Share: How Social Media Hacked Civic Conversation

I’ve written here earlier about Cal Newport and his book, Digital Minimalism. The book calls for lower if not zero use of social media. In the post, he shares an article published in The Atlantic, titled, “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell.

Whereas Newport suggests zero to no social media use, Haidt and Rose-Stockwell call for regulation on the part of social media companies. Newport thinks this is highly unlikely as this implies a direct hit at their bottom line.

I love this particular paragraph from Newport’s blog post that succintly summarises Digital Minalism on how social media design changed and how it affects our response:

In Digital Minimalism, I argued that our relationship with social media was transformed when the major platforms updated their designs to make these services less about checking on other peoples’ status, and more about checking incoming “social approval indicators,” which arrive in the form of likes, retweets, shares, hearts, streaks and tags.

Cal Newport, How Social Media Hacked Civic Conversation

Read the blog post and follow his blog if #nosurf is something you enjoy reading about and then go ahead and read the article by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell on The Atlantic.

Cricket from ESPNcricinfo

I heard references to articles that Amit Varma writes for ESPNcricinfo on his podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. When I heard these many times, I got curious and went online to check out the website.

The website has articles and live scores. Currently, the focus seems to the India West Indies test series and The Ashes. I read a few articles but didn’t understand much as I had stopped watching cricket since Ajay Jadeja quit following a match fixing scandal in the late 90s. I failed to find any article that was interesting for me.

Screenshot of cricinfo in 1995.  Image:  By Desironya - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
cricinfo in 1995. Image: By Desironya – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

I read a Twitter thread yesterday by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on Prof. Sankara Rao and how his interest for cricket and sharing scores by listening to cricket scores on BBC on his short wave radio inspired an online community and led to websites like cricinfo which was established in 1993.

At the end of the thread, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan shared an interesting article written by him on the occassion of ESPNcricinfo’s 25th anniversary. This follows the role played by cricket enthusiasts in the US and Australia and the role they played on what enables you and me today to catch cricket scores online.

Today, ESPNcricinfo powers the score updates one sees on Google. This is visible as notifications on our mobile phone. The website gives me a stand alone website that is part of the social internet which enables me to follow cricket again, if I want to.

Social Internet

I had written earlier about wanting to move towards Social Internet on this blog earlier. The move feels more urgent as I changed careers and moved to a more creative career field.

A pciture of a phone with social media apps installed on it. Photo by Magnus Mueller on Pexels.com
Photo by Magnus Mueller on Pexels.com

When you’re on Twitter or similar social media websites, you are bombarded with information. This information, though, is about different topics. To process this information, the brain does something called “context switching”. Cal Newport, a computer science professor, working with Georgetown University has written extensively on his blog about the cost context switching has on our brain. In short, this affects our attention span. He suggests a mental declutter of thirty days in his new book, Digital Minimalism.

Besides the cognitive costs, it also affects our world. It enriches a few corporations that gains by selling our data to advertisers. This leads us to “walled gardens” that affect our privacy. We do not have a clear picture about what data we give to corporations and how, in turn these corporations use our data.

Some of my friends have also started moving from corporations on to blogs of their own. Their dusting off old blogs that they once maintained and renewing them. A recent one I read about is Karthik’s. I am trying to get other friends to start up their blogs as well. This is where you have control on your content and data.

Tobi Lutke of Shopify is also working towards making shopping online social again. Recently, I was talking about a friend about cameras and that night I saw ads for cameras on Amazon. The Amazon app on your phone has permission to make calls. Is it listening to you as well? Shopify is now considering taking on Amazon. Tim Bradshaw has a nice article in Financial Times that describes the social shopping experience that Shopify seeks to build.

I am not advocating quitting social media. I am only saying that you need to be aware of how you give data away to corporations who make money off it. At the very least, I hope there is a thriving Social Internet that thrives along with Social Media.

Social Media vs Social Internet

Brett McKay wrote on the Art of Manliness blog on the difference between Social Media and the Social Internet and the difference between the two. While the former was the keep of billion dollar industries the latter is the creation of individual people. Lately, I have found myself coming to my website to share things rather than keep them in silos maintained by corporations. Data is the new oil, if you haven’t already heard.

Brett’s blog post is a good starting point if you want to begin moving away from Social Media again towards the Social Internet.

Social Media are websites owned by corporations that monetize what you share and become multi-billion dollar corporations richer. Social Internet is the network of sites owned by individuals or even small businesses that put out content and are shared by people like you and me.

If you have browsed the web before 2007 in India, you would have worked your way through Yahoo! search engine, through various email threads on Yahoo! groups and found like minded people sharing web pages using links. When blogs burst on to the scene, you would always keep an eye on the about page and for the “blog roll” on the side of the blog to find new blogs. If you were on the blog roll of someone famous, you would get a lot of web traffic. This is how you organically grew your website.

A screenshot of the website, stryder.com
stryder.com was a website that I visited often for such web links and blog rolls. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

The onset of websites like Facebook and Twitter were the onset of Social Media. These websites earned money by showing us targeted advertisements based on the things we liked, shared and searched on their website. Getting us to stay on their websites for longer (even not having to open web links on a browser) means they can watch user behaviour for a longer time. Data is the new oil. Wired ($) has a personal guide to Personal Data Collection that tells you how your personal data is collected and used. However, they do offer a convenience in use and sharing that Social Internet has never reached.

The Social Internet was built on RSS feeds. Not the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but Really Simple Syndication. Google Reader made it a breeze to subscribe and read blog posts and even listen to podcasts. But, Google pulled the switch on the project and RSS feeds have been difficult to follow ever since. I currently use Feedly for blog posts, Spotify for podcasts and Thunderbird for feeds and email offline. What I would really love is a mobile version of Thunderbird that I could use to read and write emails, read my blog posts, listen to my podcasts and play videos from the channels I have subscribed to. One app to do it all would mean so many saved apps downloads and my data would be safe with a non-profit like Mozilla Foundation where we would have more control on our own data.

I know reading this sounds like I am scared of Social Media but the fact is that I use it as much as other people but I am slowly beginning to realise that we need control of the data that we create. I believe that awareness that your data is being used by Corporations to make more dollars is a good first step.

Shared – Podcast #479: Becoming a Digital Minimalist

Brett McKay has a podcast, Podcast #479: Becoming a Digital Minimalist on The Art of Manliness with Cal Newport on digital minimalism. The concept surrounds the idea of not having social media in walled gardens like Facebook, Google etc. These are only trying to rob our attention and make money from them. These have an adverse impact on us just like fast food, cigarettes etc.

I am dealing with my own smartphone addiction and might get the book in the last week of this month on Audible.