What happens when you’re out of content to scroll through and react to on the internet? What’s there to keep you engaged whether the content makes you angry, sad, happy or all of the above at once? What can a company like Facebook, Google or Twitter do to keep their hooks in so you keep coming back like a zombie begging for more? A new feature? An algorithm tweak?
Nope. It all comes back to you. You’re the one who’s going to keep you engaged when there isn’t enough out there to rope you back in. Not only are these companies making us chase our own tails, and by design I might add, it might be doing actual damage to our psyche. That’s what has happened to mine, and it took me quite a while to realize it.
My relationship with the internet started around the age of 12. I’m 42, so that’s 30 years of “learning.” I’m both proud and terrified of that. I’ve seen every major platform evolve and have always been interested in the social side of things — even on bulletin board systems when maybe there would be two available phone lines for people to connect to. I was the weirdo waiting for someone else to log on so that I could pop a “HI HOW ARE YOU WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” on them.
And yes, I’m fully aware that I was just as annoying on that iteration of the internet.
The desire and need to connect has always been there for me, and computers have made it increasingly easier. Millions of people helped me cope with a cancer diagnosis in 2009, and for me to shift and say the internet can be bad for you would be about the biggest Boomer thing I could ever do.
But here I am doing just that: The internet can be bad for you and you’re more of a willing participant than you think. Is it because of the trolls and terrible people out there who are hiding behind computer screens to tear you down, make fun of how you look, speak horrifically on your sexual preferences or color of your skin?
The deep dark secret, though, is that your No. 1 enemy on the internet might be you. It is most certainly the case for me and some folks I’ve talked to over the past two years during the weirdest simultaneous slowdown and speed up in tech that I can remember in the last 30 years. The tech itself isn’t all that evolved, but the need and want to connect with others is.
But that’s not the really traumatizing part.
Recently, I deactivated my Facebook account. I don’t say that as some kind of proud moment or virtue signal to point to how bad or harmful the products are or how terribly shitty the leadership is … even though I feel like both of those things are true. The reason I deactivated my Facebook account was me.
Every single day I was terrorizing … myself.
How? One way was by looking at a lovely Facebook feature called “Memories.”
The intention of that feature is to remind you of all the wonderful moments you’ve had during your life and allows you to ping a pal and say “Hey, remember when we got assface shit-hammered and threw eggs at a cop on a horse?” and you both laugh and then swap photos of your plant or baby, whichever one you’re currently blessed enough to have at that moment.
The reality of that feature is quite different.
We’re impressionable beings. We’re affected by our surroundings, some of us more than others. I’m willing to admit that what some people call “sensitive” is somewhat of a superpower of mine. I’m empathetic. Overly empathetic. I care about others almost to my own detriment sometimes.
Which made it really hard to realize that I was, in essence, destroying myself.
An extreme example of this is that in Spring 2009 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. It was the scariest thing to ever happen to me. I felt alone. I felt nervous. I felt like I was going to die. I felt like I wanted to kill myself before the cancer could. I used Twitter to quell some of that by sharing my story and involving others. We raised a ton of money. It had a selfish origin though, because what it did for me was take the focus off of me.
Ever since that moment in 2009 I’ve somehow and someway been reliving what my former self was up to online and reliving my experience with cancer. Daily, weekly and yearly.
Fast forward to 2018 and I opened Facebook on my desktop and was presented with a very enticing premise … the ability to “rewind” and see what my former self was up to in years past.
It was cool until it wasn’t.
Now every year I’m officially and precisely presented with exactly how I felt at my worst moment. And instead of reflecting in a positive way about how far I’ve come, I’m sucked right back into how it felt in the moment.
It took me until 2022 to fully realize just how much damage I was doing to myself on an almost daily basis. Like a lot of folks, opening Facebook was a part of my (multiple times) daily routine. I’ve refused to look at Apple Screen Time because I don’t want to know exactly how many times I’ve opened Facebook in a day. My guess is 50-75 times. And how much of that activity was rewarding or productive? Probably less than 10%.
Facebook opened to the public (outside of college students) in 2006. So Meta/Facebook has 16 years’ worth of my own data and experiences to reengage me with. And since I’m an oversharer, it’s a fucking lot for me. Using my own memories to pump up engagement is a smart growth hack, but it was also completely melting my brain.
And while I relived my worst moments over and over, there was more. I was also re-traumatizing myself with everything from breakups, losing my dog and medical issues to my father passing away and the Sixers losing by 30 in 2013. Naturally for me, and a lot of others I suspect, my brain responded more to the bad than the good. You think my day was made when I saw a Facebook post in 2016 about a tasty ice cream I had? Not really. Or not nearly enough to counteract the trauma I relived in a very unhealthy and uncontrolled way.
