I’m going to start this essay assuming you already understand the problem.
Tech companies, especially companies that are incentivized by maximizing your attention (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc…), are prioritizing their agenda (more time on screen, bigger ad revenue), over your mental health by covertly manipulating your choices and altering your behavior.
If you think that last sentence is an exaggeration, please do yourself a favor and catch up on what’s been going on before reading any further. You’re going to think what I’m recommending is too severe if you don’t understand what you’re up against. Most people vastly underestimate the ways tech companies have infiltrated our lives without us even knowing it (I did for many years).
Below are a few links that I would recommend for anyone, but especially if you don’t already understand the severity of this problem.
- The Social Dilemma (Netflix Documentary, 1 hr 29 min)
One of the best documentaries I’ve seen on the effects of social media on our health, especially when it comes to kids. This is a must see documentary for everyone. These measures will make a lot more sense after you’ve watched it.
- Douglass Rushkoff on “You Are Not So Smart” (Podcast, 1 hr 10 min)
Douglass Rushkoff is one of the original cyberpunks and has been warning us about big tech companies for a lot longer than we’ve been wanting to listen. He talks about how algorithms and tech companies are ruining humanity, our fear of intimacy, and why we need more weirdness in humans vs predictable behavior.
- I miss blogs. (Boodaism Essay, 10 min)
My thoughts on how the internet used to be a beautiful place that fostered self-expression, but now is just a steaming pile of greasy corporate dog shit.
- How Social Media and AI Hijack Your Brain (Podcast, 1 hr 41 min)
A very important conversation between two brilliant minds, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Tristan Harris. They break down algorithms and the psychology behind why we’re so easily manipulated.
- How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Everyday (TED Speech, 17 min)
This TED talk is a nice introduction to what’s happening inside these tech companies. If we ever get out of all this alive, Tristan Harris should have a statue built in his honor.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is a guide for those who have chosen to stay on these platforms, but deleting your accounts is also a great option. I’ve chosen to keep using Facebook because I run a lot of events and I use it to promote my writing. I don’t use Twitter or Instagram anymore, although I have accounts for both as placeholders (my Twitter and Instagram accounts don’t follow anyone). The unfortunate reality is that for most people, we need to use social media and other manipulative platforms to some extent, so this is a guide for responsible use.
It’s also mostly centered around Facebook, but I’ll talk at the end how the same principle can (and should) be applied to other platforms as well.
Alright, let’s get going, because I’m excited to share the ways I’ve guarded myself against tech companies controlling me, because it’s been hugely effective in reclaiming my time and my mind.
It all revolves around one key principle: Reclaiming choice.
Master of My Fate, Captain of My Soul
Everyone has had the experience of logging on to Facebook, or YouTube, to do something specific, then waking up an hour later wondering where the time went. That’s the opposite of choice. That’s you being manipulated by an algorithm, optimized to have you spend as much time as possible on the platform.
When you log on to Facebook, you don’t decide what to see, Facebook’s algorithm does. When you log on to YouTube, you don’t decide what to watch next, Google does. You might think you decide, and you might even think you “program” the algorithm with your choices, but in reality these are powerful super computers working to hook you into going down rabbit holes, all the while making you think it’s “what you want”. That’s important to remember, because if the algorithm is successful it will make you think that you’re in control, when in reality you are being deftly manipulated.
If you think for one minute that you can outsmart these super computers, you’re dead wrong. They know you better than you know yourself and they’re thousands of steps ahead of you. As Daniel Schmachtenberger has pointed out, Gary Kasparov (the best chess player in the world in the 90s) lost to a computer (Deep Blue) in 1997, and since then computers have gotten so many orders of magnitude better at chess, it’s an absolute joke to imagine a human beating a computer.
That’s what you’re up against. You’re like an amateur chess player thinking you can outthink a super computer in 2020. As Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson said, “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.”1 To put ourselves back in the drivers seat and reclaim our ability to choose freely, we need to first accept the fact that we’re up against a machine more powerful than we will ever be.
Before we get into examples, I want to stress how central this idea of reclaiming choice is, because everything from here on is simply expanding on this concept. It’s the principle behind how I use (or don’t use) everything on the internet, including (but not limited to) social media, smart phone notifications, what settings I use for websites like YouTube, all my apps and/or anything related to the news.
Once this concept clicks for you, as it did for me, it will fundamentally change how you use the internet. That’s a big promise, so let’s get down to examples.
No News Feed? No Problem.
This is my Facebook news feed on desktop and mobile.
