Infor­ma­tion over­load and an overly social web — an exper­i­ment

A year-long social media exper­i­ment on the little things that can make our lives fuller.

That the inter­net is an inte­gral part of our lives is no sur­prise: it is simply a step up from the type and ease of access of infor­ma­tion that was afford­able in the last cen­tury, such as book­stores and well-cat­a­logued libraries. Why social media and net­works have become an inte­gral part of our lives, though, is a more press­ing issue and a ques­tion most people are afraid to ask them­selves.

A little over one year ago I asked myself this ques­tion and wanted to find out the answer. Nobody had one that was sat­is­fy­ing enough to me and — nearly four­teen months later, the answer I have is fair enough on a per­sonal level but still hazy to some extent when gen­er­alised. What I found out along the way, and the poten­tial long-term ben­e­fit it would have, was cer­tainly worth the time I spent on it. I first wrote about this in August of 2015 (see Mar­gin­a­lia) asking myself — and every­one else by exten­sion — how many social net­works we are on and why. How­ever, this was prob­a­bly not a knee-jerk thought and could, on some sub­con­scious level, have been prompted by the fact that, at the time, I was read­ing William Powers’s book, Hamlet’s Black­berry. Indeed my pre­vi­ous two quo­ta­tions scrib­bled on Mar­gin­a­lia were from that book.

Note that we use the terms social net­works’, social web’, and social media’ inter­change­ably. They are all in ref­er­ence to that part of the web which encour­ages you to create your pro­file, share per­sonal and gen­eral infor­ma­tion, your work or life or travel and so on, con­nect with known and unknown people and which enable you to stay con­nected all day long if you choose to. It is best we keep the def­i­n­i­tions flex­i­ble, lest we miss the forest for the trees. 

The struc­ture of this arti­cle is worth paying atten­tion to, owing to its size: we begin with an overview of the exper­i­ment, fol­lowed by a quick run­down of the preva­lent sci­en­tific think­ing on this issue, and then some notes on ways other than cut­ting back on social media that can poten­tially help in every­day life, fol­lowed by the actual steps I took over the past year as part of this exper­i­ment and finally some thoughts on how and why they work as well as, of course, what I intend to do from this point on as a direct con­se­quence of this exper­i­ment. This last bit is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant because sev­eral people prefer to believe in either jump­ing right back into the social web or refrain­ing like monks alto­gether. One is an addict, the other a lud­dite. The pur­pose here is to find and carve out a much more agree­able middle ground.

Part one

This began a year-long exper­i­ment for me where I aimed to explore this ques­tion along­side a host of other sim­i­lar ones. Specif­i­cally, would the reason why I got on social media — to spread my web­sites and pho­to­graphic work — take a hit if I called it quits overnight? (See Cold turkey.) In what I con­sider a rather bold move, I decided to pull the plug on the social net­work where I had my largest group of fol­low­ers and where my pho­tog­ra­phy was the focus of almost every­thing I was shar­ing: Google+. To some, this might seem fool­ish or even daring, but to me it was simply part of an exper­i­ment and if I was going to do this for a year, I might as well do it thor­oughly.

The reason why my exper­i­ment was a year-long affair was that I had seen or heard of far too many people who quit social media’ on impulse and then promptly got back to it a few days later. This, in my opin­ion, serves no pur­pose. If one must feel the effects of any change, they will do well to give it time to show itself. The allure of social net­works is said to be great, but it helped that I am an intro­vert and am rarely inclined to go on a shar­ing binge, or, in turn, it helped that not shar­ing would not really be a prob­lem for me.

As impor­tant as it is to under­stand what my exper­i­ment was for, it is impor­tant to realise what it was notabout. This was not an attack against social media. It was not an attempt to make a case against social media. It was cer­tainly not to unearth the ill effects of social media (those clos­ets have been emp­tied already as we shall see in a moment). And it was not to force people to quit social media. The entire exper­i­ment was simply to see if the pres­ence of social media has stretched its arms beyond the pur­pose it was intended to serve, and how that can be curbed, and, con­se­quently, what ben­e­fits this may yield, par­tic­u­larly in terms of enrich­ing’ our lives — a word far too often asso­ci­ated with quit­ting social media. Quit­ting some social net­works was part of the process to under­stand what this meant, but it was not so much about quit­ting social media as it was about learn­ing to use it more inten­tion­ally. This is the core of my entire argu­ment and pos­si­bly my favourite part of the out­come of this exper­i­ment.

Part of this exper­i­ment was to find out if lim­it­ing social media use would nec­es­sar­ily result in our return­ing to a more pro­duc­tive, effi­cient life. 

What else prompted me to ini­ti­ate such an exper­i­ment was the new idea called a Fear of Miss­ing Out (char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally short­ened by the inter­net to FoMO). Anil Dash came up with a counter pro­posal that he called the Joy of Miss­ing Out (JoMO) and both the ideas caught on enough for the former to be recog­nised as a type of fear of regret. The idea that one may miss out on some­thing scares people, and, to an extent, rightly so: proverbs such as oppor­tu­nity knocks only once’ do not quite help make a case. How­ever, Kevin Sys­trom, the founder of Insta­gram, who agreed that his plat­form can be addic­tive, gave a sound reason why FoMO should not bother us: We aren’t used to seeing the world as it hap­pens. We as humans can only process so much data.’ My solu­tion to FoMO is simple: you cannot help it, you cannot over­come it, so stop think­ing about it as miss­ing out at all. You will miss some­thing, you are miss­ing some­thing right now. The point of life is not to cry over (or fear) what we might be miss­ing, but to make the most of what we do have or are doing now. Or, better still, as Anil Dash explained his own expe­ri­ence, I’d been mostly offline for more than a month… I wasn’t miss­ing any­thing. I hadn’t real­ized that I was not only not in fear, but actu­ally in a state of joy.’

