Walking Back from the Outrage and Addiction

January 13, 2018

This week, I’d like to point you to an article by software developer Joel Spolsky, Birdcage liners. Spolsky discusses how he has given up reading Twitter and Facebook because they were making him angry.

Does that sound familiar? Ever come away from social media feeling worse than when you got there? Me, too.

What’s interesting to me is his software designer’s take on the problem. Spolsky essentially says that outrage and addiction to the services are baked into their very design.

Twitter, by limiting the number of characters in a tweet, strip communication of nuance, emotion, and sentiment. Says Spolsky:

The outrage and indignation, of course, are what makes it work. That’s what keeps you coming back. Oooh shade. Oooh flamewar. We rubberneckers can’t keep our eyes off of it. I don’t know what the original idea of Twitter was, but it succeeded because of natural selection. In a world where the tech industry was cranking out millions of dumb little social applications, this one happens to limit messages to 140 characters and that happens to create, unintentionally, a subtlety-free indignation machine, which is addictive as heck, so this is the one that survives and thrives and becomes a huge new engine of polarization and anger. It’s not a coincidence that we got a president who came to power through bumper-sticker slogans, outrageous false statements chosen to make people’s blood boil, and of course Twitter. This is all a part of a contagious disease that is spreading like crazy because we as a society have not figured out how to fight back yet.

I can so relate to this. If you search my Twitter feed (I’m @einspruch), you’ll find at least one or two instances where I’ve piped in something like, “Just tuning in. What’s the outrage du jour?” I’m sure I meant that ironically, but I think it is symptomatic of the hell hole of garbage that Twitter can be, and the lure of instant, daily outrage.

And the Book of Face (here’s my page)? Spolsky:

Whereas Twitter sort of stumbled upon addictiveness through the weird 140-character limit, Facebook mixed a new, super-potent active ingredient into their feed called Machine Learning. They basically said, “look, we are not going to show everybody every post,” and they used the new Midas-style power of machine learning and set it in the direction of getting people even more hyper-addicted to the feed. The only thing the ML algorithm was told to care about was addiction, or, as they called it, engagement. They had a big ol’ growth team that was trying different experiments and a raw algorithm that was deciding what to show everybody and the only thing it cared about was getting you to come back constantly. 


Rather than providing a constant stream of satisfying news and engagement with friends, Facebook’s algorithm had learned to give me a bunch of junk I didn’t need to hear, and only gave me intermittent rewards through the occasional useful nugget of information about friends. Once in a blue moon I would hear about a friend’s accomplishment or I would find out that someone I like is going to be in town. The rest of the time I would just get the kind of garbage newspaper clippings circulated by someone who had too much coffee and is misattributing the kick from the caffeine to something they just read online and now MUST share IMMEDIATELY with EVERYONE because this news story about something that happened to a baby bear is SOOOOO important to THE ENTIRE WORLD.”

I encourage you to read the whole article.

These are very powerful tools that have, quite literally, changed the world. The connections that can be fostered and maintained are incredible. I’ve had brief connections with some of my heroes on Twitter, and meaningful engagements with lots of folks on FB. There’s no question that there’s value there.

But Spolsky’s words fit in with what I’ve seen in my own life, and in those around me. More than once I’ve said to people near me, “If you’re using Facebook and coming away feeling worse, you’re doing it wrong.”

As for the addictive quality, I’ve seen that in myself, too. “Oh! Look! That stupid red circle has a number in it! Better check if someone has liked a post!”

I’ve been on social media for a decade now. I have fed the Facebook content machine, and tweeted everything from humour and indignation. But my inclination these days is to try to keep a tight lid on my engagement with both of them. I wrote last week about how I close off social media when I’m writing or trying to do anything productive. I reckon I’m better off writing a few hundred words more than engaging in the outrage du jour.

My natural inclination in the past months is to go on there less and less. I don’t think I need to go cold turkey the way Spolsky has, but I find that, for me, less is better.

How about you?

