Social Media is Evil But Not Optional

In the year 2005, I was 13 and low on confidence. I couldn’t string two sentences in English together and that made me very conscious. My school treated English as a subject and would make us memorise paragraphs of texts from books that I barely remember now. They couldn’t care less about our ability to construct new sentences on our own, only our ability to mentally vomit from the text book matters. Thus, English would remain confined in my classroom until I discovered the Internet, more specifically social media.

Fast forward to 2020, I’m comfortably able to write my thoughts in English at a typing speed that almost matches my thinking speed. In retrospect, my ability to communicate in English gave me everything I have today and social media is how I learnt to communicate. What 15 years of formal education couldn’t do, social media platforms did it almost effortlessly.

This is why I have trouble buying into the narrative of “Uninstall all your social media apps right now”. This has resurfaced again, thanks to the Netflix documentary - “The Social Dilemma”

Yes, companies like Google and Facebook are mining our attention for money. How can that be good? It is not good. It isn’t. But how can abstinence be good as well? Hear me out as I chart an alternate path

How did it all get screwed up?

Social media wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t this attention craving monster that looks to keep us in its grips all the time. I grew up in the pre-Facebook era where social media wouldn’t come to you, you had to reach out. If you wanted to get on social media, you had to wait. You had to wait at a “browsing center” where you paid 30 Rs for 1 hour in front of a computer. A few years in, you had to wait for your turn to use the home computer and wait longer for the dail-up connection to connect. So what really changed in these years? Social media became a business. When Orkut started, the motivation wasn’t to make money. It was simply to connect people. If we were to believe what we see in “The Social Network”, that’s exactly why Zuckerberg started Facebook as well. Social media apps, like any other apps, were built to solve a problem - break the physical constraints and connect people. And oh boy, did that idea take off! But then a lot of things happened between then and now. Internet became more accessible. Steve Jobs invented a new category called smartphone. Social media grew and realised they needed to make money. Orkut lost to Facebook. Facebook started displaying ads. They started making money.

Now why is this bad, again?

Imagine this. Facebook makes money when you spend time on their app looking at your newsfeed and also their ads. Let’s assume that 4 hours of your time makes Facebook 40$. Now how can Facebook increase that to 60$? They get you to spend 2 more hours on the app. How do they do that? They deploy few popular techniques that all of us know but still wilfully comply

The notifications

The first step is to get you on the app if you’re not on it already. In a notification-less world, the only way you’re going to be on Facebook is when you feel like you need to be on Facebook. How do you manufacture that need? Notification. The moment you see “1 new notification”, your mind immediately jumps to “What could it be?”, “Is someone trying to text me?”, “Is someone tagged me?”. This mechanism is often compared to gambler pulling down the lever on a slot machine but that has made no difference whatsoever. What happens once you’re in?

The feed

Ah, the endless scroll monster that we all love. The notifications get you in and the feed keeps you in. The feed is never empty. It’s so easy to end up on the feed. Imagine getting to Facebook to post something and the moment you’re done, the app kicks you on to the feed. It’s impossible to get on Facebook to do any other action without looking at the feed. It’s right there! Front and center! All it takes is one interesting post to get you in. That’s it. One post and you’re off playing Subway Surfers on your feed! What happens once your feed goes dry?

Facebook doesn’t want you to stop scrolling. You could reach the edge of the flat-earthers world not but the end of your newsfeed. It’s a bottomless pit. Even if your own feed dries out, it borrows from others to keep going.

Amazon does this more directly with “People who bought this also bought”. It has the decency to let you make your own bad decisions.

You could argue that all of these settings are configurable. You could turn off all the notifications and switch off Autoplay on YouTube but ask yourself. How many times have you changed the default? Turns out 95% of users stick to default (This is pretty dated research but the numbers wouldn’t have changed drastically)

So far you’re still passive, how does Facebook turn you into an active participant?

Likes and comments

Imagine a office party where you crack a pretty good joke. It’s hilarious. There’s laughter all over the room but that doesn’t end there. All evening, people are walking up to you with “Good one”, “That was good” and “You’re funny!”. The dopamine hit is good enough to go to the next party with a bunch of jokes memorised. Facebook is one huge party happening 24 x 7. Social media quantifies everything and that’s dangerous.

You subconsciously set targets for likes & comments and sulk if you don’t meet them. Things don’t look good when you meet them as well. Got 100 likes? Buckle up, it’s time for 1000. That’s done as well? Well, loads of people have 1000, 10,000 that’s the real number! And you keep going.

These numbers started driving behaviour in the real world. One of your posts went “viral” last night? That’s now the lunch table discussion. You get back home in the evening to “beat your high score”

Numbers on social media is never the goal, it’s simply a byproduct. I compare social media to real life. You behave in social media as you would behave in real life. You walk around talking to people you like, talking about things you like and you attract like minded people into your friends. That’s exactly how social media must function but simply in a digital realm

Always angry? People are scared to talk to you Always funny? No one takes you seriously Always whining? No one invites you to their friends group This applies everywhere. Physical, digital and 5-dimensional space.

Weren’t you suggesting an alternate path?

For someone who claimed to be against the “uninstall social media” narrative, I’ve managed to make a strong case for it.

I still stand by my claims.

Never before has the world been so connected. I learn everyday from great minds across the world and I discovered all of them online. It doesn’t stop there. These great minds are just one good email or DM away from me. Oh, I could send them my work, tag them in a tweet or email them an idea and they could reply. How powerful is that? This has never been possible before. I am not willing to throw away this opportunity because Facebook mines my attention for money. Screw you, Facebook, I will fight you.

Social media lets you build audience. It lets you validate ideas. It lets you seek feedback. It lets you hire and get hired. It gives you a voice. It enables conversations. It lets you live in a digital world, if you must. It breaks you free from the physical shackles.

The pros truly outweigh the cons if and only if you manage to fight back

How do we fight back?

Start by turning off all the notifications on your phone. Stop reading and do that right now. The little ding, the mild vibrate and the “1 New Notifaction” must disappear from your view forever, even from the notifications bar. New comments can wait. Friend requests can wait. Direct messages can wait. You will get on the app when you want to get on the app. Next, consume like you’re on a diet. Unfollow, unfriend and block mercilessly. See something you don’t like? Make sure you never see that again. Don’t worry about hurting your friends’ feelings. Unfollow them if they post crap all the time (Mute, if you want to be nice). You own what you see. Follow new people. There’s no point in recreating a digital version of your physical echo chamber. Start searching for the kind of people you want to learn from. Follow them. Talk to them. Make new friends. The world is the limit right now.

If I had the power, I would also take this fight to Facebook and force product decisions. Allow users the disable the feed. You should choose how you use social media and if the feed gets in the way, it shall go.

Allow users to disable notifications. You don’t really care if someone commented on your photo from 5 years ago or someone shared your post. You don’t need another “Inbox Zero”, thank you very much!

Fix the business model! As long as they use your attention to make money, there’s no escape. There will always be a smart engineer who will figure out a way to keep you in the app.

But fire didn’t need marketing

Fire was discovered much before the English language so there’s no accurate account of how early humans reacted back then. Maybe, this is a phase we go through as humans whenever something technologically advanced is discovered. Or, I’m foolish and fighting for the wrong side without realising it.

I am optimistic and wish the same fate for social media as well - ‘Eventually, fire became embedded in human behaviour, so that it is involved in almost all advanced technologies’ (Note: I’ve used ‘Facebook’ as an example because it’s easier to explain but replace that with any YouTube, Instagram, Reddit and statement still remains true)