An impor­tant part of this exper­i­ment, there­fore, was to see if JoMO was really a sub­stan­tial ben­e­fit of lim­it­ing social media use. Specif­i­cally, would such a limit result in a return to a more pro­duc­tive, effi­cient life in which we enjoy the present (which is, to some extent, what I expected), or will it actu­ally be a source of new­found joy? While I under­stand that the spirit behind JoMO mainly stemmed from the fact that one would be just fine and does not have to be afraid of miss­ing out on things, the promise of miss­ing out also giving us joy was some­thing I had my doubts over for the simple reason that if using social media is not result­ing in pain, get­ting rid of it will prob­a­bly not result in joy.

Lastly, it is not my inten­tion to sug­gest that the social web is keep­ing us from living a pro­duc­tive or effi­cient or fuller life, or that it is pre­vent­ing us from living in the moment’. An anal­ogy may be drawn with some­thing more famil­iar and phys­i­cal: walk­ing free­hand on a road for a thou­sand metres is pos­si­ble, so is walk­ing for a thou­sand metres on road drag­ging a boat behind you, just in case you reach shore some­day. The latter is doable, but demands unnec­es­sary effort, and social media is some­thing like that (I will expand on this as we go) in that its ben­e­fits, while not entirely absent, are incom­pa­ra­ble to alter­na­tive means that exist of obtain­ing the same, or better, ben­e­fits.

Part two

All the neg­a­tive impacts social media can have have been researched quite well over the years. The proof is sci­en­tific, and more so than most people would realise. Social media is, quite lit­er­ally, like a drug: it ramps up dopamine pro­duc­tion in the body. Dopamine is a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter that is stim­u­lated by reward cues and by peek­ing into small amounts of infor­ma­tion — get­ting a taste for things, in a manner of speak­ing. The act of shar­ing on social media is often seen as a reward’ which fur­ther prompts Dopamine stim­u­la­tion.

Fur­ther, as a whop­ping 68% of users admit­ted, the reason for shar­ing, almost out­ra­geously, is not because people find it inter­est­ing, rather because people want to be seen asso­ci­ated with cer­tain infor­ma­tion to influ­ence (or, as some would prefer to say, mod­er­ate) how others per­ceive them. I found this ridicu­lous at first, but, curi­ously enough, it makes sense when you think about it: our clothes, gad­gets, books, hob­bies are all reflec­tions of what we are, so why would the infor­ma­tion we con­sume — and show the world we have con­sumed — not fall into the same cat­e­gory?

Besides Dopamine, the same process works for the chem­i­cal released when people kiss, oxy­tocin, which shoots up by more than 10% when you send a tweet. Most sur­pris­ingly, this is the same amount of increase people expe­ri­ence on their wed­ding day. Some­what dan­ger­ously, this also increases our trust in people at the time, which explains why Face­book users are 43% more likely to trust inter­net users than people not on Face­book. (My own use of Face­book was culled more than five years ago, so it will not be part of this exper­i­ment.)

But this is not the end: it has been shown that as much as 40% of our con­ver­sa­tions are about our­selves while offline, and nearly 80% online. And, although people share on social media in an attempt to show­case what they feel is the best ver­sion of them­selves (or of their alter egos), the target of a con­sid­er­able number of social media posts are nota group of people but one spe­cific indi­vid­ual. A part of me even wants to believe this is a direct ref­er­ence to veiled, pas­sive aggres­sive status updates that are designed to look like a gen­eral thought being shared but are painfully obvi­ously a rant directed towards one person — whose iden­tity is also obvi­ous in quite a few cases.

It is not the fault of social media that people insist on using it to seek val­i­da­tion. The prob­lem with social media is our incli­na­tion to overuse it. 

Even liking’ and favourit­ing’ are done to appeal to the person who shared it so one can remain in their good books. I under­stand this is not true for every­one or for every share but the num­bers are wor­ry­ing nonethe­less: 44% of users insist on this prac­tice to main­tain rela­tion­ships’. This is, once again, noth­ing new. It is like nod­ding in faux agree­ment at a party, either out of cour­tesy or because you are not in the mood to debate things just then. And people like being agreed with. But what it boils down to, in my opin­ion — besides the fact that, right from using to shar­ing, social media has traces of poten­tial addic­tion writ­ten all over it — is that once a piece of infor­ma­tion is shared, nearly 60% of people state they derive actual hap­pi­ness’ from others’ act of appre­ci­at­ing their shares, be it liking’, favourit­ing’, plussing’ or what­ever else. This, once again con­nected to dopamine, is our biggest reward.

An equally impor­tant factor for me — and one which I had been think­ing about for a few years myself — was how social net­work­ing influ­ences our thoughts. A study con­ducted by The New York Times that was com­piled and reported by Hoot­suite shows that 85% of people process the con­tents of an arti­cle better after read­ing others’ com­ments on that arti­cle and based on those com­ments. This is trou­bling to say the least: our thoughts and reflec­tions should be based on the arti­cle we read, not on what others think of the arti­cle. It is wor­ry­ing still because com­ments that attack the author per­son­ally with­out any fac­tual foun­da­tion are just as effec­tive as any other com­ment in influ­enc­ing how we per­ceive the writ­ing itself. This has often been my biggest com­plaint — or even case — against social media: it dic­tates our likes and dis­likes and pref­er­ences and tastes to such an extent that I often joke that we are on our way to becom­ing com­pletely taste­less’.

