Breaking the Chains of Social Media: The Smartphone Notification Hierarchy

Like any good millennial, I have spent plenty of time glued to my smartphone. I have also walked around midtown Manhattan at lunch time on a weekday, and I know that it isn’t just one generation that can’t peel their eyes away from their phones. There is something about our phones that has taken hold of us, limiting our own free will to put our phones down.

We do not yet fully understand what our smartphones or social media are doing to our brains. Without understanding the problem, we cannot completely solve the problem. I do believe, however, that there is one immediate remedy we can all employ immediately to lessen social media’s influence over us.

LIMIT YOUR NOTIFICATIONS.

This is where the addictive nature of smartphones crosses paths with the addictive nature of social media. Our smartphones provide us with immediate access to limitless information. This is a good thing. It does not, however, mean that all of this information needs to be pushed to us in real-time. Every single news update, sports score, like, or retweet does not need to interrupt our daily lives. This, of course, requires that we define our lives as our interactions with the real world around us, of which our online interactions are as subset.

Since some of the time we spend engaging with our phones and social media is a valid part of our real lives, some of the intrusions we experience are warranted. Therefore, I propose a hierarchy (see image below) for how to approach the notifications settings on your smart phone. Yes, you are in control of the notifications you receive from your phone. The hierarchy includes four levels, each of which is designed to match the intrusiveness of the notification with the importance of the information that is delivered.

Notification Hierarchy

Level 1

First, if the failure to receive a notification will result in damage to your career or real-world relationships, then it should cause your phone to ring or vibrate. This should be limited to texts and phone calls for most of us. Career-related notifications may be required for some. This does not include emails. The people who are capable of sending you an “urgent” email should also have your phone number.

Additionally, if the failure to reply to a DM or tag on Instagram or any other social media platform in real-time is going to damage a real-world relationship, you may need to have a conversation with this friend or reconsider the friendship.

Level 2

The second level in the hierarchy are notifications that appear on your screen when it is locked. This should be limited to the same apps as the previous level, with the addition of a single news source. No social media. I’d really argue against email here too, but we all have jobs with bosses who have different expectations, but if you can – or are in the position to impact this for others – turn off the email.

Level 3

The third level is unlocked banner notifications. These appear at the top of your screen when your phone is unlocked. I prefer these to banners that appear when your phone is locked because they don’t entice you to pick up your phone. I also like the fact that they are accompanied by a few lines of information, so the notification isn’t a complete mystery. If it is major breaking news, you can click on it. If there is an injury to someone on your fantasy football team, it can probably wait (or not, your call).

At this level, in addition to email and text, consider a few more news sources includeing sports or entertainment. I also have LinkedIn notifications coming in, because I usually ignore them, and can often glean as much information as I need from the banners. The reason I recommend keeping some limitations is that these can cause us to fall into a common smartphone trap. You open your phone to send a text, and the next thing you know you are in a political argument with your cousin’s friend on Facebook.

Level 4

The next level of notifications is the red dot in the corner of the app on your screen. This is where our social media additions kick in. We crave that red dot. Maybe someone liked our post. Maybe they commented. Maybe my friend’s uncle who I totally just owned with a comment on his political rant has responded. Maybe none of these things are important, and just induce a dopamine rush that we crave.

The general rule that I employ at this level is that any non-social media app can display these notifications. This doesn’t mean that you need to enable these notifications for all apps, but if an app may have significant information, and you otherwise wouldn’t open it regularly, these notifications can be useful.

Beyond the hierarchy

Social media apps are noticably missing from all four levels of the hierarchy. There is of course a fifth level to the hierarchy, which consists of apps that never display a notification. These should include all social media apps, or any app that we find ourselves unable to resist (gaming apps apply here too). The reason they should never display a notification is that we should make conscious decisions that determine when we access these social networks. We shouldn’t let algorithms decide when and how we are pulled in. Social media companies have many brilliant people working with sophisticated technology, data and algorithms all designed to “increase engagement”. This means they want you to use their platforms more. Given the limited number of hours in the day, they are competing with the time we spend dealing with the real world around us. It also means we will inevitably reach a point at which we lose control over how frequently we access their platform. Notifications are a major tool they use to get us to open their apps.

I will close with the personal recommendation that you consider deleting several social media apps from your phone. Maybe not all of them, but try a week without the apps you find yourself reflexively opening up in moments of boredom. Those that you open up without consciously thinking about it. For me it was first Facebook and then Twitter. I’m still on both social networks (although I try to limit Facebook to once a week), but just not on my phone. I can’t recommend it enough.

