I read Cal Newport’s latest book “Digital Minimalism”, and it’s made me think BIZZEF about my phone usage, and how much time I spend on social media. Here are 3 lessons I learned:
1. We are the product!
Our attention is valuable and finite. It’s a valuable commodity, and whether we realize it or not, it is bought and sold every single time we use the Internet. In the same way that we are intentional about how we spend our money (because we recognize it as valuable, AND limited), we need to be careful about how we spend our precious attention! Have you heard the phrase “attention economy”? It’s a real thing…your attention is a commodity. WE are the product!
In 1830, a man named Benjamin Sun launched a newspaper in New York City that marked the beginning of the attention economy. Previous to this, newspapers viewed the readers as their customers, so they wrote articles that people wanted to read badly enough that they were willing to purchase the newspaper. What was different about Benjamin’s business model is that he viewed the advertisers as his customers, and the readers as his product! He published short, attention-grabbing articles that gathered a wide audience, and he sold the newspapers for just pennies. Since he had a huge audience, he was able to charge the advertisers for the privilege of promoting their message to his readers.
This is exactly how television or YouTube works: we can watch content for free, but advertisers who want a piece of our attention must pay YouTube in order to inject their message. Our attention is captured by the content, and then sold to the advertisers. YOU are the product!
2. There’s a war for your attention, and you’re up against Goliath
(Who’s Goliath? If you don’t know the story…read it here).
Social media companies hire experts & brilliant people who work hard to capture your attention…they are extremely smart, and there’s an army of them seeking to get you addicted to their products. They use their knowledge of human psychology and habit formation to design social media apps in order to maximize the amount of time you spend staring at your screen. Your time = their money. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat…they are purposefully designed to make you addicted.
Some of the strategies that have worked really well for them over the years:
- “Like button”. This addition made social media posts interactive, and allowed us to seek social approval from our friends and followers. Seeking reactions from others is the greatest contributor to compulsive checking of our phones
- Badge App Icons in RED. When notifications were in blue, people weren’t responding to them, so Facebook changed the colour to red – signaling alarm or urgency – and people started checking their notifications quicker
- Swiping to refresh feed. The physical action is part of the addiction – once you learn the behaviour it become subconscious and difficult to stop
- Intermittent reporting. As gambling experts know, humans respond well to rewards that are unpredictable. Social media applications intentionally randomize your notifications (likes, follows, etc.) in order to increase your likelihood of becoming addicted
- Data collection. Every time you click, subscribe, watch, like, share, pause your scrolling, even hover over an image, companies are collecting data about you, and learning what content you are likely to respond to. This allows them to curate your feed to better attract your attention
It’s crucial that we become aware of the tactics that are being used against us, so that we can make wise choices about our social media usage, rather than being mindless victims of powerful corporations.
3. Experiment to discover Best Practices
Last weekend I went to Europe…and left my phone in Morocco! Try an experiment – leave home without your phone. Seriously, I dare you. Most people cannot imagine going out for an evening without their phone, or even leaving the house for a simple errand…it’s become a ubiquitous part of our lives.
Imagine meeting a friend for coffee and NOT having your phone with you. There would be times you would miss it for legitimate and healthy reasons (Googling a question neither of you know the answer for, taking a picture together, checking your calendar to book your next date…), but these moments would be far outweighed by the illegitimate and unhealthy reasons you would miss it (answering a call from someone not present, checking social media because the conversation got boring, showing each other random videos, pics or memes, messaging, compulsively checking your notifications…). We’ve all had the frustrating experience of sitting across from someone who was distracted and absorbed by their phone…it’s miserable.
So give it a try! Go out into the world “naked” and observe how you feel. When do you miss your phone? When do you reach for it? Notice if you look for your phone simply out of boredom or to escape a challenging situation. If you struggle to be alone with your thoughts…that’s a problem. If you struggle to give your undivided attention to the person who is physically present with you…that’s a problem. If you can’t ask a stranger on the street for directions…that’s a problem.
Here’s some other experiments to try:
- Turn notifications off for social media apps. Who cares if someone liked your photo or commented on your post? Don’t stop what you’re doing to flutter around in worthless ‘socializing’
- Go to bed without your phone. Plug it in somewhere away from where you sleep. This prevents mindless nighttime scrolling when you should be falling asleep
- Delete social media from your phone. You can still log on with a computer, but it prevents you from scrolling during ‘boring’ moments (on the tramway, in class, while waiting…). Open an e-book instead!
- Make time for REAL fun! “For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.” Perhaps you’re addicted to social media because you’ve got nothing better to do? Well then…change that. Join a club, learn a new instrument, read, build something, cook, paint, write, run, explore, throw a dinner party…have FUN. You’ll soon be too active living life to passively observe others living theirs.
Taming your Technology is an important topic for iGen. I’ve been worried about my own social media usage, and shocked by the results I get collecting phone usage data from my students. If this is a topic you’d like more content about…let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m considering producing some videos, an audio book, or even a course if it’s something that people want.
If you’d like to read “Digital Minimalism” yourself, you can order it here.
Until next time, Get Wisdom.