Click click boom, down the rabbit hole
Here we go, a whole generation living the Truman Show
No control over the feed you see, feeding humanity to the machinery
A likely reason you are reading this essay is because a social media algorithm decided to place it in your feed. If this is the case, the algorithm, equipped with immense amounts of data about your identity and a psychographic model used to predict your behaviour, calculated that this post would maximally engage your attention, keeping you on the platform a little bit longer and, ultimately, lead to more profits. It is a business, after all.
We live in a world with a strange information ecology: AI-powered newsfeed algorithms, mass data collection, psychographic modeling, addiction and manipulation are all part of the process when you innocently scroll through your feed. Billions of people participate in this process every day. In turn, the companies behind our screens, which are some of the wealthiest companies around, mediate how most of us are exposed to, consume, and share information about the world.
Despite being a social technology that has significant effects on our worldview development, identity and overall psychology, the reality is that these companies operate solely out of their own competitive economic interests, without any actionable concern for our well-being — and almost no one is holding them accountable.
When the very foundation of our social lives and identities exist almost exclusively in the context of corporate interests, it’s pretty clear that we are going to end up with some undesirable consequences, both at the individual and societal level. Unsurprisingly, we are beginning to see the real-world negative effects of such an economic system, which is usually referred to as the attention economy.
what is the attention economy?
Not only selling ads, they’re selling you and me
And slowly hacking our psychology
Tracking what we wanna see, who we wanna be
Preying on our fragile vanity
If you aren’t familiar with what the attention economy is, I’d highly recommend watching The Social Dilemma, a Netflix original documentary. There is a lot to unpack for those unfamiliar with the attention economy and it’s not within the scope of this essay to get into all the details.
Broadly speaking, the “attention economy” is somewhat self-explanatory. Our attention has economic value, and the more of it companies with certain business models can capture, which is then sold, the more money they make. Hence the name attention economy.
What this means for us is that we don’t pay money to use the platform since we are not the customer. Instead, our attention is the product which the platforms sell to the real customer: advertisers. The more time we spend scrolling through our feeds on the platforms, the more ads they can show us and, in turn, the more money they make.
So far, this is how all advertising works, whether in newspapers, on billboards or on TV. Where Big Tech takes it to the next level is how they extract our attention and select which ads to show us. Advertisers don’t want to pay to show the same ad to everyone, they would much rather save costs and pay only to show specific ads to the people that are most likely to buy whatever is being advertised.
To be able to show a relevant ad to a specific person, one needs to know a fair amount about that person. Fortunately, for the advertisers, social media companies just so happen to have an immense collection of data representing our behaviour, values, interests, personality, psychology and physiology. Every millisecond we spend on the platforms is being carefully monitored and recorded — what we like, how much time we spend looking at a post, our scrolling habits… everything.
Equipped with all of this data, the social media companies create digital models of each of us, which are used to predict our behaviour — for example, how we might emotionally react to a particular piece of content. Additionally, most of the computation is AI-driven, so no one really knows exactly why a specific piece of content is chosen to be shown in someone’s newsfeed. You can think of it as AI-driven psychoanalysis far better than any human could do.
“We’re pointing these engines of AI back at ourselves to reverse engineer what elicits responses from us. Almost like you’re stimulating nerve cells on a spider to see what causes its legs to respond.”
- Tristan Harris
Have you ever been talking about a certain topic, then, all of a sudden, you see an ad for that exact thing on Facebook? It’s not because Facebook was listening to that conversation, but rather, their behavioral modeling of you is so accurate that it can predict the kinds of topics you would talk about. Sometimes, it just so happens to predict a topic that you were just talking about.
The modeling of our behaviour, called psychographic modeling, is used in two main capacities. First, it is used to guarantee to advertisers that certain ads will only be shown to the people that are most likely to engage with the ad. This certainty is social media companies’ second main product. Advertisers pay for the certainty that their ads will be used optimally (both financially and psychologically). This means that each user of these platforms has their own personalized feed of ads informed by their unique psychographic model (kind of like a digital voodoo doll). This advertising model is called micro-targeted advertising. It’s important to note that social media platforms don’t sell our data, rather, it is what they are able to do with our data internally that makes them most of their money, in this case, guarantee optimal advertising.