(Social Media) Addiction is Evolutionary

Evolution Helps Explain Addiction

Several years ago, Radiolab had an episode about addiction called The Fix. It featured Dr. Anna Rose Childress, who discussed the idea that those who suffer from addiction are simply more receptive to rewards from the pleasure center, or, “they are the fittest of the fit in evolutionary terms”. The theory is that we, as humans, evolved to be very responsive to the things that trigger the pleasure center, because these are things that kept us alive and helped us find a mate. Sweet fruit is safer to eat than bitter berries. Humans that were driven to get up first thing in the morning and beat everyone else to the orange tree after tasting the sweet fruit were more likely to survive than those who would eat whatever berries they found on the ground. Those that were most motivated by the feeling of being hugged by a loved one, would work harder to find a mate. So as a species, we evolved to be responsive to our pleasure center.

This is a feature that is no longer crucial to survival in the modern world. We go to a grocery store for our food, where everything is safe to eat. But this hasn’t changed the fact that we are still very responsive to our pleasure center, some more than others. So when a drug is able to trigger that pleasure center, we are also very responsive – and continue to seek it out. Those that are most susceptible to drug addiction, are those that are most attuned to their pleasure center. Historically, they would have been the individuals that would have worked the hardest for the best food, been best at finding a sexual partner, or built the safest house. Up until recently, humans have been rewarded for being overly receptive to the rewards of the pleasure center. Now, as Jad Abumrad put it, “it is a weakness born of a strength”.


Another Evolutionary Trait

In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Samuel Veissière and Moriah Stendel, both of McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry, argue that evolution plays a similar role in explaining our behavior on social media. Historically, it was important for humans to constantly watch and be watched by others to pick up on social cues and cultural norms. By constantly monitoring those around us, we learned how to interact with others, forming bonds that could save our lives. We respond strongly to feedback on our interactions, because this helps confirm we are behaving according to societal norms. This is how we formed groups that were able to act as one (culture), overtaking groups that could not behave cohesively. Jonathan Haidt does an excellent job of explaining why this is important in The Righteous Mind, using a team of rowers that actg as one as his metaphor.

These evolutionary tendencies have kicked into overdrive with access to social media. Like those who are extremely attuned to rewards from the pleasure center, many of us constantly crave the ability to monitor our friends’ every move, and to have our friends monitor and approve our actions. This is simply evolution. Those of us that are “the fittest of the fit in evolutionary terms” are more likely to crave the ability to monitor friends and have friends affirm our actions in the form of likes and retweets. Historically, this was a trait that kept us alive. Today, it is a trait that keeps us glued to social media – with other possible consequences we are only beginning to understand.

This is a step towards understanding what social media is doing to our brains. If we can understand the reasons why we are drawn to social media, we can begin to understand the degree to which it is impacting our brains. It is important not to draw sweeping conclusions. This does not mean that entire generations are addicted to social media or do not understand how to carry on meaningful relationships in the real world. It does, however, lead me closer to the conclusion that social media platforms are exploiting our evolutionary behaviors to increase our usage.

Is Social Media Addictive?

The definitive answer: this is not something you can cover in a single blog post. That doesn’t mean I didn’t initially set out to do it. Then I came across this Business Insider piece, which made me realize that there are too many moving parts here to write a single definitive post about whether social media is addictive.

First, a better question might be can social media be addictive? Can alcohol be addictive? Yes. Is it addictive for everyone? No.

While this article has has pushed me more towards the center in the debate over whether or not social media is addictive, I still believe that it can be. I think that there is a lot that we don’t know, and we need to stay vigilant on this topic, especially with regards to what it can do to the minds of young people.

The author of this article ultimately comes to the conclusion that we aren’t addicted to social media. I take no issue with this conclusion, especially when considering the definition of addiction in the clinical sense. However, there are several aspects of this article that I take issue with, that I believe only muddy the waters of an already complex topic.

  1. Conflation of smartphones and social media – I will admit this is a very difficult thing to avoid. However, it does need to be confronted. There are elements of our smartphones – the constant buzzing, notifications, bright screens – that might be addictive. There are also elements of social media – FOMO, feeling being connected, sharing – that might be addictive.
  2. Correlation Does Not Equal Causation – anyone that has been to college has heard this statement. Some people take this to mean that correlation never equals causation. Just because a correlation exists, doesn’t mean that a causal link could never be established. Or both things are caused by a common factor. Just because we don’t understand the relationship between the inverted yield curve and recessions, does not mean that we should ignore it. This was in reference to the rise of smartphones correlating with an increase in teen depression. Just because we don’t have a causal link established yet does not mean that it is a correlation worth looking into further (to be fair, the author never mentions that we should stop looking into this).
  3. Setting the bar too high – The article makes heavy use of quotes and research conducted by Dr. Andrew Przybylski. He criticizes, very fairly, many studies that attempted to prove that social media is addictive, for having too small of a sample size. He then goes on to say that screen time is not harmful for the majority of teens. A few issues with this. First, aren’t we reading an article about whether or not social media is addictive? Not whether or not screen time is harmful? Also, every single teen in the world doesn’t need to be addicted to social media for it to be considered addictive. Alcohol doesn’t harm everyone that uses it, but it can be very harmful.

