Essays on Technology and Culture

Mindful Tech, Part 5: Mindful Social Media

When people talk about how technology is affecting our lives for the worse, social media is one of biggest culprits. Are we spending too much time on social media? What is the constant connectivity to other people doing to our minds? Isn’t this just voyeurism? Then there’s the infamous study that shows Facebook makes us more depressed, as we stare down the carefully curated best moments of our friends lives. “Forget it,” some say, “Social media is the death of the mind.”

And yet, social media remains a powerful tool for exposing us to new ideas and points of view that would otherwise never penetrate our social bubbles. Twitter likes to use the Arab Spring as an example of the platform’s power, but a better example is the #BlackLivesMatter movement, putting American police brutality against African-Americans in the public spotlight in a way that’s hard to ignore. It allows us to make real, human connections with real human beings, transcending distance. Social media is a boon to society as a whole.

In reality, the truth is somewhere in between. Though it can become a compulsive activity that is dangerous to our mindful well-being, social media’s potential for good means it behooves us to approach it in a more mindful way. What makes social media so tricky to deal with is that it’s both an endless stream of new things to consume, and a gaping maw begging you to fill it with awfully filtered photos of your dinner and jokes about Donald Trump and/or Hillary Clinton.

I’ve written before about how social media rewards knee-jerk reactions over measured responses, and how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the mass of voices. I’ve even written about the life-changing magic of tidying up your social media feeds. I don’t want to repeat myself, but there are other issues around how we use social media that deserve thought.

The first of these is to ask yourself why you are on social media in the first place? Not just why you even have an account, but why you’re opening the app for the umpteenth time today. The answers for these can be different for each network, and even for each day. The important thing is to be aware of the reason. For me, it’s often because I want a friendly human connection and to know what is going on in the world. I’ve been in the midst of an experiment of filtering out most Twitter content that isn’t just a person posting text. Whether the experiment is working is something for another essay, but it’s been a valuable way of rethinking how I use Twitter as a service.

We need to know why we are on social media. By diving into a social stream without intention, we run the risk of getting lost in it. We may post something dumb or hurtful, or just lose track of time. Awareness and intention are key. There’s nothing wrong with checking your Instagram while waiting in line at the grocery store, as long as you know you’re only dipping a toe in to fill the time. (Seriously. Put your phone away when you’re with the cashier.)

The second thing to ask yourself is what you hope to get from your social media experience. I want to be aware of issues technology and society from different viewpoints, so I use Twitter to follow a diverse group of people with different opinions than I have on many issues. By way of example, though I’m an ardent atheist, I follow several people of devout faith, including a Catholic priest. I appreciate their alternate perspective on matters in the world, though I don’t always agree with them. Of course, it helps that they’re all pleasant and friendly people to boot. There’s room to improve on this measure, to be sure. I’m not following many people of color, for example. Still, having these alternative perspectives means a lot to me.

Finally, the last thing to ask yourself is how much you can accept missing out on. The truth of the matter is, we’re going to miss out on something in our social streams. Accepting this is the first step. I’ve only been able to keep up with my Twitter stream for the most part, because of the deliberate filtering I’m applying. I know I’m missing out on a lot, and I’m largely okay with it. On days when I check the app for the first time and find more Tweets than I can comfortably read in a sitting, I have no compunction against scrolling right to the top and accepting that what I miss, I miss.

As long as we are using social media on our own terms, we’re already ahead of the game. Most social networks are designed to keep us clicking, scrolling, liking, and posting. It’s how they collect the data that pays for catered lunches and corporate retreats. It’s incumbent on us, the users, to set our the boundaries that they can’t. We can learn to say no, learn to quit the app, and learn to read without reacting. It just takes time, effort, and a willingness to accept that we might miss out on something. But, that’s just life.