Last year I discovered, much to my chagrin, that always-on internet socializing was costly for me. This was inconvenient both because I’d spent rather a lot of time singing the praises of social media and instant messaging, and because we were in the middle of a global pandemic that had made online socializing an almost physical necessity. I made the decision at the time to put off changing my social media diet, and that was correct. But now there is in-person socializing again, and I’m changing how I use social media and messaging. I wanted to talk about this process and how great it was for me, but kept being nagged by the thought that the internet was full of essays about how the internet is bad, all of which I ignored or actively fought with, so what was going to make mine so special?
I decided to use the one thing I had that none of the other writers did: a detailed understanding of my past self. So I wrote a letter to past me, explaining how social media was costlier than she knew (even though she was right about all of the benefits), and how she could test that for herself to make a more informed decision. To help as many Elizabeths as possible, I tried to make the letter cover a wide range in time, although in practice it’s mostly focused on post-smart-phone life.
Dear Past Elizabeth,
I know you have read a lot of things calling social media bad. Your reasons for disagreeing with them are correct: social media has been an incredible gift to you, you have dodged many of the problems they’re describing, and you’re right to value it highly. You’re also right that many of the people bragging about how hard they are to communicate with are anti-socially shifting the burden of communication to other people.
Social media (and always-on instant messaging, which is a different, mostly worse, problem) has some costs you’re not currently tracking. I would like to help you understand those costs, so you can make different choices on the margin that leave you happier while preserving the benefits you get from social media, not all of which you’ve even experienced yet (is it 2015 yet? Approximately every job you get from this point on will have your blog as a partial cause. After 2017 you won’t even have interviews, people will just say “I read your blog”).
To be more specific: you have indeed curated your feed such that Facebook is not making you angry on purpose. You are not ruining relationships getting in public fights. You are not even ruining your mood from seeing dumb stuff very often. Much of what you see is genuinely interesting and genuinely connective, and that’s great. The people you connect with are indeed great, and you are successfully transitioning online connections into offline. I’m not asking you to give that up, just to track the costs associated with the gains, and see what you can do on the margins to get more benefits at less cost. To that end I’m going to give you a model of why internet socializing is costly, and some tools to track those costs.
I’m not sure how far back this letter is going, so I’m going to try to address a wide range of ways you might be right now. Also, if it’s late 2019 or early 2020, you can just put this letter on a shelf for a bit. If it’s mid 2020 and you’re confused by this, congratulations on being in the better timeline.
Currently you’re calculating your costs and benefits by measuring the difference in your mood from the time you receive a notification to the time you act on it. It’s true that that change is on average positive, and sometimes exceedingly so. But it ignores the change from the moment before you received the notification to the moment after. Notifications are pretty disruptive to deep thoughts, and you pay that cost before you even notice. But momentary disruptions aren’t even the whole cost, because the knowledge that interruptions could come at every time will change your mental state.
It’s as if you had a system that delivered electric shocks to notify you that food was newly available. You are right that you need food to live, and a system that delivers it to you is good. But electric shocks are still unpleasant, and fear of electric shocks will limit the states you will allow your brain to get into. You can’t write off the costs of electric shocks just because food is good, and because most criticisms of the system focus on the food being bad. I know you’re on board with the general principle behind this analogy, because you already believe it for open offices, and that people who find open offices costless are fooling themselves. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you that you are exactly the same, only with messaging instead of shared offices.
The easiest way to see this is to get yourself in a state where you can’t be interrupted, and observe your mood then. There is an incredibly beautiful, relaxing state I call Quiet that you are definitely not experiencing often enough. Once you have reached that state, you can observe how your mood changes as you move into a state where you can be interrupted, and again as you are interrupted.
Noticing these changes and their signifiance requires a certain minimum level of ability to emotionally introspect. If you don’t have this yet, developing it is your highest priority- not just for concerns around social media, but for your life in general. Building emotional introspection was a very gradual process for me, so it’s hard to give you instructions. In this timeline I had guidance from specific individuals which may not be replicable, but something in the space of somatic experiencing therapy is probably helpful. Waking the Tiger and The Body Keeps the Score are the classically recommended books. They’re pretty focused on trauma, which is not actually the goal here, but oh well. Other people report success doing this with meditation, but it never seemed to work for me.
Once you have that awareness, you want to practice getting in and out of Quiet so you can notice the changes in your feelings. I’ve included a few activities for producing Quiet, just to gesture at the concept, and a longer list at the end of this letter.