Where I ultimately land after reading this article is that alcohol is a great metaphor or social media. It should be used in moderation. It can enhance experiences, relationships, and help awkward teens come out of their shells. You shouldn’t drive (or walk) while using it. It can impact those who are predisposed to depression or anxiety more acutely. It can make reasonable people behave unreasonably. You shouldn’t use it every day. And ultimately, I still believe that people can become addicted to it. Maybe not everyone.

 

 

Two Fundamental Concerns about Social Media

The bulk of my concerns about social media can be broken into two fundamental areas: its psychological impacts on us and the centralization of our data. Almost everything else (and most of what you’ll read about on this blog) are offshoots of these fundamental concerns. This is a brief summary of both of them.

Psychological Impacts

There are a lot of questions about what social media is doing to our brains, which researchers are only just beginning to explore. Is it behind the increase in teen depression and suicide rates? Does it lead to increased bullying? Does it lead to a decreased sense of self worth? Are we addicted to it? If so, why are we addicted to it? Is there an evolutionary component to our behavior on social media?

I think the answer to all of these questions is that we really don’t know yet. Researchers have established links between unhappiness and social media use, but we really don’t understand the extent to which social media impacts us. We are also still in early days of social media, so there is no way to understand the full extent of long-term psychological impacts of  social media.

Centralization of our data

This might seem like a two-parter, but it’s really two sides of the same coin. Due to network effects, the world of social media has always been destined to consolidate to a few platforms. These are Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitter, and Snapchat – at least in the US. Due to the concentration of where we congregate online, these firms now have outsized power, and are essentially monopolies. When a firm is a monopoly, it doesn’t have an incentive to fight back against abusive trolls or fake news.

It is also in the position to collect vast amount of data on its users, which is can then sell to the highest bidder. When we learn that a company is abusing our data, it might create a brief PR storm, but that will soon blow over. The truth is that social media users do not have the ability to choose an alternative provider who does not abuse their data.

Steven Johnson wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times in early 2018 about blockchain and the benefits of a decentralized internet. The (long) article is well worth a read. It speaks to the benefits of decentralization, verification, open protocols and the lack of an “owner”. Why bring up an article on blockchain in a blog about social media? Look at this quote:

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance.

The Bitcoin bubble has become a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain. If we look past the speculative bubble, we can see the potential of a “network of distributed trust”. This could lead to a decentralized and democratized version of the internet we know today. This would prevent our identities from being housed in Facebook or Google’s walled gardens. We could have an identity that exists based on open protocols, and we can take it from platform to platform as we please. There would be penalties for abusing our data.

It is helpful to understand the two layers of the internet. The first is based on open protocols that were developed in the 1970s, which still exist today – email and web browsing still works on these. This layer is decentralized. The second layer of the internet are the platforms that we use to access the internet today. These are private companies such as Facebook or Twitter. This layer is private and highly centralized.

Johnson argues that keeping smartphones away from kids and government regulation are commendable, but will not cure all of societies ills. This belief – that there is no silver bullet to protect us from social media – is a fundamental reason for the existence of this blog.

Johnson paints a vision for a decentralized future with open protocols overtaking the highly lucrative private platforms that exist today. Blockchain, afterall, has shown us that it is possible for everyone to agree on the contents of a database without the database having an “owner”.

I hope he is right. But his vision requires the success of swashbuckling punk rockers that are driven purely by a mission to restore the internet to its original utopian vision. This would require everyone to turn a blind eye to the gobs of money that will be thrown at him to keep the internet closed.

Until then, the social media platforms we use will remain closed and highly centralized. Our data lives with these private companies, which earn their revenue by harvesting and selling our data. While some are perfectly comfortable with the sale of our personal data by fortune 500 companies, it is important to remember that these private companies are vulnerable to attacks, and our personal information can get into shadier hands.

