Lately, it feels like all of us have developed a more uneasy relationship with social media; our natural (and proper) inclinations towards free speech and free expression of views have been tempered by stories about former Facebook managers describing just how they designed the site to be addictive, or, even worse, Facebook's inadvertent but clear role in facilitating violence against ethnic or social groups, most notably in Myanmar. On Twitter, "doomscrolling" has become a popular term to describe the feeling of constantly searching through feeds, looking for that next hit of information.
Buried somewhere in there are the things that are truly important to us, whether that's connecting with friends and family, exchanging ideas, pursuing hobbies, and even organizing positive social change. As a software engineer, I can point out that there are better platforms out there, but the commercial social networks have democratized access for people whose lives don't revolve around computers. If I want to get the latest from my local bakery or band, the odds are good that I'll find them on Facebook, not on their own website.
And none of these problems are new; I have been dealing with my own insatiable desire for information for a long time. RSS feeds and email newsletters have been a daily part of my life for fifteen years or more now. That's why I'm surprised that among the many articles of late that rightfully express concern about the role these products play in our lives, I have seen little that provides specific, actionable advice on how to help yourself moderate them. Below, I'll offer some practices that I follow. All the tools I mention are free and shouldn't take more than a few minutes to set up.
This first section is about ways that you can use technology to help make social media itself less addictive. Once you're less drawn in and overwhelmed by the constant flood of information, I've found that it's easier to take the personal measures I've noted in the second section.
Uninstall the apps
First things first: remove the Twitter and Facebook apps from your phone. Remember that the app developers want to keep you looking at their app as much as possible; now keep in mind that the apps give them much more control over the experience than their websites do. It's much more difficult to block advertising inside the app, for instance. And then there's pop-up notifications constantly inviting you to go back and check the app again. Ditch the apps, use the websites. By making social media less interesting, you're helping yourself.
I don't use Instgram or Tiktok, but I've observed that these products force you into their apps as much as possible. That should be a warning sign.
Frequent mobile or tablet user? Use Android, install Firefox
There's a number of reasons to use Android and ChromeOS over Apple's iOS; the most obvious one is that Motorola makes inexpensive and durable Android phones that are a fourth the price of an iPhone. ChromeOS (which powers Chomebooks has developed a good reputation for security and can run Android apps, too.
As far as this guide goes, I have to recommend Firefox for Android because it's perhaps the only mobile browser that supports browser extensions well. And, of course, if you're on a laptop, install Firefox there, too.
If you're using iOS, this guide should still be helpful -- it's possible to find some equivalents for iOS, and everything here will work on your laptop, even with Chrome.
Use uBlock Origin to block trackers and advertising
Most importantly, use uBlock Origin when you're browsing the Web. This is a browser extension that both blocks advertising from being shown, and protects you from being tracked by advertisers. Did you know, for instance, that any website with a Facebook "like" button is telling Facebook that you viewed that website, even if you don't click "Like?"
Most people think of advertising as a nuisance, but did you ever consider how much influence it has over you? The pure saturation of information that comes from ubiquitous advertising can wear out your mind and make it more difficult to distinguish truth from fiction.
And there's far more of it than you realize. For instance, if you own a car, you paid about $1,000 to be convinced that you not only needed a car, but you needed that car instead of a more fuel-efficient or safer model. That $1,000 gives car manufacturers more influence over advertising-funded media, too. We all know that over-reliance on cars is part of our social and environmental problems, but how much is spent to advertise public transit, cycling, or simply walking?
So the first thing to do is cut out all of the extraneous voices screaming for your attention. Install uBlock Origin; it's incredibly effective. I didn't even know YouTube had advertisements for years.
And one more point -- Internet advertisements occasionally deliver computer viruses, especially on dodgier websites. You are simply more secure when you block ads.
Install Facebook Container
As I mentioned above, Facebook's "Like," among other social media buttons, helps build a profile of you as you follow your interests on the Web. This is then used to select which of your friends' posts that you see, and which advertisements will be displayed. The team at Firefox developed a container extension to help prevent this.
Strictly limit your social media time with LeechBlock
Now that you don't have the apps installed, and you can only see Facebook or Twitter through your Web browser, you need to give yourself a sense of urgency when on these sites. I use an extension called LeechBlock for this purpose. Once you've installed it, you give it a list of sites that you want to be warned about visiting too often. For instance, if I spend more than thirty minutes a day combined on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or news websites, the next time I try to go to one of those websites, Leechblock won't let me.
Of course, I can get around this block, but I have to make a conscious decision to do so. That makes a huge difference.
Use Reader View
For many websites, Firefox supports Reader View, which will strip away clutter and let you focus on the content itself. Get into the habit of using it, and you might find yourself skimming less and reading in detail more.