And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter doesn’t have an official feature for memories, but the same thing happens. Google Photos? Those, too.
The last video I have of my dog Apollo, who I had for 10 years, is not a “highlight” at all. Quite the opposite. Do I feel like Google is out to get me? No. Do I feel like they should know the difference between good and bad? Of course. But how? That’s what we need to figure out.
It’s not just your own content that gets you; it’s the actions you take on others’. If you like (or heart, prayer hands, gasp, whatever … ) a post about someone passing away, whether it’s someone you know or someone you saw on the big screen, you’ll be reminded about it until the end of forever. Again, by design.
The problem is, algorithms don’t have empathy. They just show you more of the shit you interact with, good, bad or indifferent.
The re-sharing leads to more reliving than reflection, and it’s not always healthy.
And before you show me screenshots of the extremely not obvious settings to turn these types of things off, just a reminder that I didn’t even know this was harmful until I recently realized how much damage had been done over the years.
Where we are
Who is building what we’re using? For me, it used to be friends and acquaintances. Since I covered the companies for a living and lived in the city where a lot of it was built and worked on (San Francisco/Bay Area) I gave a lot of latitude to these products. I’m tough on them but also cut them some slack since they’re run by human beings.
But as I pulled away from the Bay Area by proximity and also as my peers left and moved on to greener pastures, it became very clear that these companies weren’t trying to change the world at all even if some of their byproducts were positive.
Starting something is much easier than keeping something going, at least when it comes to keeping things safe to use. I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg had a few good intentions when starting Facebook. Jack Dorsey with Twitter, too. But both companies are businesses. Businesses require growth. Growth brings in more money.
Through that lens, it’s easy to draw the assumption that humanity would bankrupt them.
Brands, marketers and advertisers need the tidal wave of content coming to generate engagement and clicks, otherwise the whole model breaks down. Facebook’s motto used to be “Move fast and break things” whereas now it’s more than likely “If it ain’t broke for us, who cares if it’s broke for our users.”
The feedback loop (involving your own stuff and stuff from others) is addictive. As with anything, it can be positive. It can also be destructive. I have trusted my mental health with people who also may have mental health issues (which is fine) at best and, at worst, don’t give a flying fuck about how anyone feels. I don’t need to link to all of the instances where people have literally died because of decisions and mistakes made by the companies running products that millions open 50-75 times a day.
It doesn’t feel good that my crappy experiences are helping companies become stronger, bigger and better picks for people hoping to make a lucky buck in the stock market. I chose this, though. Nobody made me sign up for Facebook or Twitter, even though it’s quite ingrained in society now and for the industry I’m in. I’d likely be labeled a luddite or something if I denounced and withdrew from these platforms fully. Me leaving isn’t a big deal, but droves of folks would be bad for business.
I know for a fact that there are small groups inside of big companies that think about a wide spectrum of user experiences, but more often than not the bad or uncomfortable experiences don’t get a lot of attention, because that would distract from the real goal: making more money.
When I covered Zynga I asked those who worked there if they felt bad about the carefully orchestrated and manipulative loops their games sent people through. The answers were usually a combination of “the good outweighs the bad” or “bad outcomes are an edge case.” They weren’t. They knew they weren’t. But justification is a hell of a drug.
In the case of Memories, Facebook in essence, handed me a double-edged sword that sharpens itself over time without warning.
How will things get better? The small groups working on user experiences should be bigger. Involve more people. Should they think about different sorts of people and should they drive real change within a company even if it costs the company money at first. Do you want more users? Or do you want slightly less, but happier and safer, users? I shouldn’t have to ask this question.
Maybe Google Photos could prompt me about my feelings when it comes to a certain photo or video as part of the upload flow. I could choose to participate or skip it. But I can hear a product manager shouting “who wants all that friction?” as we speak. Bummer.
Maybe the answer is to never share any sad shit ever on the internet; then you’ll never have to see it again. Not very true to reality, though. At least for our generation and the ones following ours.
Do we need some government involvement? Sure. Should the argument for “freedom” and fear of overreaching senators stall out a drive to make things better for human beings? No. Even the tobacco industry needed oversight, so why not social media?
Am I altruistic? Yes. Do I think Facebook should be shut down? No. But I do think that there should be more of an infusion of people who actually care about their fellow human beings at the wheel. What I’m experiencing isn’t “just an edge case,” it’s a side effect with real consequences that don’t get enough thought or follow-through.
At the end of the day, I just don’t want to be reminded about making this very point in this very post 10 years from now just for there to be no change.
So the next time you find yourself closing your device in a super bad mood, ask what or who put you in that mood. It was most likely you.