This all leaves me thinking about a very prescient tweet that I saw once, which I would love to attribute to its author, but cannot remember:

The only businesses that refer to their customers as “users” are tech companies and drug dealers

This is what drives this blog. There are many questions about what social media is doing to us. Most of the efforts to understand social media have to do with monetizing our attention. How can businesses advertise to users as they spend time on these platforms? And how can the social media platforms monetize the time we spend using their technology? It’s fine that many smart people are dedicated to answering these questions – because if they weren’t, bad actors would fill that void.

However, the conversations about what social media does to our brains seems limited to fragmented academic studies. Discussions on social media’s centralization and its impact on society have become more mainstream recently, but do not seem to have impacted the fundamentals of how social media platforms operate.

Those of us that seek to understand what is happening to us as individuals and society as a whole will never come to a satisfying conclusion. We seem destined to only uncover more questions. Questions I am happy to continue asking.

 

Social Media / Trolls / Free Speech

The bulk of social media companies were founded and are headquarted in the United States. In the US, we enjoy and believe strongly in our freedom of speech, and go to great lengths to protect it. It is not surprising then, that freedom of speech is a topic that is raised frequently in discussions about how companies should police their social networks when it comes to trolls.

Trolls are an issue across pretty much every social media platform. Wikipedia defines the term internet troll as “Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” While this definition makes internet trolls seem like a mere distraction, trolling can take on many forms, often devolving into misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and otherwise ethnocentric harassment. It is nearly universally accepted that internet trolls are bad, but approaches to stamp them out are varying.

For instance, Facebook and Instragram take a more aggressive approach than Twitter or Reddit. Victims of harassment on the two former platforms might argue to the contrary, but Facebook does at least require you to use your real identity. On the other side, Twitter, and of course the wild west of the internet – Reddit, willfully allow users to exist in a cloak of anonymity.

Reddit and Twitter have long viewed themselves as bastions of free speech. Free speech is an important right, but as we all learned in school, we cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Freedom of speech has its limits. When it comes to speech on Reddit, pretty much anything goes. Reddit is compiled of groups called subreddits. The subreddits are monitored by “redditors”, who are just users of Reddit. The term “monitor” is applied very loosely, as they merely upvote or downvote a comment, to determine how much visibility it gets. Therefore, a subreddit filled with hateful redditors frequently has hateful comments bubbling up to the top, going viral. This all happens in plain sight with no intervention from the powers that be within Reddit.

Some will argue that trolls have always existed, and the trolls on social media platforms are nothing to worry about. But in earlier times, trolls had to show their faces and use their actual voices to harass someone. This type of behavior invited well-deserved shame and obviously didn’t scale well. We now live in a world where an army of Twitter eggs (users with no avatar) can say whatever they want to anyone they want with no repercussions because they are free to exist as anonymous users on the internet. Twitter can suspend an individual account, but how hard is it to create a new one with a different email?

Twitter deserves credit for at least trying to take on the trolls. It recently revised its  approach to taking on trolls, citing a 4% decrease in reports of abuse. It’s new approach referred to many as “out of sight out of mind”, decreases the visibility of tweets from users who display behavior consistent with that of trolls. Such behavior could include signing up for multiple accounts at once or repeatedly tagging users that don’t follow them back. As I’ve argued before, there is no silver bullet to many of the problems that have accompanied the rise of social media. It’s great they are trying a new tactic, from which we will likely learn more about policing trolls. However, this is not going to end trolling on Twitter. If Jack Dorsey and his team at Twitter are truly dedicated to furthering free speech, and I believe they are, they would be wise to stay vigilant in their pursuit against trolls.

Good intentions aside, the success of this effort really hinges on the business aspect of it. If Twitter believes, and its investors agree, that curtailing trolls is good for business, then there is hope. The problem is that it would be difficult for Twitter to effectively police trolls on its platform without impacting the free speech of all of its users. Difficult, but not impossible. More accurately, it would be expensive.

The issue is that an algorithm can’t solve it all – which is often the first, second and third approach by most Silicon Valley companies. Think back to school. The  school had rules about how to behave and language we could use. But in the cafeteria, it relied on monitors – real people – to ensure that we adhered to those rules. This same approach would be required by Twitter and other social media companies to rid their sites of trolls.

The problem with real people is that they are expensive. Deploying them en masse to stamp out trolls is not conducive to the kind of margins enjoyed by large tech firms and demanded by their investors. Policing the trolls would need to show that it not only has an impact on abuse, but that it also results in higher revenues for the company. If Twitter sees that fewer trolls leads to more users and greater engagement, they will conclude that trolls are bad for business. If they conclude that the presence of trolls is not keeping users away, policing the trolls will only result in greater costs, and have a negative impact on Twitter’s bottom line. Until the link between trolls and a company’s bottom line is established, attempts to stamp out the trolls will be mere PR fodder.