Beginnings, Systems, and Habits, Not Resolutions

January 7, 2018

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.
—  attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

You can’t go wrong starting with a Goethe quote, can you? (Except, it appears not to be from him.)

Still, the sentiment holds. Welcome to 2018, a year in which I can promise you that all kinds of stuff will happen that will be outside your control, and which you’ll care about a lot, or you won’t, but there won’t be much you can do about it.

Good, we got that out of the way.

Let’s talk about things we *can* control. Let’s talk about beginnings.

I mentioned last time that I’m one of those whose not a big fan of new year’s resolutions (wait, we’re already a week into the new year, am I still allowed to talk about them, or do I have to wait until next December?). Instead, I’m a fan of systems and habits that help you achieve what you want to achieve. Want to lose weight or save more or write more words or whatever, think about systems and habits that will lead you to that. What would setting the alarm 15 minutes earlier every day help you do? What would parking further away, closing your Apple Watch rings, or setting up an automated debit nudge you toward?

Also, it’s important you don’t fall in love with the search for the perfect tool. If you’re doing the equivalent of being the writer trying out a hundred word processors instead of writing, then you’re doing it wrong. People (*cough* like me *cough*) who like tech, especially, fall prey to this. Get on with reinforcing the habit or strengthening the system or doing the work.

Here’s an example from my world: shutting down social media. When I’m writing and trying to be otherwise productive, I close down the Book of Face and the fiery hellhole of Twitter, and ignore (or turn off) their notifications. Some people have success by limiting the social media apps to one device (like a phone or an iPad), but for me, shutting them down works. Also, I relegate Wastebook to its own browser (I’m mainly a Safari user, so FB lives in Chrome, which I think also limits its ability to track non-FB activity, but I won’t swear to that in court.) So, what’s my system and habit? Shut ‘er down.

Finally, you have my permission (not, though, like you need it) to screw up, so long as you do better the next day. Did you eat the donut? Miss your word count? Watch Jane the Virgin instead of going to the gym? Not to worry. Tomorrow (or later today) is another day.

So, over to  you. What system or habit can you put in place to ring in the new year and help you say next December, “Well, that was worth doing.”?

Here There Be Gratitudes

December 30, 2017

Billie and I have a tradition. Every new year’s eve, we look back and list our gratitudes for the past year. Sometimes we’ll also look forward and do goals, but it is the gratitudes I enjoy more. It is a way to shape the year gone by with a positive spin, and focus on the things that brought learning, meaning, and value.

Here are some (not all) of mine for 2017 (I’ve omitted the more private ones).

This year, I’m grateful for:

  • You, for being part of this email thing. I’ve received so many lovely and encouraging responses, and every one makes me want to keep going, Which I will.
  • New music, which brought new joys. (Want a weird one? check out Festivalzeit (Apple Music) by Losamol Mundart. Did I mention I have a penchant for German pop and rock? This one is a bit more rappy, but catchy.)
  • Books, which also brought new joys. (I wrote about this last week.)
  • The various activists who made their voices heard, whether for marriage equality in Oz, a better deal for animals everywhere, or standing strong against dumpster fires.
  • Tamsin and Cheryl for being my first readers, and their great feedback and encouragement. If you enjoy what I bring out next year, you’ll have them, in part, to thank.
  • The self-publishing community, for being so generous with their information and support.
  • Vego bars, for being chocolate and vegan.
  • Podcasts and audiobooks for bringing me so much entertainment and information.
  • The artists who inspire me, like Aaron Sorkin and William Gibson.
  • Apple, for releasing the iPhone X and giving me a bit of delight back in the phone experience.
  • Every drop of rain that fell on our place. Every blade of grass that grows.
  • The animals who share our lives, for their inspiration and showing us there are other ways to be. Also, some of them are really characters and crack me up.
  • And always, always Billie and Tamsin, for sharing my life. I look forward to 2018 with you.

I invite you to join me in this tradition of gratitudes. What are some of yours?

Fellow human, I wish you blessings of the new year, and I’ll see you in 2018.