Here are some initial steps you can take to begin protecting yourself from the harmful effects of predatory algorithms on the internet, by making some simple changes to your social media usage. Unfortunately these effects also creep into your very movements about in the world with your cell phone on you. But this will get you started on your journey of beginning to notice what the effects are, and removing some of the main vectors of harm.
Some of the things this will help you with include:
- better body posture
- less time on a screen and more time for things you care about and nature
- psychological well-being and sovereignty (by sovereignty, I mean the freedom to be in your own rhythm of thoughts, and to act independently from control by incredibly sophisticated psychological manipulation and propaganda techniques)
Log Out on Mobile
Start by logging out of all accounts on your phone, and making your passwords only accessible to you from your computer. Remember to log out if you log in again. If you’d like, you can try with just one social network to start if there is one you most habitually scroll. That puts an extra step between you opening the platform to see the notification numbers and getting sucked into the feeds. This simple step will help you be more conscious of your decision and frequency of opening that tab or app. A good goal imo is to remove your access to all social media on your phone.
If you’re not ready to do this yet, check in with how your body feels after a session of scrolling. You might be ready then. Things to watch for:
- neck tension
- your swipe hand, forearm, or elbow being stiff or sore
- your mid-back on the side you swipe with feeling inflamed or sore
- your chest and shoulders caving inward (this is a posture of fear and protection, and I’m not sure our bodies recognize the difference between needing to actually go into self preservation mode, and simply being in the posture of it from hunching over a tiny screen)
- your eyes feeling tired or overfocussed
It took me a while to thoroughly log out of all apps but I eventually did. This is the process I went through until I logged out of the last sticky network on my phone:
I first logged out of Facebook, both on mobile and desktop. After a few months of that it quickly became apparent to me how drastically my quality of life had increased, and I deleted it. Below is a whole section on Facebook because it’s particularly awful and you should leave it if possible. Next, I made a Twitter account to see what that platform was like. It took about five months for me to start to develop a Twitter habit, but I did, and I found myself lazily scrolling my Twitter feed when I had downtime. I learned a lot of interesting new things by following strangers from diverse fields and backgrounds, and it was good for research. However, I started noticing how much my body did not feel good after scrolling through the feed, and I began to notice that my attention and the rhythms of my thoughts were uncomfortably sped up and distracted.
The amount of context switching* a person does while scrolling a social media feed is taxing. You’re parsing name information and all your associations of that person, and their new profile picture if their little face bubble is different. Unless you are hyper careful and on top of gardening who you’re following or digi-friends with, you’re parsing professional, creative, political, intellectual, ego and random sh*t, in every microsecond of scrolling past a piece of content. It erodes concentration and is really too much to digest emotionally. The effect these apps are having on our emotional lives is destructive, individually and socially. I can’t tell you how precious it is to have more solo time in my life to reflect, to be with my own well-being and breathe with just my own body to pay attention to. And how much that has made my relationships with people I care about more loving and attentive.
*The key reason context switching is bad is because it takes time and effort to get into focus. So every time we switch tasks, we lose energy that we wouldn’t have lost if we had just stayed on one task. And the fatigue that builds up from all of this energy loss is what heavily demotivates us, as well as potentially causing a mental burnout.
Once I logged out of Twitter, both my personal and organization/business account, I had left myself logged in to the Instagram account of the organization I run. I noticed I started to get sucked into that feed too. It was nice to stay up to date with artists I respect, however the amount of information about people’s personal lives became clearly not something I wanted to spend time on. So I logged out there and, laugh if you’d like, I started scrolling LinkedIn. As of last week, I have logged out of all social apps on my phone. The instant effect: I relaxed more and have been sleeping great! 10/10 highly recommend.
In summary, once I logged out of the networks I usually used, I found that I went to other ones on my phone that I didn’t previously use much and hence didn’t consider them problems habit-wise. However, eventually I ran into the same physical limits of being tense in my shoulders and back from hunching over and scrolling and focusing too hard to see on a tiny glowing screen. The benefits to me in terms of ratio of learning to seeing ego, life snapshots, and ads that did not enrich my experience of life, was clearly not as good as reading books or doing physical activity. So I logged out of the last sticky network.