The second use of psychographic modeling is to basically make us as addicted to the platform as possible. Again, the more time we spend on the platform, the more ads can be shown. Therefore, it is in these businesses’ interest to manipulate us into spending as much time as possible on the platform. With all of the personal data and psychographic modeling, these companies’ algorithms can calculate and select specific pieces of content that are maximally going to engage our attention. Addiction is a great way to guarantee continued, extensive use.
There are a number of other sinister tricks these companies use to keep us coming back (watch The Social Dilemma to learn all about them). The key takeaway is that social media companies use our psychology and data against us to make us spend more time on the platform so they can show us as many personally-curated ads with optimal psychological precision as possible.
the attention economy is downgrading your intelligence and deteriorating our social fabric
“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are and I would encourage all of you, as the future leaders of the world, to really internalize how important this is.”
- Chamath Palihapitiya, Former VP for User Growth at Facebook
Obviously, when we are manipulated at such a precise level, our cognition and psychology suffer. When we all suffer individually, the effects accumulate to the societal level.
At an individual level, we suffer in a number of different ways. When our phones are constantly fighting for our attention, we downgrade our ability to focus on things that matter in life. We condition ourselves to be distracted every few minutes, constantly switching where our focus is being directed:
75% of screen content is viewed for less than 1 minute, according to a study that tracked computer multitasking across the course of 1 day. Results indicate that most people switched between different content every 19 seconds. Biological analysis demonstrated that participants experienced a neurological “high” whenever they switched — explaining why we feel driven to keep switching and underscoring how human biology makes us vulnerable to being [manipulated] by attention-extractive economies.
(Source: Yeykelis, L., Cummings, J. J., & Reeves, B., 2014. J. Communication, 4(64), 167–192 Via: Ledger of Harms)
Not only do endless distractions waste our precious time, but they also downgrade our memory:
A meta-analysis of several dozen research studies indicates that higher levels of switching between different media channels is significantly linked to lower levels of both working memory and long-term memory. Given the current Extractive Attention Economy, and the increasing number of social media platforms and apps competing to capture our attention, basic human capacities — such as our memories — are increasingly under attack.
(Source: Uncapher and Wagner, 2018. Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences Via: Ledger of Harms)
These consequences have real, negative effects on our physical brains:
The greater your level of Facebook addiction, the lower your brain volume. MRI brain scans of Facebook users demonstrated a significant reduction in gray matter in the amygdala correlated with their level of addiction to Facebook. This pruning away of brain matter is similar to the type of cell death seen in cocaine addicts.
(Source: He, Q, Turel, O., & Bechara, A., 2017. Nature: Science Reports Via: Ledger of Harms)
It’s crystal clear: the attention economy is making us all dumber.
Not only that, there are severe consequences on our mental health, from increased anxiety to depression and suicide. For more information, a very comprehensive collection of research about the negative impact of the attention economy can be found on the Ledger of Harms. Just as a warning, the results are quite alarming.
At a societal level, in the race to capture our attention, social media platforms tend towards distributing outrageous content, as it best captures our limited attention. What ends up happening is that fake news spreads six times faster than true news. On top of that, political actors can take advantage of the individuals’ psychographic models to curate ads to influence political views and democratic engagement.
“If you want to control the population of your country, there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook.”
- Roger McNamee
This all leads to the creation of more polarization, outrage, confusion and loneliness. This is bad news not only for ourselves, but for democracy. Democracy only works if society can come to common agreements through deliberative practices. If we can’t even agree on a base reality, democracy won’t work.
“If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarization, more election hacking, more inability to focus on the real issues, we’re toast.”
- Tristan Harris
individual solutions to a systemic problem
“[these tools are] eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other, and I don’t have a good solution. […] my solution is: I just don’t use these tools anymore. […] I am telling you, I’m not on these f***ing apps.”
- Chamath Palihapitiya
The problem is systemic. Meaningful changes in the right direction won’t happen overnight and will require significant effort from many people. However, there are practical, effective actions that you can take individually to minimize the extent of manipulation and the negative consequences on your mind. It’s not just about minimizing negatives, though. By minimizing big tech manipulation, we can also open the way for intellectual development in ways not possible if we succumb to these manipulative forces. Not only will your mental health improve, but your intelligence as well.
