My Reaction to: WE are the Product

My wonderful friend Caralyn over at Beauty Beyond Bones has posted a thought-provoking article about social media entitled WE are the product.

Note: It feels a little grandiose for me to claim Caralyn is my friend. Her blog is way more popular than mine and I don’t want to look like I’m sucking up to her to boost my own credibility. In truth, we barely know each other. But we’ve interacted on each other’s blogs and I admire her personal story and her ambition to help others. So I guess it’s more accurate to say we’re fellow bloggers (not friends), though I hope over time we’ll become more like real friends.

Caralyn’s main point is that the reason social media is free is because they make a tonne of money from you, the user, simply by keeping your eyeballs on their platform. Advertising is extraordinarily lucrative for them, way more than I thought possible back in the good old days.

Here’s my own journey with social media and how my relationship to it has evolved. My focus will be on Facebook as that’s the platform with which I have had the most problems, though I’ll touch on others too.

The Early Days

Back when Facebook first started, as a recent Computer Science graduate I was all over it. It was new, exciting and it immediately struck me as far superior to MySpace, which often made my eyeballs bleed due to users’ poor web design choices.

I’ll admit, there was an element of snobbery too: I read a quote that expressed the platform in terms of a military hierarchy… MySpace was for the foot soldiers, but the officers used Facebook.

Bear in mind this was back in the days before Facebook had advertising. Its motives seemed relatively pure, helping people to connect.

Perhaps the first sign that Facebook might not be universally positive came from an ex-girlfriend of mine. She generally looked down upon IT geeks who spent lots of time in front of screens. She far preferred face-to-face interaction. I remember her commenting on the fact that people seemed to be spending lots of their holiday time on Facebook, rather than actually having their holidays. Her objection raised a flag in my head, but at the time I thought she was just being a luddite.

Twitter

I’ve never liked Twitter. I’ve tried forcing myself to use it a few times, particularly when people I admired would rave about the platform. I’m not quite sure why I disliked it so much; it just didn’t appeal. With hindsight, I’m very glad I’ve stayed away from it, it now resembles a garbage fire of a different sort from the now defunct MySpace.

Social Media Addiction

I am an addict. I get obsessed with things easily. I also have lifelong depression. These make for a particularly dangerous combination in the presence of social media.

Depression made me socially anxious. Almost all of the time, I preferred to interact with people from the safety of my keyboard. At first, Facebook seemed like an ideal solution to my need to maintain friendships.

But at some point in the last few years, I recognised I was spending far more time on Facebook than I really wanted to. And it was affecting my mental health.

I’d got into the bad habit of staying up really late. The more tired I became, the less effective my brain’s executive functioning. Automatic habits would take over in the early hours of the morning. I was only barely in control of my behaviour.

I noticed I spent hours stuck in a loop of scrolling through Facebook late at night, looking for something interesting… for that dopamine hit.

I’d stay up too late and then feel exhausted in the morning.

A few times, I asked myself, “Hang on, why am I doing this? What good am I getting out of spending so much time on Facebook?”

And so began my attempts to moderate my behaviour with Facebook. It’s a battle I frequently lose.

I agree with Caralyn that Faceook is 100% designed to be addictive. And for a tech geek like me who has a known predisposition to addictive behaviours, I get suckered in easily.

I tried limiting the number of hours I spent on Facebook. It didn’t really work.

I’ve probably quit Facebook completely at least 6 or 7 times in recent years. My decision to quit has been helped along by the company’s privacy scandals. I no longer thought of the company as benign. Now I saw its potential to be cancerous.

Each time I’ve quit, I’ve been very glad that I did. I get back many hours per day that I’d been wasting. I’d often go to bed earlier, meaning I slept better, so my mental health and energy levels were better.

But equally, eventually I’d find reasons to go back. At least 95% of my friends live over an hour away from me, making it rare to see them in person. Facebook was the perfect way to keep in touch and most of my friends used it.

Using Technology Intentionally

I realised that I needed to take full control of my use of Facebook and other social media. I needed to think carefully about how much I wanted to use it per day. I needed to be fully aware of the psychological hooks being used to make me addicted, and how to counter them.

And most importantly, I needed to ensure I used social media intentionally, rather than just as a time-filler.

I found that if I used social media just because I was bored, it was very very bad for mental health. I have quite a strong sense of self, so I wasn’t falling into the common trap of comparing myself unfavourably to others.

But I was spending time unproductively, often against my will. And that made me feel awful and depressed.

I came across the work of Cal Newport. Wikipedia describes him as “Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the author of six self-improvement books.

I can highly recommend his blogs, especially the ones about the dangers of social media.

Cal’s work helped me fine-tune my intentions for Facebook. I thought carefully about how I really wanted to use the site and ways for me to achieve that and avoid addiction.

I would try hard not to let myself spend hours per day on the site unproductively. If I caught myself “mindlessly scrolling”, I said a personal mantra out loud:

“Get off Facebook, it’s shit”

– Me, talking to myself.

I didn’t mean it literally… of course Facebook was actually a mixture of good things and bad things. But this saying worked as a prompt for me to close that browser tab and go do something more productive/fun/interesting/good for my mental health.

I’m back, back again

A few weeks ago I tentatively rejoined Facebook. My mental health has been good and I felt I had genuine good reason for using the platform. I’m in the process of relaunching my IT business online and wanted to use Facebook for marketing. Plus, there are several support groups that are Facebook-only and which seemed likely to help me.

