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Returning agency to computing

Spring 2024

A more relevant topic (to me) than ever before

I used to love computing and the internet, but stopped doing so ages ago. It is partly a "me problem", but not entirely without reason and I'm absolutely not alone. About two years ago I started seriously cutting down on social media after obtaining a truly problematic addiction during the 12+ years leading up to that. Now that I've gone cold turkey on (almost) all social media, I'm left with the quite relevant question: what am I actually even doing online today? That thought has been burning my mind more and more lately, not least because I got a son last year I, so partly this is a matter of my determination in passing down some of the magic I was fortunate to discover when opening the world of home computers and digital communication.

I guess there might be better ways to handle withdrawal sympthoms than to invest a lot of more hours into something utterly irrelevant. But as my social media addiction was all about passive consumption, I reasoned that a good call would be to form habits that over time nudges me into creativity. At least that's the idea.

The dark decade

The 2010’s truly took us from explorers to dopamine junkies. Everything started becoming truly convenient in a way that not necessarily promotes prosperity in humanity. We know all about this already - polarized trenches were starting to form, the invention of the endless scroll combined with massive accessability via cellphones, the rise of the content creator-industry etc. Others have already described and analyzed this phenomenon better than I can. But neverthless it's a highly relevant topic to us all.

The width of the problem

Dopamine is a beast. When I was at my peak addiction, I spent roughly 6–7 hours scrolling through social media each day. When I decided to say goodbye to Facebook in late 2022 I regularly clocked in at 4 hours a day according to my screen time app. The number felt absurd until I read that the AVERAGE user spends 2 hours and 24 minutes each day on social media. Then it get's quite scary when teenager stats are revealed. Ages 13-19 spends between 4.1 to 5.8 hours per day.

A quick calculation on how much 5.8 hours a day adds upp to in a year would give us a massive 2117 hours. A full time job is roughly 2000 hours a year so it's more than a 100% job just keeping track of mostly people you don't really know that well. For my own 4 hours a day I clocked in at 1460 hours. A 75% job. It's of course absolutely ridiculous when you start thinking about it. And worst part - I'd say none of those hours made me happier.

And now what?

Remove almost 1500 hours per year of anything from your life and I suppose that makes a shitload of difference. Thing is though - it really hasn't in the way I had hoped it would. I've started to come to terms with the fact that it takes time to get rid of such a rooted behaviour and even more so - to transform it into something creative. But I thought it would go faster.

Eventually I noticed that without a solid plan I seem to subconciously replicate the social media behaviour but with other targets. News sites in particular. And then comes the forums. And then the blogs. And then... But except for news sites, activity is so scarce on the other platforms I follow that you're generally up to par with everything if you check them for a few minutes daily. So therefore after half an hour of internet - I'm sorta done. Which would be great, if it wasn't for the fact that I tend to start over the same loop again to see if there's something new.

This is not a habit to happily stay with.

The digital paradigm and how social media doesn't necessary adhere to it

The internet changed how we communicate. It's as simple as that. We went from the mass media paradigm, a one directional broadcast where a creator was in need of an agent (publisher, newspaper, television etc.) to reach an audience. The digital paradigm allows the creator to override the role of the agent and also establish a two-way communication. Creator to consumer and vice versa. This sounds small and insignificant in writing, but it makes a world of difference. If we let it do so.

Social media certainly isn't the villain by default. I'd argue that some of the most important aspects of digital communication are different kinds of social media. Bulleting Board Systems, webforums, IRC, UseNet, ICQ etc. The list can expand indefinitely.

What I'd argue made social media (by the definition we use today) go haywire is the fact that they are increasingly redesigned to fit a passive mass media paradigm instead of an active social space. Advertising drives the "attraction market" of today, that's the only substantial income available since the services themselves are generally free from subscription fees (to attract more data). The key to maximizing the income (by showing a maximum of ads) is to get people to a. stay as long as possible, and b. keep a quick pace of new content.

In depth interaction takes time and is generally formed within smaller social circles. According to the above logic, that's not likely to render great revenue. And as it turns out - there already existed a role model for the social media companies to look for when it came to "hooking" the user: slot machines.

Basic idea is, make sure you are always anticipating that a win is around the corner, and make sure that you get rewarded enough so that you don't loose interest. In other words - make sure the users feed is curated like a slot machine. Increasing the amount of interaction from the user isn't necessary a relevant KPI. Knowing what keeps you watching is. Have you noticed how every streaming service makes sure to autoplay the next episode when we reach the end of the current? Same mechanics - make it easier to stay than to go. "There might be something valuable on the next page" your subconcious part of the brain screams. "Ok, I'll go get creative as soon as I've just looked at that next reel".

Sure, the above analysis is shallow and doesn't include a lot of aspects to social media. Both positive and negative, that is. But when 40-48% of users doesn't even post content at all (link in swedish) there's a need to think about why we chose to consume social media instead of other culture and why it stands in the way of being creative yourself.

A strategy for returning agency to the internet

I feel a bit like a scammer if I kept you reading this far in hope of something groundbreaking. I haven't got a better answer than this though.

Recently I've started learning C on my MorphOS-laptop using ChatGPT, took up photography and photo editing, designed this website, begun gathering bits and pieces for upcoming articles, stripped my phone of distracting apps, installed Fedora on an abandonded tablet/laptop, tried out new open source software and so forth. None of it being massive projects, rather the opposite. They are supposed to be light-weight projects that help me turn my mindset away from being a passive consumer to an active agent.

I am noticing a change. It's not nearly there yet, but plan is to stick with this strategy. And in the mean time, I will avoid social media. Even though sober at the moment - I'm still an addict and maybe I'll remain that for the rest of my life.