At the start of every new year, many people offer up resolutions to the gods of better behaviour, or sobriety, or exercise.
Here’s another possibility before we venture too far into 2021: Stop offering personal sacrifices to the social media gods. It inevitably pulls you into wasted time, online battles, and virtual surfing. Instead, use social media for your own purposes, rather than allow technology to drag you into other people’s arenas and priorities.
Before explaining in detail some of what we all know—social media can be a time-suck, for example – let’s put the modern “social” world in some context. As is usually helpful, let’s bring in history.
Remember our ancestors? Their problem was scarcity
For much of human history, scarcity and not plenty was the rule. For many of our ancestors, they would work that extra hour or store and hoard food because they had to. Work might soon be scarce (think of the Great Depression) or famine might be on its way next month.
This was true of much of the world until the Industrial Revolution and then the energy revolution allowed for storage of food through refrigeration and less backbreaking farm labour (replaced in some cases by monotonous factory shifts).
Meanwhile, the rise of modern capitalism post-1820 in Western countries made for increased work and lifestyle choices. Cities that flourished commercially—London, Vienna, Paris, and New York — also become cultural, educational and even fashion hubs, because a capitalist world with money to spend beyond the basics allowed for what we now call the division of labour: Some teach; others put tires on cars; pound nails to build a home; or paint a canvas.
All that spread deeper and wider after the Second World War to other nations. For instance, think of East Asia post-war and especially post-1970s and to now. Once the shackles came off former command-and-control economies staring with China with post-1979 Deng Xiaoping reforms, and increased in velocity after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, markets had a chance to flourish in additional nations.
Our problem? Too many choices
Throw in the technological revolution from computers to cable and the rise of the internet, and all of the above and more has given us more choices than ever existed in human history. Much more food, almost endless choices in consumer goods, and endless sites online to peruse.
This is not universally true, of course. Not everyone in the world is prospering, especially in a pandemic. Famines, wars, and other problems and disasters still occur – but compared to much of human history, most people have the opposite problem of their ancestors: too many choices and too much “stuff” to wade through.
That reality means many of us should choose to eat less (not a problem for our ancestors given scarcity); perhaps forego the extra work tonight in favour of spending time with family and friends; and insofar as social media is concerned, say no more often than yes.
Specifically, social media should serve your purposes, not the other way around.
The usage will vary depending on the person. My career is more public and I write columns, studies, books and give speeches. That always engenders comments and often requests for more explanation, data, or other information.
Two billion people speak English: Start sorting
On occasion, especially for paying customers (i.e., they bought a book), I might respond. More generally, there are seven billion plus people out there and two billion of them speak English. Attempting to respond to even a fraction of incoming requests, demands, and arguments would require a fleet of literary angels to ghostwrite on my behalf.
Instead, I prioritize. That often starts with the platform.
I gave up Twitter in 2019. I decided to focus on getting out research, not responding to tweets from twits. (Twitter founder Jack Dorsey should be ashamed of himself: he resurrected mob behaviour without any checks and balances.) I may go back on Twitter one day, but only when it serves my purposes, not that of the mob or the argumentative but instead to occasionally interact with curious and open-minded and people.
How else to control the flow? On other social media platforms, longer thoughts are allowed (Facebook and LinkedIn), and are thus occasionally useful. But even here, one must be choosey.
Trolls are an easy cut
After an occasional interaction where I’ve decided to respond, if a stranger starts engaging in troll-like behaviour, they’re off my island. This is something everyone should do regularly.
I fully support free speech, but the right to free expression is actually a foundational principle in the relationship between citizens and governments in liberal democracies. That right of a citizen to say what they think in the public square does not impose a duty on the rest of us to listen. This is true in any venue, including online.
Consider life before the internet and before cell phones. Thirty years ago, if someone called you up on your landline and started insulting you or even demanding your attention, would you allow that to continue – or just hang up? The modern version of hanging up is blocking the overly argumentative, the conspiracy theorists and trolls.
In addition, some people demand attention for their: conspiracy theories (anti-Semitic included); anti-science, anti-vaccination, anti-flouride rants; endless defenses of Donald Trump; or on the other wing, ostensible defenses for the violent rioters in Portland or Seattle, and blockades in Canada in defiance of court judgements.
The anti-Semites get banned right away. Others may get a reasoned response once. However, in my experience, people are often stuck in their own story, ideologies and too influenced by one-liners and images, all of which can lead to being fundamentally anti-reason, so reason rarely works. When the relentless continue to rage, one presses the ‘block’ option.
That’s my approach to the unlimited nature of social media, including the avalanche of inbox possibilities. To avoid getting buried, others in dissimilar lines of work may choose differently.
Pick the fruit, not the rot
To be sure, modern social media has its benefits. While wacky conspiracy theories and fake news can arise, so do factual analyses, brilliant online essays, or even just lines of argument and thought one hadn’t before encountered.
Likewise, some social media sites almost default to offering us potential for the sublime—the image-based Instagram, for example. I am fascinated by architecture and nature so I regularly also search out images and stories that reflect my preference there.
We all have a surplus of choices, especially in social media. The art to having a life is to say “no” much more often than “yes” online. (How many Netflix series do you really need to watch?)
That allows us to carve out time for a few good reads, a few good people, and the other elements of what the ancients referred to as the good life. Carving out that good life always requires a conscious choice to limit “incoming”.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations
- Mark Milke last wrote about mob rule - one of the shortest and most direct routes towards undermining our society, even if you like the cause.
- Doug Firby wondered how far we should go to stop the social media chaos?
- One of the odd side benefits of trying to conduct politics - even an election - during a pandemic is forcing parties to find new, online ways to engage with voters, writes Dene Moore.