Given how many neg­a­tive signs the social web is already threat­en­ing users with, it might seem almost jus­ti­fi­able to put an end to it. How­ever I believe this would be a hasty deci­sion not thought fully through. It would be akin to blam­ing a tool just because people are mis­us­ing it. It is not the fault of social media that people insist on using it to seek val­i­da­tion. It is not the fault of social media that people asso­ciate it with a reward sce­nario and prompt dopamine and oxy­tocin release. Social net­works have their ben­e­fits: they do help people con­nect, they do help get the word out, they do help share infor­ma­tion, they do help people stay informed, they do help people enter­tain them­selves, they do help people get their work out there for the world to see, and to have a plat­form on which to voice their opin­ions. The prob­lem with social media is not social media itself, but our incli­na­tion to overuse it. The solu­tion lies in what I stated pre­vi­ously as the crux of my argu­ment: inten­tional, goal-driven social media use.

Part three

Let us return our focus to the exper­i­ment now that we have some­thing of a sci­en­tific jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to — at least — recon­sider our use of the social web. Since embrac­ing JoMO was partly what drove the exper­i­ment, I decided to make a small diver­sion from social net­works: the one thing nag­ging me all day long was not my e-mail (see, Inbox zero and Updates) but, on a sim­i­lar vein, was my pend­ing read­ing list on Instapa­per.

Over time I had accu­mu­lated so many arti­cles that I wanted to read (and would read, in an ideal world), that the num­bers were shoot­ing up to the late hun­dreds, while my read count was likely nowhere past the lower hun­dreds. Inter­est­ingly, most arti­cles I wanted to read I would read then and there, and those I did read off my Instapa­per were often never too old, but ones I had saved only a few days ago. This was more unnec­es­sary weight in my eyes, to carry around a con­stant reminder that there exists a long list of arti­cles I prob­a­bly will never get around to read­ing — and how many of those may be out­dated by the time I do get to them?

My solu­tion to this was some­what as rad­i­cal as my move with Google+. I decided to get Instapa­per off all my devices and stop saving arti­cles to that ser­vice to read later. How­ever, the impor­tant thing to realise is that Instapa­per itself played no part in this. The spirit behind the ser­vice was actu­ally built around more tar­geted, less dis­tract­ing brows­ing, where one could focus on what they were work­ing on at the moment and yet not lose some inter­est­ing piece of writ­ing they may have come across.

In other words, I would con­tinue to use the con­cept of saving to read later’, except with­out Instapa­per and with one added restric­tion: the read later list must be emp­tied every week, whether I have read every­thing on it or not. I chose to use Safari’s inbuilt read­ing list ser­vice lazily named Read­ing List’. Not only does it sync like Instapa­per all around, it sup­ports keep­ing arti­cles offline and ready. And it was handy for my new style of use: a week’s worth of arti­cles saved for later, read and either saved to my Ever­note Pre­mium or cleared off my read­ing list; and every Sunday night the entire list gets cleared and read­ied for the fol­low­ing week — regard­less of whether there still are unread arti­cles or not. My other inten­tion in choos­ing this Safari fea­ture was to avoid using yet another app, but for those of you work­ing cross-plat­form, per­haps the same lim­ited approach with Instapa­per or Pocket would work just fine, even while not being as handy.

In the same vein as this, we would do well to avoid a bar­rage of news sources. Aggre­ga­tors were sup­posed to address this prob­lem, but they are not all that dif­fer­ent from RSS — this is a point that will be addressed in greater detail soon. Intel­li­gent aggre­ga­tors still send some poorly writ­ten, fact-free, logic-repel­lant writ­ing even though they grow better over time. And then there is the ques­tion of bias and world­view. One argu­ment that can be made in sup­port of intel­li­gent news aggre­ga­tors is that they might expose you to mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. This is true; it is also true that they save time ini­tially by just send­ing news your way — albeit with a lot of badly writ­ten non-jour­nal­ism and self-cel­e­brat­ing click­bait rid of any and all sub­stance — and then learn­ing your likes and dis­likes as you go. How­ever, this is exactly their prob­lem: by learn­ing your likes, these news aggre­ga­tors may, over time, only give you news that you like to hear, thereby skew­ing your views. That is not how news works.

RSS is an undoubt­edly more straight­for­ward, sim­pler, and dis­trac­tion-free solu­tion that guar­an­tees you a reg­u­lar stream of qual­ity con­tent like no other. 

A better approach would be what I like to call tar­geted read­ing’. Not unsur­pris­ingly, this is part of a pur­pose­ful web brows­ing expe­ri­ence, but that will be out­lined towards the end of this essay. Tar­geted read­ing involves pick­ing news sources you like, pick­ing weblogs you like, pick­ing mag­a­zines you like and so on, and then sub­scrib­ing to them via good old RSS. This has sev­eral advan­tages. First of all, it reduces clut­ter giving you updates struc­tured by source or man­u­ally chosen genres; second, it serves your news from sources you like and exposes you to counter argu­ments which are present in these sources (e.g. a lib­er­tar­ian paper will often address con­ser­v­a­tive views, thereby expos­ing you to both) unlike an aggre­ga­tor which might dis­re­gard arti­cles on the basis that oppos­ing views are talked about, under the wrong impres­sion that you may not like them at all — I am sure that algo­rithms are not so simple, but I am not entirely sure of their cur­rent status; improve­ments may have been, or will even­tu­ally prob­a­bly be, made in this regard.

