Whence the symptoms of social media?

by KatjaGraceMeteuphoric2 min read27th Oct 20206 comments


Social MediaPracticalWorld Optimization

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

A thing I liked about The Social Dilemma was the evocative image of oneself being in an epic contest for one’s attention with a massive and sophisticated data-nourished machine, tended by teams of manipulation experts. The hopelessness of the usual strategies—like spur-of-the-moment deciding to ‘try to use social media less’—in the face of such power seems clear.

But another question I have is whether this basic story of our situation—that powerful forces are fluently manipulating our behavior—is true.

Some contrary observations from my own life:

  • The phenomenon of spending way too long doing apparently pointless things on my phone seems to be at least as often caused by things that are not massively honed to manipulate me. For instance, I recently play a lot of nonograms, a kind of visual logic puzzle that was invented by two people independently in the 80s and which I play in one of many somewhat awkward-to-use phone apps, I assume made by small teams mostly focused on making the app work smoothly. My sense is that if I didn’t have nonograms style games or social media or news to scroll through, then I would still often idly pick up my phone and draw, or read books, or learn Spanish, or memorize geographic facts, or scroll through just anything on offer to scroll through (I also do these kinds of things already). So my guess is that it is my phone’s responsiveness and portability and tendency to do complicated things if you press buttons on it, that makes it a risk for time consumption. Facebook’s efforts to grab my attention probably don’t hurt, but I don’t feel like they are most of the explanation for phone-overuse in my own life.
  • Notifications seem clumsy and costly. They do grab my attention pretty straightforwardly, but this strategy appears to have about the sophistication of going up to someone and tapping them on the shoulder continually, when you have a sufficiently valuable relationship that they can’t just break it off you annoy them too much. In that case it isn’t some genius manipulation technique, it’s just burning through the goodwill the services have gathered by being valuable in other ways. If I get unnecessary notifications, I am often annoyed and try to stop them or destroy the thing causing them.
  • I do often scroll through feeds for longer than I might have planned to, but the same goes for non-manipulatively-honed feeds. For instance when I do a Google Image search for skin infections, or open some random report and forget why I’m looking at it. So I think scrolling down things might be a pretty natural behavior for things that haven’t finished yet, and are interesting at all (but maybe not so interesting that one is, you know, awake..)[1]
  • A thing that feels attractive about Facebook is that one wants to look at things that other people are looking at. (Thus for instance reading books and blog posts that just came out over older, better ones.) Social media have this, but presumably not much more than newspapers did before, since a greater fraction of the world was looking at the same newspaper before.

In sum, I offer the alternate theory that various technology companies have combined:

  • pinging people
  • about things they are at least somewhat interested in
  • that everyone is looking at
  • situated in an indefinite scroll
  • on a responsive, detailed pocket button-box

…and that most of the attention-suck and influence that we see is about those things, not about the hidden algorithmic optimizing forces that Facebook might have.

(Part 1 of Social Dilemma review)

[1]: My boyfriend offers alternate theory, that my scrolling instinct comes from Facebook.


6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:47 AM
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I suggest collecting some data on your browsing habits and seeing how much time you are burning. It might be more than you think. 

Your post feels a bit like a rationalization, like my friend saying he could stop drinking any time he wants to. He just doesn't want to.

I however may be engaged in motivated reasoning myself. I am working on software to level the playing field so the hapless person on the internet has a chance. 

Any links to that? (Or things you think are good for that?)

My assessment is that you are either unusually resistant to the manipulative tactics of social media or you haven't kept track of your usage accurately enough to write an honest self-assessment. I'd lean towards the former since you spend a lot of time on games that don't have much of the manipulative "gamification" aspects that makes social media so powerful.

But even if you aren't personally affected very much by social media manipulation, I would argue you should still be concerened. The world in which you live is increasingly shaped by content aggregation algorithms on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Ninety percent of journalists have a twitter account, and news is increasingly shaped by the interaction of journalists with each other and readers on social media. The combination of irrational groupthink on Twitter and the bad incentives of the traditional advertising model have had huge impacts on the quality of coverage and the topics of coverage. Journalists even realize this. Here's Vox Co-Founder Ezra Klein explaining why he moved to San Francisco:

Part of the reason I moved from DC to Oakland is it no longer felt like I could understand what the hell was happening to politics if I didn’t get a better handle on tech.

So many of today's politics stories are actually stories about how technology is changing politics.

I don’t think Trump, Sanders, or AOC would’ve had the rises they’ve had without Twitter. I don’t think old theories of how parties work, the role money plays, or how the media makes coverage decisions, hold now that political communication is social, algorithmic, and viral.

And it's not just politics. Life is just what we pay attention to. And what we pay attention to, increasingly, are screens.

There's really no escaping the effects of social media. Its effects are so pervasive that even if you don't use it your world view is shaped by it.

The part about "pinging people about things they are at least somewhat interested in" sounds kinda good. Problem is, the system is intentionally designed to not distinguish between important things and trivialities. You subscribe because you don't want to miss the important things; then you get flooded by trivialities... which are also kinda interesting, but you probably wouldn't turn them on every day if they were not mixed up with the important things.

Are there tools that help with this* (that you use)?

*Getting the benefits of subscription (important things) without the downsides (triviality spam).

It depends on the author of the "important things" to put them in a separate channel or somehow mark them as more important than the rest. For example, if my former classmates decide that a high-school reunion will only be announced in a specific Facebook group, where they also regularly post other kinds of content... it's either all or nothing for me. Maybe I could use something like Greasemonkey and write my own filter, but there is a chance I would miss the announcement anyway because someone used a synonym or made a typo.