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?