The other, equally impor­tant reason why I encour­age RSS is weblogs. Besides news/​magazine or ded­i­cated genre web­sites, a major­ity of good, worth­while con­tent on the web comes from inde­pen­dent writ­ers with active weblogs. Some are extremely per­sonal in nature and may not appeal to every­one, but many (includ­ing this one) are more focussed on opin­ion pieces, most of which are well-writ­ten and worth read­ing. If you were to invest in the social web, care­fully chosen blogs are your best bet. It takes time and effort to main­tain and run a good weblog — unlike a social media pro­file, which is specif­i­cally designed to let people share as much as pos­si­ble in as little time as pos­si­ble (read, spend­ing as few thoughts on it as pos­si­ble) — which trans­lates to the guar­an­tee of good con­tent on weblogs, even if not a fairly reg­u­lar stream of it. But I would take a well-writ­ten, irreg­u­lar blog any day over a fast-paced, mediocre social media pro­file of random arti­cles inter­spersed with video game scores. At the end of the day, though, RSS is an undoubt­edly more straight­for­ward, sim­pler, and dis­trac­tion-free solu­tion that guar­an­tees you a reg­u­lar stream of qual­ity con­tent like no other.

Besides RSS, another inter­est­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity-driven move I attempted for a few months was to limit all news/​RSS apps to my tablet and use my smart­phone solely as a daily assis­tant. I like how this seg­re­gates the task each device does to some extent, but I found myself with bits of leisure time, or wait­ing in queues and antecham­bers, with noth­ing but my phone to keep me occu­pied, which was a pain when there was noth­ing worth­while on it for me to read through. (I rarely browse through arti­cles, pre­fer­ring instead to read them in full or not read them at all.) Need­less to say, my trusty RSS app, Reeder, was back on my iPhone pretty quickly. Mag­a­zines, though, are con­fined to iPad for aes­thetic rea­sons, and novels to my Kindle Voyage in a bid for an expe­ri­ence closer to paper books. And I still love and read paper books of course.

Speak­ing of apps, an inter­est­ing approach I found was to ask myself, before installing an app, whether it did some­thing a first-party app already on my phone did not, or, alter­na­tively, whether it did the same thing better — not dif­fer­ently, but better. If so, the app is wel­come; if not, I leave it aside and ponder over it — you will sur­prise your­self how quickly you will end up chang­ing your mind about an app you were sure you needed’. This is not some­thing I strongly advo­cate, because every­one has their own style of use and their own use cases, but if you do have the time and the inter­est, try out a smart­phone expe­ri­ence as close to stock as pos­si­ble and your device will become less of a dis­trac­tion as time goes.

Part four

Some­time after I first asked about the many social net­works we are on — per­haps even rhetor­i­cally now that I think of it — was when I first decided to for­mally start this exper­i­ment and quit Google+, which was my favourite social net­work at the time, Ello, another which I really liked and found active and wel­com­ing, and a couple of other pro­files online (see Cold turkey). Back then, this is what I had to say about Twit­ter, which was, inter­est­ingly, one of the big’ social net­works I had chosen not to quit: I picked Twit­ter not only because it is the fastest to update and inter­act on but also because the ratio of the number of useful interactions/​new net­work­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties I’ve had on Twit­ter to the time spent updat­ing it is clearly higher than other net­works.’

This was an inter­est­ing assess­ment and to me — a big fan of one-liners — this remains true till date. I think this is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance because, unlike the myriad of cases we have seen over the past year of people quit­ting Twit­ter for one grandiose reason or other, I had no such pre­cur­sor to my deci­sion to quit. It was simply a con­scious choice I made because I thought it would be ben­e­fi­cial to me in enough ways to make the whole idea appeal­ing.

A year later I had cut down on every­thing but Twit­ter, Flickr and Insta­gram — and I did not miss a single one of them. I remained on Flickr because that is where my pho­tog­ra­phy resides, Insta­gram because that is where I share my work as a sec­ondary plat­form after Flickr, and Twit­ter because it is suc­cinct and to-the-point and I have never been one for fol­low­ing people out of oblig­a­tion or in return for gain­ing a fol­lower. This has prob­a­bly largely influ­enced my expe­ri­ence on Twit­ter which has been calm, sane and infor­ma­tive, unlike the rau­cous, short-tem­pered, racist, vulgar net­work so many make it out to be. (See, par­tic­u­larly, how Jon Weis­man, a deputy editor at the Times, quit Twit­ter over com­plaints of harass­ment and hate speech.) This is likely either because I am not well-known enough to attract as much atten­tion as Mr Weis­man or I am more picky about whom I follow and bother to respond to, but to each his own: Twit­ter has been fairly good to me.

The trou­ble, though, came some­time in June this year when a study showed that 60% of people do not even read the arti­cles they share­on­line. Whole trends in the online world are cre­ated this way. This is some­thing that had popped up in my mind once too often, but it was inter­est­ing — and dis­heart­en­ing — to see it put into num­bers. So then arises the new ques­tion: how many such people do you follow? Even if they all did it just once, you have a few hun­dred links to sup­pos­edly inter­est­ing arti­cles shared blindly. How many of these sug­ges­tions must you trust? And couple this with the fact that a lot of people share things only to improve the way others per­ceive them and it becomes all too clear that they may be shar­ing links to arti­cles with inter­est­ing titles (or, worse still, click­bait), all unknow­ingly, in an attempt to look good. Twit­ter just went from a quick moving high­way of infor­ma­tion and one-liners to a caul­dron of steam­ing hot, trendy mess.

