How to truly understand the social media trap
Social media makes us feel like we're doing the very thing we're not doing -- because we're too busy doing social media.
We've all heard about what's wrong with social media. The algorithms surface content designed to trigger emotions, and so we're all constantly exposed to triggering content. Filter bubbles protect us from opposing viewpoints. It's addictive and time-wasting. It's filled with haters and trolls. Yada, yada, yada.
There's truth in all of this. But the real problem with social media is something people never talk about.
Here's the problem: Social media makes you feel like you're doing the very thing social media is preventing you from doing.
Let me explain.
We live in an attention economy. Your attention is worth more than gold.
If attention is currency, then social media distraction represents a transfer of wealth from yourself to whoever is most successful at taking your attention — Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook that owns Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (which owns YouTube), ByteDance (which owns TikTok), Snap (the company that owns Snapchat), Reddit, Pinterest, Twitter and others.
These companies extract your attention the way "the Machines" extract electrical energy from people in the "The Matrix."
Of course, some distraction is good. At the end of the day, it's great to forget about our troubles with online escapism. Such distractions, plus connecting with other people, may be especially important during a pandemic lock-down. A little social media is nice.
But with each passing month, the distraction industry evolves to become better at manipulating your paleolithic brain to distract. And we don’t evolve quick enough to resist.
As a result, people time spent on social media grows every year and shows no signs of stopping. Every year, we transfer more and more attention wealth to the giant corporations that have created the best distraction artificial intelligence technology.
And so we are distracted by social media more than we should be or want to be.
Society is slowly evolving into something out of the novel "Ready Player One," where everyone is so distracted (in the movie by a "metaverse," called "The Oasis") that the real world goes to hell. Everyone is too distracted with digital experiences to take care of the real world.
OK, social media distraction isn't that bad. Yet. But it’s still true that for many people, social media distraction, obsession and addiction is the main barrier to achieving real-world goals and making our own lives better.
Different people are triggered by different social media distraction drugs. I know many people who get sucked into Instagram like they're hypnotized. Others can't stop watching YouTube. We journalists can't seem to stay off Twitter.
We've heard the theories and seen the studies. Let's finally understand how this all really works.
Social media hacks our attention using 3 triggers:
1. Content that triggers paleolithic survival mechanisms in our brains. Sites like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter are "infinity pools" with no bottom, constantly luring you in by dangling sex, fear, violence, beauty, food and celebrity. Beauty — both people and locations — are deeply interesting to us biologically because what's beautiful to us are attractive because they imply survival and reproduction. For example, a beautiful location has food, water, shelter and a view which, in the hunter-gatherer past when our brains evolved, meant survival and the ability to see threats from afar. Our interest in or obsession with celebrities activates in some of us the part of our brains where survival depends on the reproductive success of fertile members of our tribe (you'll notice that celebrity fascination is especially concerned with appearance, dating, pregnancy, wealth, status, power, death and other attributes associated with survival and reproduction).
2. Learned semiotics. The only red things on Facebook are the circles with numbers on them that indicate how many items are waiting for you. Like rats in a lab, the most primitive parts of our brains have been conditioned to respond — the dopamine hit of the content is the pellet of reward for smashing that button.
3. FOMO. Distraction industry products have conditioned us to feel like the world is happening without us, and that we're missing out on everything. So when we try to do something complex, boring or time-consuming, our minds wonder what we're missing and social media is the place where we can find out without going anywhere.
So if you take a closer look, you realize that social media often substitutes a fake version of something for the actual thing. Specifically:
Journalists, authors and other content creators love Twitter, and Twitter infamously serves as the major source of distraction and procrastination for this group of people. Why? Because it makes you feel like you're doing the very thing you're not doing — which is publishing content. Twitter satisfies a writer's impulse to engage with ideas, grapple with arguments, do research and express oneself in words. That satisfaction leaves less hunger for the actual work of actually publishing.
