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journalist, Amsterdam

How a social media detox changed my outlook on tech

2018 ⋅ Tekst

The criticism directed at social media is growing fast. Even Silicon Valley seems to have seen the dangers of its ways and says it wants to protect us from the evils of the algorithm. I joined the growing club of people who needed a social media detox to find out how six weeks of abstinence would affect me. This is my experience. 

Something Strange

During a family dinner, my father is talking but I can’t keep my mind on what he’s saying. For the innumerable time that day, I’m scrolling through social media feeds on my smartphone, refreshing my email, and checking WhatsApp. And that while I had vowed I wouldn’t let myself get so distracted. I had taken a friend’s advice and disabled all app notifications, so no more beeping, buzzing, or lighting up. But something strange is happening here. After more than ten years with a smartphone, the need for stimulation is so deeply embedded in my system that I automatically reach for my iPhone every few minutes. These days, Instagram causes the largest thrill: an endless stream of micro-narcissism in which friends have become something like brands that want to “inspire” their followers, for example, with half-naked photos or a special hashtag for their baby. And Facebook? It’s less interesting than it was a couple of years ago, but it remains a source of news, happenings, and private messages. I always have it open in the background. Kind of like a wallpaper.

When I get home later that night, I take out my headphones and nestle onto the sofa. A book – this is the moment to finally read a book! But I feel agitated, take out my phone, and the whole scrolling ritual starts again. I can’t remember the last time I actually read a book all the way through to the end. My poor sweet books have been downgraded to “tabs” that I quickly thumb through and then set aside. On the table are Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a collection of stories by Miranda July, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I bought that last one four years ago. Oh, and a self-help book about how to live more in the “now.” How ironic! The covers softly cry for attention.

 

Heat of a charging phone: image by Joseph Giacomin/Cultura/HH.

Heat of a charging phone: image by Joseph Giacomin/Cultura/HH.

The attention span of a flea

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I have forgotten how to give something my full attention. And this concerns me – especially now that scientific evidence about the unhealthy effects of social media is piling up. Studies have shown that your IQ can drop if you spend too much time on social media, and according to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, it can lead to depression and give you the attention span of a flea. If I’m in a bad mood, social media can also make me suspicious. Why does my boyfriend “like” this picture of a girl I don’t know? And WHY am I actually seeing this at all? And who is this “Erica” who’s been looking at my Instagram stories for the past week even though she doesn’t know me in the slightest? Or does she know me? And from where, then? Four seconds later and I’m hunting online for the life (and face) of Erica. Of course, these kinds of stalkerish activities are deadly for focus and mood. And although a curious soul like me might be particularly sensitive to this, I know many others who have fallen into the same habits. And these are only the personal, individual patterns. We haven’t even started about the collective driving forces that are given free rein on social media: fake news, filter bubbles, hate groups, Russian trolls!

Have I chosen for this consciously? Or is my choice being driven? How is this affecting me? Will I ever read another book again? So many stimuli, images, and strange thoughts – I’m seriously losing my mind. Get me out of here! I can’t go on – I want a social media detox, and I want it now.

Being my own boss.

So there we go. My sister decides to change my passwords, and I’m out. It’s immediately apparent. Friends email and call to ask where I am, whether I’m alright. The answer is yes! My brain is feeling amazing and peaceful. Here I am, no longer compulsively searching for baby hashtags or the latest posts from a delusional ex boyfriend or other things I don’t actually care about. It feels like I’ve got my priorities straight again.

I read Zadie Smith and keep a daily diary of the progress I’m making without social media. It’s liberating. Instead of reading news that reaches me through the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, I have to go looking for news sources on my own. And I no longer listen to the easy-on-the-ear music that Spotify dishes out, but read reviews on music websites and then listen to an entire album. It might take a little more time, but it does mean you’re your own boss. Before long I feel like I’ve regained control of my internet use. I’d forgotten for a while there were other websites besides Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Spotify. Why do we hardly use them?

It’s  BAD. BAD. BAD.

I know I’m not the most original. More and more articles are popping up about people and their social media detox. In Volkskrant Magazine (a Saturday supplement of Dutch quality daily de Volkskrant), journalist Maike Jeuken wrote about her detox weekend with the children, an experiment full of surprises. For example, she noticed that the children’s posture went from slouched to straight in an instant. “It’s incredible – you can hardly recognize them when they stand like that,” she writes.

In the same Volkskrant Magazine, medical journalist Aliëtte Jonkers gave a detailed account of what scientific research has shown to be the consequences of children spending hours on their smartphone every day. She wrote about how it affects motor functions, eyes, bones, muscles, the psyche, and hormones. In short, it’s bad for everything.

What I think is missing in many of these kinds of publications is a call for a vigorous debate or well-thought-out suggestions for a plan of action. Because, well, what can we do? According to many, including journalists, we are simply at the mercy of the unstoppable momentum of technology.

Deliberately addictive

Luckily it’s not just the powerless consumers who are concerned. Nearly every week now a new key figure from Silicon Valley is speaking out against social media, their own creation. Take Justin Rosenstein, the inventor of the “like button” on Facebook. He is now a fierce opponent of social media, and dismisses his invention as a “pseudo-pleasure, hollow and addictive.” In October he told The Guardian that this wasn’t the first time someone invented something with the best of intentions, only to find out later on that it came along with unintended, negative, consequences. Out of self-protection he enlisted the help of hackers to program his iPhone so he couldn’t download any more apps. Isn’t that crazy?