Unless otherwise stated, a given activity needs to be the only thing you are doing, and you need to have disabled all potential interruptions, including self-inflicted interruptions like Facebook. For tasks that use electronics, this means either putting them in airplane mode or having a dedicated device that doesn’t get notifications.
- Put your phone on airplane mode and connect it to a bluetooth keyboard, so you can write without fear of interruption.
- Eventually you can buy a thing for this. It’s fine but not amazing.
- Learn a physical skill. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is good for absorption, and once you achieve a minimum skill level you can watch tutorials on youtube as long as you turn off every source of interruption.
- Some of the frustration of drawing can be alleviated by getting an electronic device for drawing. I looked into this, and an iPad just is the best choice. You might want to have one of these ready to go by February 2020.
- Read a book you’re really into (Kindle or physical).
- FYI, you should reread things more often. The hit rate on new books is quite low and some of your favorites are really good
- If it’s an activity that leaves your hands open and you absolutely need something to do with your hands you can add in jigsaw puzzles, coloring, cardio exercise, or low-end cleaning work.
- Exercise in general is pretty good for Quiet, and you can even put on some entertainment, but it needs to be a single work you commit to, not all purpose access to your phone.
After you absorb yourself in one of these for a while (20-90 minutes), you’ll be in a very different state. Calmer, more focused, more serene. The volume on the world will be turned down. You’ll feel more yourself and less mixed with the rest of the world. Also you’ll crave Facebook like a heroin junkie. Give in to that. You just gave a weak muscle an intense workout and it’s appropriate to let it rest. As you do that, pay attention to which parts of you feel what ways. Something will be gained by using Facebook, but also something will be lost, and this is a time to learn those patterns so you can optimize your choices in the future.
My guess is as time goes on you/I will build the muscle and spend more time in Quiet and less in noise. To be honest I haven’t gotten terribly far in that process, but it seems like the kind of thing that happens and I just can’t imagine the correct amount of online socializing for us is zero.
So far what I’ve talked about is mostly the dangers of apps that give notifications: alerts that draw your attention and thus incur a cost even if you dismiss them. You might be thinking “that doesn’t apply to social media, if I keep it closed by default and l only look when I feel like it.”. First of all, you are wrong. This is because you are not a unified agent: parts of you will want to check FB while other parts are hurt by it, and removing the option to do so will enable the FB-impaired parts to more fully relax (just like it’s easier to relax in an office with a door). But second, even if that weren’t true, social media has some inherent costs even when every individual post is incredibly valuable.
This is hard to describe and I’m mostly hoping you’ll notice it yourself once you pay attention and have something to contrast it with. But to gesture at the problem: every topic switch means booting up a new context, new thoughts, stores of existing information etc. Social media means doing this once every 4 seconds. You’ve avoided a lot of the classic pitfalls by studiously not reacting when Facebook showed you bad opinions, but by teaching it to only show you interesting things you’ve made the intellectual mosh pit aspect worse. At least Facebook gives you breathers in the form of baby photos: Twitter is non stop interesting dense things.
Oh yeah, you’re gonna get into Twitter in 2020, and it will be the right decision. Yes, I’m very confident about 2020 in particular.
Anyways, I’m pretty sure the ideal amount of high-stimulus jumping between topics is not zero, but I’ve yet to get low enough to find the optimum. If you achieve Quiet and find yourself craving the stimulation of social media, and it feels good during and after, I think you should trust that. But I don’t think you’re capable of an informed decision on the tradeoff until you get more information.
In addition to the activities mentioned, a few tips and tricks that might make this whole process easier for you:
- As you scale down your current process, you’ll lose the thing that makes you answer email and texts in a timely manner. Make sure to create a new habit of actually answering emails and texts at a chosen time.
- You’re gonna worry that making yourself unreachable will make you miss messages that are genuinely urgent and important. There is a phone setting to let messages from certain people through, or any phone number that calls 2x in 15 minutes. It’s okay to use that. Your friends are not monsters, they will not abuse the privilege.
- In general, you should be open to having more electronic devices that only do one thing: I know it seems dumb when your phone or laptop can already do the thing, but it really does change how you relate to the activity.
- I’ve had off and on success with screen bedtime, in which I can stay up as late as I want, but I can’t look at a screen after a certain time. It provides a natural end to the day while respecting energy levels.
- Kindles are not screens.
- At some point you’re gonna start requiring podcasts to fall asleep, but you can preserve the spirit of screen bedtime by putting the phone in airplane mode ahead of time.