I think of four categories of individual solutions, all of which build on each other and open the way for intellectual development:
1. humility, awareness & mindfulness
2. minimizing distractions and usage
4. professional help
humility, awareness & mindfulness
“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix?”
- Tristan Harris
We all have psychological vulnerabilities that can be manipulated and exploited. This is just part of being human. It takes humility to accept our own flaws. It takes humility to have awareness of how we are being manipulated, and it takes humility to admit we have an addiction (I know I’m addicted to social media, which is why I work so hard to minimize its negative effects).
If someone doesn’t see a problem, they won’t have any reason to change their relationship with their devices. If we really want to change ourselves for the better, we need to be able to acknowledge the issues in the first place.
Mindfulness can help us observe how our minds are being affected by all of this. Through mindful practices like meditation, we can start to understand how our minds work — and how elusive our attention truly is. Mindfulness reveals to us how many of our thoughts are automatic and how much of our behaviour is compulsive. Mindfulness can also come in the form of journaling. By journaling about our experiences and feelings, we can begin to recognize patterns in our behaviour and also better understand who we are.
Ultimately, we need to be mindful of our fragile psychology to properly protect it and cultivate well-being.
minimizing distractions and usage
“You’re living inside of hardware, a brain, that [is] millions of years old. […] Then there’s this screen, and then, on the opposite side of the screen, there’s these thousands of engineers and supercomputers that have goals that are different than your goals. […] who’s gonna win that game?”
- Tristan Harris
Unfortunately, we’re in an unfair battle: it’s our flawed brains versus the world’s wealthiest companies and the largest computational power in the world. Sometimes, it’s better to not step in the ring.
There are many convincing arguments to cut out social media altogether. For some, this approach works wonderfully. For others, perhaps it’s too extreme. If you think you can do it, definitely do it! If you don’t think you can, then it’s important to do all you can to minimize usage and distractions.
Here are a few things I do to minimize unnecessary distractions:
Our phones are probably the singular largest forms of distraction in our lives. We have them within arms reach all day long and they buzz and ding every few minutes.
Most notifications are pointless. Turn them off. Go into your settings and turn off all notifications for all apps that you don’t need to be informed of something right away. Everything else can wait until you decide to check the app. For example, I try to only allow message-related apps to notify my phone, like signal (by the way, use signal). If someone is calling me about something important, I don’t mind being distracted. If I get a spam email or someone posted on their story for the first time in a while, I don’t care. I’ll see that stuff when I (mindfully, not compulsively) open the app.
I also usually keep my phone in airplane mode and “do not disturb”. If I don’t need to be contacted immediately about anything (which is usually most of the time), then there is no reason for my phone to be connected to the internet, filling up with notifications.
Better yet, just delete the social media apps directly from your phone. If I really need to check Instagram, for instance, I do it through a web browser on either my phone or computer.
Empty home screen and search bar
I got this idea from Tristan Harris. Basically, my home screen is completely empty, except for a few of my favourite apps at the bottom. When I unlock my phone to check something, I swipe down to bring up the search bar, then I physically type in the name of the app that I want to open. This forces me to be more intentional and less compulsive when using my phone.
I have my phone set up so that when I press the home button three times everything switches to grayscale. When the phone is in black and white, everything is less distracting and not as engaging, translating into less wasted time on the device.
physical location of the phone
It’s not enough if your phone is on silent mode or even off, if it’s near you, it’s distracting you:
The mere presence of your smartphone, even when it is turned off and face down, drains your attention. An experimental study of several hundred adults showed that both working memory and the ability to solve new problems were drastically reduced when their phones were turned off but present on their desks, as opposed to being in another room. Ironically, participants who said they were highly dependent on their phones showed the greatest increase in memory and fluid intelligence scores when their phones were moved to the other room. Researchers noted that smartphones act as “high-priority stimuli,” unconsciously draining significant attentional resources even when we consciously ignore them.
