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Curing the ills of social media

Technology columnist Richard MacManus looks at how social media is making us ill and why the mute and unfollow buttons should be our friends.

By the end of 2017, even Facebook was admitting social media is bad for us. The biggest social media company in the world simply could no longer ignore the side effects: fake news, constant outrage, polarised opinions, tribalism, groupthink, virtue signalling, and all the other ills of our internet culture.

Yet despite Facebook’s promise to “help elevate the conversation” in 2018, we’re now halfway through the year and nothing has really changed. And when you look at the hard data, you can see why.

Facebook’s user numbers are stronger than ever. In its first quarter results, Facebook announced that its daily active users were 1.45 billion on average for March 2018 – an increase of 13 percent year-over-year. The fact is, Facebook continues to grow every quarter. So there’s no financial or market incentive for them to change.

As Michael Jackson once sang, perhaps it’s time for us to look at the man (or woman) in the mirror. “Take a look at yourself, and then make a change” was Jackson’s earnest advice to us little people.

There’s certainly no shortage of self-help books about taming technology. Author Nicholas Carr, who himself wrote The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, recently reviewed two similar books. One is entitled “Antisocial Media,” while the other is “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” Those titles tell you all you need to know.

But as Carr concluded, despite the solid arguments made in both books, ultimately we all continue to use social media. “The only thing worse than being on Facebook is not being on Facebook,” Carr wrote.

I agree and have always maintained that social media has many positive uses. I use Twitter to keep track of the latest technology developments and industry chatter. I use Facebook to post baby photos and keep in touch with family and friends. I don’t want to lose those benefits by deleting my accounts.

So what can those of us who refuse to stop using social media do to make it a better experience?

Unfollowing many of the most popular people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar platforms would be a good start. That’s because popular accounts are often run by very flawed individuals. As the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman recently put it on a podcast show, Twitter tends to attract people who are performative, idealogues in their opinions, and may even “have some elements of mental illness” because they constantly need “feedback from the public to validate that they exist.”

Yet many of us follow these deranged individuals, simply because they are entertaining. How about we not give them the attention they so desperately crave?

Who am I kidding? Many of us will continue to follow blowhards on Twitter and keep clicking “like” on the small percentage of our Facebook friends who over-share. If reality tv taught us anything in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s that most of us enjoy watching ordinary people with outsized egos say dumb things in public. Facebook and Twitter are just the latest platforms for such behaviour.

Perhaps we need professional help. Just as there are now many self-help books about technology, there are also a number of organisations that have arisen to try and save us from ourselves (and our mobile phones).

The most prominent is run by ex-Googler Tristan Harris. He’s come up with what’s essentially a philosophy for using technology, which he labelled Time Well Spent. This philosophy advocates for self-control when it comes to technology, including such measures as removing social media apps from your phone and turning off notifications.

The media attention Harris attracted for Time Well Spent led to the founding this year of an advocacy group called the Center for Humane Technology. This organisation argues that modern technology – and especially social media – is addictive and is harmful not only to us, but to our children. “The race to keep children’s attention trains them to replace their self-worth with likes, encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out,” the group’s website claims.

But we know all this already. The real question is: what’s being done about it? The Center for Humane Technology has several current initiatives, including trying to convince technology companies to adopt “humane design.” It’s asking the likes of Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft to “redesign their devices and core interfaces to protect our minds.” At the same time, the group is lobbying politicians to try and curtail the power of the big tech companies.

The intervention of well-meaning technologists like Tristan Harris is appreciated; and I believe will eventually make a difference. But ultimately I think it’s up to each one of us, as free-thinking individuals, to make changes to how we use technology and how our children use it.

We can start by actively managing our social media activity. As internet commentator Anil Dash recently put it, our social networks require maintenance or upkeep too – just as we make regular updates to other parts of our digital lives. Dash even went so far as to unfollow 5,000 people on Twitter, and then gradually rebuild his network to better suit his current interests.

I’m not yet at the point where I want to unfollow everyone, but I do unfollow over-sharers on Facebook and I steer clear of people who practice groupthink or spout ideological nonsense on Twitter. On social media, the unfollow button and the mute option are your friends.

I’ve also followed some of the advice that Tristan Harris and other ethical technologists espouse. I turned off Facebook and Twitter notifications on my phone, and I try and limit the amount of time I spend browsing social media.

So can we cure or fix social media? I’m afraid not. Just as reality tv hasn’t gone away, the bad parts of social media are here to stay too. But that doesn’t mean you have to give them your attention.

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