Social net­works are the oppo­site of fora: the fact that they are not spe­cific con­tent-driven means they can keep you for longer than you like, by serv­ing you with a con­stant stream of con­tent dynam­i­cally tai­lored to your liking. 

For now I have eased away from Twit­ter: I rarely tweet, I do check once or twice a week for mes­sages and men­tions since it is still the quick­est way for many to con­tact me and a lot of people do send me direct mes­sages to dis­cuss an arti­cle or two. (Twit­ter is quick, but e-mail is a more reli­able means.) This meant I had to move my Twit­ter list mem­bers from my list of sec­ondary news sources (those inter­est­ing enough to follow, but not impor­tant enough to sub­scribe to via RSS) into a ded­i­cated folder in Reeder where they now reside. This leaves me on two net­works, Flickr and Insta­gram, both meant for my pho­to­graphic work and noth­ing else, both extremely tar­geted, which makes their use that much more jus­ti­fied.

That is the prob­lem with social net­works: they are not tar­geted, they have no niche which they serve, and are clas­si­fied, at best, more by how we share infor­ma­tion rather that what infor­ma­tion we share. This is what makes online fora a much better way to net­work and com­mu­ni­cate if that is, indeed, our inten­tion. A pho­tog­ra­phy forum, how­ever crit­i­cal, biased, shal­low or gear-driven it may be, still has a scope and an inten­tion that makes it spe­cific con­tent-driven. You go there when you wish to talk about pho­tog­ra­phy and leave when you are done. The same goes for sci­ence fora or lit­er­a­ture clubs and such. They all have their scope within which all dis­cus­sions lie, they are tar­geted and you enter and leave at will when you wish to indulge in con­ver­sa­tion about that topic.

Social net­works thrive on just the oppo­site: the fact that they are not spe­cific con­tent-driven means they can keep you for longer than you like, by serv­ing you with a con­stant stream of con­tent dynam­i­cally tai­lored to your liking. Tired of a cat video? There is no need to leave yet, because they have another hilar­i­ous video with chimps and zebras that might inter­est you. Done with ani­mals? How about this video about the top ten this and thats? The fact that social net­works are so encour­ag­ing of genre-hop­ping has done two things to people: it has dra­mat­i­cally reduced the aver­age reader’s atten­tion span (I am con­vinced at least a thou­sand people closed their tab when they saw the length of this arti­cle) and it has made us slaves to a faux sense of gain­ing valu­able infor­ma­tion — in which both the key terms, valu­able’ and infor­ma­tion’, are sus­pect.

In March this year, The Guardian reported as much, with brief case stud­ies of a hand­ful of mil­len­ni­als who were turn­ing off social media. More recently, less than two weeks ago, the Finan­cial Times reported an Ofcom study show­ing that nearly half of inter­net users claimed they were spend­ing longer online than they wished’. Subtle signs exist all around that with clever mod­er­at­ing of infor­ma­tion and data, social net­works can sub­con­scisouly affect our deci­sion making — includ­ing our deci­sion to leave their net­work or stay back on their web­site for just another two harm­less min­utes. Just two.

Erza Klein writes, in an excel­lent arti­cle in The Wash­ing­ton Post —

If I neglect my RSS feed today, the posts will still be there tomor­row. The same is true for the books I’m read­ing, the mag­a­zines piled on my night­stand, the tabs open in my browser, the long-form I’ve saved to Pocket, the e-mails I’ve filed away to read later, the think tank papers saved to my desk­top, and pretty much every other sort of infor­ma­tion I con­sume. The back­log nags at me, but I’ll get to it.

Twit­ter elic­its a more poi­so­nous infor­ma­tion anx­i­ety. It moves so fast that if I’m not con­tin­u­ously check­ing in, I com­pletely lose track of the con­ver­sa­tion — and it’s almost impos­si­ble to figure out what hap­pened three hours ago, much less two days ago. I can’t save Twit­ter for later, and thus there’s always a pres­sure to check Twit­ter now. Twit­ter ends up taking more of my time than I’d like it to, as there’s a con­stant reason to check it rather than, say, read­ing a mag­a­zine arti­cle.

Addic­tion is the lifeblood of social net­works. They have their uses, and Twit­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, is a god­send for some jour­nal­ists. It is the 21st cen­tury equiv­a­lent of hang­ing out at the mill, keep­ing an ear on the local vil­lage gossip; except, back then, you went to the mill with a pur­pose, whereas with Twit­ter, lis­ten­ing to the gossip is itself the pur­pose. With Face­book, it is all about stay­ing in touch with people, but how many of them, really? Dunbar’s number is the max­i­mum number of people one can main­tain a stable and mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ship with. At 150, it is a stretch for most intro­verts. The aver­age number of Face­book friends’people have is 155. My own circle is con­sid­er­ably more modest and I keep in touch with them just fine via text mes­sages or iMes­sage.

Part five

Steven Baxter, in New States­man, put the entire idea of the futil­ity of shar­ing life updates into a dash­ing tagline: Say hello to a world where you can just do stuff, with­out talk­ing about the stuff you’re doing.’ He had just quit Twit­ter and his rea­son­ing was clichèd but effec­tive. Two years after him, even Simon Pegg gave the same reason as Mr Baxter — it’s not you, it’s me’. This is of sig­nif­i­cance, once again, because these are not people who were moti­vated by inci­dents. They simply decided to call it a day.