What makes social media platforms so addictive?

Two things: the growing field of Optimization and the age-old concept of Network Effects.

Why does this help explain why these platforms can be so addictive? It’s because the companies running these platforms know that they are part of the attention economy. If they take their foot off the pedal, our attention to wander to one of their competitors. Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, has said that its main competitors are Facebook, Youtube and sleep. Our attention on is the economic engine that enables a lot of these tech companies to thrive.

So what do these companies do to encourage us to devote as much of our attention to them as possible? They test. They test and test and test and test. Facebook is running more tests in a single day than the FDA runs in a year, according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of the book Everybody Lies.

The tests they run are called A/B tests, or simply referred to as optimization. What companies like Facebook do, is they develop teams of experts that understand their users. These experts develop hypotheses about what will make the user experience better, or more “sticky”. These hypotheses can be anything from changing the color of a button to drive higher conversion rates, to radical changes to its interface to increase the amount of time users spend on the platform.

Then the hypothesis is tested in the form of an A/B test. Even though its called an A/B test, it can assess any number of variables. The button color test can test eight different colors, but it is still an A/B test. Multivariate testing comes into play when the impact of multiple variables are being tested in combination – maybe the new interface combined with the button color change will result in the highest amount of conversion.

Crucial to the A/B test is that “winning criteria” are established. This is means that the testers define metrics (conversion rates, time spent on site, clicks, etc.) whereby if the test variable can show a statistically significant increase in that metric, then the test is considered to be a winner. If a statistically significant winner cannot be found, it’s back to the drawing board.

To test these variables, identical groups of users are shown the control (the way the button looked before) and the test (the new button color). The test runs until the size of each group reaches a statistically significant sample size. Usually this means that testers believe that the result they see will be repeated 95% of the time.

What happens when a winner is declared? The change is likely implemented on a broad scale across the site. But the testing isn’t done there. Since these companies have very powerful and sophisticated software and algorithms, they are able to compound successful tests to determine the optimal state of their website. If a blue button drives more clicks than a red button, maybe it’s time to test which shade of blue drives the most clicks. Social media platforms are able to determine what experience, content, colors, font size drives the most usage by specific groups of people. I may see a royal blue button, my wife might see aquamarine.

This is by no means exclusive to social media companies. All companies with an app or website do this. It is often said that no two Amazon websites look alike. Netflix does this as well, constantly testing new interfaces and ways to recommend shows to us. However, I am deeply skeptical of Netflix’s own valuation of their recommendation algorithm at $1bn.

This is why it so difficult for us to put down our phones and avoid social media. Every ounce of our will power is up against teams of experts that are constantly running tests to determine how to make it harder for us to put the phone down. Apple appears willing to aid in the fight against our smartphone addictions, but it will take more than an app that tells us how much we use each app to cure our societal ills.

This brings us to network effects, a simple concept, that can help us understand why social media platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat have to be addictive. The concept of network effects is nothing new, but it has scaled like never before with social platforms – Facebook being the prime example.

Network effect occurs when something becomes more attractive because more people are using it. To step outside of the social media realm for a minute, let’s consider video game consoles. If more gamers own an Xbox, it becomes more attractive for video game developers to develop games for Xbox. The more games that are developed for Xbox, the more attractive the Xbox console is to gamers. The cycle continues until Xbox becomes ubiquitous across the gaming industry.

With social media, it is even simpler. We want to be on Facebook because our friends are on Facebook. The more of our friends that are on Facebook, the more valuable Facebook is to us.

Network effects are exactly why social media companies have no choice but to run tests constantly to determine how to make their platforms as addictive as possible. In the attention economy, if they loosen the reigns on our attention for one minute, another tech company will swoop in and gobble up our time. If Twitter, for example, decided it existed for the good of society and no longer wanted to be addictive, the time we spend on Twitter would shift to other social networks that would optimize their way into our lives. Our friends would gravitate to a new platform, we’d go there because our friends are there, and the rest would be history. Every minute we aren’t on Twitter could be spent on Youtube, Facebook, Netflix, or – worst of all – sleeping, working, or engaging with people in the real world.

 

Facebook Jealous Picture

The most honest sentence I have ever heard was relayed to me by a friend. Her sister was complaining that their seemingly blissful vacation in Australia was lacking something. “I haven’t gotten my Facebook jealous picture yet”, she lamented as they were laying on the beach.

At first I was appalled. Who could be so shallow? Then I realized, I could be. I had that exact same mindset. When I’d travel, I’d look for opportunities to take amazing photos to post to social media. Once I thought about it, I kind of envied this person’s self awareness.

