“You are what you eat from your head down to your feet”.
Cal Newport, in his seminal book Deep Work, cites the writing of Winifred Gallagher to show that “our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to… Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”
What do we become by feeding ourselves a steady dose of algorithm-curated social media content? The old argument in favour of social media was that it gave us more agency and autonomy over what we consumed as opposed to traditional media, which had gatekeepers of content.
Given where we are, we must ask: is this true?
Shelly Banjo and Sarah Frier wrote an article back in March in which they showed that TikTok actively chooses which content goes viral.
“Company executives help determine which videos go viral, which clips appear on the pages of personalized recommendations, and which trends spill out from the app to flood the rest of the world,” they write. The journey from seeing “recommended content” on social media a few years back to TikTok or Instagram Reels today where users don’t even actively select what content to consume may be indicative of the increasing role that Algorithms are playing in our lives.
Is this increasing role positive or negative? Below are a couple of angles to consider.
Social Media and Outrage
Science Advances recently published findings of a study that monitored the social media experiences of various different people.
Their conclusion? Social media tends to make people increasingly outraged over time.
Though their data set was largely American-based, it might not be too much of a stretch to generalize their findings to an Indian context too. What is surprising is not that negative content draws more engagement on social media. As Brady, one of the researchers says, “There’s a lot of data now that suggest that negative content does tend to draw in more engagement on the average than positive content.” What has now been confirmed is that the way social media platforms are built helps amplify outrage. To put it more bluntly, social media platforms positively favour outrage.
Social Media and Self-Image
On March 21, 2021, Jesselyn Cook published an article on HuffPost which spoke about the Facetune epidemic. She details how young people across the USA are facing the never-ending pressure of having to reach the unrealistic beauty standards that Instagram influencers actively promote. It’s damaging to one’s mental health, resulting in “body dysmorphic disorders,” where individuals obsess over minor or imagined defects in their appearance. Cook writes, “[T]he extraordinary lengths that an untold number of young women are going in a desperate effort to look flawless on the platform are indicative of a mental health crisis – one fueled in no small part by Facetune and other apps like it.”
What is the Solution?
I do not claim to know the answer.
However, one of the solutions I see floating around is to get content curated by people we trust. Services such as Substack.com, Revue by Twitter, and many more have boomed in recent months as a response to this growing demand for individual content creators and content curators. A number of these writers are serving their readers a carefully curated collection of content to consume. Some of them also offer their own commentary. Maybe it is easier to trust an individual than a faceless company. I myself have subscribed to a number of such email newsletters. And I can personally attest to the fact that reading these newsletters has made me more thoughtful, creative and productive, as opposed to merely scrolling through social media.
Governments around the world are trying to answer these same questions and regulate online platforms. Although I fear a lot of these regulations are aimed at suppressing dissent, we do need some kind of regulation (although I’m not sure what kind). When cars were first invented I assume there weren’t too many codified traffic rules. However, as more and more people started using them, we had to codify such rules for the safety of all. I assume a similar set of rules need to exist for social media.
Until we know what these rules are, we might need to take our own individual measures to maintain our mental health online.