Why I don’t use social media

Why don’t I use social media? Its problems outweigh its benefits. This post explains (what I think are):

  • the most significant benefits of social media for most users
  • the most significant problems with social media for most users
  • the actions you need to take to balance the benefits vs. problems.

Benefits of social media

Let’s see some of the benefits of social media:

  1. Personal interconnectedness: Social media supports rapid communication with people regardless of where they are located in the world – this means you can see how your friends are going now, track life changes, chat with them about anything and everything, and organise and promote events quickly.
  2. Sharing ideas: Social media can support useful groups, provide exposure to ideas that otherwise you wouldn’t have encountered (sometimes), and provide a way to test and explore new ideas.
  3. Broader awareness: Social media provides a way to stay up-to-date with world and local news, humanitarian issues, and situations in governments and corporations.
  4. Business uses: Social media can also be used by organisations for various purposes, like marketing, product research, customer service, public relations, talent recruitment, etc.

Problems with social media

Tom living in the wrong century

Given these benefits, why leave social media?

  1. View of reality: Social media algorithms create a distorted vision of the world skewed towards extremes (e.g., perfection, horror, outrage, etc.). Unusual, bizarre, or exceptional content tends to receive more social interest. This means you are shown a picture of reality in which everyone is starting a new job, enjoying a relationship (or breaking off a relationship), or looking their best at a party. This view does not reflect what most of life, for most people, is really like.
  2. Realistic impact assessment: Social media platforms reinforce a distorted sense of what matters, where value is, and the extent to which you are making a real difference. You can feel very busy without making much difference at all (see, e.g., Peter Drucker’s excellent book The Effective Executive). This leads to simplistic pseudo-solutions to complex social problems, group-think, and reactionism (jumping on the latest bandwagon). Without asking whether your investment of time and mental energy is worth it, you risk losing a lot of time in deep personal ineffectiveness.
  3. Meaningful concentration: Social media platforms are distracting. They reduce your ability to concentrate on the tasks that matter most. When you face difficult problems requiring deep concentration or relentless action, it’s tempting to turn to social media. This is because negative emotional triggers (e.g., boredom, stress, etc.) are more habit-forming than positive emotions. As a result, it becomes harder to focus on what actually matters.
  4. Quality of social interaction: Social media often interferes with social interactions, sometimes trivially (e.g., someone in the middle of a serious conversation with you checks their phone immediately on receiving a notification) and often more seriously. To spend high-quality time with other people, you need to be present – your thoughts and emotions and attention all need to be truly engaged in the present moment. Because social media makes this harder, it reduces the quality (not necessarily quantity) of your time with other people.
  5. Peer pressure: There are many issues around peer pressure and bullying which are particularly, although not exclusively, prevalent among social media users who are high-school students.
  6. Privacy and security: These platforms also create a host of privacy and security issues. What can your peers, current or future employers, current or future opponents, etc. find? What may social media companies do in the future with content you put on their platforms (e.g., sharing it with third parties for other purposes than you originally intended)?
  7. Physical health: Social media can lead to issues like poor exercise habits and sleep interruption/deprivation. Decreased physical health also negatively affects mental health, social relationships, ability to work, and so on.
  8. Mental health: Social media platforms are engineered for addictiveness. They are designed to develop and reinforce habit loops (trigger → action → variable reward → investment → trigger …). The strongest emotional triggers are negative emotions, which means that, if you feel depressed, anxious, or stressed, you’re more likely to use social media as a way to relieve the immediate symptoms. A distorted view of reality (as per the first point) also contributes to this problem: it’s easy to feel your current situation is very abnormal because it doesn’t align with what algorithms present most frequently, when the opposite may very well be true. So social media can harm your mental health.

Balancing benefits vs. problems

Cal Newport argues in various places, “Before adopting a technology that can make a regular claim on your attention, insist that its benefits unambiguously outweigh its negatives.” In many cases, he suggests, this means not adopting social media tools, or leaving them if you have started using them in the past. So:

  • Deliberate choices: Weigh up the benefits and downsides of the social media platforms you currently use. We are biased towards maintaining the status quo, so switch your perspective – make leaving social media your default option, and then weigh up the factors both pro and con.
  • Diagnostic questions: Is this (platform, habit, etc.) actually making me happier, or not? Is it genuinely contributing to the lives of other people, or not? How can I use the time I am spending on social media more effectively to help other people? Am I controlling where I invest my time, or not? Will the/my world end if I leave social media, or not?
  • Better replacements: Replace the time you spend on social media with other habits – e.g., in-person meetings with friends, exercising, going for a walk, reading a book, working on a personal project, thinking systematically through a difficult problem, etc. It’s very hard to overturn negative habits without replacing them with more constructive ones.
  • Set boundaries: Take time away from social media platforms regularly – e.g., in mornings or late evenings; or for set periods of a few hours; or with friends; or in particular locations, or on weekends, or for a few months.
  • Leave social media: Just do it – why not? In light of the points above, there is a very strong case for leaving social media entirely.

DNA animations (WEHI)

Visualising molecular biology is important because visualisations can show the dynamic nature of biological systems in ways that traditional textbooks cannot.

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) has produced some excellent visualisations. (WEHI is based in Melbourne, my home city, as it happens.)

For instance, see this clip, shown below, featuring various animations of DNA and processes associated with DNA (e.g., DNA replication at 2:28):

To explore further, see Drew Berry’s TED talk, “Animations of unseeable biology,” where he discusses some of these visualisations. Also, WEHI’s Art of Science 2018 exhibition is just a few weeks away (10–19 August 2018, 10 am – 6 pm, Federation Square, Melbourne).

5 helpful resources to learn data science

Here are some helpful resources to learn data science:

  • 80,000 Hours is a website that explains evidence-based ways to have a positive impact on the world through your working life. The site features an excellent high-level career review for data science, including some reasons why working as a data scientist in industry may provide some of the satisfaction of academia without many of the negative aspects.
  • Garrett Grolemund and Hadley Wickham’s R for Data Science is available online for free, and provides a very clear and systematic introduction that shows how to think and program like a data scientist by getting data into the right form, modelling and visualising it to derive insights, and communicating the results. As the title suggests, Grolemund and Wickham introduce data science using the programming language R; it’s worth learning at least the basics of Python, the main competitor in this space, as well.
  • Rob Hyndman and George Athanasopoulos’ Forecasting: Principles and Practice, available online for free, is an excellent introduction to forecasting (a specific area of statistics and data science that I am currently working in). The book is highly readable and comes with clear explanations of technical problems.
  • Kaggle competitions past and current – in particular, the “kernels,” where people outline the approaches they use to work on challenges in the competitions – show the cutting-edge methods used by real people to solve actual data science problems.
  • McKinsey’s Analytics Insights show different ways that artificial intelligence intersects with the real business needs of top companies around the world. This matters because one of the key responsibilities of a data scientist is to think about the business impact when determining which results could be significant or which results truly matter. (See also the executive’s guide to AI from McKinsey for a helpful high-level overview of supervised, unsupervised, and reinforcement learning, including explanations of what these approaches involve and the key algorithms for each of these methods in machine learning.)