“A good book is an event in my life” - Stendahl
I sifted through a just a few quotes about good books being magic, books taking you places, et cetera, to find this quote by Stendahl. There’s a bit of irony at play, because I use Google to find and verify these quotes. What will follow is a discussion of a book I just finished - 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now - all about the evils of Google (and Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram). Shrug emoji!
I chose this quote though, because I’ve at least read one book by Stendhal (The Red and the Black) so it felt more legit. Also, I’ve never heard this before, and I think it’s true. I can trace lots of events in my life to books whose ideas I absorbed first.
I remember as a child, I was an avid reader, and pretty soon encountered the somewhat clichéd quote - “Reading takes me places I’ve never been before” on a bookmark or something.
I loved reading, but remember feeling this sense of disappointment, like when I discovered the colorful pink make up palette I got for my Birthday was painted plastic instead of real pigments. Reading about faraway places is nothing like breathing the air and eating the food, I thought. I really felt sad about the prospect of becoming an armchair traveler those days (I was like 8).
These days, I think I understand this quote a little better than when I was 8. I have had the chance not just to read the books, but to breathe the air and eat the food too. I effectively wrote a small book with my blog this summer, that shared a little piece of hiking with my friends in their armchairs, and some armchair comfort with me between long days of walking alone. But I also understand the long term effects of reading more - you can get a good imagination for a place or experience through reading-and in time, get there.
In that way, books that have been events in my life include “Misty of Chincoteague”, “Barbarian Days”, “Wild”, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.
And this week, “10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” perhaps to spur a real-life event - the deletion of my Social Media accounts right now.
I was spurred to read this in part, because of the new iPhone update. It shows you how much time you spend on your phone and where you spend it. Yikes. The one bright spot was that at least some of the time was devoted to the Books app, which I felt good about, so I went in that direction and read a book title I had skimmed off a real-life friend’s LinkedIn post - the 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media…
It pulled me in with the first chapter on how sites like Facebook use behaviorist theory to give your brain little rewards when you spend time on their sites. If I’m being honest, I do feel a little dopamine when I open an app on my phone to those little red bells. But, innocuous enough, what if I’m just being conditioned to care about the things other people in my network care about?
The most optimistic part of me loves the internet and all of these things because of the crazy and wonderful connections it enables. I started surfing in part because I signed up for lessons on a nice looking Squarespace site from my desk one day. A well-timed comment to my blog kept me going more than once on the Via Francigena, and of course, the time an almost anonymous Instagram follower dispatched his own parents to meet me when I was lost in Northern France…
But lately, I have to ask myself if the life-changing magic that social media can bring really justifies all the time that, according my software update, I really spend it.
I guess I read this book for an explanation of why, and maybe how, I can change what I’m doing to make the most out of these platforms.
Part One: What’s Weird About Social Media According to Jaron Lanier
It’s designed to encourage you to spend as much time on it as possible
Content is sorted indiscriminately by how much attention it gets - positive or negative
Its economics are not transparent to users
So first this idea of behavioralism at work. Social media software uses little tricks that make online gambling or games addictive - like randomness, plus the information it gathers about your use habits then uses in the service of one goal - getting you to spend as much time on social media as possible. Pretty straightforward. If you feel like you spend too much time on social media like me, it might be working.
Then there’s the content. There are lots of quirky things about the content that gets posted on social media, basically its all very attention-seeking - negative or positive. If Facebook and Instagram hack human psychology with their interface to get more of your attention, ordinary users then create content that does the exact same thing.
For example, a lot of my social media savvy friends who aren’t pro influencers (myself included actually) will post mounds of text underneath a cute selfie. The text is sometimes fluff that has nothing to do with the picture, but the post will get attention because it’s a smiling human face, and our brains are hardwired to love that stuff. Social Media also seems flooded at times with posts like this, along with pictures of people in their underwear, in the name of various causes, but I suspect mostly because this is a data-driven, surefire way to get people’s attention. It’s like ordinary users have been hacked to create content that gets more attention. You are a little addicted to the psychological reward of posting a picture that gets a lot of attention, which kind of trains you to take and post more photos that will get a lot of attention, which keeps the whole platform, a fly trap for human attention going, and for what? Well, that part of the book was interesting too.
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchnange for it” - Henry David Thoreau
How do Facebook or Instagram make money, anyway? Well, off the users. Advertising is the short answer, but it doesn't reflect the full picture, because I always felt like if social media made money off of advertising, and I never bought stuff I saw advertised on social media, it meant I was using the program for free. Like signing up for a 30-day trial and cancelling before your card is charged! However, that’s not quite the full picture, because when you used Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, you have agreed to supply your data for free to anonymous advertisers, each hour spent on social media is free data on who you are talking to, what you are looking at, et cetera. Additionally, by creating content on these platforms, you are capturing other people’s attention for the purpose of this data sold to third-parties, in addition to whatever message you actually want to send out - the paragraph underneath an Instagram-worthy selfie. There is a threshold where you become so good creating attention-garnering content you can leverage your accounts directly with advertisers. But I guess it’s important to realize that just by having an active account, in a way you are a micro-influencer for Facebook or Instagram or Youtube, who are in the business of collecting data on you and all your friends and followers . There’s no such thing as a free lunch after all. Which brings me to-
Part Two: Am I going to delete all my social media accounts now?
Well, not now. This book, even with its heavy-handed stance, acknowledges there are so truly awesome things that happen via social platforms - Cat videos, Black Twitter, international FB friends - AKA peak social media. All this happens because the internet is pretty magic despite shady Terms Of Service agreements and I’m not sure I’m willing to give that up right away.
I am however, going to spend less energy mindlessly scrolling, and more energy on making sure my contacts and content exist someplace independent of Facebook.
I am going to be more down with paid digital content (like ibooks) and traditional stuff (like newspapers and library books) with an upfront cost as opposed to just wasting time reading junky newsfeed content.
And I am going to continue to experiment for ways to make social media and the internet work for ME and promote the PEACE message I want to send - instead of the other way around :)