I think most of us have a general sense of uneasiness with the firm grasp the most popular sites on the Internet have on us, but it's no mistake in design that they're popular... or that the cause of uneasiness is also the salve.
Post a few thoughts and feelings to Twitter, like a few tweets and follow someone in the hope they'll reciprocate, wonder why they didn't. Check Facebook to see what old friends are up to, marvel that you're nothing like them anymore, silently judge them while hoping not to be silently judged. Check Instagram, feel jealous of someone's carefully crafted photo, unaware that someone else is jealous of yours.
Scroll the feed/timeline/whatever to see if you missed anything, just once more, okay twice. Check the news for stories that confirm your world view, make you feel more "normal" in their outlandishness, or just set you on edge. Flip back to twitter for funny cat videos, see a political post, feel your blood pressure rise. Back to Facebook to scroll again. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
Cut the line... at least for awhile
When I used Twitter and Facebook (I don't anymore), I didn't like how I worried about feedback. Twitter, especially, is heavily used by peers in my industry, and who doesn't want the respect of their peers? I feared missing an update. I loved and hated the ups and downs of positive and negative feedback, wondering if someone would validate what I shared, criticize it, or just tear into it.
If you feel the same way, you're not alone. In fact, I'd challenge you to pick a month (as a New Year's resolution?), post a message telling everyone you're doing a social media detox (who isn't doing a detox of some sort anyway after a dozen holiday parties), disable notifications, and sign out. See how you feel. For me, it was uncomfortable for awhile, like I was missing out. It passed.
Understand the (al)lure
I'm on a kick now to understand why these sites are so alluring to me. Why do I use them, why do I miss them, is it by design (yes) or merely chance (no way).
I mentioned Nir Eyal's book above. I won't do it justice here, so when you take your month off, I recommend reading it. He lays out a solid method for getting users hooked on your app, and you'll find yourself, as I did, thinking about the various apps you use and how they do exactly what Nir describes, getting you to invest your own time in it, providing variable rewards like a slot machine, etc. It's enlightening and annoying to see how easy it is to be manipulated. We only have so many keystrokes (and mouse scrolls!) left, and someone's profiting off them.
Even better, he goes into the ethics of whether you should do it at all, about carefully thinking of what exactly your app achieves and whether or not it's a good solution to the itch it scratches. For example, people feel the loneliness itch, and Facebook or Twitter scratch it with an endless feed and variable rewards for contributing - is that the right cure for what ails us? 🤔
Speaking of endless feeds, there's a great article by Rob Marvin titled "The Endless Scroll". Part of it's about using tech so much you forget to eat, sleep and work, but there's some really insightful stuff in there for anyone to understand about human nature in general. What follows are some of the more enlightening quotes. I'd be shocked if most of us didn't identify with at least some of these.
From Dr. David Greenfield, a psychologist studying and treating tech addiction:
"We feel constantly overwhelmed, because we're hypervigilant in responding to a million channels of information and communication, all of which emanate out of a device that we hold in our hands, that's with us 24/7. It's become an accessory to our life in a way that we've never seen before; it's a conduit through which we function and experience our lives. That has never existed in the history of humankind."
And a quote attributed to research Dr. Natasha Dow Schüll is doing into addiction, describes what she calls "ludic loops" (yea, weird name), which is the comfort (or is it a mild high?) you feel when engaged in a repetitive activity that gives you occasional rewards.
Ludic loops occur when you pick up a smartphone and start scrolling. You flick through Facebook or Twitter, read some posts, check your email or Slack, watch a few Instagram stories, send a Snap or two, reply to a text, and end up back on Twitter to see what you've missed.
Before you know it, 20 or 30 minutes has gone by; often longer. These experiences are designed to be as intuitive as possible; you can open and start using them without spending too much time figuring out how they work.
Another great quote, again from Dr Greenfield. Of course, I have no idea what's talking about... do you?
[W]e've become a "boredom-intolerant culture," using tech to fill every waking moment — sometimes at the expense of organic creativity or connecting with someone else in a room. When was the last time you took public transportation or sat in a waiting room without pulling out a smartphone?
From Adam Alter, another psychologist studying these things. This is part of the reason the next book on my list is The Art of Screen Time.
"I think it's really important that kids are exposed to social situations in the real world, rather than just through a screen where there's this delayed feedback. It's about seeing your friend when you talk to them; seeing the reactions on their face," said Alter. "The concern is that putting people in front of screens during the years where they really need to interact with real people may never fully acquire those social skills.
Ultimately though, it's up to us to cut ties with certain tech, instead of taking to social media (oh, the irony) when a company creates something we crave. Fortunately, the process of discovering how to write an addictive app means we're simultaneously discovering how to protect ourselves from addictive apps, thanks to the work of people like Nir Eyal and others like him. Once we realize we're being duped, we tend to hit back hard.
Tools don't use themselves
One last thought, from Arianna Huffington (who wrote a popular focus app).
Technology is just a tool—it's not inherently good or bad. It's about how we use it and what it does for our lives. So phones can be used to enhance our lives or consume them. And though it sounds paradoxical, there's actually more and more technology that helps us unplug from technology. That kind of human-centered technology is one of the next tech frontiers.
Her argument is the same for any tool - a hammer can be misused to hurt someone, or it can be used to build a home for someone without one. It's always been about humans helping or hurting one another... not the tool itself.
If you're looking for a cliffs-notes version, someone put together a nice summary, which I think I'll hang on to for reference: