The Danger of Passive Consumption on Social Media — and How to Break It
Alternate title: endless scrolling is ruining your brain and you need to stop it.
Our phones are ruining us. I don’t know any other way to put it. I look around on planes, on the street, at cafes, and I truly think if an alien landed in Washington, D.C., he or she or whatever binary gender terms they use (or non-binary if we’re being honest pronouns they would use because they are far more advanced than us) would truly think our phones were a literal extensions of our bodies. That, or we were receiving constant, up-to-the-minute instructions on how to live and proceed. Take them away, and we twitch and reach for them reflexively. We feel phantom buzzes. We think about them all the time.
I know that sounds dramatic (and also banal, because duh, everybody has made this observation), but once you truly see it, you can’t unsee it, and you’ll want to take a hammer to your phone and smash it in a ritualistic ceremony and bury the pieces in a dark garden corner somewhere. I say all the time that smartphones are the cigarettes of our generation. We’ll look back in shock decades from now that we let children have them; that we used them on planes; that there was literally no guidance or warning labels on them.
Anyways, hyperbolic ranting over, but I do think there’s a particularly dangerous element to our phones that may be one of the things making us so addicted to them — and therefore making them so dangerous: the fact that they enable, in fact, demand, passive consumption.
Two platforms in particular I think encourage passive consumption, and are therefore particularly dangerous: Twitter and Instagram. (Yes, and Facebook, but Facebook sucks, and I barely use it, so I’m mainly speaking about the apps I use most. But everything I’m about to write applies to Facebook, too.)
I think we all get the concept of passive consumption on social media, but let me give you a few examples. Passive consumption = endless scrolling on Twitter and mindlessly clicking on links until you have so many tabs open you can’t read the article titles and you’ve forgotten why or from where you’ve clicked on each. Passive consumption = rabbit holing on Instagram for an hour before bed until you’ve ended up deep in the Instagram archives of like, a wildflower grower in Alaska who also makes her own kombucha, and you don’t know how you got there. Passive consumption = when you’re bored for a millisecond at work, automatically, reflexively clicking open Twitter.com or picking up your phone and opening Instagram stories without even thinking about the act of doing so.
Basically, passive consumption means you are at the will of a machine, and it’s telling you what to do, what to read, what to look at, what to consume. You’re looking at pretty pictures, you’re reading funny words, but it also may feel like all the meaning has been sucked out of it and you’re sort of sleepwalking through it and don’t know how you got to that place.
Think about passively consuming on Twitter and Instagram (or Facebook) like having a particularly boring but evil boss. You’re going to work, and you sort of have been told you can do your job how you want to, but it’s an illusion. In reality, your boss controls everything that gets put in front of you, and you just click-clack away during the day, all meaning and intention taking out of what you do, see, read, and decide. Also you have to look at a lot of ads for bras.
Sounds awesome. Love to feel meaningless.
People assert that social media is at the core of a lot of unhappiness or mental health issues, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I’m also aware of the benefits that Instagram and Twitter have for people. They can create a sense of community; allow people expression in ways they didn’t have access to before; expose us to underserved voices and writing; and lots of other positive benefits.
So it’s not necessarily that Twitter or Instagram are the root of all evil. It’s that they encourage passive consumption of the content that they host. And it’s up to us to take back control of the way we use them.
Luckily, there are a couple of easy ways to do that. It just takes a bit of effort on your part. And a willingness to sort of burn things down and start from scratch regardless of the social implications. But you can do it.
Interested? Here are my recommendations. There are just a few. It’s simple!
Step #1: Delete-a-palooza: If you have been on Twitter or Instagram for more than six months (and we all have — 10 years, here, oh god), delete everybody you’re following. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there tomorrow. And you don’t have to do this manually. You may have to spend a bit of money, though.
Here are the steps to your own personal delete-a-palooza:
Mass unfollow on Instagram: The best way I found to do this was an app called Cleaner for Instagram. If you upgrade to pro for $2.99, you can mass unfollow everybody on your account. It may take a little bit of time and you may have to do the unfollows in batches, but it works pretty easily, I found.
You may have to cut and paste that command several times as your following page refreshes and accounts keep showing up.
Step #2: Staying at zero: Sit with zero following on both accounts for at least one day. It’s just 24 hours. You can do it. Use the time to explain to all of your friends and business contacts why you’ve unfollowed them. Just say you’re going on a social media cleanse. It’s trendy. They’ll understand. “But Catherine,” you may wail, “I have spent precious years building this follow list and I can’t burn it to the ground.” Yes, yes you can. The accounts you truly care about, you’re not going to forget they exist one day later. And ff you really care about everybody elseyou’re following, then the next step should take care of that…
Step #3: Commit to intentional refollowing. Refollow accounts as you care to, and as you realize you are missing them. Pause before an automatic refollow, though. What does this person’s account add to your day? Do you feel an obligation to follow them or does their hashtag-content truly bring you joy and/or useful information and perspectives? If it’s the latter, then you have my permission to refollow. Lastly…
Step #4: Limit your time on these apps in whatever way you can. Once you have taken the time to build your refollow lists (and hopefully are keeping them under a few hundred on Twitter, and even fewer on Instagram), take time to ponder the following: When do you want to look at Twitter and Instagram? Choose a couple of periods per day. I like to let myself look at those apps right around lunchtime. It’s a pleasant little midday break. But I only get to look at them from noon until 1pm, and no further time at work. And I’m allowed to look at them when I get home, but not after 8pm. These are just the time periods that work for me, and make me feel like I have a little bit of control over when I’m ingesting that information.
If you struggle with self control over when you look at Twitter or Instagram, at least on your desktop, I find the extension Block Site — Website Blocker for Chrome on my laptop really useful (I also find the Kill Newsfeed Chrome Extension for Facebook particularly useful — if you’re struggling with Facebook passive consumption, check that out. It just deletes your entire newsfeed so there’s nothing new to look at when you load Facebook.com).
To be honest, I searched around a lot for phone blockers for Instagram and Twitter, and couldn’t find any (please let me know if they exist). So I’m going to take the radical suggestion of just telling you: delete those apps off your phone. Honestly. You’ll be able to look at them on your laptop or desktop later. You can even watch Instagram stories on your desktop. Take them off your phone for a day and see how it goes. You can do it. I believe in you.
I really believe that with those four truly easy steps (delete everybody; sit with zero; intentionally refollow; block the time you’re allowed on those apps) you may actually be able to enjoy social media like it was 2010 instead of 2018. That is, you’re following people you care about, who bring you joy instead of existential dread and a need for blood pressure medication. You’re on your phone just a couple of times a day, rather than shooting it straight into your eyeballs from the moment you wake up til the moment you go to sleep. You’re enjoying things. You’re consuming items you care about. You’re creating intentional choices and communities on these apps. You’ve taken back control from the machines telling you what to do.
If you try these above steps, I’d love to hear how they go for you. I’ll share stories — successes or struggles, whatever happens — from you all in an upcoming issue of my newsletter. Email me at cathdandrews at gmail.com, or tweet me @candrews. I may not follow you back… but at least you’ll know why.