How­ever, there is a deeper rea­son­ing behind this, which, I strongly believe, extends to all of the social web. It makes people taste­less’. Social media creeps into every inch of our life with­out our express con­sent or knowl­edge and, before we know it, begins to subtly but cer­tainly influ­ence our every move as well as our mood. Know­ing X did this and Y did that is enough to influ­ence people’s daily chores and sub­con­scious thoughts. By repli­ca­tion, repel­lency or mis­guided inspi­ra­tion, every other action is influ­enced by what people see and read and hear on the social web (a lot of it untrue) to such a point that some obses­sively log into the web to check things out’ while what they are really hoping for is to be told what to like.

This can be hard to swal­low at first, but is preva­lent to a truer extent than we are prob­a­bly ready to acknowl­edge. There has been evi­dence of exter­nal stim­uli, from media to news about friends of friends, affect­ing our own thoughts, lives and deci­sions. A shal­lower, more easily under­stand­able exam­ple of that is adver­tis­ing: over 90% of people visit a store fol­low­ing an adver­tise­ment or word-of-mouth (text?) mar­ket­ing they came across online, 89% of people look up reviews online and 72% of people trust these reviews as much as a per­sonal rec­om­men­da­tion, and, sur­pris­ingly, 62% of people buy prod­uct­son this basis alone.

Social media, on a sub­con­scious level, influ­ence our ways more than we would have wanted them to had their effects been more obvi­ous.

The com­par­i­son with adver­tise­ments is a more pro­nounced and opener case of pre­cisely the same effect that every­day, seem­ingly harm­less social net­work banter is having on us. That is not to say social net­works are harm­ful’. But they do influ­ence our ways more than we would want them to if their effects were more obvi­ous. (And for every­one who thinks they are not influ­enced — nei­ther did the people in the above survey, who even claimed it was ridicu­lous to think that way. They were actu­ally unaware of it and that is what makes this border on being dan­ger­ous.)

Adam Brault makes this point by con­sid­er­ing people’s updates as a sort of adver­tise­ment of their lives and thoughts, an idea that I found extremely inter­est­ing and unques­tion­ably valid. Although he speaks of Twit­ter in par­tic­u­lar, the core idea holds for absolutely any social net­work out there —

But the prob­lem that occurs is that it can be a huge mental lease we’re sign­ing when we invite a few hun­dred people into our Twit­ter life. To some degree, it is choos­ing to sub­ject our­selves to thou­sands of ads through­out the day, but ones that come from trusted sources we care about, so they’re actu­ally impact­ful.

Even if the people we know aren’t explic­itly sell­ing things (not that there’s any­thing wrong with that) or pro­mot­ing their per­sonal brand (there is every­thing wrong with that), we’re still choos­ing to accept their stream of one-second ads with some kind of mes­sage all day.

Part six

While my ini­tial view of social media has not changed in that I still believe a lot of it has no direct ben­e­fits that out­weighs its neg­a­tive side, I was prob­a­bly wrong about Twit­ter. Granted, I have not had a bad expe­ri­ence there for the most part, but I think the urge to share a hun­dred-and-forty char­ac­ter thought is just that, an urge. And when you let the urge sit, it sim­mers into a deeper, more mean­ing­ful thought. Or you come to realise how point­less it was in the first place, which is not all that bad when you think about it. Twit­ter is still great for one-liners, but then not all thoughts are best put as one-liners. My reason to stay on, though, has more of a com­mu­nity aspect to it: if I want my writ­ing to be read, shared and dis­cussed, it is only fair that I too add some­thing of value to the com­mu­nity in return.

My two pronged approach to grow­ing thoughts remains this web­site, where I write about my opin­ion and other fac­tual essays on sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and soci­ety, and Mar­gin­a­lia, my Tumblr where I share shorter pieces of thought. I like this demar­ca­tion for two rea­sons: I am more in con­trol over what I have to say, and the moment I find all of this too cum­ber­some and worth­less, I can call it a day. How­ever, so long as this web­site exists, as with any­body else’s, the effort is clearly vis­i­ble, be it in design, main­te­nance, or writ­ing. With social media, this is wholly absent and all that counts is how active your pro­file is. And there is always the urge that many have to keep it active while really adding noth­ing of value.

All said and done, there are some avenues of the social web that I would not advo­cate against. For exam­ple, Slack, iMes­sage or (and this may come as a sur­prise to some who know me) What­sApp. All three have their ben­e­fits — flex­i­ble, quick work com­mu­ni­ca­tion or sav­ings on SMS costs in case of iMes­sage and What­sApp (which is espe­cially huge in Ger­many) — and, per­haps more impor­tantly, they do not require you to expend your time and thoughts on a pro­file or a stream of updated con­tent and are there­fore not as great a dis­trac­tion or influ­ence as tra­di­tional social net­works.

As far as not get­ting lost in a browser chain with thirty-five tabs goes, a sort of luddite’s approach is to note down what you want to look up online and then ded­i­cate an hour or two a day to follow up on those thoughts. While this might seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive to the point of an ever-acces­si­ble web at first, one must realise that being acces­si­ble was not the pri­mary inten­tion of the web; making infor­ma­tion acces­si­ble was. What cannot be denied, though, is the fact that this old-fash­ioned approach will go a long way in reign­ing in your wan­der­ing habits on the web.

