In early June, Joe and I were watching an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, when we were introduced to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris. If you’re intrigued by what a design ethicist is, well, that was my reaction too! As Tristan said, the challenge of his job was to “study how you ethically manipulate what 2 billion people think everyday,…[because] no matter what we do, a billion people’s minds are jacked into an environment that a handful of technology companies make.” He continues, “I got really interested in, ‘How do you ethically steer what so many people are thinking and believing?'”
His segment caught my attention completely, and it’s something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since.
Specifically, he has this analogy that smart phones are like slot machines — not least because we interact with them much like their noisy, flashy Vegas counterparts (that “pull down” swipe is pretty similar to pulling the lever on a slot machine, no?). But more importantly, they offer a variable reward system. Sometimes you pull the lever and your Inbox is empty. Sometimes you pull it and get something really good. It makes it highly, highly addictive.
The segment caught me at an interesting moment in my relationship with my iPhone. I’d been on a tear staying up way too late, feeling disconnected from simple pleasures in life, and would end nights feeling like Joe and I had barely talked (despite having sat next to each other on the couch or in bed for hours). Alarming in this pattern was the fact that I’d awake completely exhausted, and my late night habits made me feel like I couldn’t commit to waking up early in the mornings to work out — despite knowing how desperately I needed to get back into an exercise routine.
The dumb part about staying up so late was that my consumption patterns were usually pretty pointless. Tell me, does this routine sound familiar?
Open Instagram. Scroll for X number of minutes (probably more than 10, hopefully less than 60). Exhaust volume of interesting content. Close Instagram. Open Facebook. Scroll, until you (again) exhaust volume of interesting content. Open email. 1 message, some dumb newsletter. Open Snapchat. No one has posted because no one uses Snapchat anymore. Go back to Instagram. Did anyone post a new story in the last 30 minutes? No? Open Facebook. Ooh, a new article to read! But also, I wonder if anyone has sent an email. Gmail check. Nothing. Hmm, I wonder if anyone has published a snap…
You get the idea, right? I had basically built my own homemade casino, and there I was, spending the entire night at the slots.
So yeah, I’d already recognized how negatively my iPhone habits were affecting my life, but hadn’t done anything about it. This segment was the kick in the pants to do something.
An App Overhaul
If you dig into articles Tristan has written or participated in, there are a few recurring recs he talks about. I immediately implemented none of them, save for one: I reorganized the home screen on my iPhone, tucking many of my social media apps into folders. Pre re-org, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat all had prime placement on my home screen (with Gmail, Instagram, and Twitter most prominently available, in 3 of those 4 slots along the bottom of the home screen). Post re-org, Gmail remained in the bottom 4 icons, and the remaining apps were placed into a folder I’d previously created to house other work apps. Within that folder, only Instagram and Facebook appeared on the folder’s “front” page (meaning once you tapped on the folder to access the apps, I could see those two, but I’d need to swipe one or two times to access the other social media platforms “hidden” on pages 2 or 3 of the folder).
For the first couple of days, moving my apps around quickly made me notice when I was opening Instagram. It’s the go-to time
passer waster for me, so that extra step of tapping the folder and then tapping the app meant I became very conscious of when I was accessing it. However, within a few days, it had become second nature to make that extra tap and open it.
But something interesting happened. As quickly as I became accustomed to opening a folder to access Instagram, the circle of apps I was going through in my “app dance” had also shrunk. In fact, I realized about 3 or 4 days after reorganizing that I hadn’t opened Snapchat or Twitter the entire time.
Like Tristan said, if you “hide” the apps from yourself, it’s pretty easy to forget about them (which begs the question about how much value they were really adding to your life in the first place…more on that in a bit). I’ve left Twitter on the second screen of that work apps folder, and it’s been totally out of sight, out of mind. I realize this sounds like a small thing to do, and an even smaller thing to eliminate from one’s life, but it has amazed me how moving the placement of these apps around totally rewired my brain. These days, I probably check in on my Twitter app once a week; even less on busier weeks. Snapchat became so pointless that two weeks ago, I deleted it from my phone. It seems ridiculous, but a couple years ago, that would’ve been unthinkable.
Social Media and Anxiety
Several years ago, when I would post to Instagram two, sometimes even three times per day (OMG), I can remember a sense of panic that would set in if I hadn’t posted at set times. Going a week without posting would’ve been extremely uncomfortable. Over the last year, I’ve found myself posting less anyway — due to lack of content, spending less time on the app, and generally trying not to let Insta-anxiety play a part in my life. That particular set of anxieties has receded, and I feel good about it. I can go for weeks now and not post something, and while I remember that I haven’t, the thought is like a gnat circling my brain; a quick swat at it and it’s gone.
But interestingly, a new type of anxiety has emerged: how does one run a small business that’s reliant upon participation in the digital space, without actively participating? That is to say, maybe I have work related FOMO. I worry about people forgetting about me. Or wondering whether I’m still open for business. I got a message from someone recently on Instagram asking me if I was still offering design services. That they hadn’t visited my website was obvious, but I wondered if my lack of posting on Insta made them think I’d gone AWOL on services too. Has social media participation become my new work/life balance conundrum? It’s a double edged sword: I find it tedious and anxiety producing to participate in any real way, but it also feels necessary in today’s digital/creative environment. Fellow creatives, do you grapple with this too? I guess I’m saying I haven’t figured out how to be an active part of the community and use these marketing tools to my advantage without also letting it take over my life (and mind). I’m not typically one for such binary choices, but with social, it somehow feels like an all or nothing thing. Maybe finding the middle ground — the shades of grey — is still a work in progress for me. I suspect we’re all in that same boat.
