The major social media services are often described as fundamental platforms of the internet age. The companies that control these services use this argument to justify their astronomical valuations, and their critics use it to validate the need for regulatory intervention.
As longtime readers know, I’m often skeptical of this digital deification.
Services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram aren’t really platforms: instead of providing core functionalities on which others can build a diversity of useful applications (the standard definition of a platform), they instead offer closed ecosystems in which they carefully monitor and control user behavior.
These services are also far from fundamental. Nothing about web teleology, for example, implies that Twitter’s arcane mix of short-message formats, ampersands, and retweet ratios is an unavoidable technological advance. If Jack Dorsey shut down his Frankenstein’s monster tomorrow, few would wake up a year from now really missing what it added to the online universe.
Recently, however, I’ve been grappling with the idea that there’s one immensely powerful social service about which my skepticism doesn’t seem to neatly apply. I’m talking about YouTube.
One of the surprising lessons I learned working on Digital Minimalism is that when it comes to reforming your relationship with your devices, successful outcomes are less about deciding to stop harmful digital behaviors than they are about deciding to start committing to meaningful analog alternatives.
If you simply resolve to quit social media, and end up sitting on your coach, bored, white knuckling the urge to check Twitter, you’re unlikely to experience lasting change.
On the other hand, if you fill your life with hard but satisfying analog alternatives — activities that resonate with our primal urges to connect, to move, to reflect, to be surrounded by nature, to manipulate elements of the physical world with out hands — you’ll find the appeal of animated GIFs and ASCII snark to be greatly diminished.
With this in mind, I’m introducing the Analog January Challenge. It’s a collection of five commitments that last one month. They’re designed to provide you a crash course introduction to the types of satisfying analog activities that will reduce the anxious attraction of your screens.
(Note: you don’t have to begin exactly on January 1st; just block off four weeks starting on whatever day in the month you initiate the challenge.)
Here are the five commitments that make up the Analog January Challenge:
A few days ago, I took my two older boys to a small stage production of A Christmas Carol. Afterwards, me being me, I decided to read up on Charles Dickens and the backstory of his famed novella. In doing so, I came across a neat deep work-themed holiday nugget (the best type of nugget).
According to biographer Claire Tomalin, Dickens crafted much of the tale in his head while engaged in nighttime walks that covered 15 to 20 miles. As a result of this ambulatory cogitation, the entire story took only six weeks to complete in the late fall of 1843.
I like this anecdote: it provides a reminder of what’s possible when you’re able to devote hour after hour of deep thinking on one focused target.
My friend Eric Barker recently pointed my attention to an intriguing paper published earlier this fall in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It presented a careful meta-analysis of 124 studies looking at the connections between digital media and well-being.
There’s been a lot of academic ink spilled on this subject recently. As I wrote in Digital Minimalism, correlational behavioral studies are exceedingly tricky — you can’t expect slam dunk consistency, but must instead look for general trends in the literature pointing toward some underlying signal in the noise.
Which is all to say, you shouldn’t don’t take any one study too seriously. Even with these caveats, however, I did find this one interesting, as it featured some heavyweight authors, and was clearly written to offer some authority on where the noisy literature seems to be trending at the moment.
The analysis was complicated and contained multiple noteworthy findings, but there was one result in particular I wanted to highlight:
Toward the end of class today, one of my students asked me what advice inspired by my books I’d give them as they headed into the university’s final exam period.
I thought about it for a second before recommending a simple hack that I’ve been experimenting with recently and finding useful:
Use your smartphone only for the following activities: calls, text messages, maps, and audio (songs/podcasts/books).
I suggested that my students try this for one week while studying for their exams. I further suggested that they actually record on a calendar or in a journal whether or not they succeeded in following the rule 100% for the day. One slip to check social media, or glance at email, or look up a website, and they don’t get to mark the day as a success.
In Digital Minimalism, I argued that our relationship with social media was transformed when the major platforms updated their designs to make these services less about checking on other peoples’ status, and more about checking incoming “social approval indicators,” which arrive in the form of likes, retweets, shares, hearts, streaks and tags.
This key shift, which took place between 2009 and 2012, is largely responsible for retraining us to think about social media as something to check all the time. Our current moment, in which we both accept and lament the status of our phones as constant companions, was a direct consequence of these tweaks to social media technology.
Not long ago, an Australian media professor named Robert Hassan boarded the CGM CMA Rossini, a container ship, at a dock in Melbourne. He had arranged to stay on the ship for its five week passage to Singapore. He brought a handful of books, but no phone, no computer, no digital media at all. The crew didn’t speak English either, so it would largely just be Hassan alone with his own thoughts on the sea.
This solitude was, of course, the point. He was conducting an experiment on himself as part of the research for his book, Uncontained, published by an Australian university press last June. What he discovered was poignant.
After reading through his small book supply too quickly, he was faced with endless hours with nothing concrete to do, and soon found his relationship with the world around him began to change.
As Rubin notes, these findings run counter to the core belief held in media and political circles that these services play a critical role in our democracy. She describes the fact that campaigns and reporters take Twitter so seriously as “bonkers.”
I noticed something similar during my book tour for Digital Minimalism. Most of the readers I met didn’t use social media for political reasons and wouldn’t describe this technology as playing an important role in their civic life. Accordingly, most of these readers didn’t care much about what content was spreading on social media, or even which data were used to target this information.
What they did care about was how much time they were spending staring at their phones. There was a widespread sense that these services had become so distracting that they were starting to take time away from activities that were clearly more important, diminishing the quality of their lives.
There exists, in other words, a gap between media/political types and normal users when it comes to understanding the role of social media in political life. The former see this technology as being inextricably intertwined in the fabric of our democracy, while the latter see it more as a distraction run amok.
I used to just find this gap curious. I’ve come to believe that it’s actually quite serious.
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