(Source: Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W., 2017. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2) Via: Ledger of Harms)
When I found out about this, I started leaving my phone in a different room (for example, while I wrote this article).
delayed content consumption
Likely, a lot of the content you consume comes from social media feeds. Perhaps even this article. Consuming content at the time of exposure is a bad habit. It’s much better to save something that may be of interest for consumption at a later time — when you actually have the time and desire to properly process the information.
I primarily use 2–3 different apps to save content for later consumption. I use Instapaper to save articles so I don’t feel the need to read them as soon as I see them in my feed. Instead, I read them when I make time in the day to read without distraction.
I also use raindrop and notion to save anything I want to come back to later that isn’t an article. For example, a cool-looking website or even YouTube videos. When I set aside sufficient time, I go through these inboxes of content and process them accordingly.
Distraction Free YouTube Browser Extension
I have an extension on my browser (I use firefox) called Distraction Free YouTube (or, for chrome users). Basically, it makes my YouTube home screen completely empty. When I go to YouTube to watch something, I type it in the search bar without the bottomless feed of recommended videos begging to be watched. It can also make the recommended video sidebar completely blank, so I can watch whatever video I want in a distraction-free environment. It’s a super useful extension and I highly recommend using it.
It can be extremely isolating if you are fully aware of the consequences of the attention economy, but none of your friends or family seem to care or want to talk about it. But, it is absolutely critical that those waking up to the dark side of social media have people to talk about it with. Try to watch The Social Dilemma with your friends and family. I find it does the best job of presenting the problem in a very understandable and convincing format.
If that isn’t working, know that you are not alone. There are lots of incredible people and organizations working against the attention economy and trying to restore civility, and sanity, to our social technologies. For example, The Center For Humane Technology hosts frequent virtual conversations around related topics, offering an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with others who are acutely aware of the problem. At the very least, feel free to contact me. I would be happy to discuss any questions, concerns or thoughts you may have about the attention economy and social media with you.
Our exposure to authentic relationships is eroding quickly, falling prey to the commodification of our attention and social lives. Having even just a small network of friends and family to stand in solidarity with will help keep you sane in an increasingly manipulated world.
If you have a broken leg, you don’t just journal about it, you go to a hospital and get the help of doctors and nurses. Likewise, if our minds are injured, seeking professional help can greatly improve the healing process. For many of us, the attention economy has been wiring our brain in undesirable ways for years. Psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists can help us undo the mental damage. They can help us break out of our addictive and compulsive behaviours. Most importantly, they are there to listen, to genuinely understand what you are going through, so that they can best help your well-being. The last thing they would do is manipulate your attention and psychology in order to maximize your economic value to them.
intellectual development: cultivating the mind
Our mind is our most valuable tool in life and it pays off to cultivate it. Whatever you want to achieve in life, it helps if you have a healthy, resilient mind. The sad truth is that the social tools we use every day downgrade our cognitive abilities and increase our mental fragility. Social media trains our physiological reward system to favour short-term gratification, like perceived social approval, likes, retweets, over long-term objectives.
“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals: hearts, likes, thumbs up, and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. […] Instead, what it really is, is fake, brittle popularity that’s short term. […] You are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you’ve got to decide how much you’re willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.”
- Chamath Palihapitiya
When we get caught up in these “short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops”, we lose sight of our future, of who we actually want to become and how we can get there. For instance, who is more likely to find fulfillment and accomplish their goals in life: someone addicted to short-term dopamine feedback loops, or someone, like Chamath Palihapitiya, who is “proactively trying to rewire [their] brain chemistry to not be short-term focused”?
In many ways, intellectual development is the process of rewiring our brain chemistry away from short-term rewards and towards long-term ones. It means investing in the continued, long-term development of one’s mind. Similar to financial investing, with gradual and consistent effort now, we can reward our future selves with compounding returns. In this case, those returns will be intellectual assets: sharper focus, improved attention, increased memory, new skills, heightened well-being, etc., all of which help with further intellectual development — hence the compounding effect. On the other hand, without the discipline to avoid instant-gratification, long-term goals like learning a new language, developing a new skill, completing a project or starting a business will forever evade us.
