Antisocial Media


Placebo’s ‘Too Many People’, anthem for the Facebook generation

I’ve started to notice myself becoming disenfranchised and disillusioned with social media, both in terms of how I interact with it and the effect it’s having on me personally, and what it’s doing to our society as a whole.

Like many in education I was an early adopter, and fan, of Twitter. It’s was the anti-Facebook at a time when I still wasn’t on Facebook. New, exciting, open, posts were deliberately short and sweet and you got them in a simple, clear chronological timeline. But as it got bigger and more popular it started filling with bots, fake accounts and became a haven for the extreme right due to the lax and variable application of its own rules and, of course, the disgraceful impunity given to Trump to spread his hatred and fearmongering. The gradual change to an algorithmic feed annoyed me, but I understand the reasons for that, as I do the logic behind the more recent increase to the character limit. I’m not sold on the ability to thread a series of Tweets though, and taken together all of these things have made the platform lose the brevity that was part of Twitter’s initial appeal. Seeing the word ‘thread’ proclaimed in a Tweet has come to fill me with dread as what could be an interesting discussion is shoehorned into a bunch of 280 character chunks which is harder to read and follow than a blog post or an article, which is what they should have been in the first place.

I did eventually succumb to Facebook as a matter of convenience, just like a quarter of the planet has. I never trusted Facebook though, and kept a tight rein on my privacy settings and was careful about what I posted and shared. Nevertheless, I came to like it well enough until recently when I’ve found myself quietly groaning at the banality of so much of what I’m seeing on my newsfeed. I can’t place when exactly this happened, but I suspect it’s something that has been triggered as the number of my ‘friends’, groups and pages has grown. Like Twitter, Facebook now has its own wider problems with bots, fake news, hate speech, and the inconsistent application of its rules. A recent post by one of Facebook’s senior managers did a quite excellent job of identifying its various problems, for which kudos, but then shamelessly places the burden of responsibility for change on its users, meaning it’s not going to actually do anything. To paraphrase, the solution to Facebook’s problems is to use Facebook more.

From Facebook to Instagram, which I joined more voluntarily and like for its ability to push posts into Twitter and Facebook. It is perhaps because it’s the most recent platform I’ve joined that it’s the one that least troubles me. LinkedIn I’ve been on for years as a matter of professional etiquette, but it’s a quagmire of corporate bullshit that I do my best to ignore. Similarly, Google enrolled me to Google+ whether I wanted to be on it or not, though fortunately no-one uses that. And finally, I do have my own YouTube channel (again, thanks Google!) which I use to back-up my dodgy gig vids more than anything else.

The bots, the spread of hate speech, and the fake news is one thing, but there is now an increasing body of research showing tangible harm being done to the psychological development of the generation growing up who’ve never not known a world without social media. I’ve read more than one piece linking social media and smartphone use with increasing incidence of depression in children and teenagers. Part of the problem is how these services and devices use push notifications to constantly update you about new content, something called digital distraction.

That’s definitely part of my problem. I hate all such notifications and pop-ups and like to clear them straight away. My inbox at work has nothing unread in it, and at any one time there’s likely only to be around a half dozen emails flagged for future work as they can’t be done immediately for whatever reason. This in contrast to a colleague who mocks me with his 6,968 unread emails (at the time of writing), though he claims it’s okay because only 356 of them are on the work account.

So, having identified the problem, what actions have I taken to address it? The big change I’ve made is to turn off notifications for all social media apps on my phone. I’ve had them off for LinkedIn pretty much since I joined, and only check it when I have something to update, which is a couple of times a year, or when the app gets updated (to clear the notification that the app has been updated… I know, I’m a lost cause). For Twitter and Facebook, I have left on the badge icon, otherwise, knowing myself, I would end up checking them to see if some such has been commented on or whatever. Finally, I’ve started being a bit more critical when I am scrolling and actively unfollowing and muting accounts that I don’t get something from.

The result of these changes is that I’m using these services far less often, checking them at times of my choosing, and when I need a distraction from whatever I’m doing, instead of going to one or other endless feed I’m choosing something more useful like Memrise or picking up a book for a little while.

Twitter has actually been the easiest to let go, and I’m now only accessing it once or twice a day. Facebook is a little more regular, but I’ve always gotten a lot more notifications there so the badge icon is pretty much always on. I’ve noticed an improvement in my battery life! And it would seem that I have upset the algorithms. Phantom notifications have become a thing – the icon is lit, but nothing is there when I check, and I’m getting many more irrelevant notifications trying to suck me back in. I feel like I’m seeing a lot more ads in Twitter, and have even had ‘recommended tweets’ appearing in the notifications tab itself. That, I found out how to turn off thankfully!

I haven’t talked about the possibility of quitting, because I haven’t seriously considered it. What I wanted to do was assert boundaries on their intrusion into my life and in so doing establish a healthier relationship, though I have plenty of friends who have quit or, especially for younger people, never joined in the first place. This is not a trend unique to my peer group either. For me, Twitter is too useful in my professional practice and, like LinkedIn, and indeed this blog, it’s something that’s just sort of expected of someone in my line of work. Facebook for its part has become my primary means of discovering gigs, and is still great for managing and organising events. So, in essence what I’ve done is reduce my use of these services to their core functionalities, what they’re good at and were initially built for – Facebook for event management and Twitter for news.

I’ll leave with one last article, this in the New York Times ostensibly about the Bitcoin bubble, but interesting for its insight into how Facebook became the de facto standard for establishing identity on the internet, and how the blockchain could provide a better, more democratic solution.

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