I like to think that I have evolved from the “Facebook  jealous” mindset. Maybe I have become less superficial now that I have a young child. However, I think there is more than just superficiality at play here. Social media has wormed its way into our sense of self and impacts everything from our happiness to trivial decisions about where to go for coffee.

It starts out when we are young, even if we grew up without social media. We come of age thinking older people have it all figured out. I remember envying older grades in high school because everyone in their class seemed to be one large group of friends, while mine had cliques and in-fighting. This observation was obviously false. I was just witnessing scenes of camaraderie at school, not actual friendships.

On TV and movies (at least in the 90s) it appeared that there is a way its all supposed to unfold for us. We’re supposed to have a high school sweetheart, who maybe it doesn’t always work out with once we get to college. Then after college, we’re supposed to have a job lined up at a dream company that we will inevitably have a long and prosperous career with.

As young adults, we determine early on that the “dream career” is a myth. But we still believe that there is this life we are supposed to be living. Maybe not a “perfect life”, but one in which we do fun, creative stuff with our partner, have awesome friends who do cool, trendy things, have a great relationship with our families, explore the far reaches of the planet, eat at the best restaurants, watch the newest shows, and listen to the hippest music. And in addition to all of this, we are completely stress free and have zero fears or problems bringing us down.

We have to know that this is impossible to achieve in our real lives. We understand that the stresses, the fights, the fears, the self-doubts, the awkward moments are all part of life. We accept them and adapt as best as we can.

These imperfections, however, don’t have to exist in the lives we project on social media. We have complete control of the narrative in this life. We can edit out the bad parts, highlight the good parts, and even crop out the blemishes.

The version of ourselves that we display on social media is always enjoying life, doing cool things, living a carefree life of self-actualized glory. We are cultured, active, informed, enlightened. We’ve been to Europe, South America, watch Oscar-nominated films or documentaries, eat exclusively at farmer’s markets and exercise all the time.

No matter how we might be feeling on the inside, the version of ourselves displayed on social media continues to be happy. This version of ourselves continues along some kind of trajectory that is consistent with the life we believe we should be living.

ESPN did a great job looking into the Instagram life of a Penn student athlete that took her own life. It’s a tragic tale of how the life we lead on social media can show a person that has it all figured out and loves life, while on the inside we are struggling to get through the day. Social media may not be the cause of depression in these cases, but it seems to be heavily correlated.

This type of behavior is often referred to as social peacocking. Who could blame us for wanting to put our best foot forward and show our friends all the cool stuff we do? And our friends don’t want to see the low moments we have, getting chewed out at work or getting in a fight with our spouse. They want to see their good looking friends doing cool stuff, right?

Plenty of studies have shown that use of social media tends to correlate strongly with being unhappier. Recently, a study has helped to establish a causal link. What they discovered was that when we see our friends engaging in these activities, it makes us feel worse about ourselves. The thing is, we don’t even believe that these people are really living such a happy life. Even though we know they are cropping, filtering and retouching their life, we still feel bad that we aren’t living that life. We end up comparing ourselves to our friends, which on its own takes us out of the particular moment we are currently living in and makes us less happy. Think about it – would you be more or less happy with the activity you are currently engaged in, if you are constantly checking to see what activities your social media friends are doing. The podcast Hidden Brain explains it very well here.

This means that we are actively engaged in an activity that has two downsides. The photos we post to social media are making our friends feel worse about themselves. Something we should seek to avoid. Also, by checking our friends’ posts, we are making ourselves feel worse. Another thing we should seek to avoid.

I think there is another thing at work here. We don’t like feeling bad about ourselves. We like feeling good about ourselves. But we don’t consider avoiding social media to be an option. So we plan a trip to Australia. Then when we get there, we will look to find that Facebook jealous picture so that we can affirm that we are – if only for just a moment – living the life that we want to portray to the world.

Foursquare check-ins used to drive my behavior. I’d skip over Starbucks to a cooler coffee shop, because that check-in would make me feel cooler. There is a positive externality here that I was experiencing more of my community and supporting a local business, but my motivation was problematic. I would look forward to hopping off a long flight and seeing my check-in rack up all kinds of points, rather than looking forward to seeing friends or experience a new culture.

It may seem insane that anyone would actually allow social media to dictate their behavior on social media. But when you consider how likes on Instagram can become such a large part of our sense of self worth, it actually makes sense. While this impact of social media has led me and others to become more superficial, it can become much more serious.

