Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Boring Reminder about Social Media for the Tired and Cranky.

Ooookay, time for a bit of a refresher course on using social media, because some of you seem kinda upset about what you feel is being inflicted upon you.

First and foremost, if you look at your social media feed and think, "Our society/culture/nation is falling apart" you either need to have more faith in your friends or you need to get some better friends. Put another way, if you look at a dumb joke or ridiculous article or cliche photo someone shared and think the worst about your friend, your friend is either actually the worst, or you automatically assume the worst about them. Both of these point to the same question: "Why are you connected to them? Why is this person polluting your feed or, in a larger capacity, your life?" This can be a good opportunity to examine what you want in a friend or at the very least, your newsfeed and privacy settings. (I suggest the former, but YMMV).

This goes for what news stories and products get promoted to you as well: if you look at (you don't even have to click, just look at) headlines that titillate or outrage you, FB, Twitter, Instagram, they're all smart enough to automatically serve you up more of the same. Your reaction doesn't necessarily dictate what you see so much as your action. Click/view means more opportunities to click/view, even if it steams your guts with bilious rage.

To that end, this is a great chance to do some soul searching and maybe improve your whole life. At this point, what you see on social media can be a relatively objective metric of who you really are. It's an indicator of your behavior vs. how you perceive your behavior.

Put more bluntly, it means that you either don't actually hate the politician or mouthy celebrity you see "everywhere!" or you can't stop the compulsion to hate-view content related to them, which is a serious personal problem that, fortunately, can be easily fixed.

Now, I can hear some of you saying, "but that will just create a bubble!" Yes, a little bit, it will.

There are some things to consider, though.

First, understand what, for you personally, a "bubble" really is. Is it an echo chamber? Is it an emotional state? Does breaking it mean exposure to things that make you rage? Or does it mean exposure to things that make you think deeply about who you are and what you believe? What do you want your free time (and make no mistake, that's almost automatically where social media sits in your day) to be for you and proceed from there.

Second, decide if you really want to not be in a bubble. People have always existed in bubbles through self-selecting peer groups, through social class, through race, hobbies, all that. This certainly creates a lot of problems, but it also gives people a moment of respite in their day to let their brain rest, if that's what it needs (and it does, more than we think, sometimes. On the one hand, use it or lose it, on the other, every solid athlete will tell you that you only actually get stronger when you rest and recover.) Social media put a microphone in front of everyone's face, stuck them in a room with everyone they know, and literally told them to share what was on their mind.

In doing so, it revealed a lot of errant thoughts and snap judgments on previously unspoken topics to large circles of friends that would have previously never have come up. This is the change social media brought. It didn't make anything objectively worse, it just took conversation as a concept and made it constant and performative. So, decide if you even want to keep the popped bubble megaphone life. You really don't have to. It's okay to circle those wagons and go back to just you doing you.

Now, if you do want to pop that bubble, here are a couple ways. And they take work, actual work, to get going right and maintain.

1. Regulate yourself on the quality of the sources you seek out that provide counter-arguments to your positions all over the web. Unless you're running specific, active script blockers and browsing in private mode all the time (and even then. . .), you're going to start to see a higher quality of differing opinions as a result.

2. Remove stuff that creates negative reactions. This goes back to rage vs think. I don't mean do away with whatever you disagree with, I mean clear the clutter. You can select, "this is uninteresting" or "this is offensive" or whatever and that will start to trim down that sort of thing. You can also ignore/block all from specific sources, so do it. It's okay, it really is! Especially if you're going with #1 and seeking out higher quality sources in general. The more you block the garbage, the more quality you'll see.

3. Know what social media is. Facebook, Twitter, most Google services (which are, I'd argue, still social media intrinsically in a lot of ways) are there as advertising platforms. They gain users by doing things to keep you engaged. You are not the customer, you are the product that is being sold. And there's nothing objectively bad about that. I've got friends all over the world and social media is a fantastic way to maintain those relationships, and I don't mind getting products shilled my way (especially because I'm using an ad block extension), but that does mean these services will do what they can to keep me using them. Remembering that can help you feel more empowered about what you see, how you use them, and how those interactions can affect your day.

4. Have more fun. I said earlier that the algorithms don't care whether you rage or giggle as long as you keep clicking, and to some extent that's true, but they will also make sure you get more of whatever makes you stick around. If you take steps to spend more of your time on social media in a positive or playful frame of mind and let that influence your interactions and behavior, the software will react accordingly and reinforce that to some extent.

Listen, you don't have to do any of this. But it's time to start taking this element of our social lives more seriously in the sense that we've been shown that passively taking part in this new aspect of human interaction can result in a lot of unpleasantness, conflict, and chaos if we let it. And if you're okay with that, it's fine, but if you're not, it's time to up your game or come to terms with the fact that in many ways, it's your own fault. But again, that's cause for optimism, because relatively speaking, it's pretty easy to course correct. Cool? Cool.