Taking advantage of manipulative social media mechanisms as a user

Social media is built upon powerful manipulative algorithms that can influence behavior of its users. However, it is also a very powerful tool that can greatly aid you in education, building your business, developing your career and exerting your influence in other ways.

Even though most of the mechanisms that social media was built upon have been deliberately designed to be as addictive as possible, it is exactly the same mechanisms that, if used correctly, can be extremely useful.

Of course, these mechanisms are not only used by social media. These days, news websites and search engines rely on pretty much the same algorithms. Therefore, from now on, when I say “social media”, I mean those other types of services too.

I have previously written on how social media can kill your dreams if you aren’t careful enough with it. I have briefly explained what makes the social media addictive. To prevent yourself from getting addicted, I have proposed a list of countermeasures that I found to work really well for me:

  • Switch off as many notifications as possible
  • Unfollow everyone who regularly posts triggering content
  • Have a dedicated time window for social media usage
  • When you are about to visit social media, consciously ask yourself why you need it
  • Deliberately seek useful content
  • Have days of social media detox

In addition to this, you may want to watch The Social Dilemma. It’s a documentary made by people who have invented many of the social media features. This film dwells deeper into the science of what makes these features addictive. It also explains how social media is having a real impact in the society.

The countermeasures that the makers of this documentary have proposed are the following:

  • Turn off notifications or reduce the number of notifications you receive
  • Uninstall social media and news apps that are wasting time
  • Use a search engine that doesn’t store search history, like Qwant
  • Use browser extensions to block recommendations
  • Fact-check before sharing, liking, or commenting when the information looks surprising
  • Obtain sources of information with different perspectives, including sources one might disagree with
  • Do not give devices to children; no screen time.
  • Never accept recommended video on YouTube, Facebook or anywhere
  • Try to avoid any clickbait material
  • Keep devices out of the bedroom after a certain time
  • Do not allow social media use until children reach high school

They certainly overlap with the points I came up with from my own trial and error. But despite this, I wouldn’t say I necessarily agree with all of them. For example, even though the idea of not giving children access to social media sounds good on the surface, it would be extremely difficult to implement in practice. Imagine your 10 year old constantly nagging at you because he or she is the only one in the class without a smartphone! Guess who, in such a situation, will stand out from the class and be a target for bullies?

I see exposing kids to some social media and educating them on its effects as a much better strategy than taking it away from them completely. Making kids aware of its dangers and teaching them certain self-control strategies will help to prevent them getting addicted to it later in life. In a way, small doses of social media early in life act as inoculation from its addictive qualities. However, removing social media from the children completely creates a forbidden fruit effect. This makes them much more likely to indulge in it whenever they can.

The other pieces of advice from The Social Dilemma that I disagree with are related to blocking recommendations. This is one of the mechanisms that can be extremely useful to you as a user. In a minute, I’ll show you exactly how. But first, let me tell you some caveats.

Who this article isn’t for

The advice here assumes that you already have your internet usage habits under control. The mechanisms that I will be talking about have been designed to be addictive. Therefore, if you are already severely addicted to social media, this article is definitely not for you.

Whether you are addicted to social media or not is easy to determine:

  1. Can you easily stop yourself from using any internet-connected devices for the first hour after you wake up?
  2. Can you limit your social media usage to half an hour a day?
  3. Can you spend an entire weekend without using social media at all?

If you have said “no” to any of these questions, then you may be addicted. This means that what I am about to say will be counterproductive to you. In this case, I wouldn’t recommend to try any of the techniques below. Instead, my recommendation would be to read my previous article first. Practice the countermeasures that were proposed in it. Only come back to this article when you can confidently say “yes” to all the questions above.

I will also have to say that I am neither a qualified psychologist nor a psychiatrists. On the subject of social media addiction, I am simply a layperson. In the past, I had some of its symptoms. Then I did my own research and I now have it under control. Now, I am telling other people the techniques that have worked effectively for me. Therefore every word of my advice should be treated as nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

And I also use the word “addiction” loosely. What I sometimes refer to by this word is merely a bad habit. I don’t use the actual clinical definition.

If this didn’t deter you, let’s begin.

Here are four simple techniques where deliberately relying on the addiction-causing mechanisms may be a very useful thing to do.

1. Using recommendation engines to your advantage

The creators of The Social Dilemma documentary have advised the following in regards to recommendation engines:

  • Use a search engine that doesn’t store search history, like Qwant
  • Use browser extensions to block recommendations
  • Never accept recommended video on YouTube, Facebook or anywhere

But I disagree with this advice. I have encountered many situations where it was a video or article recommended to me that led me to a blog or a channel with very useful content. On many occasions, this content has ended up helping me. Without the recommendation engine, I would have probably never found out that it existed.

Recommendation engines mainly recommend you content that is similar to what you have previously interacted with. So, the more you interact with content of a particular type, the more content of this type you will see in your feed.

The secret here is to vote with your clicks. Before you click on any link that looks exciting, think whether you will want to see more of similar links on your timeline. But do click on any link that looks like it leads to quality information on the subject matters that would be helpful to you. Those may include anything that will help you in education, business, a constructive recreational hobby or your career.