This is the way it looks every time I log in, whether that’s my computer, or anyone else’s computer. There’s nothing “wrong”, as Facebook suggests, it’s just that I’ve taken the keys away from Facebook, and now their algorithms have no way to suggest things to me.
Here’s how I did it.
Three years ago, I unfollowed every person, page and group on Facebook. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it’s different than “unfriending” or “unliking” something. When you unfollow, you’re still connected to the group, page or person, but you no longer automatically receive their updates.
The way Facebook and other social media platforms are set up is you automatically subscribe to other people’s timelines when you become “friends”. That’s not something you can turn off (because it benefits Facebook), but isn’t that a little strange when we stop to think about it?
What would actually make sense is for us to start from a clean slate, then choose who we want to subscribe to. Instead it’s the other way around, we are by default subscribed to everyone then we have to choose who not to follow. That’s like downloading a podcast app, and then the app automatically subscribes you to and downloads 3,000 podcasts. That’s insane.
Yes, unfollowing everyone took a while (about 2 hours) but I put on some good music, and got down to it. Also, Facebook has a tool that makes this easier than it sounds.
If you go to Settings & Privacy -> News Feed Preferences -> Unfollow you’ll get to a screen where you can unfollow people, pages and groups with one click.
It was one of the best investments of time I’ve ever made for my peace of mind. Also, I’m still connected to everyone I unfollow, and they aren’t notified I unsubscribed from their posts2.
If I want to go and see what a friend is posting, all I need to do is go to his/her profile and see, but when I do it’s because that’s my choice. That’s a really important point, so I’ll re-emphasize it.
No choice: Facebook decides what I see (filling my news feed with posts).
Choice: I choose what I see by proactively seeking out the content I want.
Detoxing from Distraction
Let’s take a look at this from another angle. Consider that this is what you see when you log on to Facebook.
How does it feel? Sit with that feeling.
If you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice is something you rarely experience online anymore.
There’s no cute cat videos, no click-bait articles, and nothing about the latest bullshit coming from Trump’s mouth.3 It’s completely empty.
This actually speaks to a bigger point about the internet and our lives at large. We’ve become so inundated with bids for our attention that we’ve actually forgotten what it’s like to organically seek out something. Instead, we are only saying “yes” or “no” to choices pushed in front of our face. Furthermore, our minds have become so used to that level of stimulation, that when we see a blank screen like the one above, it actually makes us anxious. It’s the same thing that would happen to an addict if you took away their drug, and for good reason. Distraction is the drug, and that feeling is called withdrawal.
Our task isn’t just to stop the incoming distraction that tech companies have filled our lives with, it’s also to do the difficult inner-work of resetting our minds so that we can experience space without succumbing to the need to fill it.
It’s possible to have a different experience of social media. When your brain doesn’t have to sort through suggestions, intention begins to arise. That’s when you start asking yourself questions like “what did I come on here to do again?” and “what am I really wanting to do with my time right now?”
If you take my suggestion and unfollow everyone — Facebook will become something Mark Zuckerberg and his design team have nightmares about.
It’s a boring website that you’re not addicted to!
And what a relief that is. When you make your social media experience boring (which you absolutely have the power to do), you won’t have to pry yourself away from the screen. You’ll go on, do what you intended to do, then when confronted with the home screen and all that empty space you’ll think to yourself, “huh, I guess I’m done here”. Your mind actually has the space to make decisions, because it’s not being baited every second.
When I made this switch three years ago I never ever looked back. It’s incredibly liberating. It’s weird at first, because you don’t know what to do with yourself (addiction withdrawal), but the time and anxiety saved by doing this is absolutely worth it.
I used to have what I called “comparison spirals” before I eliminated my news feed. Facebook would show me something then a few clicks later, I’d find myself comparing my regular life to someone else’s highlight reel. Then, after the anxiety and feelings of worthlessness got so bad, I would finally stop and get off the platform. It sucked.
Now I never have that. Ever. It’s almost impossible to measure the amount of misery I’ve avoided, not to mention the time I’ve saved.
Make Social Media Boring Again
I outlined what I do for Facebook, but there are different ways to shield yourself from addictive behavior on just about every platform. On Instagram and Twitter you can “mute” people, or you can just unfollow them.
Remember, just because you mute someone (stopping the platform from adding them to your news feed), doesn’t mean you can’t go to their page and see what they are posting. You can think of each person’s social media page as their own website, and visit them (or not) accordingly. You could even make bookmarks for people’s individual pages and go straight to them.
