Your Instagram feed makes people sad.

From MarketWatch (last year), “New study claims Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are linked to depression”:

Why does social media make so many people feel bad? The study didn’t analyze this, but Hunt offers two explanations. The first is “downward social comparison.” You read your friends’ timelines. They’re deliberately putting on a show to make their lives look wonderful. The result: “You’re more likely to think your life sucks in comparison,” says Hunt. The second reason: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.

On Instagram, I filter my life through the rosiest possible light. Here’s a theoretical example: one night last winter, my family played “Go Fish” by firelight. It was totally a “’grammable” moment—if I first cleared away the clutter, staged the shot, and heavily edited the photo.

But that post would conveniently leave out the seven failed attempts to ignite the logs before they finally caught. And it wouldn’t include the tantrum my daughter threw when we refused to top off her fireside milk cup. Or mention the fact that we hadn’t touched the fireplace for years before that night.

Is it dishonest to share only the joys—and hide the annoyances and heartbreaks? And if others get jealous when scrolling through my curated feed, should I feel guilty? ■


The everyday annoyance of quitting Facebook

I first shuttered my Facebook account a few months ago. For the most part, I haven’t felt tempted to reactivate, even though I miss reading friends’ comments on our kid’s photos.

But Facebook isn’t just “sticky” from a relationship perspective. There are also some practical annoyances that make it difficult to resist the blue behemoth. From time to time, I’ve even given in and and temporarily reopened my account (then immediately deactivated it again). Here’s what keeps dragging me back:

  • Many web services rely on Facebook identity for authentication. When I sold my old Apple Watch a few weeks ago, I was forced to reactivate my Facebook account in order to log into Swappa. Lesson learned: whenever possible, avoid using third-party services (e.g. Facebook, Google, or Twitter) to create accounts for new apps and web services. If an app forces you to connect to Facebook, consider skipping it (and letting the developer know why).
  • Some meatspace (i.e., real-life) groups only communicate via Facebook. For example, my local ultimate frisbee “league”[1] drums up attendance each week by posting to a shared Facebook group. Without an active account, I can’t chime in—or even check whether anyone else is planning to show up. Lesson learned: I only have myself to blame here, since I was the one who originally created the Facebook group. Looking back, a shared text message thread would have accomplished the same thing, while remaining platform-agnostic.
  • Similarly, many local businesses use Facebook as their only web presence. I’ve occasionally been tripped into logging in, just to get at a restaurant’s operating hours or menu. Lesson learned: fortunately, most Facebook page info is accessible to anonymous users, though it’s not hard to imagine Facebook someday locking this data behind their authentication wall. In that case, there’s not much you can do, unless you want to (a) pester business owners by complaining about their skimpy web presence or (b) offer to help them establish a “real” website. And even if you have the time for this, many business owners are reluctant to pay for web hosting, when so many of their customers live in Facebook anyways.
  • Since I started blogging again, I’ve wondered whether I ought to be promoting my posts and podcasts on Facebook. I don’t want to do this, but it would drive more traffic. Lesson learned: no good solution here. If I want Facebook users’ eyeballs, I will have to reopen my account and cross-post there. There’s no way to update a Facebook page without maintaining an active personal profile.

Of course, if I were really serious about quitting Facebook, I could simply delete my account. At that point, it would be a chore to re-join, since I’d have to rebuild my friends list and repopulate my profile. Momentum would likely keep me from getting sucked into Facebook’s orbit again.

But for all the reasons listed above (and especially the last one), I haven’t yet had the courage to quit, cold-turkey. ■

  1. And by “league”, I mean “a dozen people who like to drop frisbees and jog meekly around an elementary school soccer field.”  ↩

technology Uncategorized

“Twitter Isn’t Raising the Character Limit. It’s Becoming a Walled Garden.”

Smart take from Will Oremus, writing for Slate. He posits that Twitter’s rumored move to allow longer tweets is effectively its version of Facebook’s “Instant Articles”:

Twitter, like Facebook, has long played the role of a switchboard that routes people to in-depth stories elsewhere on the Web. This is great for those other sites, but not so great for Twitter, which is essentially giving away one of the Internet’s most valuable commodities: readers’ attention.

“Beyond 140” (Twitter’s code name for the new feature) would essentially replace links to external content with content hosted by Twitter itself.

This makes sense, from Twitter’s perspective (even if I resent the change as a content creator. I would’ve guessed that Twitter might partner with Medium, a closed blogging platform that already hosts writers’ work in a similar way. Medium was founded by Ev Williams, who also co-founded Twitter and still sits on Twitter’s board. But apparently Twitter would rather keep users’ content in-house.

