No time? Listen to it instead
From the get-go, I want to make it clear that I hate social media. However, it is a necessary tool in our daily lives at this point. So, to ignore or get out of it outright seems a bit impossible and too much. I have specific reasons for why I dislike social media, and so, I have particular ways in which I manage my consumption.
When we talk about social media consumption, most people tend to focus on the time spent on it. Yes, that’s important too, but there are more parts to social media consumption that are often ignored. These can be intrusiveness in our lives, compulsiveness to use it, and getting stuck in bubbles of similar thought.
1. Managing Social Media Time
Its evils far outweigh the usefulness of social media and so, the best solution (provided you still want to use it) that I’ve figured out is to limit time strictly. I also talked about this in my article on the Eisenhower Matrix.
There are countless apps today that help you block out other apps based on a timer. Google’s Digital Wellbeing, OnePlus’ Zen Mode and Apple’s Screen Time are default offerings that help you analyse and act on your usage of certain apps.
To me, Digital Wellbeing is a boon since I just take the usual suspects – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – and set a timer for each that seems viable for my usage of it. For Instagram, for example, I only have 30 minutes a day which seems a bit much, but the fact that I have two accounts makes it justified.
All the other apps go from 10 to 15 minutes per day. If you don’t have an app on your phone by default, ActionDash is an excellent alternative on Android.
Texting on Instagram
A lot of people use Instagram for messaging-only and use this as a reason to be on Instagram, but there’s a quick way around it using their official messaging app called Threads. If you add people as Close Friends, they show up in Threads, and that’s what I use to stay in touch with friends while not using Instagram for the browsing experience.
Most digital wellbeing solutions also provide something called Focus Mode, which is a list of inaccessible apps that you can turn on manually or schedule ahead of time. I have my Focus Mode activating between 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM every day. That’s the peak of my work time, and so I try to avoid social media. Of course, I do take a five-minute break and check something out, but that’s where it stops.
2. Managing Social Media Intrusiveness
It’s difficult staying away from social media platforms, especially amidst a global lockdown. Yet, there is this nature of these apps where they creep into your life before you even realise. Now, I’m a firm believer in the idea that data privacy ended with the first smartphone. It’s all a farce now so that’s something we won’t get into today. I hope you manage your permissions well and avoid giving unnecessary ones to most apps, but that’s up to you to figure out.
The thing I want to touch upon is the fact that social media should help your relationships not the other way round, so I try to consciously make sure that the conversation I’m having with someone goes beyond memes.
Fewer Memes, More Talking
So, that could be asking meaningful questions and making sure I’m up to date on what’s going on in my friend’s lives. People don’t tell you everything, so it’s a good idea to call and catch up now and then instead of just texting and sending GIFs and memes. The quickest way is to ask people genuine questions and remember stuff. Make notes if you have to, they won’t know.
If your friend was between jobs and you text them, make sure you politely ask how their search is going. If they were sick the last time, you talked, asking them how they are doing even if you saw their Instagram story already goes a long way.
I wasn’t a huge fan of calling people, but it seems that has waned over the years. I prefer calling my friends for longer conversations now. We do have to take a back and forth of trying since all of us are busy now, but we eventually decide on a time and can find it. The conversations are always satisfying and worth it.
So, I try to make a call or drop a text but make sure my relationships go beyond memes and trends. It’s the idea of making sure that social media (and whatever it brings with it) stays outside of my relationships and only serves as a way to communicate.
3. Managing Social Media Compulsiveness
The third is simple. Not everything has to go to Instagram or Facebook. I’ve demarcated areas of my life that barely make it to social media and those that do. For me, this developed over years of blogging. If every part of my life was public, I could easily keep some parts private without anyone realising. The fact that most mundane or irrelevant stuff is out there means I get to keep my private life very private. That’s how I try to curb social media compulsiveness.
I try to avoid making stories. I use social media with intent. For my personal account on Instagram, for example, the intention is to share my prose and my public life like cafes and things I’m excited about or very rarely, opinion. Each platform I use has a specific intent now, and that’s what I share on it or use it for. Beyond that, everything else stays off.