Bonus step: take 1 entire day per week off of using your phone entirely. Saturdays work well for me. If you are a caregiver for someone and need to stay responsive by text, consider buddying up with someone else who is and giving each other a day off.
If you are on Facebook, a first step is to log out. That puts an extra step between you opening the platform to see the notification numbers and getting sucked into the feeds. If you do log in, log out when you are done. This simple step will help you be more conscious of your decision and frequency of opening that tab or app. I also recommend you install a Facebook tracking blocker on your browsers.
My next step in the journey was to burn my Facebook profile entirely. I cannot tell you how wonderful of a decision this has been, albeit it’s more painful to be able to see the app written all over people’s faces when I talk with them. You’ll know what I mean there eventually. Hands down the best decision I made of 2019.
“Facebook is malware, uninstall.” I realize for some people, Facebook is their only connection to family and a wider sense of the world, but I encourage you to read some critiques of the platform online, and consider inviting people you care about to connect with each other via a more secure interface, such as Signal. My favorite places to be on the internet with people now are simply private message threads on encrypted applications. The discussion is richer, more focused, and more creative. Deeper relationships form.
Here’s how I left Facebook: I methodically deleted all content I had placed on the site (it’s never really gone as far as I know, but doing that gave me peace of mind that my intact information wasn’t sitting in a profile). I let my friends know I was leaving at a specific date, so we could exchange other contact info to keep in touch afterward. And I deleted the profile. I didn’t have the fb app or messenger installed on my phone, but if you do, you should also remove all Facebook apps from your phone. There is no fixing Facebook and the business model it and its subsidiary company Instagram are built on. WhatsApp is also owned by Facebook. Signal is a better encrypted option for a messaging application.
Lastly, I recommend you install a Facebook tracking blocker on the browsers you use. There are tracking blockers that block Google too, more about that in a bit.
Alright, for many people, social media is going to be the hardest thing. That is not the end of the journey, however. Did you know that Google tracks you around the internet via its advertising model? And it also tracks you around in real life. When you enter a store in a mall for example, it’s likely that the store / company has bought into advertising tracking linked with your phone’s location, so that Google analytics can use that information to serve ads to you after you leave, and inform its algorithm of your preferences and choices. Facebook “pixel” tracking is also ubiquitous.
This is a problem because one of the main purposes machine intelligence algorithms are used for is marketing, to literally farm you as a buyer, to shape your preferences and beliefs so you will buy certain things, and make certain political choices or speak in certain ways on the internet. I’m working on gathering a list of books about this. It’s nothing short of freaky and we are fully in a Black Mirror singularity situation right now. Most of these major tech companies have combined business models and ever increasingly powerful technology without moral or structural design principles in place that prevent harm to people, environment, and society. One book about this is Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.
Tor is a browser that blocks third party trackers from following you around the net. You can download it here. The trick is that you need to not be logged into any website while surfing the web, for example if you log in to Gmail in a tab in Tor, Google will be able to trace the other tabs you have open. So to retain privacy in Tor, don’t do both at the same time.
You can also install tracking blockers for Chrome and other browsers. It is absolutely freaky to watch someone open the blocker extension if a site won’t load because a third party tool is an integral part of the functionality or access permissions of a website. I often feel like there are all these gross spider robots following me across the internet and attaching their webs to me, but seeing that that is real is another level of creepy entirely. Aside, I love real world spiders, but on the net, they are nightmares.
Installing a VPN is another layer of protection you can do to protect your web traffic from being tracked. Private Internet Access is one. Here is a great article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation about what a VPN is and why it’s important.
The final step here is to switch over to decentralized technology. You’ll find some definitions of what that is here, via a program I direct through Bloom Network. It’s still 2-10 years away from being easy to use, but there are many dedicated communities building it to support sovereignty and well-being.
Start this journey and I promise you you will start to get your own thought rhythms back, you will have more time for things you love doing, and you will start to see how people’s behavior and ways of communicating are affected by the commercialized occupation of our nervous systems by corporate propaganda. Opt out of digital predation and opt in to your life and life around you.
There is much farther down the rabbit hole I could take you, and perhaps I will write more. But for now, give these steps a try and see if it improves your quality of life.
Lead with love,