As I’ve posted before, I don’t think this problem has an easy solution. We can’t just tell kids to put away social media or delete an app. The roots of this problem are woven deep into our culture, and the psychological impact is profound. We are just beginning to understand it, but we are fortunate that psychologists are asking the right questions.

 

 

 

Navigating the Dark Side of Social Media

A few years ago, Aziz Ansari made the excellent point on the Freakonomics podcast that the time he spends on social media could be spend enjoying great literature that has been cherished for centuries. I find myself agreeing with that point more and more. Every time I check Twitter, I may feed that dopamine craving of checking in with that is happening in the world, but I don’t get any real enlightenment or true satisfaction.

However, as I have taken steps to cut back on my own social media use, I have not found that it leads to a direct increase in my consumption of real culture. For one, I don’t exactly have the ability to whip out War & Peace for two minutes between meetings at work. I certainly waste time on social media, and should spend more time reading great books, but it isn’t an easy substitute. This is in part because of how social media has inserted itself into our lives to be ubiquitous, available with as few hurdles as possible.

I do consider myself to be moderately addicted to social media – currently my fix comes from Twitter. Part of this has to do with the world we live in today, with my craving for breaking news constantly being fed by one thing or another. But I was addicted to social media long before the 2016 election, so blaming the news cycle would be a cop out. I think often about the Radiolab episode, in which they discussed addiction, and how there is a school of thought people who are more prone to addiction are merely more highly evolved. The argument goes that we as humans evolved to respond to the pleasure centers of the brain, because it helped us avoid poisonous fruits. The pleasure center evolved to make sure we ate oranges and not poisonous berries. Unfortunately, this makes us susceptible to drugs that really trigger the pleasure center. Could social media be similar?

 


 

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee wrote in USA Today that there are parallels to when humans first started forming cities. He makes the point that when we were spread out as hunters and gatherers, we’d come into contact with a few dozen other people a year. When we moved to cities, we’d see a few hundred a day. This created an environment in which diseases could flourish. Before cities, a disease would impact only a few people and then die off because there was no one else to infect. Once cities formed, it had the ability to spread exponentially.

The same is now true of bad ideas on social media. If I had a conspiracy in 1985 that I wanted to spread, my idea would probably not extend beyond my group of friends. But if I’m on Reddit, Twitter or Facebook – not only do I contact many more people in a day – but my ideas can be easily and effortlessly shared by everyone I reach. Exponential spread.

This puts us in dangerous territory. An incorrect narrative, doctored photo or video, or mistaken identity can spread like wildfire. This is especially true when it confirms a belief that someone holds. The old saying goes, it’s easier to fool someone that convince them they’ve been fooled.

Bad ideas and false narratives are only one negative side effect of social media. Typical symptoms of depression in teens rose 33% from 2010 to 2015, correlating strongly with the increase in usage of smartphones and social media. Getting “likes” on our photos and posts has replaced actual enjoyment of experiences for some. Our sense of self worth is now quantified in the number of likes our posts get, leaving our psyches desperately fragile.

Psychologists have also shown evidence that we are really addicted to social media. Research has shown that receiving a text or Tweet can light up the same area of the brain as heroin or cocaine. This is why I am constantly checking Twitter. Not for real enjoyment. For that hit of dopamine.

 


 

A ray of light emerges from Reynolds’ cities metaphor. He shows us a path forward. We fought back against the diseases that spread with cities by adapting. We developed better nutrition, medicine and public services. There is no questioning that human migration to cities brought about a plethora of scientific and societal advances that would have been impossible otherwise. Likewise, there can be no denying that social media has brought with it advances as well. Disenfranchised can speak out, artists have new platforms to share their work, and sometimes it can be nice to see a picture of an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

The honest truth is that there is no silver bullet coming to help us. No app, no startup, no product, or any kind of technology-driven solution is going to let us enjoy the benefits of social media while offering us compete protection from all of its dangers. If you are like me, and believe we need help navigating social media, this is concerning. I don’t think we need to cut out social media altogether – it is clearly here to stay – but we need to understand how to manage it in our lives.

What needs to happen is we need to evolve, as both individuals and society.

I have taken measures to cut down on my own social media use. I deleted Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare from my phone. I still don’t have stacks of classic American literature sitting around my house. I have made a conscious effort to read more, but there wasn’t a 1:1 exchange for a minute spent on social media replaced with a minute of reading a book. It just doesn’t work like that. Social media has made itself extremely ubiquitous in our lives in a way that a book – or even a newspaper – article can’t replicate.

