When Kids Realize Their Whole Life Is Already Online

Jaime Putnam, a mom in Georgia, said she has started to be more mindful of the fact that many of her kids’ friends don’t yet know how much information about themselves is out there. Recently she saw on social media that one of her child’s friends got a puppy. She brought it up when she next saw him, and he looked at her, horrified. He had no idea how she had learned that seemingly private information. “It made me realize these kids don’t know what’s being posted all the time,” she said. Now she’s careful about what she reveals. “It kind of feels like you’re maybe crossing a line telling them everything you know about them.”

Taylor Lorenz writing in The Atlantic

I Want Your Life

We all know what we see on Facebook or Instagram isn’t “real,” but that doesn’t mean we don’t judge ourselves against it. I find that millennials are far less jealous of objects or belongings on social media than the holistic experiences represented there, the sort of thing that prompts people to comment, I want your life. That enviable mix of leisure and travel, the accumulation of pets and children, the landscapes inhabited and the food consumed seems not just desirable, but balanced, satisfied, and unafflicted by burnout.

Posting on social media, after all, is a means of narrativizing our own lives: What we’re telling ourselves our lives are like. And when we don’t feel the satisfaction that we’ve been told we should receive from a good job that’s “fulfilling,” balanced with a personal life that’s equally so, the best way to convince yourself you’re feeling it is to illustrate it for others.

“Branding” is a fitting word for this work, as it underlines what the millennial self becomes: a product. And as in childhood, the work of optimizing that brand blurs whatever boundaries remained between work and play. There is no “off the clock” when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations. 

Anne Helen Petersen writing in BuzzFeed News

Information overload is nothing new

The ever-expanding array of digital material can leave you feeling overwhelmed, constantly interrupted, unable to concentrate or worried that you are missing out or falling behind. No wonder some people are quitting social media, observing “digital sabbaths” when they unplug from the internet for a day, or buying old-fashioned mobile phones in an effort to avoid being swamped.

This phenomenon may seem quintessentially modern, but it dates back centuries, as Ann Blair of Harvard University observes in “Too Much to Know”, a history of information overload. Half a millennium ago, the printing press was to blame. “Is there anywhere on Earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” moaned Erasmus in 1525. New titles were appearing in such abundance, thousands every year. How could anyone figure out which ones were worth reading? Overwhelmed scholars across Europe worried that good ideas were being lost amid the deluge.

Figuring out book reviews, indexes and the rest took several centuries, so we shouldn’t expect an immediate solution. In the meantime we must endure information overload: the feeling that arises in the space of time between a sudden increase in the flow of information and the development of the tools to enable us to cope with it.

Tom Standage writing in 1843 magazine 

In search of the digital facelift

Unsurprisingly, a large body of research shows that viewing idealised or retouched images adds to the dissatisfaction that many people already feel towards their body. Research by Kristen Harrison, a media psychologist at the University of Michigan, shows that even disclosing that celebrity and advertising images are retouched makes many of us feel worse about ourselves. Becoming more aware of what others edit may heighten our awareness of our own supposed flaws. That may encourage us to spend longer using digital tools to repair them. And once you start it’s hard to stop. I felt better about posting my first FaceTuned photo than I would have if I hadn’t edited it. And since we’re more inclined to post images of ourselves that we like, says Harrison, “it’s self-sustaining because you want to do it again and again and again.” Beauty is attainable for all. Just don’t expect it to be more than a pixel deep. 

Amy Odell writing in 1843 magazine 

The Influencers

The internet now means influence can come from anyone, anywhere; it can be visible or invisible, paid for by any power, approaching you any of myriad ways. Influence used to be understood as a top-down phenomenon, with governments, advertisers, donors or other powerful figures holding sway over the masses. These days we understand that the most powerful influences aren’t the distant ones but the most immediate and social — so the powerful tend to exert their influence by pretending to be ordinary people.

Marketers, for instance, work harder and harder to obscure the distinction between ads and real life. The last decade featured the rise of the professional “influencer” — someone paid to use their personal magnetism to promote specific agendas online. Instead of the top-down influence of a commercial or a billboard, these ads are embedded, shared by someone who seems, on some aspirational level, like a peer. The companies paying teenagers to hawk diet tea on Instagram are using the same tactics the Chinese government did when it recruited commenters to post hundreds of millions of pro-Communist Party messages online.

We like to think of our characters as fixed: We have our beliefs and our morals, religions and parties, states and countries, friends and enemies. We are inevitably ourselves — inescapably ourselves. We should be able to resist this kind of manipulation. But a steady stream of social-science studies suggests otherwise, demonstrating again and again how easily social pressures can affect the things we say, believe, do, think, eat. Our anxiety over influence goes back to the same fear Thomas Aquinas had, the same doubt families of alcoholics or cult members have. In the face of powerful influences, how can you locate and hold onto that original, irrefutable spark of self, your free will, your character, even your soul? That’s the fear that the idea of influence lays bare: that you can’t. Or that it might never have existed in the first place.

