Social media can be toxic for the individual user, and there’s a growing school of thought that some of it is harmful to society as a whole. However, social media is a significant percentage just people, and as people participating in it we get to contribute to how it all works.
I’ve spent many years doing social media professionally for various companies, organisations and individuals. This means I’ve spent a lot of time having to think about how various platforms work, and how to get people to engage. A lot of engagement tactics are unethical – clickbait, and more problematically, outrage bait. Make people feel something and you are more likely to get them to engage with you. Outrage is pretty easy to invoke and channel because when people feel it, they often don’t think calmly or clearly and become easier to manipulate.
Social media algorithms are informed by engagement and speed of engagement. That which gets a lot of reaction fast, travels and becomes more visible. So, if you don’t like something and you engage with it, you’re actually helping to move it around.
The internet is an attention hungry toddler and is best treated as such. It craves your attention because that’s how it makes advertising money. Attention hungry toddlers don’t care what it takes to get your attention, they just keep doing the thing that gets most reaction. If that’s you losing your shit, the toddler learns to wind you up. Sometimes, the most effective way to teach a toddler is by being boring and disinterested. Algorithms are the same.
If something makes you angry, don’t respond to it. Don’t comment on it, don’t argue with people on it, don’t share it to express your anger. Screenshots don’t send traffic or energy back to the source of the problem. If it’s bad enough to merit a report, a block or an unfriending, do that quickly and move on.
Facebook in particular will show you more of what it thinks you want to see. It judges this based on what you interact with, and what your friends interact with. If you spend a lot of time arguing with people, you’re going to see more content featuring the key words you were arguing with. Your social media experience thus becomes more angry and unhappy.
You have to teach the algorithm what it is you want to see. I mostly see adverts for cat related things and cute cat videos and a fair amount of queer news. I curate hard on sites I use, and I don’t stay friends with strangers whose posts make me cross. I don’t live in an echo chamber because I actively seek all kinds of information. I don’t make myself available to people who are going to make my life miserable.
I’m active about sharing nice things, because I think we could all do with nice things. Sharing warmth and beauty is also political, and seriously radical, and all about the kind of world I want to live in. If I need to argue, I do so as gently and politely as I can, and if I am concerned I can’t stay gentle and polite I get the hell out. I leave likes and loves and hearts on things that cheer me, for the greater part. I do a bit of political critique sharing on Twitter, but I stay away from anything that is abusive or divisive.
Most days, my experience of social media is positive, cheerful and adds richness and delight to my life. No site has to be a hellspace, you just have to tame it and bend it to your will.
There are people who are nourished by your outrage, and who will starve for want of attention if we just ignore them. Don’t name them. Don’t engage. Undertake to be bored by what they do, and direct your energy towards what’s good and interesting instead.