By now (for you — this hap­pened about halfway into the exper­i­ment for me) it ought to be clear that the entire idea of pulling away from the clutches of the social web and attempt­ing to usher in some of that JoMO was not simply about quit­ting social net­works. There is a lot more to it, most of which revolves around cut­ting down dis­trac­tions so that you can have a more pur­pose­ful, intent-driven expe­ri­ence on the web which, by any mea­sure, is a more ben­e­fi­cial expe­ri­ence than any other. You could install selec­tive web­site block­ers on your browser or trust your own will power — since not all of us are addicted to social media. But there is no doubt that putting in a con­scious effort to reg­u­late the time we spend on the social web can have last­ing pos­i­tive impact on our life.

Nick Bilton calls this reclaim­ing our real lives from social media’ in his arti­cle on The New York Times, where he gives the exam­ple of Ernest Hem­ming­way, explain­ing how, once when he came across a pocket of free time, he began to write what would become his memoir, A move­able feast. Had the writer been alive today, points Mr Bilton, he could prob­a­bly have not put pen to paper, pre­fer­ring to pull out his smart­phone and pro­ceed to waste an entire after­noon on social media’ instead. While this is pos­si­bly a more dra­matic exam­ple, it serves to make a point and makes it well. The ques­tion should never be about quit­ting social media, but rather about all the won­der­ful things we can do if we chose to better manage our time online and save lots of it for our own move­able feasts’. After all, I have little doubt in my mind that if Hem­ming­way were alive today, he would have really liked Twit­ter and would have exhib­ited his bril­liance there in 140 char­ac­ters (much to Mr Franzen’s cha­grin — see sec­tion VII below) on a daily basis.

This is where my call for more tar­geted brows­ing and tar­geted read­ing comes in: back in the days of libraries — I know they still exist today — people had access to more infor­ma­tion they could handle, much the same as today, but with a catch. In a library, your research had to be tar­geted; you had to look up a genre, a topic, a book, and then flip through and read sev­eral pages to accu­mu­late the infor­ma­tion you wanted. In the process, you learnt a few new, related things, and you learnt what you were look­ing for. Per­haps you came across a ref­er­ence to another work that led you on a hunt, once again across topics and book titles until you came across it and then had to leaf through some more before you found what you were look­ing for. It took time and effort and imparted a pro­por­tion­ally large value to the knowl­edge you had just gained.

The inter­net is dif­fer­ent. It takes almost no effort to find what you were look­ing for and going from one source to another does not send you on a hunt, rather a click does the job for you. Every­thing is a click or few away. And the thought­ful appre­ci­a­tion, like paus­ing and blow­ing on a cup of hot coffee, that came with a few hours spent in a library is nowhere to be found on the web. Here you are gulp­ing in your drink so fast that you cannot tell what you drank. The value of a given piece of infor­ma­tion has not low­ered, but the access to nearly all of the infor­ma­tion on earth and the fact that the inter­net affords us that means, iron­i­cally, that the scale of this enter­prise is simply lost on us and the value of a piece of infor­ma­tion is not as read­ily appar­ent. That leads to an infor­ma­tion over­haul, where we do not realise we have had enough until we have had too much and lost track of it all.

In pro­vid­ing us with infi­nitely more infor­ma­tion than we can handle at any given time, the inter­net has made things coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. But the same argu­ment could be made for a library as well, which means the onus is on us as users to be more con­scious of how we use it, to take things in in a planned fash­ion, just as much as we want, know­ing, all along, that the rest of the infor­ma­tion is still out there and that we can come back for it any day, any­time. The pur­pose, right now, is to remain focussed on what we are look­ing for and take that much away. The inter­net, for better or worse, led itself to be designed like a maze with the sole inten­tion of keep­ing us in it. But we still con­trol the off switch.

Part seven

At the end of my exper­i­ment, I have come to make a number of changes. It started with quit­ting Google+ and Ello, a brief exit from Insta­gram (although what prompted it was the fact that I had tem­porar­ily got locked out of my account) and even­tual infre­quent return, increased use of Linkedin, despite its horrid design, because I found it useful from a pro­fes­sional per­spec­tive (not to land a job, rather to have infor­ma­tive dis­cus­sions on pro­fes­sional groups), easing out of Twit­ter, which, like Google+, will auto­mat­i­cally send out links to my latest posts while not car­ry­ing too many manual tweets, but where I will keep track of direct mes­sages and men­tions. I am still on two minds about Twit­ter, mostly because I did reap good ben­e­fits out of it and have had a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence, con­trary to sev­eral others, so that stays for now.

While I did not blindly cut myself off from all of the social web — that would be a dumb thing to do and a sign of not adapt­ing to chang­ing times and taking advan­tage of poten­tially ben­e­fi­cial solu­tions — the fact that I reduced my use on three-quar­ters of them has given me con­sid­er­able free time and peace of mind. This was sur­pris­ing because I was not a heavy user on any of them, but the fact that I did not have to update or keep up with any of them did leave me some­what freer.

Some argue that social media is a bad thing. I beg to differ. The Amer­i­can writer, Jonathan Franzen, for instance, blames Twit­ter for not citing facts or cre­at­ing argu­ments in 140 char­ac­ters. It is hard for me to take a man seri­ously when he hates so many things. Mr Franzen has spoken of his dis­like for every­thing from Face­book to emoti­cons to ebooks to Salman Rushdie to Jeff Bezos (he once called Amazon’s boss one of the four horse­men of the apoc­a­lypse), giving me the impres­sion that he is a staunch lud­dite unwill­ing to let the 20th cen­tury go. Plus, at the end of the day, if you go to Twit­ter for 140-char­ac­ter-long facts, you are miss­ing the point by a wide margin. Twit­ter, to me, is more about direct­ing people’s atten­tion to things, be it with links or other media, and having crisp con­ver­sa­tions. It is not for writ­ing long-winded argu­ments backed with MLA format cita­tions. But, yes, if you are clever enough, you can­make a sound argu­ment in 140 char­ac­ters. The point is, nobody gains any­thing by paint­ing the social web as the Lex Luthor to our Super­selves’ and run­ning away from it. Fur­ther, blam­ing social media for things like spread­ing false news speaks more about your inabil­ity to judge the trust­wor­thi­ness of links etc. than about any fault of the net­work itself. Like every­thing else, it comes down to what we make of it.