At first I only made a handful of Friend Requests. I wanted to prevent myself from getting addicted again. But then, a few days ago, the dams burst and I’ve reconnected with 50-odd friends and family. I’m really glad I did. It’s lovely to reconnect and catch up.

The True Me

Here’s another really important ingredient for me… I actively avoid putting my best foot forward and presenting an unrealistic impression of myself.

I am NOT trying to convince the world that my life is pure positivity and rainbows. I’d like to think I have very little narcissism. If anything, I’m too self-deprecating, though that’s something I’m working on.

And I have a rock-solid dedication to telling the truth, which includes telling the truth about myself, both good and bad.

Just look at this blog. I don’t claim to be an expert in any particular field (apart from IT, in which I have a degree). I don’t pretend my life is perfect. In fact, I go to to great lengths to discuss my struggles, weaknesses and personal flaws. I think that’s way more interesting than presenting a false image of perfection.

Several years ago, I watched Brene Brown’s two TED Talks on vulnerability and shame. I took her lessons to heart. For me, they still stand out as my two favourite ever TED Talks.

And so, I’ve been trying to live more whole-heartedly, with courage and bravery, exposing myself to ridicule and criticism on a regular basis.

This has been hard for me. As a sensitive person and someone with depression, I often take things personally when they weren’t intended that way. I’ve had to do a lot of inner work to change this, to make myself more resilient.

But by God, it’s been worth the pain.

When you act with total honesty and bravery, you are combining two of the three core spiritual principles which are very dear to me: Truth and Courage.

“Live your life in alignment with Truth and Courage; miracles will happen.”

Me, quoting myself, in mock pretentiousness.

YouTube

YouTube is probably my favourite social media platform. It brings me great joy, feeds my curiosity and makes me laugh a lot.

But YouTube can also become a total time sink. If you leave its autoplay feature on, you can find yourself watching crap you don’t care about, wasting time and becoming depressed.

But I’ve found a fantastically effective way to neuter this risk.

I “Subscribe” to channels which produce content I care about. And my browser bookmark for YouTube goes to my Subscriptions page rather than the default homepage.

If you want the same URL I use, it’s: https://www.youtube.com/feed/subscriptions

So, I’m only presented with content from producers I care about. And I’m constantly asking myself, “Do I actually care about the content in this video?”

If I catch myself just killing time on YouTube, I close my browser. I’ve restricted myself to using YouTube intentionally, for specific purposes, much like how I try to be careful with how I use Facebook.

Occasionally I’ll click on YouTube’s homepage just to see if there are any new channels being recommended to me which I might want to subscribe to. But I try to do this as infrequently as possible.

I’m not addicted to YouTube. I can pick and choose when I use it. But Facebook rapidly sucks me back in to wasting time unproductively.

On Facebook I have to keep asking myself, “Am I just mindlessly scrolling, or was there something I actually wanted to achieve here?”

I wish there was a better way to stop myself being addicted to Facebook, in the same way that I’ve found a way to stop myself being addicted to YouTube. Maybe there is! If you know of an effective method, please tell me!

Summary

On balance I’d say that say that social media is like any tool… it can be used for good, or it can be destructive. It’s important that we try to stay conscious of our choices… and not allow addictive algorithms to manipulate us.

A Quick Word on Privacy

I no longer believe privacy exists. I tried to protect my privacy, trust me. I’m an IT expert and I set up my computer to maximise my privacy in every way I knew how.

But I soon realised those advertising dollars are so lucrative for tech companies that they will always find a way to track you, even when you don’t want to be.

And my everyday experiences of using the Internet as privately as possible were significantly more irritating in a number of ways. Many useful features on web pages no longer worked.

I realised that the only way to not be tracked is to not use the Internet.

So, if we accept that we WILL be tracked, how can we limit any damage?

For me, this comes back to my moral code. I don’t do anything online that I wouldn’t be prepared to defend in court. And yes, that includes my porn habits.

These days, I assume I am always being tracked and watched. Rather than allow myself to get paranoid about it, I’m open.

I know that privacy advocates think it’s a weak argument to say, “I have nothing to hide, so why do I care about privacy?” – but I think we have to face a harsh reality…

I believe we have 2 choices:

  • Use the Internet and be tracked/watched/monitored. And behave accordingly, OR;
  • Don’t use the Internet.

There is no third choice.

Over to you – what do you think?

Have you ever experienced social media addiction? Do you take any particular steps to limit the harms of social media?

I’d love to know what you think.

Published by Rock Bollinger

NEW BLOG STARTED MAY 2020! I'm on a quest for a meaningful life, determined not to let mental illness get the better of me.

3 thoughts on “My Reaction to: WE are the Product

  1. I was on Face Book for a couple of years, but got off because it was literally consuming my life. I was trolling and scrolling just about every free moment, and by trolling I mean I was searching for that dopamine hit.

    Frankly, I think Face Book is a religion. Think about it, billions of users stuck in social validation feedback loops. It’s definitely dystopian!

    BTW, this was a great post, plus you got Caralyn to actually comment on (not just like) your post! I’d buy a popsicle for every person still left in Manhattan if our effervescent lady friend commented on one of my posts!

    Blessings.

    Like

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