Get an account on The Old Reader
I mentioned earlier that I use an RSS feed reader. This lets me collect feeds of articles and news from all over the Web, and skim through them all in the same standardized format. There's no algorithm determining what I do and don't see, just my own choices in everything from physics to comics.
I use The Old Reader. It's blazing fast -- one of the fastest dynamic websites I've seen -- and it has an excellent, uncluttered layout.
Unsubscribe from everything
That store's email list you subscribed from for 10% off that one time? Go to the bottom of the next message you get from them, find the "unsubscribe" button, and remove yourself. Do this for everything you possibly can.
Your mind has a limited capacity to take in information and make decisions. You need to remove as many distractions as possible; ultimately, the goal of a lot of advertising and a lot of engagement-driven apps is to distract and confuse you. Don't let them. If you decide you need to buy something, use websites like Rakuten Cash Back to find those discounts. (But please don't install their browser extension. It'll invade your privacy).
This section is a lot harder to quantify. I think we all wish to be more substantive, to think more deeply, and we all have a limited capacity for this that needs to be balanced against our genuine need for shallow, ridiculous fun. Regardless, I'll offer some aspirational thoughts.
Stop looking for the quick dopamine hits
Twitter in particular is notoriously bad for this: how many truly insightful things have been said in 280 characters or less? Social media sites are dangerously good at creating the good feeling that comes from learning something new, without actually delivering the benefits.
And don't underestimate the chemical rewards that come from outrage, either. Consider that you might be browsing social media looking for easy outrages, when you could be using that time to do substantive work or learn about the subtleties of an issue.
Leave or mute groups; disconnect from people who feed on these emotions rather than being constructive.
If you are a regular Twitter poster, and you find yourself creating a thread, please consider writing articles or blog posts instead. You don't have to run your own site like I do -- there are countless places you can host articles. There is truly a lot of valuable information being shared on Twitter, but spoon-feeding it 280 characters at a time on a site that caters to your bubble of people is the worst possible way to deliver it.
If you are a regular Twitter user, try to look for tweets that link to long-form articles and read a few of them, as well as some responses to them, instead of spending your time hopping from meme to meme.
If you find yourself on a treadmill of drama while writing Facebook comments or dealing with trolls in a subreddit or anything else: ask yourself, are these people you would genuinely enjoy hanging around with in real life? And maybe they are -- I have very close friends I met online. But maybe they're not, and they're not worth your time.
Look for trusted sites and curators (and pay for them!)
If you're reading long-form articles, you're not on Facebook and Twitter, and you're probably able to engage more critically with what you're reading.
This is a really deep and broad subject, so I will just offer a few examples. All of these can be loaded into an RSS feed reader or subscribed to by email.
- Ars Technica's science and policy sections are top-notch.
- I stumbled on Derek Lowe's blog In the Pipeline just before the pandemic began, and his straightforward approach to talking about vaccine and treatment development, walking the line between specialist and generalist, is unmatched.
- The Morning News daily headlines emails consistently deliver high-quality stories, with a slight bias towards the literary.
- Hacker Newsletter has a strong bias towards a particular kind of thinking and set of interests, but is still useful.
- Wikipedia seems like an obvious choice, and they host excellent resource pages for ongoing news stories, but did you also know about the other sites they manage like Wikivoyage or Wiktionary? Further, did you know that you can add smart keywords in Firefox to search these sites instantly, rather than starting with Google?
General newspapers and magazines like the New York Times or the Atlantic certainly have their place, but sites like those listed above are generally better at covering critical issues in many of the fields that are shaping society, like science, policy, and technology.
And then, keep in mind that Netflix costs around $13 a month. For that price, you could subscribe to a national newspaper, your local newspaper, and probably a community newspaper or a newsmagazine as well. Investigative journalism is a critical component of democracy, and it takes money. Have a look at journalism nonprofits like ProPublica as well.
Connect directly with family and friends
Many people use Facebook Messenger to chat with family and friends, but there's no reason you need to rely on an advertising-driven company for that. Download Signal instead -- it's run by a well-funded nonprofit organization, so they're not concerned about making money off of you; they only want to provide a useful product.
Keep looking forward
It's easy to be nostalgic. I have fond memories of sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper and of hours spent in front of a CRT, browsing early websites and discussion groups. The truth is that having access to only one newspaper gave a narrow view of the world, and those early forums were just as wild as today -- just check out the archive at textfiles.com.
Still, the torrent of information has become overwhelming. The immediacy of the modern Internet threatens to overwhelm our ability to contemplate, to consider, and to imagine. The best we can do is to fight back: to constantly remind ourselves that more is not always good, and that we must work within our limitations as humans. Neal Stephenson coined the term "amistics" in his novel Seveneves; it's derived from the Amish belief that cultures must consciously choose how to use, or not use, technology. I suggest thinking about how to apply amistics to your own life.