One question about “Beyond 140”, though: why 10,000 characters? Twitter applied that arbitrary limit to direct messages last summer, but how did they arrive at the number? 10,000 characters is approximately 2,000 words—longer than most blog posts and long enough that many users would never even approach the limit. So why not just drop the character limit entirely?

My guess: Twitter considers brevity an essential part of its brand identity. An unlimited character limit would mean that Twitter had effectively done nothing more than build another closed publishing platform. But if the announcement includes a fixed limit (even an absurdly large number like 10,000), Twitter can market the change as a natural extension of its familiar clipped format.

Life technology Uncategorized

Drowning in Twitter debt

I abandoned RSS because I couldn’t keep up.

Feed readers made it easy to read every single post from my favorite websites. But there’s a downside to that thoroughness. Hit ‘subscribe’ too many times, and catching up becomes a chore—one more inbox to empty. My RSS unread count frequently ballooned into the hundreds.

When Google Reader (my preferred RSS client) shut down, I resolved to try something different. I would rely on Twitter for the latest updates instead. I became a “Twitter completionist”. In other words, I always pick up my timeline from where I left off, rather than starting with the most recent tweets. My favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot, makes this automatic; it syncs my timeline progress between the iPhone and iPad.[1]

Tweetbot unread
My out-of-control unread count in Tweetbot.

For years, this Twitter-as-feed-reader approach worked well. But recently, my renewed commitment to daily blogging leaves me with precious little free time for social media. I’m facing the same problem with Twitter that I had with RSS: constantly falling behind. Over the Thanksgiving break, my unread tweet count approached 1,000 for the first time ever. By this morning, I had whittled that number down to 700, but I can feel it climbing as I type.

Here are three potential ways to handle skyrocketing “Twitter debt”:

  • Follow fewer tweeps. Easier said than done; how do you decide who makes the cut? Besides, as of today, I only track 366 people on Twitter. That seems like a reasonable number (right?).
  • Stop reading every tweet. After all, Twitter itself doesn’t expect its users to be completionists. But I rely on Twitter to generate ideas for this blog. Skipping ahead often could mean missing out on potential post topics.
  • Declare Twitter bankruptcy (when necessary). I have to accept the fact that I’m going to occasionally fall behind—especially on vacations. That’s a good thing; the holidays are meant for lazy TV watching with family, not for checking Twitter obsessively. I plan to adopt this approach during the upcoming Christmas break.

Till then, I’ll keep that scrolling thumb loose. Tweetbot Zero, here I come.

  1. Syncing also works on the Tweetbot Mac client. That doesn’t help me; I’m a Windows users on the desktop. Lately, I’ve been avoiding Tweetdeck on Windows, just to preserve my mobile progress. That’s good for productivity, but somewhat irritating. If only Twitter had integrated (or replicated) Tweetmarker in its official clients—then I’d always be in sync, no matter what app or platform I used. But Twitter refuses to acknowledge the possibility that some users prefer a third-party client experience.  ↩
technology Uncategorized

Social media = dessert.

Candy makes a lousy meal. Sure, for a while, it’s delicious. But after a certain sugar threshold, sweets stop tasting sweet. Mucous builds up on your tongue. Your teeth ache. And it’s addictive; long after you’re gorged, you’re still digging congealed corn syrup nuggets from the bag.

Social media is like that. You know you’re craving ‘real food:’ thoughtful conversation, shared adventures, drinks with friends. But, instead, you socialize online. It’s hauntingly empty. Your heart hurts. And it’s addictive; long after you’re bored, you’re still refreshing your browser, hoping for an update.

Dessert tastes best after a hearty, healthy meal. Social media works best as an extension of real experiences, real relationships. Make it the main course, and you’re likely to get sick.

technology Uncategorized

A kink in the fire hose: Twitter search and ‘top tweets’

Twitter is real-time. It’s news on-the-ground, right now–before the cable 24–7s, online news outlets, or bloggers run with the story. By searching Twitter for a topic, you gain instant access to primary sources–raw data–before it’s digested and regurgitated by main stream media. No filters. No spindoctors.

Last week, however, introduced a subtle change to search. Queries no longer return the ‘fire hose’–i.e., every tweet that matches your search string. Instead, by default, only ‘top’ results show up. As Twitter explains here, top tweets are “popular Tweets that have caught the attention of other Twitter users.” In other words, Twitter’s search algorithm surfaces only the content that is already generating conversation.

No big deal, right? Isn’t this good for users? In some ways, it is. Twitter explains, “We think that showing the Tweets that other users have retweeted, shared, and interacted with can help you find new and helpful information more easily.” Popular content is popular for a reason. And those who want the fire hose can still enable it with just a few extra clicks.