Annalisa Quinn writing in the New York Times

The False Loops of Social Media

“We crave some sense of closure, some sense of being done,” says Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor and author of The Attention Merchants. “Much of social media tries to prevent you from ever having that feeling.”

Social media sites, in particular, are designed to create what he calls “false loops,” where you never reach the end of what you can do on the platform. He thinks that goes against our way of making sense of the world: Humans have a natural predilection toward creating experiences and narratives that start and end, like the social ritual of eating dinner with a friend, or attending a concert, or even reading an article. But social media tends to disrupt these things–unlike a well-planned story or meal, Wu compares experiencing social media to a buffet, where nothing really goes together. Coincidentally, you also end up stuffing yourself and feeling ill.

“Our brains like to close things out,” Wu says. “I think that a lot of design now is trying to turn all of us into obsessive-compulsives by making it so the loops are never closed.” Film and TV offer a compelling parallel. “How do you feel after going to see a really great movie, as opposed to channel surfing for three hours?” he says. “It’s a complete difference. One has a beginning, middle, and an end, versus you saw half of 10 shows and kind of got into something that didn’t develop all the way through.”

Katharine Schwab writing in Fast Company

JOMO: The joy of missing out

One of the joys of aging (I’m 64) is to recognize that what used to be important no longer is. There’s no obsession now with social media, no need to follow fleeting trends; the latest movie or fashion style or restaurant or celebrity is unimportant. There’s a sense of peace that comes with pulling back from the zeitgeist and spending the day reading a library book, taking a walk, and preparing a meal. JOMO is real, and its benefits can be achieved at any age if the desire is strong enough.

Comment made by NYCtoMalibu on the New York Times article, “How to Make This the Summer of Missing Out

I can prove you are no smarter than a pigeon

In the 1950s, Skinner began putting the birds in a box and training them to peck on a piece of plastic whenever they wanted food. Then the Harvard psychology researcher rigged the system so that not every peck would yield a tasty treat. It became random — a reward every three pecks, then five pecks, then two pecks. 

The pigeons went crazy and began pecking compulsively for hours on end.

Fast forward six decades. We have become the pigeons pecking at our iPhones, scrolling through news feeds, swiping left/right on Tinder for hours, the uncertainty of what we might find keeping us obsessed by design.

In the modern economy of tablets and apps, our attention has become the most valuable commodity. Tech companies have armies of behavioral researchers whose sole job is to apply principles like Skinner’s variable rewards to grab and hold our focus as often and long as possible.

Market research shows the average user touches their cellphone 2,617 times a day.

William Wan in the Washington Post 

Sharing photos may subtly change how we remember

When we’re hunting for the perfect Instagram shot, we’re not listening, we’re not smelling, we’re not always paying attention to the beautiful, complex minutiae that make up the moment. 

Powerful experiences in the real world are immersive and often engage all the senses. On your last vacation, can you remember what the wind felt like on your back? Do you remember what was going on internally: Were you thrilled, excited, or scared? When you look back on the Instagram photos from the trip, will you remember what a dinner tasted like, or just that it was pretty? 

Brian Resnick writing in Vox

The real way to build a social network

Picture the consummate networker: a high-energy fast talker who collects as many business cards as he can and attends mixers sporting slicked-back hair. Or the overambitious college kid who frantically e-mails alumni, schmoozes with the board of trustees, and adds anyone he's ever met as an online friend. Such people are drunk on networking Kool-Aid—and are looking at a potentially nasty hangover.

Luckily, building your network doesn't have to be like that. Old-school networkers are transactional. They pursue relationships thinking solely about what other people can do for them. Relationship builders, on the other hand, try to help others first. They don't keep score. And they prioritize high-quality relationships over a large number of connections.

Reid Hoffman, The Start-Up of You

The Cult of Convenience

Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook: It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same. Its format and conventions strip us of all but the most superficial expressions of individuality, such as which particular photo of a beach or mountain range we select as our background image.

I do not want to deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways, giving us many choices (of restaurants, taxi services, open-source encyclopedias) where we used to have only a few or none. But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?

Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.

Tim Wu writing in The New York Times

The Digital Deluge

Distractions clearly affect performance on the job. In a recent essay, Dan Nixon of the Bank of England pointed to a mass of compelling evidence that they could also be eating into productivity growth. Depending on the study you pick, smartphone-users touch their device somewhere between twice a minute to once every seven minutes. Conducting tasks while receiving e-mails and phone calls reduces a worker’s IQ by about ten points relative to working in uninterrupted quiet. That is equivalent to losing a night’s sleep, and twice as debilitating as using marijuana. By one estimate, it takes nearly half an hour to recover focus fully for the task at hand after an interruption. What’s more, Mr Nixon notes, constant interruptions accustom workers to distraction, teaching them, in effect, to lose focus and seek diversions.