People obsessing on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube about the basic concerns of paleolithic survival — sex, food, shelter, violence and beauty — are taking time away from actual survival — i.e., paying for food, shelter, security and safety with their work.
People experiencing FOMO may spend hours and hours on social media out of a feeling that life is happening "out there," and they do this instead of actually leaving the house and living life in the real world.
People craving human connection and seeking it out on social media often neglect or damage their actual real-life relationships by the obsession and distraction.
People obsessed with wealth, and the envy of people who appear to have it, are spending their time scrolling through Instagram instead of working on a side hustle that would actually increase their wealth.
And so the way we can better understand what's bad or dangerous about social media is that it's a trap. Social media takes us away from the very things we subconsciously look for on social media.
Our wants and needs — sex, love, human connection, food, shelter, beauty and community — are essential parts of our humanity. Social media misdirects us, hijacking those impulses and diverts us away from the real world where we can find all that into a virtual world where we cannot.
Once you understand this, it's easier to reject the fake life on social media, and instead live your real life in the real world.
Mike’s List of Brilliantly Bad Ideas
1. How low can they go? One influencer found the bottom, so to speak!
The world of Instagram and TikTok influencers grows ever more shameless, and the stunts and business models get forehead-slappingly dumber. Meanwhile, the NFT world grows ever more ridiculous by the day. But when these worlds collide… A former reality TV star named Stephanie Matto extended her 15 minutes of fame by farting into jars, then selling the jars for $1,000 each as "fart art." She claims to have made around $200,000 from this particular brand of vaporware. Tragically, her gas-generating diet sent her to the hospital. And so — believe it or not, here comes the dumb part — she pivoted her company to selling virtual farts as NFTs. No, you don't buy a real fart in a real jar, just the idea of a fart in a jar (for $186 each). It's a lower price, but her fulfillment costs are zero and she'll make it up in volume.
2. Now you can play video games and eat pizza at the same time!
A product designer named Akaki Kuumeri invented a 3D-printed controller accessory called the One-handed DualSense that lets you play with one hand. Now you can play a PS5 game while writing your novel, eating pizza or driving a car! (Or you can download and print two and play two controllers at the same time!)
3. Worst case scenario: a smartphone case with a concealed knife
Modern smartphones have for years enabled you to do many things: shine a flashlight, hike with a compass, get distance with virtual measuring tape, edit video, calculate numbers and a thousand other things. One thing you haven’t been able to do with a smartphone is shank a motherf*cker. Until now! This case with a concealed knife is called the Knyphe case, and TSA is gonna love it.
4. The robot “art” nobody asked for
Mike’s List of Shameless Self Promotions
I’m super excited to finally announce a brand-new free email newsletter I’m writing for IDG’s Computerworld, called “Future of Work”! Here’s an excerpt from the first issue:
Everyone is talking about the future of work and for good reason. It’s already here.
The nature of work, and the technology that we rely on to do that work, always changes. But the COVID-19 pandemic radically accelerated change, forcing organizations large and small into embracing remote work.
In 2020, millions of people found themselves working from home. And that group includes not just self-directed freelancers, consultants, developers, and marketers who were willing and able to work remotely before the crisis; it now includes managers, CEOs, HR professionals, team leaders, and IT professionals.
For many people, as we move into 2022, the “workplace” is everywhere, populated by a new generation of digital nomads, digital “staymads,” expats, and employees of all kinds demanding, expecting, or benefiting from flexible hours, paid “workations,” co-workations, and sabbaticals.
Pandemic-mandated remote work was the earthquake that triggered a tsunami, one that has washed away the old ways of working. As the waters recede, professionals find themselves questioning everything.
Subscribe free here now!
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Mike, I totally agree with every point! (And I thought I was just a curmudgeon.) Thanks for having the insight and courage to say it. That's exactly why Facebook and I are both going to die without ever having met.
Intelligent, articulate, timely and interesting. I actually read it. I've enjoyed your column for many years, when it was on a simpler platform and ended with "Proof you can buy anything on the internet"