Last weekend I gathered a bunch of friends, made some popcorns, and watched “The Social Dilemma”.

For someone who’s in tech it doesn’t say much new, and it’s hard to ignore that the guys you’re watching trash social media made billions with building it. I guess also Pablo Escobar thought coke wasn’t healthy.

But if you manage to ignore the hypocrisy, it can actually give some inspiration to structure your thoughts and take action. At least, that’s what it did for me.

In this post, I want to talk about:

  • The main thesis of the documentary, and the role AI plays
  • A crazy (and scary) experiment I did 3 years ago
  • Discuss some kind of solution, both at a personal and systemic level

The main point of The Social Dilemma is that social media is making us unhappy and miserable. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are in the business of selling eyeballs to companies, and to do that they need to maximise the time they own them.

To own our eyeballs, they use AI algorithms tasked to do whatever it takes to keep us hooked. Typically, that means selecting content that makes us engaged using some sort of recommendation system.

The problem is, “engaged” rarely means “happy”. The link between social media usage and unhappiness was already researched in 2013, and more recent research doesn’t seem to dismantle this hypothesis.

Three years ago, I decided to test this idea on myself. I became conscious that social media was taking more space in my day than I’d want to, and wanted that to change.

So I made an experiment: I was not going to open the Instagram app for a month. I’d keep the app installed and stay logged in, but I’d resist the temptation of opening it.

I was shocked by what happened next. Every time I had a moment of boredom of frustration (i.e. I got stuck coding, or was doing some boring task), I automatically unlocked my phone and looked for that icon. Resisting was so hard, knowing I was a single tap away from that dopamine hit. I felt like an addict.

What’s even more disturbing is what Instagram did to try winning me back. It first started sending me notifications and then emails (!) saying stuff like “X just posted a story, you have 2hrs to watch it”, or “Y just uploaded a new image, tap to see it”.

X and Y were either my best friend or my ex girlfriend (and that was harder to ignore…). These fuckers knew how to trigger me…. I wrote more details on that experience on my old Medium blog.

Behind the scenes, the algorithm probably had registered that I was used to click on the stories of these two people first, search for them more often, or stop scrolling when they posted a picture. They knew they were both important to me, and these were the strings to pull to manipulate my attention and make me tap on that fucking icon.

They didn’t win me, I succeeded my month-long battle with my “addiction”, and then deleted the app. I re-downloaded it again a few months later, and went back into using the app more than I’d like to some time later.

But after I watched The Social Dilemma, I started to look for other solutions than completely getting rid of it. We can all agree that social media can be objectively useful, and I wanted to preserve that.

I’ll talk about what I did (and you can do too) on a personal level, and then try to think about what changes can be done at a more systemic level.

Personally, I thought that the key to a happy use of Social Media is intention. I want to regain control of my attention, and use social media because I want to, not because some AI is manipulating me.

So a few days ago I sat down and thought “why do I want to use social media?”. My answer was simple: I want to use to inspire and educate people about AI, and consume it to stay in touch with people I care about.

I unliked every page I was following on Facebook, and unfriended or unfollowed roughly 70% of my contacts on FB and Instagram. I have to say, life’s better now. I’m using social media much less, and without all the pictures of fitness models or exotic travel destinations I’m getting just what I actively decided I wanted to see. It did take some time and some energy to go through a few hundreds of people and think “do I want to be updated daily on this human?” but so far I’d say it’s worth it.

I’m also getting a healthier information diet. Before, I followed a bunch of news outlets and business publications, but now I have to actively decide where to go get my information. This requires some action from me, but that also means that there’s no algorithm deciding what I’m going to read now.

I realise that this solution can work for me and a few others, but we need a more systemic solution.

If we need to find a systemic solution, we need to find the root of the problem. We may rush and say “it’s the business model”, or “it’s the technology”, but I think that’d be too simplistic.

Social media isn’t the only tool that fights for our attention: every TV program, radio program, billboard ad, magazine, newspaper, musician, politician, etc. wants to catch our attention. Even your friends. And that’s OK, I guess. Can we tell companies “you can’t try to make people want to use your product”? That seems dumb.

The problem is not that social media wants our attention. Is that they are freaking good at getting it. The combination of being one tap away, and having the technology to push us make that tap is what’s affecting our brains.

But at the same time, can we tell a company “hey, you can do your job but not THAT well, you must be a bit shittier”?.

We can’t. Or…can we?

If you think about it, setting up thresholds to decide when something is allowed and when is not is often necessary. I can go to a gun shop and get a gun fairly easily (in some countries), but no way I can buy a freaking bazooka. I can sell Nutella and make it addictive with all that added sugar, but I can’t add cocaine and hook people up for life.

Why can’t we set up a limit to how invasive social media can be? I guess we can, even though the details of the “how” are still hard to figure out and I don’t pretend offering a solution in a blogpost.

What I do know is that a conversation needs to happen. We can fight fake news, echo chambers, and a bunch of other well-known problems, but we can’t ignore the fact that billions of people’s happiness is threatened by software they have in their pockets every day.

While we wait for a systematic solution, I invite you to sit down like I did, and ask yourself why you want to use social media. Then, align your feeds to what your intentions have, and regain control over your attention. You’ll thank me later.