The Economist

We prefer the Apps

The family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in writer Sherry Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

No wonder we prefer the apps. An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us. Rejection still stings — but less when a new virtual match beckons on the horizon.

Andrew Sullivan writing in New York Magazine

We prefer the Apps

The family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in writer Sherry Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

No wonder we prefer the apps. An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us. Rejection still stings — but less when a new virtual match beckons on the horizon.

Andrew Sullivan writing in New York Magazine

Our private online worlds

When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.

Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.

Andrew Sullivan writing in New York Magazine

It takes a Villiage

Of all the new experiences parenthood has brought into my life, I was least prepared for the public rebukes. I was standing at a bus stop recently after a long workday with my 2-year-old, worried that we would be caught in an imminent downpour. As I searched my phone for the status of the next bus, a car sped by. “Watch your kid!” the driver yelled unkindly. An immediate panic seized me, but my toddler, who had been holding my hand until a few moments earlier, was perfectly safe, intently examining the wall of a coffee shop not two feet away. The driver assumed he’d seen a neglectful mom absorbed in her phone, too busy scrolling through her Facebook feed to watch a wandering child. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true; the reproach still stung.

Passing public judgment on a stranger’s parenting has become a national sport. Whole corners of the internet are dedicated to shaming mothers who decline to breast-feed, let their kids cry it out, or dare to sit the little one in front of the TV. Practices that were commonplace 30 years ago, such as allowing a child to walk alone to the playground or sit solo in the car for a few minutes during an errand run, now can lead to calls to the police and moms in handcuffs (see Last Word). This parenting paranoia makes little sense: Statistics prove it’s never been safer to raise a child in the U.S., though we act as if the opposite were true. Raising a child used to take a village of neighbors helping you. Now it takes a village telling you why you’re doing it all wrong.

Carolyn O’Hara, The Week Magazine

why Facebook survived

While Facebook was just getting on its feet in 2004, a similar social network called Campus Network (or CU Community) was ahead and more advanced. Slate explains why only one survived.

Why did Facebook succeed where Campus Network failed? The simplest explanation is, well, its simplicity. Yes, Campus Network had advanced features that Facebook was missing. While Campus Network blitzed first-time users right away, Facebook updated its features incrementally. Facebook respected the Web's learning curve.

Campus Network did too much too soon. Neither site, of course, can claim to be the first social network—Friendster and MySpace already had large followings in 2003. But both Facebook and Campus Network had the crucial insight that overlaying a virtual community on top of an existing community—a college campus—would cement users' trust and loyalty. Campus Network figured it out first. Facebook just executed it better.

While people want to make their own choices, research shows too many options creates problems. We become overwhelmed. There is no substitute for simplicity and clarity. Whether on purpose or by accident, Facebook was built from the perspective of looking at what users would do with the site rather than building to show off what its creators could do. One approach shows respect for the audience.

Stephen Goforth

Social Media’s Outrage Mob

So what is it about social media that transforms ordinary internet users into pitchfork-wielding villagers? Futurologist David Brin notes that feelings of righteous indignation can give people a drug-like high. “You go into the bathroom during one of these [indignant] snits,” he says, “and you look in the mirror and you have to admit, this feels great! ‘I am so much smarter and better than my enemies!’” Everyone can now get an instant, ego-boosting high by opening their computer or smartphone and joining in the online shaming of a perceived offender. But they haven’t made the world any better. All they’ve done is made a stranger’s life a little worse.

Theunis Bates writing in The Week Magazine

What Google searches Teach us

You may not be a data scientist. You may not know how to code in R or calculate a confidence interval. But you can still take advantage of big data and digital truth serum to put an end to envy — or at least take some of the bite out of it.

Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always …” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writing in the New York Times

Tech created a global village — and put us at each other’s throats

As we get additional information about others, we place greater stress on the ways those people differ from us than on the ways they resemble us, and this inclination to emphasize dissimilarities over similarities strengthens as the amount of information accumulates. On average, we like strangers best when we know the least about them.

The effect intensifies in the virtual world, where everyone is in everyone else’s business. Social networks like Facebook and messaging apps like Snapchat encourage constant self-disclosure. Because status is measured quantitatively online, in numbers of followers, friends, and likes, people are rewarded for broadcasting endless details about their lives and thoughts through messages and photographs. To shut up, even briefly, is to disappear. One study found that people share four times as much information about themselves when they converse through computers as when they talk in person.

Progress toward a more amicable world will require not technological magic but concrete, painstaking, and altogether human measures: negotiation and compromise, a renewed emphasis on civics and reasoned debate, a citizenry able to appreciate contrary perspectives. At a personal level, we may need less self-expression and more self-examination.

Technology is an amplifier. It magnifies our best traits, and it magnifies our worst.

Nicholas Carr writing in the Boston Globe