The sim­plest approach would be to sched­ule social media use like you would sched­ule any other activ­ity. Avoid­ing it first thing after you get up and last thing before you go to bed makes a con­sid­er­able dif­fer­ence.

That said, I did alter my Twit­ter use slightly. I now group it under my news folder rather than my social media folder, and I browse it twice a day along with my news. I use Tweet­bot which makes lists more promi­nent than the offi­cial Twit­ter app (where they are an unfor­tu­nate after­thought and adver­tise­ments are more front and centre for what­ever reason) and use lists to browse updates for no more than five swipes, thereby keep­ing my use lim­ited. I also check up direct mes­sages and men­tions and more social’ tweets from my fol­low­ing list the same way. This bal­ances what I take from the net­work and give back as well — it enriches the com­mu­nity and pos­si­bly helps Twit­ter get some funds in the process.

The key point is that social media is no longer an obsta­cle now, rather a small part of my day. This does not work in favour of adver­tis­ers, but that does not bother me. The sim­plest approach would be to sched­ule social media use like you would sched­ule any other activ­ity. Per­haps not as rig­or­ously, but some­thing as simple as avoid­ing social media first thing after you get up or last thing before you go to bed and ensur­ing you use it for no more than a few min­utes when you do use it and have at least two- to three-hour breaks between con­sec­u­tive uses should all make a con­sid­er­able and vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence. A lot of my argu­ment may appear to focus on Twit­ter, but that is simply because I am active there and am not on Face­book; how­ever, since none of my argu­ments have to do with Twitter’s char­ac­ter counts or usage pat­terns spe­cific to it, these argu­ments may well be extended to Face­book, Google+, Ello and others. One might be prompted to quit because they had enough and it’s not you, it’s me’ and that is fine.

Over the course of this year, I man­aged to update my read­ers with an arti­cle every month or two regard­ing my cur­rent thought process as I went through this exper­i­ment. You can find some of them below:

  1. How many social net­works are you on?
  2. Inbox zero
  3. Updates on inbox zero
  4. Cold turkey
  5. Prac­tise web intro­ver­sion
  6. The Joy of Miss­ing Out
  7. On pre-cras­ti­na­tion and JoMO
  8. Are stock apps more than suf­fi­cient? (Part I)
  9. Are stock apps more than suf­fi­cient? (Part II)
  10. Tumblr is what you make of it

Like any tool, it comes down to how you use the social web. I will remain on Twit­ter, but I will remain dor­mant for the most part. My activ­i­ties will be based around Mar­gin­a­lia and my main weblog from where links to what­ever I write will be shared auto­mat­i­cally to Google+ and Twit­ter like they have been for years now. I will inter­act with anyone who inter­acts with me, but I will stop feed­ing these social net­works any more than nec­es­sary and stop being mined for data in return.

My sug­ges­tion to who­ever cares to listen would be to first iden­tify the problem/​s in ques­tion: this is a five-fold issue wherein the web is dwin­dling our atten­tion span, dis­turb­ing our thought process, hand­ing us more infor­ma­tion than we can handle, exac­er­bat­ing our Fear of Miss­ing Out, and keep­ing us hooked on it. We can keep our atten­tion span through tar­geted brows­ing as described above; we can have our unin­ter­rupted thought processes by sched­ul­ing our social media use; we can counter infor­ma­tion over­load by not keep­ing read later’ back­logs and, hand-in-hand, fight FoMO by facing the fact that we will miss out on many things, most cer­tainly on infor­ma­tion, and that that should not hold us back by any means; and, lastly, we can remain unhooked’ by taking a vaca­tion from social media.

Some people use August as a month to keep off the social web, others like the Dutch ini­tia­tive, 99 days of free­dom, came up specif­i­cally in response to care­less­ness on the part of social net­works, prompt­ing people to imag­ine a life with­out them and then live that life as part of a joint exper­i­ment with people around the world for 99 days or for­ever. There are calls to unplug, dis­con­nect and smell the air around you.

My own stance is that one need not viciously aban­don social media for one’s own lack of self-con­trol; the middle ground is better: whether you join an exper­i­ment, take a vaca­tion or do any­thing else, make sure that you manage your time better on the social web once you get back on it. That is one of two things that my exper­i­ment taught me. If, on the other hand, your reason to quit is simply a choice, that you have expe­ri­enced all you wanted to and you now want to call it a day, then by all means quit. That is the second thing my exper­i­ment taught me: social media will go on and evolve and die like every­thing else, and it will always have users and quit­ters; make it a part of your day so quit­ting makes little dif­fer­ence. Use social media as a plat­form to voice your thoughts and do not spend time making it a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of your­self. If, how­ever, you want to invest your efforts in some­thing that will per­son­ally rep­re­sent you, and in some­thing that will last, forget your social media pro­file. Start a blog instead.

A fresh restart

Dra­matic changes on this web­site, and the soft­ware pow­er­ing it, to cel­e­brate ten years since it came into exis­tence.

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