Social media won’t steal your attention if you don’t let it

The interconnectedness with social media in our daily lives makes it essential to become aware of our habits. The recent documentary The Social Dilemma goes into the issues that arise with social media: depression, isolation, radicalization, a system in which your attention and behavioral changes are the product. The most crucial insight it gives is the broken advertisement model social media is funded by. People and organizations can target and manipulate groups susceptible to specific content and radicalize them, while the content is made to keep your attention as long as possible, no matter how toxic it might be.

Conspiracy theories promoted to anti-vaxxers or politically polarizing content to susceptible voters (see Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 US elections and Brexit). It can lead down a rabbit hole of consuming the same content, getting stuck in an echo chamber of repeating slogans. It is not vital if the content is correct, truthful, or objective, if it can bring you to consume more and change your behavior. Recent notable results are the rise of fake news, the US’s violent protest and election manipulation, and the ad campaigns by Myanmar’s military, which amplified the country’s genocide against its Muslim minority. These issues combined brought the system to a critical point where change was necessary for its survival.

While this documentary, like many others, ends on a pessimistic outlook, it does not mention any progress in improving social media over the past years: The introduction of “fact-checking” for posts, the ban of all election-related ads, the implementation of healthy changes in the UI and settings; from night mode to screen time statistics, bedtime mode for notifications, and website blockers.

Just like any other technology, social media has to mature and overcome its shortcomings. It has to modernize its revenue model and brand ethos towards improving users’ lives and not turning them into braindead zombies. We’ve already seen many sites, including YouTube, introduce a subscription model without ads. Soon others will follow and maybe allow further flexibility.

10€ for a YouTube subscription is way too much for the few hours I spend on it, but I’d happily pay a cent for every video I watch with additionally being able to tip a few more if I enjoyed it. The Brave browser already has such a system set up but is still in its infancy. There are many more ideas we could develop with microtransactions, but I hope you get my point.

Our attention is valuable, and we should treat it as such. The content we consume should be transparent in how it is recommended to us and adjustable by the user. The content should be moderated beyond how much attention it gathers: fact-checking, external sources, objective descriptions, or different opinions of the issues highlighted.

The typical recommendation is to stop using social media or delete your accounts, but there are more options. Social media is here to stay, whether you like it or not. You can shut off to it and delete everything, or you can figure out what aspects of it are essential to you. Maybe you find out that scrolling your feed for two hours a day is unhealthy, but connecting with people around the world isn’t. Focus on the good and do not engage with the bad. Social media won’t steal your attention if you don’t let it.