- You’re not wrong that some horror podcasts have very soothing narrators you can fall asleep to. But somehow the only periods where I frequently wake up with nightmares are also the periods where I frequently fell asleep to horror podcasts. It’s not 1:1 causality but I do think it’s worse for us.
- While we’re at it: the point of things you do after and just before going to bed is to help you fall asleep. Right before sleep is not the all purpose reading hour. Please pay enough attention to notice that reading deeply upsetting recent history books in bed disrupts your sleep.
- Transitioning from noise to Quiet can be hard. You might think to skip the unpleasant transition phase by pursuing Quiet when you first wake up. I have yet to figure out how to pull this off: I’ll lie there half asleep indefinitely before getting the energy to read a book, audio will put me back to sleep. I have a sneaking suspicion that the disruptive chaotic nature of social media/messaging is also what makes it good for transitioning from half asleep to mostly awake.
- You are the only one who likes the Zune and the replacement will not be as conducive to unitasking. Unfortunately the realities of hardware support probably mean you can’t dodge this by stocking up ahead of time. I’m sorry, please enjoy the time you have.
- Don’t go to Netflix or other streaming sites and look for something to entertain you. Maintain a watchlist on another site, and when you’re in the mood for a movie, figure out what kind of thing you’re in the mood for ahead of time and look for something on your list. This will prevent some serendipity, but the world is going to get much better at making things that look like they are for you but never pay off.
- You’ll definitely enjoy work more if you turn off sources of interruptions.
- Does that seem infeasible right now? Does it seem like it won’t matter because your co-workers can just find you at the physical workplace you go to most days? I have such good news for you. The conconcordance between your brain and your work environment is going to get so much better. There will still be tension between “following a single train of thought to the end” and “following up on the multiple paths that train lays down”. I haven’t solved this one yet. But you have no idea how much less bullshit your work life is going to become.
To recap: I am suggesting the following plan:
- Try some of the activities on the Quiet list.
- If you don’t notice the difference between them and the intellectual mosh pit that is your day, train the ability to notice subtle mood differences, then go back to 1.
- Track the change in feeling between Quiet and a return to social internetting.
- Do what feels good from there.
I hope this helps you become happier and more productive at a faster rate than I did,
PS. please buy bitcoin
More Quiet activities
- Feldenkrais (and only feldenkrais. No podcasts, no audiobooks, no tv. Sometimes you like to have close friends in the room while you do this to keep watch for monsters). Your starter resource for this is Guide To Better Movement; after that you can search on Youtube. As a bonus, feldenkrais is also on the list of things that will help you develop your ability to notice your own mood.
- Video games work but also require a lot of executive function and that’s your ongoing bottleneck resource so I don’t strongly recommend them. Horror remains an unusually good genre for this, and your algorithm of playing the top 10% of puzzle games works pretty well.
- Avoid anything that you need to tab out of to look stuff up, which will unfortunately hurt Subnautica, a game otherwise made just for you, significantly.
- Diary writing.
- Watch a single episode of a TV show without multitasking.
- Horror is especially good for this because the damage done by an interruption is so palpable.
- I know this is hard because even very good movies can be just not stimulating enough. There’s no fix for that right now because your audio processing is so mediocre, but in a few years that’s gonna fix itself for no obvious reason and you’ll be listening to podcasts at 2x like it’s nothing. Once that happens you can use Video Speed Controller to speed things up. Don’t overuse this, you’ll ruin your goal of creating Quiet if you go too fast, but a 10-20% speed up is often unnoticeable.
- Remember to either be in airplane mode or use a dedicated device that doesn’t have messaging on it.
- Horror podcasts are also great, especially Magnus Archive if that’s around yet.
- 20-30 minutes is the ideal length to start experiencing Quiet, which makes podcasts better than movies. Also they have a much better ratio of “time to figuring out if it is good” to “time after you know it’s good”.
- TV horror anthologies meet the time constraint but just seem much worse on average than podcasts. More things to go wrong I guess.
If you judge your social media usage by whether the average post you read is good or bad, you are missing half of the picture. The rapid context switching incurs an invisible cost even if the interaction itself is positive, as does the fact that you expect to be interrupted. "[T]he knowledge that interruptions could come at every time will change your mental state", as Elizabeth puts it.
This is the main object-level message of this post, and I don't have any qualms with it. It's very similar to what Sam Harris talks about a lot (e.g., here), and it seems to have a solid grounding in the literature. The post also offers practical advice (how to maintain a healthy mindset without giving up on social media). And it's a nuanced take altogether; part of the premise is that past Elizabeth correctly identified many anti-social media takes as bad, but bad arguments for a claim don't mean the claim has no merit. It's very LessWrong.