But there are caveats to this. Recommendation engines don’t just recommend you content similar to what you have interacted with. Sometimes they conduct experiments and insert other types of content into your feed that may not be so useful. The algorithms will also try to determine your demographic group. So it will also send you stuff that the members of such group are likely to interact with. Such content will probably not be useful to you at all. For example, excessive interaction with it may put you into an echo chamber.

Therefore, although you should definitely think before clicking on anything recommended to you by an algorithm, you shouldn’t just ignore everything that the algorithms recommend to you either. If the content looks helpful, by all means, open it. By doing it consistently you will be letting the platform know what type of content you want to see more of. And eventually, your recommendation would almost entirely consist of genuinely helpful material. That’s the material you didn’t have to pro-actively search for.

What’s the danger if you suffer from social media addiction

It goes without saying that only clicking on very specific types of content requires self-control. And the ability to control yourself and not to act impulsively will be lacking if you interact with something that you are addicted to.

Therefore, if you have a reason to suspect that you are addicted to social media, you will probably find it hard to resist clicking on the harmful content that keeps you addicted. And you will keep seeing more of such content in your feed. Your addiction cycle will continue.

2. Use incognito mode for any “fun” content

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having fun. It is OK to occasionally watch some stupid or funny videos to temporarily let your hair down. In fact, if you never have fun and recharge, you will eventually burn down. Playtime is a very important part of a healthy and productive life.

However, the danger is that, the more you interact with unproductive content, the more of such content you will be seeing in your recommendations. And when you see a a funny cats video next to machine learning tutorial, it would be hard to choose the latter over the former.

This is why, if you want to watch some fun content, don’t do it while being logged in on the platform. Instead, open another incognito window in your browser and search for such content there.

If you receive a link to some funny video on social media, don’t just click on it. Instead, copy the link into the incognito browser window.

This way, you will still have some fun when you need it while keeping your main feed free of distractions.

What’s the danger if you suffer from social media addiction

There isn’t actually any danger to this approach to those who consider themselves to be addicted to social media. It is a good practice for everyone. If you consume fun content (and you definitely will if you are addicted), you might as well try to consume it in incognito mode.

There is, of course, a danger that, even if you are in an incognito session, you may still spend hours in it. But if you know that you would have spent hours online anyway, it’s still better to choose the lesser of two evils. At least, it will keep your recommendations clean.

The only downside is that this approach requires some effort and discipline, so it may be difficult to stick to it.

3. Switch on notifications on a very small selection of channels producing useful content

Previously, I have explained that it was a good practice to switch off notifications on all social media groups and channels that you have subscribed to, follow or are member of. The notification bell is a feature that has been explicitly designed to trigger a dopamine release. This is why it is one of the main mechanisms that keep people addicted to social media.

But there is an exception to this rule that you may want to apply. There may be small number of people, groups, pages or channels that consistently produce useful high-quality content. Some may also occasionally organize useful events that you want to know about. If majority of the content posted on such a page would be genuinely helpful in the context of your education, hobby, business or career, you may, actually, want to know when someone posts anything there.

If you switch off notifications everywhere, but keep them on a handful of channels, you will be getting a very limited amount of notifications, but many of those that will come through will be pointing at something that is genuinely useful.

What’s the danger if you suffer from social media addiction

If you suspect that you are addicted to social media, then you may click on any notification not because it points at useful content, but because you are impulsively triggered to do so. Therefore, if you don’t have your social media habits under control yet, you should probably switch all notifications off.

4. Occasionally deliberately engaging in arguments on social media

This one will be controversial, but nevertheless, there is still usefulness in it.

Being able to argue your point of view and being assertive without being overtly aggressive are very useful skills in business and career. And, just like it is with any other skill, you need to practice them to become good at them. And social media provides a safe platform to practice these.

As you would probably expect, there are some caveats to it. In order to engage in argument, you should select only those posts or comments that are reasonably well written. You should be careful not to respond to anything that has been deliberately written by trolls or as a joke.

Only respond to those people who have made an effort to back their point of view up with logic or evidence. Likewise, if you want to initiate a discussion with people who have views opposite to yours, start your posts with some reasoning behind your opinion to signal your intention for civil and rational discussion.

Of course, it is inevitable that some trolls will join in. But there is also a benefit in it. If you engage in such discussions on regular basis, you will eventually learn to tell the difference between serious commenters and trolls.

This is an especially important skills if what you do for living actually involves social media. You will inoculate yourself from being affected by trolls. Or, if they still manage to get under your skin, you will be better equipped with knowing which users to block.

What’s the danger if you suffer from social media addiction

This one is, actually, the most dangerous to apply if you think that you have any degree of social media addiction. Any addiction involves impulsivity. Impulsivity is absolutely not what you want when having an argument.

If you are impulsive, you may end up over-reacting and saying something you didn’t intend to. In extreme cases, it may even cost your job or business. Your employer or clients may not see your controversial or rude reply to someone’s triggering comment, but, with the prevalence of cancel culture, someone may deliberately make sure that they do.

Therefore, I would only recommend this master-step to those who already have a fairly high degree of self-control and aren’t impulsive.

Wrapping up

Even though social media, and some other types of internet services, are built upon addictive mechanisms, the same mechanisms can also be very helpful to the end user. But before taking advantage of these, the user needs to be mentally strong enough and already have social media usage under control.

The less impulsive you are, the more benefits of social media you can reap.

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