention.
Someone liked my picture on Instagram?
Someone paid attention to me?
Someone likes me.
Our self-worth can become a sum of these little attention morsels. We can become anxious when we don’t feel enough people pay attention to us. It’s the commercialisation of being human.
And while these morsels of attention keep us returning to the site, the attention-driven algorithms keep us on there.
You’ve got to have an iron will to be able to withstand that double-bind. And even if one platform doesn’t get you, another may.⁶ So regardless of whether we talk about about ‘addiction’ colloquially or clinically, the odds are stacked against us if we want to change.
On top of that, these tools do offer useful functionality and are intertwined with our infrastructure and social lives that opting out can cost us. FOMO is not always irrational.
Some research shows that deleting social media accounts can make people feel more isolated, impact professional opportunities and stop them from accessing valuable educational resources. The good is wrapped up with the bad.⁷
Paving a way out
I couldn’t wait for a solution anymore, so I created my own. It took lots self-experimentation, but I developed Digital Cooldown. I won’t go into detail about it here, but, after repeating it every time I felt frustrated and angry, I trained myself out of my worst habits. I still use social media, although a lot less than before, and I still carry my smartphone everywhere (mostly as a glorified MP3 player). But I feel in control (finally!) and I’ve rediscovered healthier ways of procrastinating.
I grew up during a period that showed me how awesome the internet could be. And I will be at the forefront when it becomes a better, stronger, more nurturing place again.
But that requires a conscious, reevaluation and reorientation of our relationship with our digital environment.
My learning question is:
“How can I help people have a healthier and more balanced relationship with the internet and their devices?”
While on the surface, the question seems reasonable, almost sanitised, it contains years of heartbreak, rage, lost time, self-loathing, anxiety, frustration and disillusion.
I used to love the internet. I don’t want to live in an internet where we can’t post funny videos or connect with friends using cheap or free social media platforms. I do want Facebook and its products to exist in 5 years time.
But I also want a digital environment where we can thrive — not only as individuals, but as a society. That is what my learning question is about, and what my work at Enrol Yourself will help me answer. And this is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
If anyone is interested in tackling the same issues or joining me on the journey, get in touch.
¹ While I don’t think that social media was responsible for Trump or Brexit, I do think their reliance on attention-maximising algorithms helped to enhance divisions that already existed. The models helped to facilitate the spread of fake news, click-baity conspiracy theories, Russian interference and fake accounts that led to voter suppression etc. Without the algorithms, instant feedback and sophisticated (including dark) targeting, how much visibility would these have got? There are also a lot of horrifying stories globally about how fake news has actively facilitated genocide, violence and corruption in Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India. It’s important not to take a view that is too Western-centric.
² Please note, I think social media is vital for gaining visibility for marginalised groups and shifting cultural and social attitudes, which we’ve seen with #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. People who often complain about people being assholes on social media are often people who have less to lose by saying this.
But I also believe we need to be critical as hell when it comes to understanding business models that consolidate power in ways that contribute to societal inequality, how algorithms can encode prejudice and the pitfalls these pose for activists.
³ If you’re still not sure, don’t worry. According to this report, 24% of people don’t know how to tech companies make money either.
⁴ This is not to say that targeted ads are ineffective or harmless. There is a great book called Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil that shows how ads can reinforce socioeconomic inequality.
⁵ The article, Sex, Beer and Coding: Inside Facebook’s Wild Early Days is put together in this really strange, fragmented way, so it’s difficult to glean the context or tone in which this was supposedly said.
⁶ Persuasive design techniques alone aren’t enough to get someone hooked. It has to appeal to some deeper part of you. And each platform appeals to different aspirations, identities and demographics.
⁷ The relationship between mental health and social media is complex. You can find studies that seemingly confirm that social media leads to poorer mental health; but you can also find studies that seemingly confirm that social media helps young people with mental health problems. That’s why it’s important to look at this on an individual-basis. There is also evidence to suggest that having access to social networks can improve your access to job prospects, feel less alone and access vital resources.