Former Facebook president (and owner of Spotify) Sean Parker put in his own two cents worth when he said, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” In November 2017 he told news site Axios that the creators and developers of Facebook had deliberately built a platform that was addictive – it would “give you a little dopamine hit because someone liked your post.” Parker: “The inventors, creators – people like me, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom at Instagram – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

And then there is billionaire and Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, who last year told the New York Times that the internet is “broken.” In February he told CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour that Twitter is a mess that disproportionally rewards extremism, calling it “a bad concept.”

 

image: Joseph Giacomin:Cultura:HH.

image: Joseph Giacomin:Cultura:HH.

Basic instincts

Take, for example, the Facebook events page – a handy tool, and the function I missed the most during my detox. In design terms, it would have been a snap for Facebook to let me look just at the events page and filter out the rest, if that’s what I want to do. But it doesn’t let you do this. Or let you post Instagram photos via your computer. Instagram doesn’t let you do this. You could write a book filled with such examples.

What you are shown appears to be based on what stimulates or excites you most or what you find most appealing. You read more and more about revenue models based on triggering our basic instincts – short-term impulses that get in the way of well-thought-out decisions. And that’s creepy.

Fallacies

According to Dutch writer and critic of digitalism Sidney Vollmer, “Developers of social media do everything in their power to keep you hooked.” In his book On/Off, he gives a detailed description of how tech companies hijack our attention using psychological tricks that are more sophisticated than ever before. “Your attention is their currency. Neatly itemized and labeled, you’re sold to the highest bidder.”

The more I think about it, the angrier I get. Am I overreacting? One common argument is that people “have always been afraid of new technology, so there’s no reason for concern.” Vollmer’s book contains a message for people who think that the impact of present-day communication technology and smartphones is comparable to that of inventions in the past: “Wake the ‘F’ up.”

 I call him and ask him to explain. Vollmer: “It’s a fallacy to compare the tension that the new digital technology is creating in our society with earlier disruptive technologies. It’s true, people had to get used to the idea of the automobile instead of a horse and wagon. But by pointing to this and glossing over everything that’s happening right now, these people are ignoring the fact that the introduction of the automobile came along with rules and regulations and new innovations: maximum speed limits, safety belts, driver’s licenses, and so forth. These things have saved thousands of lives.” And according to Vollmer, there’s a second reason: “Other new technologies have needed an average of two generations to change a society. People could prepare themselves for a different kind of economy. Now we expect ourselves to do this within the span of half a generation. According to economists, this is impossible.” Vollmer concludes: “What doesn’t help is listening to fallacies. What does help is to engage in a discussion with each other about this.”

 Punch on the nose

For the first time in history, tech insiders have come out in large numbers to take a stand on the psychologically debilitating effects of social media and its revenue models. The lobby group Center for Humane Technology, founded by Tristan Harris, wants more stringent laws that rein in the freedom that tech monopolies now enjoy. Together with media watchdog Common Sense Media, they recently started a large-scale campaign called “Truth About Tech,” which has a budget of seven million dollars.

This new movement is a punch on the nose for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who recently promised to mend his ways. New algorithms have now been introduced aimed at improving “meaningful” contact between people and restricting commercial pages. And oh, the irony of it all – Facebook shamelessly borrowed Tristan Harris’s slogan in the introductory text: “We want to make sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”According to the company, if this should lead to people spending less time on Facebook, “we’re okay with that.”

image of heat of charging phone: Joseph Giacomin/Cultura/HH.

image of heat of charging phone: Joseph Giacomin/Cultura/HH.

I checked my phone fifty-three times

Will things finally change? If Mark Zuckerberg keeps his word, it’s a good thing that posts from advertisers will no longer get priority. But in their present form, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter will continue to make money by eroding our attention spans and preying on our psychological weaknesses. For their own gain. How they do this and which algorithms they use is, of course, a secret. The main thing is still to earn money. In 2017, Facebook’s profits were up by as much as 47 percent from the previous year.

And me? During my social media detox, I found that I was quickly liberated from even the slightest interest in what everyone was up to and what they were posting. My own strange search tendencies vanished, and images, sentences, and feeds faded to the background. My thoughts became clearer and I felt more human.

Unfortunately, I still have a long way to go. After my digital detox I had an, um, relapse. While writing this piece, I checked my phone fifty-three times. That can be partially put down to me making a poor choice. But now I know there are thousands of people actively trying to drive that choice, and it’s not exactly what I would call a helping hand. How incredibly sad that the internet – intended to be a place where people can feel free – is being held hostage by a few major players and has become a breeding ground for nasty psychological games and addiction.

Let’s free up space and money for intelligent start-ups and new ideas. Not less internet, but more options for an internet that supports people. And that can only happen if Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are given some healthy competition. If new laws and regulations are enacted. We need smart, engaged designers who can help us filter our information and build in possibilities for saying no instead of using tricks to get us more and more hooked. If users are prepared to pay a little something for social platforms that help rather than suck us dry. We have to regain control of our attention. Ev Williams hit the nail on the head when he spoke with CNN: “I think we’ll look back on this time as that strange period when we mindlessly devoured anything and everything digital that was put in front of us. And how unhealthy that was.”