And my honest guess is that what most people actually take away from this post has nothing to do with any of the above.
About a year ago, Eli Tyre tweeted the following (which is also on LessWrong):
Personally, I remember well how I felt when I first read the sequences (right after hpmor). Eliezer verbalized all these ideas that I felt like I could have written up as well, and while that was a pretty naive reaction, it was feeling -- the vibe -- that mattered. It gave me the sense that so much was possible if I just tried. It made me realize that you could try. It made me feel kinship. A sense of purpose. And many other things.
Some say it's only about the vibes; I've had enough debates with people who don't understand Kolmogorov Complexity to know that's not true. But the vibes are a big part of it; perhaps most of it. And the same is true for this post, so let's talk about that.
In discussing her social media usage, it becomes readily apparent that Elizabeth's life is highly optimized. Most people haven't put as much thought into their social media usage, and they certainly haven't taken as many actions based on rational considerations. As Anna Salomon put it twelve years ago, we "mostly just do things". People on LessWrong are better at this than people in general, but not nearly enough to make the picture painted here seem normal.
And it's not just the what but also the how. Elizabeth's writing style projects a sense of extreme confidence. The fact that there is zero boasting is part of it; you get the sense that she isn't trying to be confident, it just comes naturally. Everything feels authentic, yet also precise, purposeful, directed.
If we take it all together, what does the post do? Does it inspire or intimidate? Honestly, I don't know. I mean, both, of course, but as for the net effect, I have no idea. And I'm not even going to describe my own reaction because I know I'm way more status sensitive than the average LessWrong reader and hence not representative. I just think it is very silly to judge this post while talking only about the object level. It's often silly to see people pretend the emotional angle doesn't exist while it obviously affects their commenting and voting behavior, but it's especially silly here, where the emotional angle is so powerful, on a post about personal habits.
So when voting for the 2021 Review, the question you should ask is not "does the post give good advise?" It's not even "is this post useful?" The right question is, "did this post inspire positive change in my life?" Judge the effects, not the quality.
This should be a good place to describe my system of keeping Facebook working for me
The centerpiece of this system is a tool called FocusMe. No other tool (of the 10 or so that I have evaluated) can do this job.
FocusMe is blocking software, but it's the only blocking software that has 2 essential features:
- It can be airtight, i.e. you can set it up in a way that it cannot be switched off (without factory resetting your device)
- It can block parts of a website without blocking others (with regexes).
My problem with Facebook is that the feed reliably makes my life worse while the groups and the events functions make my life considerably better. As an organiser of LessWrong events I need to be on Facebook to attract a large chunk of the attendance. Just going ballistic on FB by blocking its IP address range (like many blockers do) is not an option for me. I also want to kinda keep using messenger and definitely whatsapp.
So I block facebook.com and whitelist facebook.com/events, facebook.com/groups and facebook.com/login, and I happily do all the right things and none of the wrong things, and not a moment goes by that I miss the days of willpower.
That's just my laptop. For my phone, things are somewhat trickier with less options for total control, but you can still have it your way with burg... Mobile Device Management (MDM) software. The overall feeling of niceness of my life was quite saliently improved once my phone no longer had a browser on it. I also tend to block instant messaging in favor of keeping that stuff on my laptop, where I can manage my access to it on a more granular level. After trying 4 or 5 MDM solutions I settled on Jamfnow, but you have options here.
My general philosophy is the following: seriously, fuck willpower as a solution for anything. It requires a constant tenseness and alertness. Instead, control yourself in two ways: by synchronizing your s2 with your s1 to the point that your "bad" impulses dissolve, or by simply making it practically impossible for yourself to do "bad" things, and then joyfully following your impulses. It turns out that my impulses are totally productive as long as I take their addictions away, and after a while I cease to make a distinction between "me" and "my brain" at all, since they always agree anyway.
FocusMe can be helpful. When I was using it more though, I did have the issue that I blocked distractions that I was addicted to because the work I was doing wasn't fulfilling enough, which I ignored and tried to fix by blocking more distractions. I'll probably try it again now that I'm better at internal retrospection.
For anyone trying now for the first time though, I'd definitely be careful of this failure mode.
This is a good example of what I call synchronizing your s2 with your s1
Yeah, that's the exact way I've started thinking about it. Too much coercion can cause desynchronization. I'm hoping improving my ability to watch my mind will improve this.
Curated. I initially didn't read this post having pattern matched it to the template of "social media is bad" posts. This is better than most. On my model, this really is what Elizabeth would send to her past self, and it's remarkably grounded and practical advice. The idea of trying to preserve attention/turn off interruption isn't new, but having read this I find myself with renewed motivation to try to achieve it.