But the ‘top tweets’ feature undermines one of Twitter’s greatest strengths: disintermediated public access to primary sources. Making ‘top’ the default view re-intermediates the content. Once again, news belongs to the elites–this time, the Twitterati. It’s a de-democratization of Twitter, muting the masses and amplifying the celebrated few.

If this change really does undermine Twitter’s core competency, why make it at all? Why default to top tweets? Here’s a (cynical) hypothesis: it might be about money.

Twitter must eventually capitalize on its cultural cache. But the company’s monetization efforts have been marked by bungled roll-outs and miniscule returns. Consider February’s Quick Bar fiasco. Twitter’s official iPhone app slapped a panel of trending topics on top of users’ timelines. The ‘feature’ could not be disabled, and many ‘trends’ were sponsored, thinly veiled advertisements. The Twittersphere erupted, condemning the obtrusive “Dick Bar.” Complaints continued unabated until Twitter finally backed down.

Whatever prompted the ‘top tweets’ change, it’s far less brazen than the despised Dick Bar. In fact, this subtlety may be strategic. Rebuffed by the earlier blunder, perhaps Twitter is tip-toeing into ad integration this time around. Will the ‘top tweets’ feature (like the Dick Bar before it) eventually integrate more ‘sponsored results’? How else might ‘top tweets’ pave the way for a more ad-friendly Twitter?

culture technology Uncategorized

Technology’s unique vice

Technology really does affect character. Cultures do change from era to era, sometimes for the worse. Particular vices can be encouraged by particular innovations, and thrive in the new worlds that they create. …

Facebook and Twitter did not forge the culture of narcissism. But they serve as a hall of mirrors in which it flourishes as never before.

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times. Via Walt Mueller.

Douthat is absolutely right: the medium is not neutral. And narcissism runs rampant online, as we “brand” ourselves and broadcast our “excruciating minutiae.” But if social media amplifies a particular vice, might it also amplify a particular virtue?

technology Uncategorized

Why tweet?

A week or two ago, I explained how Twitter is not just another inbox. It’s meant to blur by–a stream we visit occasionally but don’t follow post-by-post. Smart twitterers learn to ignore the service’s constant background noise.

But this raises another question. If no one’s really listening, why tweet at all? Why post something that others may not even read?

Many of us tweet because we’re in denial about the value of our narcissistic “content.” We’re too self-absorbed to realize that no one else cares about our excruciating minutiae: food selections and location check-ins and tired talking points. Misguidedly, we convince ourselves that our quips are clever, our insights profound, and our thoughts worthy.

We may even have grandiose ideas about Twitter ushering us into fame and fortune. We shamelessly self-promote, hoping to attract new readers, woo new customers, or capture mind share. With each new post, we cross our fingers, hoping beyond hope that this one goes viral.

For others, tweeting provides an outlet for our social frustration. We long for real, embodied human contact–something our fast-paced, screen-mediated lives deny us. This disconnection hurts, and we recoil. We spasm. We tweet, hoping that someone will notice and reply.

Ugh… this is depressing. I’d better end the post–and plug it with a well-worded 140 characters or less.

technology Uncategorized

Don’t get Twitter? You’re doing it wrong.

I used twitter for years without knowing why. The microblogging service long ago went viral, but I lingered on the shore of the mainstream. “What is this for?” No one I knew actually tweeted; I felt like a guest three hours early for the party. It is social media, after all, and I was shouting into an empty room.

But there’s a better way to tweet. Forget about following your friends. Oh, you can add them, too. But you should follow everyone. People you love, people you hate, people you love to hate, smart people, spectacularly dumb people. Your team’s star player. The crazy politician from the rival party. Your favorite over-exposing celebrity.

And don’t just follow people. With full-featured twitter clients like Tweetdeck or Twitter on iOS, you can siphon in topical searches, the latest Internet memes, breaking news as it happens, and hyperlocalized info. And each additional tweet-source exposes you to new tweeters to follow. Layer upon layer, topic upon topic, let your stream crescendo into a dull roar of pseudo-relevant babble.

“But,” you might object, “How can I possibly keep up with that many people?” In short, you can’t. You may even miss updates from your actual friends.

Don’t sweat it. Here’s the key: Twitter is not another inbox. It’s not a list requiring scrutiny or sifting. Instead, it’s background noise–the world’s busyness, digitized. Every once in a while, you prick up your ears and listen in–click that link, track that trend, or chuckle at someone’s cleverly concise quip. But you shouldn’t feel any pressure to read all those tweets–to catch up. Give yourself permission to not read it all.

Using it this way respects the medium. Plays to its strength. twitter is not for conversations (who can keep track of all those @replies?). It’s not for stalking friends (that’s why we have Facebook). It’s not for critical messages (that’s why email hasn’t yet died). Instead, twitter thrums–there when you need it, ignorable elsewise.