Photo Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing
In today’s email from The Daily Stoic, an email I receive and read almost every day, Ryan Holiday reminds us,
“The Stoics say you become what you give your attention to.”
While this could mean anything from the people we surround ourselves with, the content we consume, or the activities we choose to spend our time on, today, I want to focus on the types of information we consume, and how that affects what we spend our time on.
More specifically, I want to consider our current relationship with social media and how much attention we should really be giving the various platforms.
I have recently (in the past year) stepped back from spending so much time on social media. It’s not that I think all social media is bad, but I do believe that there is a lot of bad on social media. And it’s just too time consuming to sort through the weeds to find useful, entertaining, and good-for-us content. My time means more to me than that.
Worse than this, it’s become near impossible to consume the content we’ve actually chosen to follow.
In a recent tweet from Therese Walsh, she said:
“Instagram has become 99% reels I didn’t ask to see from accounts I don’t follow plus blocking bot-doctors.”
I found it interesting that I stumbled upon this tweet about Instagram when I was considering making this article more about Twitter and Facebook. And that’s mainly because Instagram is currently my favorite social media to use.
But the tweet rings true for me as well. And I have a similar experience on all social media platforms. I see what the platform wants me to see, whether it’s certain political posts because of some strange algorithm, posts from people I recently interacted with, or advertisements based on my clicks, phone preferences, or what I talked about over Thanksgiving dinner (I swear I spoke about some truly random and strange product, and the next day, an ad was in my feed). Bottom line is this: Our feeds historically populated based on who we follow and when they posted their latest update. And you could scroll through your feed and get real time updates from your friends and others you’re interested in. End of story. But that is no longer the case. And hasn’t been for a long time. Now, feeds populate posts based on two factors: getting you to click on ads from paying customers and keeping you on the social media longer so that you will eventually click on ads from paying customers.
And this was always going to happen, right? The only way to have a social media platform that everyone is happy with is to get rid of the one thing that enables social media to survive: monetization. Without monetization, we no longer need to see the promoted and boosted posts that are driving the toxic nature of the platforms in the first place. But get rid of monetization, and social media no longer runs.
At the same time, the toxic nature of social media is driving away advertisers and users, alike. The owners of social media platforms are in a real conundrum.
According to an article in The Atlantic
“It’s over. Facebook is in decline, Twitter in chaos. Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has lost hundreds of billions of dollars in value and laid off 11,000 people, with its ad business in peril and its metaverse fantasy in irons. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has caused advertisers to pull spending and power users to shun the platform (or at least to tweet a lot about doing so). It’s never felt more plausible that the age of social media might end—and soon.”
Now, I don’t know if I think the age of social media might end soon, but I do think social media has changed. And not for the good.
More and more people that I know have either stepped away from using social media, or maybe they’ve chosen to concentrate on only one platform, or to lessen their presence. Still others are seeking a different way to connect with people they wish to connect with.
I mean, if the only way to connect with people on Instagram is to constantly post reels and hope that your reels make it into the feeds of the people who actually follow you… And for people to see your Facebook posts, you’re at the mercy of the gods inside the Zuckerberg Kingdom… And Twitter? No one knows what will happen to that hellscape. (Don’t get me wrong, there are still things I want to like about Twitter, but I do not have a good feeling about its future existence.)
So where do people go to connect online if not social media?
What about long form journalism or good ol’ fashioned blogging? I know not all people enjoy reading posts longer than a tweet, but shouldn’t we seek out a community of people who enjoy long-form thinking? Or maybe communities of people who discuss topics that interest us?
Cassie Mannes Murray recently opened the Substack article Big Blue Bird: A Note (mostly) against the blues of the Twitter high seas with:
Maybe we’re free.
Maybe long form journalism is back, and we’ll return to an attention span that dare I say, feels luxurious.
Has social media killed our attention spans? We all know the internet killed most paper newspapers and magazines, but has the internet and social media also harmed our attention spans or our ability to enjoy long-form writing?
I’d say that’s a “probably, yes.” At least in the short term. But I have hope that we are returning to more long-form reading. I think people are craving better connection—a sense of belonging in a community of like-minded people.
And I think if we give our attention to longer-form thinking and seek out communities of people who are interested in some of the same topics, we broaden our attention span and become what we consume.