Yes, it might take longer, but in the grand scheme of things it’s actually way faster to get what you want, because you’re not sorting though a bunch of posts you’re only vaguely interested in. Also, adding that action step helps add intention to your internet experience, which is something we could all use more of.
When it comes to YouTube, the same principle applies. I made YouTube boring by getting rid of the “related videos” section. There’s an add-on called “DF YouTube” (Distraction Free YouTube) that I use for Firefox, but with a few google searches you can find solutions for whatever platform you use.
Frequently Asked Questions
At this point, I’ve said what I needed to say, but if you’re like any of the friends I’ve talked to about this in the last three years, you’ve got some questions. I get it. What I’m suggesting is weird, so here are answers to a few of the most common questions.
Dave, you benefit from people following you on Facebook, it’s a big way you get your writing out into the world… are you suggesting people unfollow you?
Yes, I am. In fact over the last couple years I’ve been moving toward email lists and other means of reaching people. I made those the primary means of communication, and social media the second. In the past, people would have to follow me on Facebook to learn about the events I host, but that has also changed, and I use email for that as well.
Social media platforms are rotating fads. Soon Facebook will go the way of Myspace, Friendster and new platforms will take their place. Email lists have been around literally since the dawn of the internet, so that’s what I’m betting on going into the future.
I like following some people on social media, why wouldn’t I just unfollow the people I don’t want to see and keep the ones I do? Why unfollow everyone?
I did this for a year or so, I had a few people I followed, but I kept adding people to that list, and pretty soon it was too much. You can obviously do whatever you want, but I recommend making bookmarks for people’s pages who you want to follow, and visiting them that way, versus populating your news feed.
If I “like” things I’m actually interested in, then get more of that, isnt that a good thing? Doesn’t Facebook’s algorithm operate like the law of attraction where I get more of what I put attention/energy toward?
Not exactly, in fact that’s just what tech companies want you to believe. Algorithms are trained (or have trained themselves) to nudge you in subconscious ways, so when you think it’s “you” that’s programming them by what you pay attention to, they are doing their job perfectly. They want you to feel powerful, and to think they aren’t as intelligent as they are.
Ultimately, their goal is to send you down a rabbit hole that engages one of your base desires, because their data has shown that’s the way to get maximum engagement.
What if I enjoy using social media the way it is? I don’t really see a problem with it.
It’s funny, 6-7 years ago I used to use this app called “awareness”, which would ping you throughout the day and simply ask “how are you feeling”? You’d record that data and also tell it what you were doing at the time you recorded the data. It was such a beautiful chance to actually check in with how I was feeling, because for me, that often goes unnoticed.
Most of the time, I was feeling relaxed or happy, but when I got pinged and I happened to be scrolling through Facebook, I’d always record that I was slightly anxious. When I went back over the data, I saw that trend of my anxiety being linked to Facebook, and I was actually kind of surprised. On some level, I didn’t think my use of social media was a “big deal” when it came to my mental health, but the data was showing otherwise.
My invitation to you, if you feel like social media “isn’t that bad”, is to become more aware of your emotions, your heart rate, and your state of mind when using these platforms. Notice how you’re drawn to red numbers. Notice the way going to these platforms is rarely a conscious decision, rather a habit, much like opening the fridge when you walk in to your kitchen. We are addicts, and the only reason we don’t notice it (or care) is that most of the people around us are addicts too. It takes extra mindfulness and care to detach from this world that has become too unfortunately normal for so many of us.
I’m 37, and a nerd, which means when the internet was starting to take off in the late 90s, I was in high school and I jumped right in. It was a beautiful place, full of creativity and self-expression. There were no huge internet companies, Apple was still a niche brand that was hard to find software for, and most of us “hacker kids” treated the internet like a fun hobby. We had no idea what it would or could become (at least I didn’t).
I believe there’s a lot of value in remembering what the internet used to be like, because while it’s true that huge tech companies have colonized the space and bought up almost all the real estate, the old internet still exists. It can never be snuffed out.
This guy Bill Wurtz is my hero. Truly. He’s the genius behind “history of the entire world, i guess”, which is a god damn internet work of art, if there ever was one.
There are still weird blog feeds, silly websites and experiences that actually make you feel relaxed instead of anxious. That stuff didn’t go anywhere, it just got buried under mountains of click-bait and selfies.
We’ll never be able to put the algorithm genie back in the bottle, but we can still choose what parts of the internet we allow and what parts we ignore. We must remember that while we can’t control what tech companies choose to do, we can (and must) choose our own destiny, and the only way to do that is to limit the amount of access they have to influence our lives.