I have a complicated relationship with social media.
Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. I use it in both a professional and personal capacity, which can be a tricky line to walk. And though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I can sometimes feel addicted to it.
The issue of privacy
I know that a lot of people don’t think it’s worth thinking about this stuff, but I wholeheartedly believe in the right to privacy. I’m acutely aware that the more I share about myself on social media, the more information I’m putting out there to be sold and manipulated.
Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.
I’m uncomfortable with being tracked so that companies can push their products at me. A few adverts can seem pretty innocent, but it’s important to consider the bigger picture.
When we know that we’re being observed, we modify our behaviour. This is known as the Hawthorne effect. And we’re already self-censoring because we know we’re being watched. A 2013 survey found that 1 in 6 US writers had avoided writing on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance.
We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
How comfortable we are sharing our private information should directly relate to how much we trust the governing bodies that control that information. Firstly, can we trust that they will keep our information safe? Secondly, can we trust that they will not abuse their access to our information? And even if we trust our current government, what about the one after that? (The ‘nothing to hide’ argument for not worrying about our privacy just doesn’t hold up.
A warped reality
People mostly share the highlights of their lives. We all do it, probably without realising it. No one wants to be that person who just complains all the time. We like seeing beautiful photos and hearing about the good things that are happening to the people we know.
But it’s easy to forget that social media is inherently rose-tinted. Opposite that beautiful sunset are grubby tower blocks, not captured in the photograph. The colleague celebrating her full work schedule had two months of silence that gave her sleepless nights just a little while before.
As well as that, algorithms are designed to show us stories that fit our worldview – things that we probably already like or agree with – because we’re more likely to share things that affirm what we believe. The wider media has recently highlighted that this can create an echo chamber of ideas. It’s why people on the political left were shocked by the results of the Brexit poll and why they were flabbergasted that Trump won the presidential election.
It can also make our feeds pretty boring places, in which the same ideas and articles are shared around. No one stands out – not because they’re afraid to stand out, but because behaving in a certain way online gets results.
One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information. So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Social media isn’t as innocent as it appears. Being aware of its shortcomings can help us use it in a more meaningful and considered way. However, I do think there’s a lot of good to be said about social media, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t use it!
Power to the people – connecting and networking
Social media provides a platform for people who may find themselves shut out of traditional media. If you have something to say, social media helps get your message out. That’s hugely important, and definitely a good thing.
In the book world, social media can help authors connect with and build a readership. Publishing houses work on a business model that essentially relies on making an educated guess as to whether there’s a potential readership for a book. With social media, authors can find their own readerships – either proving to publishing houses that their book is worth the investment, or giving them the platform to successfully publish their book themselves.
And as a small business owner, I try to make the most of social media to connect with fellow editors and writers. Since I work by myself, I don’t get much chance to chat with people who deal with the same professional issues as me – except on social media!
Social media addiction
I give social media far too much of my time and attention. More often that I like to admit, I find myself sharing to my social feeds and constantly checking them for the ‘hit’ that an interaction gives me. A like, a share, a comment.
You see, I’ve been conditioned by positive reinforcement. My brain likes it when I’m happy, and if these interactions on social media make me happy, my brain drives me to seek more of them by using a chemical called dopamine to encourage me to repeat the behaviour.
When I receive the anticipated reward (a like or a comment or a share) the dopamine makes me feel good. But when I don’t receive the reward, dopamine makes me feel bad until I get what I want – the reward. It’s science, guys.
Social sites want us to use them, and this is how they makes sure people are constantly engaging. They’re designed to be addictive.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport observes that even though we recognise that social media and infotainment sites (like BuzzFeed) fragment out time and reduce our ability to concentrate, we still give them more attention than we should.
Willpower is limited, and therefore the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important.
Cal Newport, Deep Work
Newport recognises that it’s often not realistic for us to completely quit using these tools, and, yes, they are fun and help us connect with others. However, we should be much more stringent with the time we spend using them. We must remember that these services are ‘engineered to be addictive’ and if we justify our unrestrained use of a tool just because it brings us some value, we can end up feeling burned-out.
Getting the balance right
I’ve done a few things to help me curb the time I spend on social media.
I decided I was spending too much time scrolling through Facebook. So I unfollowed everyone and everything. I’m still friends with people and I still belong to all my groups, but when I go on Facebook now, my feed is empty.
I thought I would miss the interaction, but I don’t. The entertainment provided through my Facebook feed was too easy to access, and so I was spending too much time there. Now, I use Facebook to post to my business page, chat to people in groups and talk to friends on messenger, and that’s it.
Twitter was feeling similarly overwhelming. For some reason, I thought it would be a good marketing strategy to blindly follow as many writers, publishers and industry professionals I could find in the hopes that they would follow me back. I just ended up with a feed full of strangers sharing things I wasn’t interested in. And oh my god the noise of it all. It would send my heart racing.
So I unfollowed everyone I didn’t know or wasn’t interested in. I lost a bunch of followers for doing so, which my reward-addicted brain did not like, but I told myself it didn’t matter. If they were just following me because I was following them, they clearly weren’t interested in what I had to say. Now, I enjoy scrolling through my feed a lot more, and I’m able to get to know people a bit more because their tweets don’t get drowned out.
I’ve started posting more to Twitter over the past few months, and I must admit I’m feeling the dopamine effect pretty strongly. But I’m trying to keep my social media usage in check. I’m getting there. I’m certainly not spending as much time as I used to mindlessly scrolling through my feeds.
I suspect most people have a far easier time using social media than me. I hope you do, because my relationship with it can sometimes be pretty exhausting!