So, what can be done? What can we do to not only mitigate the negative effects of social media on our minds, but improve our attention, focus, memory, and overall cognitive abilities? How can we “rewire our brain chemistry” away from short-term rewards?
In my opinion, I think that personal knowledge management, in combination with the four categories of solutions outlined above, is one of the most effective ways to counter the manipulative forces of social media and significantly foster intellectual development. I’ve already written about what personal knowledge management is and how to get started with it. Essentially, it is a way to manage the knowledge in your life through note-taking, memory training and organizing information (usually digital).
Note-taking methods like zettelkasten can greatly increase ones ability to organize their thoughts over time, leading to deeper understanding of complex topics and more frequent insight. Zettelkasten can also help us become aware of flaws and biases in our judgment, which social media hide from us so well, leading to higher forms of self-awareness. Additionally, we can improve our memories by using spaced-repetition systems and note-taking tools like RemNote. The point is, not only can we mitigate the negative effects of social media manipulation, but also improve our cognitive abilities in the process.
It’s discouraging to look around and see how many people are sucked into the matrix of big tech manipulation. At the same time, it’s deeply motivating because it is all the more reason for those who are aware of the problem to try and do something about it. Imagine how much better the world would be if social media platforms weren’t designed to addict and manipulate us, but instead foster our psychological well-being. Imagine if instead of promoting polarization and hatred, social media platforms allowed us to establish authentic relationships with all sorts of people with various worldviews.
“It’s not about the technology being the threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society being the existential threat.”
- Tristan Harris
We need people to safeguard and cultivate their minds so that we can properly address the problems of the attention economy and all the other fundamental issues of our time. Addressing climate change, effectively regulating AI, reducing inequality and protecting democracy aren’t possible if no one can think for more than 40 seconds before being distracted by their phone.
Realistically, at least in the immediate future, most people won’t change. The power of social media manipulation is probably too deeply integrated into many people’s identities. So long as the solutions are individual ones, only a small percentage of people will actively change their relationship with social technologies. In the meantime, while we wait for collective solutions, the small few that take the advice in this article seriously will be equipping themselves with dramatic intellectual advantages.
Imagine if you were in a race where everyone else smoked cigarettes and ate McDonald’s every day. Even if all you did was not smoke and eat McDonald’s, you’d be at an advantage. Now, imagine if you also trained and ate healthy foods. Who’s most likely to win that race?
The analogy is limited, though, as intellectual ability shouldn’t be a competition — we need it to be an abundant resource, not a scarce one. Nonetheless, the point remains: in a world where most are unintentionally downgrading their mental abilities, those who work to intentionally cultivate their minds will inevitably have significant intellectual advantages.
Hopefully, most of those with such advantages are the ones who work to solve the issues of the attention economy, not exacerbate them. Worryingly, those who are most acutely aware of the problem seem to be the ones building the tools, not regulating or using them.
what happens next?
The symptoms of oppressive algorithms seen as schisms in society
When we’re giving into hidden rhythms written with the heartbeat of conspiracy
They say to hell with us, they put a spell on us
The greatest trick played on humanity
Is the true price of free
Our shared reality?
- I Put a Spell on You (Single from The Social Dilemma), Brandi Carlile, Renee Elise Goldsberry
As mentioned above, the attention economy is a systemic problem. Meaningful changes won’t occur without advocacy, activism, education, and all sorts of political and economic reform. The solution isn’t “we just need better AI to regulate fake news” as Mark Zuckerberg likes to think. Technology won’t fix anything in a meaningful way if the entire economic system that drives the application of technology is broken. The only viable solution is a fundamental shift to the business model and the regulatory environment. If efforts do not translate into legally binding regulations that force the companies to change their practices, they will simply keep operating business as usual, no matter how outraged a few of us might become. These solutions will take many years to implement.
Instead of waiting for collective solutions, the best thing you can do is change yourself. No one person can fix the entire problem, but, you are capable of changing your own habits. You can at least focus on mitigating how the problem affects you personally: you can leave your phone in a different room and you can turn your notifications off, for example. Your brain can be rewired, it just takes time and discipline. If you don’t actively change yourself for the better, the attention economy will passively change you for the worst. At the very least, for the sake of your future self, do something.