I learned that the term Stockholm Syndrome came from an incident that happened in 1972 in a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Four employees of a bank were held hostage by two captors for six days. In the end, after the police caught the captors, none of the hostages were willing to testify against them in court. Rather, they began raising money to aid them with their defense.
When I watched The Social Dilemma recently, I kept thinking about this syndrome. Although it is still widely contested among psychologists and psychiatrists in its medical merit, I kept thinking about the analogy to social media. We have come to love something that has a captor-like spell on us, that we know can be detrimental. What do we do?
For starters, I urge you to watch the documentary. Second, spend some time thinking about what you saw (and maybe write about it?). Finally, do something about it.
As a corollary to the second step above, I wanted to write down the top ten takeaways I had from the unnerving documentary followed by sharing my thoughts and short-term best practices on how I have been tackling this problem.
Top Ten Takeaways: The Social Dilemma
One: In a 1980 interview for a documentary film, Steve Jobs said that the computer is like a bicycle for your mind. The same cannot be said about social media. Whereas a bicycle is a passive tool that has the option to be used or not used based on an individual’s choice, social media is not just a passive tool. It is an active tool that expects you to use it, by giving instant gratification and feeding your dopamine levels in return.
Two: The entire business model of companies like Facebook and Twitter are built on grabbing our attention and changing the way we think and behave. Jeff Orlowski, the director of the documentary, says, “Our social media platforms are powered by a surveillance-based business model designed to mine, manipulate, and extract our human experiences at any cost, causing a breakdown of our information ecosystem and shared sense of truth worldwide.”
Three: As a result of the algorithms and preferences, our individual social media feeds can become echo chambers – basically reaffirming our worldview over and over, most worryingly perhaps even at the expense of the objective truth. We become more limited in our lens as we start to see only what we want to see.
Four: Magicians are some of the earliest neuroscientists and psychologists who understood human behavior and exploited it by making us believe things that are not real (personally, I’m obsessed with decoding the magicians’ code). The effects are benign. On the other hand, social media does something similar: it collates fact and fiction by presenting the same information differently. Imagine having a customized Wikipedia page on every topic. What to believe anymore?
Five: No one feels the existential threat while scrolling down to see one more image or video, but the consequences are seen when, as a society, we are more divided, lonely, and depressed. Left unchecked, the algorithms will feed us more and more divisive content in an effort to gain our attention and increase time on the platform.
“In 2014, Pew Research Center found that partisan antipathy and division in America is “deeper and more extensive than at any point in the last two decades”. Over the past six years, social media has only exacerbated these sentiments. In 2019, 77% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats said voters in both parties “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the basic facts”.”
Six: We are all worried about a time when artificial intelligence will surpass our human strengths, i.e., achieve general intelligence and consciousness. What we don’t realize is that artificial intelligence has already surpassed our human weaknesses, i.e. our need for social validation, instant gratification, and limited focused attention.
“Dystopian technology will not strong-arm us. Instead, we’ll unwittingly submit ourselves to a devil’s bargain: freely trade our subconscious preferences for memes, our social cohesion for instant connection, and the truth for what we want to hear.”
Seven: We can try to fight it, but it will always be a losing battle. Why? Because it is our brain vs their algorithms. It is our brain that was developed over millions of years and is still primitive in its needs vs their algorithms that is getting smarter, efficient, and more targeted by the second. We cannot blame ourselves; nor can we expect will-power, which is limited, to help us.
Eight: It is so hard to accept that technology is evil, because it is not. The degree of benefits we enjoy as a species today is unprecedented. We get access to everything ever known to humankind at the touch of a button (and soon by having a mere thought), we get to work with people from all corners of the world and learn from each other, we can get almost anything delivered in a day (or sometimes a few hours), we can travel anywhere we want to… I can keep going. How can this be considered dystopia? It’s not. Except, the same technology has also made us more disconnected, lonely, depressed, and divisive in real life. It is so hard to feel the threat because of the cruel juxtaposition of utopia next to dystopia.
Nine: Any solution that can tackle this problem needs to be aligned with the financial incentive of a company. At the end of the day, all this technology is powered by shareholders who have vested interests. The first step to tackling this is through regulation. Unlike phone companies that have restrictions on how our data is used (and have had for decades), social media companies have just begun facing the consequences with anti-trust laws. There needs to be more, and fast.
Ten: The people who created this are not evil. They did so with a good intention, of connecting the world, spreading positivity, and giving voice to everyone. But, we don’t see it anymore because of what happened along the way. Until the business model changes from ground up and the companies start valuing us for more than our attention, we can’t make progress. We created this, and so we can — and have a responsibility to — change it for the sake of our future generation.
What can we do?
I completely disagree with someone who says we can choose to run away and try to live a completely social media-free life. We cannot. Not if our profession or career goal requires us to disseminate our work to the mass public. If you’re a creator or an artist, of any kind, and you want your work to reach people, you, unfortunately, need to go where people are. And where people are is on social media. Besides, if all the good people quit social media, we are left with those who will only exacerbate the problem of spreading fake news. The solution is to rather use the knowledge we have against the system and build good habits in the short-term while demanding robust action from our leaders for the long-term.
I realize that I have been implementing some best practices to lessen my usage and consumption of content I don’t want since I read Deep Work by Cal Newport in January 2019. I hope these help you as a starting point:
- Disable notifications from all non-essential apps: And I mean all. Except for messages from my family on WhatsApp, high-priority emails, reminders, and notifications related to finances, nothing else grabs my attention on my phone. I’ve never looked back. This can be itchy for a few days, as you’ll have the urge to constantly keep checking your phone. Like any good habit, it will be difficult to follow and easy to break. Give it two weeks, and you’ll see the result.
- Use plugins to block out irrelevant content: YouTube is rightly called a rabbit-hole. The algorithms are so good that they begin showing you videos that you never knew you needed and videos you never needed. Use a plugin that hides all recommended videos so you can open the app only to watch what you wanted. While we’re on the topic of plugins, other good ones include: Pomodoro clock, email extractor, and Weava highlighter.
- Don’t let just anyone enter your email home: Your email is sacred. It’s where you receive the most important alerts, it’s where you interact with your friends, and maybe close deals. Don’t let just anyone enter. I use a Proofpoint filter that automatically detects spam-my emails. I also religiously unsubscribe from information that isn’t directly relevant or interesting to me (yet I still get unwanted emails. Sigh.).
- Delete social media apps unless you need them for something critical: I know this seems drastic, but truth be told, you can still access these through your computer (or even your phone through the website). By deleting them from your phone, you will at least add one layer of friction. Side Note: Instead of using the better-looking version of Facebook, use the basic version on your phone. With its limited functionality and sub-par UI, it’s the perfect panacea to stop getting addicted.
Honestly, despite the above, sometimes I still feel overwhelmed with information. Below are a few more measures I plan to experiment with:
- Monitor my screen time. Although my phone screen time might be low, I’m afraid my laptop screen time is too high.
- Read news articles only from paid subscriptions: The New York Times, The Guardina, Medium.
- Find a way to disable likes/comments on my posts on Instagram and LinkedIn so I’m not tempted to check them once I make a post.
Most of you reading this will continue using social media, which is warranted. I plan to continue using it too. But, if you don’t pause for a few minutes to build some good habits now, you will wake up from the spell after a few years wondering where all the time went. Take control of your time now.
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