The societal evolution also seem to be off to a slow start. It was made abundantly clear recently that the United States Congress is in way over its head with regards to social media. The Supreme Court refused to even think about the technical and data complexities of gerrymandering when they realized how smart the analytics people were by describing the gerrymandering methods as sociological gobbledygook. Essentially letting the public know that if an issue requires any level of technical or statistical depth, the Supreme Court is not going to step in, because they don’t get it.

More simply put – this is going to be a battle and it is up to us as individuals to fight that battle. On the other end of our phones and computer screens are engineers, data scientist and sociologists that do everything in their power to make their product as sticky as possible. There may be an evolutionary angle here. There is a new predator among us, praying on our attention and capacity to learn and become productive members of society. Some will certainly adapt and survive – thrive even. My hope is that society can make sure to limit the number of us that don’t to as few as possible.

 

 

IHOP: Hobe is a better strategy than Hope

The internet rolled its collective eyes yesterday at IHOP’s “rebranding” of itself to IHOB. It is unclear if this new name will stick, but I think this stunt has accomplished what it was supposed to.

In today’s world of collecting customer data, developing lookalike audiences, finding your audience in the digital world, and determining the perfect message for the perfect moment for the perfect recipient – this stunt sliced right through the clutter. Yes, it is a stunt, and the jury is still out on how it performed, but it is not without its merits.

Here are my two arguments FOR the IHOB stunt.

Meal Shift

How many chain restaurants do you regularly eat multiple meals at? As in, are there chain restaurants you eat breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner at regularly? For me, Chipotle kind of checks this box, but its still more of a lunch place for me. When a brand has been built around a specific meal, as IHOP has, it can be very difficult to convince consumers to visit you at a different time of the day. I’ve been to a Panera for dinner before. It was not a fun meal, but I’ve never waited in a shorter line.

Apparently, IHOP had already been serving burgers. Who knew? Well, now everyone does. Burgers are clearly a lunch or dinnertime meal, so they’ve gone a long way towards convincing customers to consider IHOP as lunch or dinner option.

Buzz

There is no doubt this was a publicity stunt. Will it win awards at Cannes Lions? I honestly have no clue. What I do know is that according to the WSJ, online mentions of IHOP soared to 362,000 from June 3-June 11 compared to 21,000 in that same time period in the month of May. This is all due to the fact that the company has announced to the world that their menu is staying the same! Remember, they have been selling burgers for years. This lift is purely due to its marketing stunt. The goal of a marketing stunt is to generate buzz. Mission accomplished.

Now, take a look at the tweet from ESPN personality Trey Wingo below. He, like many others on Twitter, dove head first into the social media response to the IHOP rebranding. With all the burger chains jumping in on the fun, he has observed that June 11, 2018 was the day of the “burger wars”. In a way, this puts IHOP on equal footing with Wendy’s, Whataburger and others in the battle to serve America its burgers.

The looming question

The big question here is not whether IHOP can become King of the Burgers – it won’t. It is whether this extension of its brand into different mealtimes will damage its breakfast-oriented brand. The bet IHOP is making is that its brand is so strong for breakfast, that they have no reason to worry about losing share of the breakfast category in the QSR industry. Judging by some of the internet’s incredulity that IHOP could change its name to anything other than “pancakes” – it seems like this is a pretty decent gamble.

Even if IHOP is not going toe-to-toe with McDonald’s in burger sales within the next few years, they are likely to see an uptick in lunch and dinnertime traffic. Anyone that starts going to IHOP for lunch/dinner after this stunt is unlikely to think that IHOP has completely abandoned pancakes and stop going there for breakfast. Therefore, any lunch/dinnertime traffic will be incremental and a win for IHOP.

There is a chance that there is no uptick in burger sales or lunch/dinner traffic. While that could fairly be viewed as a failure, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle for the amount of chatter the IHOP brand has generated in the past week. Time will tell what happens with burger sales and its brand.

Digital Memories

I came across a tweetstorm of mine from years past on Timehop today. It was after the Bills had just drafted EJ Manuel, a pick I accurately assessed misguided. The memory of the draft pick, my reaction, and the tweetstorm also brought me back to how I learned about the pick. I had been traveling for work and had been keeping up best as I could, but was about to hop into a taxi. My dad called me and stayed on the phone with me as the Bills made the pick.

My dad is no longer with us, and I think about him regularly every day. Moving on is difficult, but making sure he is still a part of my life is one of the things that brings me comfort. The fact that social media forces me to think about him from time to time helps me see the good in it. I, like many others, have been hard on the social/tech giants lately. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many hiccups along the way to the future (think about the car). The lesson for me is to keep social/digital as a piece of my actual life, and not let it occupy an out-sized amount of my time or energy. The small ways it enhances our real-world relationships and experiences are good.

Go Bills.