Over the years, I’ve realised that I don’t like posting multiple stories and that not everything going on Instagram or Facebook is okay. I still share my travel updates rather diligently because that helps me make sure I meet a friend or acquaintance who has the time. Otherwise, they never get to know that I’m in their city. You get the idea – the intent is key.
4. Managing Social Media Bubbles
This one is the trickiest part and the one I want to stress on the most. Social media, and by extension, other products today such as Netflix and Youtube, are increasingly putting users in strict recommendation system and opinion bubbles. This episode from Your Undivided Attention podcast talks not only about how platforms like Youtube keep you within the same bubble of thought but also how they push you to a more extreme side of it.
A New Twitter Experience
It is the same way with Instagram and Twitter. Let me illustrate a bit here. My original Twitter account wasn’t very mindful of who I wanted to follow, so my feed and people were filled with political news, things I found irrelevant, memes and whatnot. I deleted that account last year claiming that Twitter was the ghetto of the internet.
Only recently, I created a Twitter account for Nudge › How. I realised that when I chose to follow specific accounts with intent because that is the kind of content I wanted to consume, I was put in this microcosm of just the sort of content I wanted to see—people who loved growth, productivity and ideas. When I realised exactly how I could use their algorithms bubbling me up with other people to my advantage, I created my personal account again.
Break The Bubbles
The point is that, and this is not opinion but fact, that each platform wants you to stay on longer, so they club you in with people who post/think/feel/like the same stuff as you. This plan is useful if you’re only on it for a few minutes every day, but if you spend hours in an echo chamber, it is your voice that gets louder and louder until you cannot hear anything else.
I’ve met a lot of people who cannot take any other opinion or have level-headed discussions and discourse just because they feel that their idea of right is in fact, the only right and everything else is just plain wrong. Often, these people were the same who also believed in the incredible power of these online communities.
There’s a correlation there, but I feel I cannot comment much without taking the data out myself.
The Two Paths
In any case, there are two ways you can go about circumventing the bubbles of social media.
One, limit time and enjoy the bubble with intent. Follow a specific set of people and relish their content and take that boost of ideas but for just fifteen minutes a day. This one is the easy path.
Two, follow a diverse set of people, make sure you’re consciously following accounts that give a wide range of ideas. This is the hard path.
In practice, this would mean following someone who preaches max productivity in bold quotes and then, also following a page that talks about slowing down and mental health. Content from both of those would make sure you don’t go towards a toxic extreme in either direction.
It’s tough precisely for the reasons explained in the podcast episode – you cannot dupe the system if you’re spending hours on it.
A mix of both of the difficult and the easy path can make for a fulfilling social media experience that does not take your free will away.
Understand The Systems
Most platforms use sophisticated versions of primary clustering and recommendation approaches today. These are User-Based Collaborative Filtering and Item-Based Collaborative Filtering. Some use a mix of these, but the idea is simple: a platform is either going to group you with similar users and show all of you the same things or going to show you items similar to what you already see.
In both the ideas, the bubble gets created. The way to break out is to try to limit exposure. That, or to dupe the system for as long as you can with intention. If you exercise this enough, the added benefit is getting an open mind.
Eli Pariser goes deep into the concept of filter bubbles, a term he coined, in his articles, interviews and book. I’ll link some in the footnotes for more context.
We can manage social media usage in four different ways. Firstly, the time with strict limits on apps. Secondly, the intrusiveness by changing how we stay in touch. Thirdly, the compulsiveness with healthier boundaries on what we share. Lastly, the bubbles by either limiting exposure or consciously following different people.
Here are some resources you can read about each specific idea mentioned in the post.
- An article that offers a basic introduction to social media and the problems it causes.
- A nice refresher on what Digital Wellbeing is all about.
- This article with Eli Pariser talks about the issues of current social media systems.
- Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble is where he coined the term first.
- This interesting discussion on the ExplainLikeImFive subreddit about Recommender Systems.
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