I'd be curious to hear some examples on this subject: things you've tested out and found helpful / not helpful in the long-term.
I've had a similar idea as a means of keeping my brain in a more Quiet state: it's a bit of a meme to talk about the progress made by computers and phones rendering other tools obsolete, but it has been helpful for me to explore selectively "unbundling the phone" by thinking of use cases through the lens of "sure my phone can do this, but would I be less prone to interruption if I used a separate tool?"
The main example that has stuck around for me is using a separate alarm clock, and sleeping with my phone in another room.
Kindle is the clear winner for me specifically. I often want to read right before bed, where having an eInk rather than LCD and the shift away from the noise machine are both at their most important.
I'd love to have a dedicated music player again, especially one that cooperated with Google Music on the back end to refresh locally available options while I was away from WiFi. I looked into this a tiny bit and couldn't find anything that I liked. I could make it myself from an old phone but it hasn't felt worth that much effort.
I found the Freewrite Traveller (eInk word processor) merely okay, but several of my friends love theirs. A different friend loves his reMarkable (eInk notebook).
I've kept my iPad strictly for art and movies, no social apps. The art part only works so well because I often work from youtube tutorials, so the laptop is still open. For movies it does seem like an improvement over the laptop in terms of focus, except that I can't speed them up.
The display on the cardio machine I use broke, and I bought an egg timer to time HIIT intervals rather than use my phone, even though I use my phone to listen to podcasts while I'm working out, and it was totally worth the $8.
+1 to Kindle; I went from "Man, I used to read a lot during high school, now I just browse the internet" to reading more than 25 books per year when I bought one.
I use an iPod to listen to music --- highly recommend it.
I love the electric shocks analogy!
Sounds like we feel similarly about a lot of this stuff. For a few years now, I've been trying to keep my phone notifications very low. The devices I generally use for reading/writing do not get any notifications.
Despite these ideas mostly not being new to me, I got value from this post for two reasons:
1. This validates my own experience. It moves me away from believing "I am personally easily distracted, so I keep distractions low" and towards believing "maybe a lot of people are perpetually semi-distracted by their notifications." Although I'm not sure how big of an update to make there.
2. I'm glad you described the intellectual mosh pit thing. My feed is full of interesting, engaging stuff too. I think I experience approximately the same effect you're experiencing from that. I'll have to think about whether I want to do anything about this. Especially since I frequently check Facebook when I'm feeling low-energy.
(Side note: I wrote this comment while my partner was finishing up a phone call. I found myself pretty distracted by the feeling that they were going to enter the room and talk to me at any moment. Even if I was just going to have to say "give me 10 minutes alone, please," it feels distracting to anticipate that interruption. Hmm.)
Thanks for sharing!
This is wonderful; thank you for writing it. Very much enjoyed the exposition of the "Quiet" state; have been trying out your advice of switching everything off and trying to slip into such a state and am enjoying what I've found there.
(The link for the bluetooth keyboard from your blog is broken / or the keyboard is missing)
I've been trying to research somatic experiencing therapy, and all I've been able to find out is that nobody says it's a scam. I'm at the point now where it's the best option I can find for my goal. Can you expound on why it's probably helpful for this or for trauma?
It's helpful for this in two ways. The one I mentioned explicitly was that it trains awareness of your physical and emotional state, which is a precursor for monitoring how different things affect those states, which is a precursor for changing your environment to change your state.
But the whole experimental framework is also based on an SET technique called emotional titration. The goal of emotional titration is to move fluidly between emotional states in a range that feels good for you. It's useful here for smoothly transitioning between Quiet and intellectual mosh pit, and then back.
But trauma victims also classically become dissociated and then stuck in a handful of emotional states (e.g. gritted teeth calm and hysterics, with no in-between), and titration can help them expand their emotional ranges and thus respond more proportionately to stimuli. It also lets them process past trauma in manageable chunks (with the size of the chunk often going up over time), without overloading them or leaving something repressed forever. Where something like CBT picks an emotional state for you and attempts to force you into it unresponsively, SET is all about testing small emotional movements and seeing how they feel.
In terms of scams, I think SET is on the better half of the distribution of therapy modalities but the default advice still holds: individual practitioners can be good or bad at it, or good or bad for you, your practitioner matters more than the official modality. A focus on skill-building rather than processing in-session means you're more likely to graduate and less likely to pick up therapy as a multi-year hobby, which I think is a positive.