I struggle with what social media will mean for my future, too. I can deemphasize the importance of social media all I want in my own life, even in my own marriage. But what about if you have a kid? How do you allow them to participate in what will undoubtedly be a part of their culture without letting it have a negative effect on them? This is something I honestly worry about a lot as we ponder parenthood (further reading on this down below).
This month in GQ, Aziz Ansari did an interview in which he confirmed that he deleted the Internet from his life. Seriously! His iPhone has text messaging capabilities, and that’s pretty much it. He deleted all social media apps, email, and even his Internet browser off his phone. He told his interviewer:
“Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore. When I first took the browser off my phone, I’m like, [gasp] How am I gonna look stuff up? But most of the shit you look up, it’s not stuff you need to know. All those websites you read while you’re in a cab, you don’t need to look at any of that stuff. It’s better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute. I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there’s a new thing. And read a book instead. I’ve been doing it for a couple months, and it’s worked. I’m reading, like, three books right now. I’m putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.”
I’ve wondered if I could do the same. Deleting all that shit off my phone feels completely Draconian, and at the same time, completely tempting. A true rebel move for the 21st Century. Aziz, of course, has it a bit easier because he’s Aziz and presumably has a whole team of people helping him manage his personal and business affairs. But it is interesting to think about building a life that doesn’t require that type of constant connection to a device, and still run a successful business.
Lest I sound like some kind of late blooming luddite, I’m not against technology — or social media! — by any stretch. Technology has brought a lot of joy into my life from a very young age, and I’ll never cease to be fascinated with its evolution. But I struggle with how to integrate certain aspects of tech into my life — social media specifically — in a way that consistently feels useful, productive, even fun. I think Tristan’s on to something when he talks about current platform designs “hijacking” our minds. Yes, I double tap one user’s image because I like it, but when I’m subsequently served 5 or 10 other shares from that user that I don’t want to see, is this really a well designed thing? Auto-play was invented to keep us in apps and on sites, so that ads can be served. I’m cool with apps and sites making money…but what’s the balance in which we’re not sucked in and lose our sense of choice?
I don’t have any answers on how to strike this balance or how to completely alleviate the anxiety that seems to come with participating (or NOT participating) in this weird digital culture we’re all a part of. For now, I’m continuing to experiment with time away from these spaces, and to work on ensuring that my time spent in them feels fun and purposeful. When it’s not? I’m out. Or at least, I’m going to try to be.
So, questions for you, for reals: do you feel addicted to your phone? I’m guessing yes. What are your feelings towards platforms like Instagram these days? I’ve had a number of friends recently mention they felt “over it,” but were addicted to the time wasting aspect of it. Do you find that your addiction to your device has ever held you back from something you want in life, be it big or small? If you’ve been in the same boat as me, what steps have you taken to reduce social media consumption in your life? And fun to think about: could you pull an Aziz and delete all apps from your phone, save text and the phone itself?
PS: ironically, someone recently asked me about how I keep track of all the articles I share in VMS Digest posts. I have a bunch of strategies, which I plan to share soon. Writing this post helped me crystallize why those strategies work without driving me crazy and sucking me into the vortex. I think the bottom line is that if you love to discover content that matters to you, you’ll find places that give it to you, and it doesn’t feel like (as much of) a waste of time. More to come on that soon.
Easy Steps to Reduce Time on Your Phone
(many of these are Tristan’s excellent suggestions. Trust me, they work!)
+ Hide your apps. Reorganize things so that apps are in folders, and you can’t see the mostly highly addictive ones. Or, move apps to screens two (or higher!) on your phone, so that they’re not at all visible on your home screen. Just swiping a couple times to access an app will force you to think about why you’re going in.
+ Use the search bar of your phone. Instead of tapping Instagram to open it, Tristan recommends accessing your phone’s search bar and typing in “Instagram” to open it. That intentional act of typing in what you want to do can often slow you down and make you think about whether you really want to engage with the app. I’ll admit, I haven’t done this one at all. The search bar remains useful only for apps I can’t find.
+ Practice awareness. If you find yourself thinking, “What am I even looking at?” take it as a signal to put down your phone and do something else. Like all things in life, checking in with yourself and following your own intuition usually leads to pretty good things.
+ Settings are your friend. It’s super obvious, but when it comes to push notifications, turn that shit off! I’ve been with friends whose phones blow up literally every 10 seconds with email, Instagram likes, and Facebook notifications. I truly can’t understand how they live like this.
+ Read/watch some of the articles I’ve linked below. Counterintuitive to the premise of this post, sure, but I think these are all pretty interesting and might get you thinking objectively about your own relationship with your phone.
Other good reading:
The Binge Breaker // This is a great long form piece that goes into how Tristan got into this line of advocacy work in the first place, including some of the work he did in the Valley.
Tristan’s TED Talks // 1) “How Tech Could Better Protect Us From Distraction,” and 2) “The Manipulative Tricks Tech Companies Use to Capture Your Attention”
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? // This article from The Atlantic has been making its rounds over the last couple of weeks. I found its discussion of how tech has shaped the next generation really interesting. There were plenty of moments in which I was reading about teenage culture today and felt like there was a true disconnect from their generation and mine.
Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones; Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them // A really good interview with Wired, though I think his interviewer was a little skeptical of the whole “design ethics” thing.
Real Time // The Real Time with Bill Maher segment that got me thinking about all this in the first place!
Aziz Ansari on Quitting the Internet, Loneliness, and Season 3 of Master of None// Aziz Ansari’s GQ interview. Beyond the tech stuff, he talks a lot about his work on Master of None, among lots of other fun stuff.
Time Well Spent// Tristan’s non-profit. They also have a Facebook group that shares a lot of good articles.