The Social Dilemma is a documentary about social media’s impact on society.
Its thesis will be familiar to many: news feeds like Facebook and Twitter have figured out what drives people to become addicted, to keep scrolling/watching, to get “reengaged,” to have reinforcing emotional responses. The better they are at this, the more money they can make through ads, so they have gotten extremely good at it. But while we may enjoy our news feeds more than we used to, the emotional manipulation has downsides: we have raised a generation of teenagers who are dependent on social media for their self-esteem; we have manipulated voters into being politically predictable and therefore polarized. Plus, this sort of manipulation by corporations just seems pretty toxic and worth avoiding on principle. That we can be emotionally manipulated in this way is not surprising, but it has wide-ranging impacts, not least of which is the extreme political polarization that we see in today’s society.
The Social Dilemma does a great job prosecuting this case, using alternating scenes of dramatization and interviews. The dramatization is a bit silly in parts, but it gets the point across. I think the idea of toxic newsfeeds is a really difficult and nuanced message to convey, and the movie explains it well, making it clear why it’s important.
From my point of view, the worst feeds are novel, personalized, and social. Novel, because novelty is what causes us to become addicted to refreshing it. Personalized, because it can really learn what makes you tick. And social, because social interactions are especially compelling. Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok and Twitter are the worst of the bunch. Youtube doesn’t have as much emphasis on social feedback mechanisms (“likes”) but as far as I can tell, is basically just as bad in terms of getting people addicted and especially sending them down rabbit holes. Reddit is much less personalized (and they don’t seem to be trying nearly as hard to personalize it for you) but is still extremely addictive. Netflix’s autoplay by default feature is meant to keep you on the couch for hours.
If you’re the type of person who already believes in the toxic newsfeed, then you’ve probably already taken steps to protect yourself against it. If you haven’t, then I strongly suggest:
- Watch The Social Dilemma and share it with your friends! I think even if you already believe the thesis, the movie will help you believe it more and explain it to others.
- Practice recognizing toxic newsfeeds – there are many more than the major ones I mentioned above. News sites count, especially when they have “infinite scroll” or recommendations at the bottom of articles that draw you into other articles.
- Be mindful when browsing the web or using your phone. Notice what drags you back in, when you get distracted. This is insanely hard to notice reliably, and if you’re not experienced at it you’ll fail a lot, so don’t beat yourself up when you do – just when you do notice, mindfully bring your attention back to the question “what am I doing here? what is the purpose of me looking at a screen right now?” It may take months, but practicing this habit will eventually give you a lot more control about what enters your brain.
- Turn off all notifications except those that serve you. Turn off “autoplay next” on Youtube and Netflix, and tell your browser not to autoplay videos when you load web pages.
- Exercise willpower once, rather than all the time – set up blocking mechanisms. For example, I decided to only use Facebook on my computer, never my phone. I deleted the app, and blocked Facebook’s news feed in my browser using “News Feed Eradicator” so that whenever I open Facebook, I can use the social features but not get dragged in by the feed. There are lots of things like this you can do, depending on what your pathological behaviors are, but you have to notice them first.
And, if you still need additional help (as I did), I further suggest:
- Train your contacts not to use toxic newsfeed platforms to contact you. E.g., ask them to stop messaging you on Facebook and instead to text or email you.
- Delete all your social apps that you check regularly, and block those sites on your computer so you don’t check them by accident. Funnel everything you want updates for into one place (probably email), and regularly curate your email subscriptions so that you aren’t being emailed about things you don’t value being dragged into.
You might be asking: But how can I get the news?
I’ve been enjoying the following combination:
- wikipedia’s front page (en.wikipedia.org) – the news box is updated when really important things happen. But they don’t get paid for your traffic, so they have no incentive to push you to keep reading things.
- podcasts: there are so many varied podcasts about basically any area of interest! But because of the nature of the medium, you can’t constantly “refresh” podcasts – and more importantly, the content tends to be longer and more thoughtfully nuanced in a way which seems far less toxic in form.
- search for things you want to read or hear about. It’s fine to get a Youtube video by searching – just don’t then take Youtube’s further recommendations!