Don’t Click “Like” // Digital Minimalism 06
“Man is by nature a social animal.” -Aristotle
Your brain’s default response to mental downtime is to contemplate your social life. It’s obvious when you see people taking every spare minute to check social media and texts. The trouble is that we are never satisfied by extremely low bandwidth social connection. When we seek more connection through social media, we displace opportunities for high bandwidth human conversation. The result is a downward spiral of social dissatisfaction.
In this article, I’ll cover the science behind our social drives and some practices from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, that can restore your social life.
The Default Network
You have an enormous capacity for social bonding. The way you interact with other people, face-to-face, is nuanced. You are processing body language, tone, facial expression, and more. Yet, it feels effortless. Now, compare that to reading a poorly written email about something important. It’s painful.
In his research and 2013 book, Social, Matthew Lieberman explains that we are made for social cognition. He’s found that during down time the brain activates in a predictable pattern, called “the default network.” This network is where social cognition happens.
You are social by default.
This is an advantage guided by millennia of evolution. If you use it well it can serve you with rich relationships and social fulfillment. However, if you fill up on frequent social hits from Instagram, you may be disappointed. We have a constant desire for sweet and fatty foods, but that does not mean that donuts are good for you. Social media is your relationship junk food.
“To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement.” -Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
Social media can create a temporary high that feels like the connection we crave. The trouble is that every time you get on facebook or check your texts, you miss the social opportunity around you. If you spend an hour per day on facebook products, like the average user, that’s an hour per day that could have been spent with real life friends.
Every time you say yes to your devices you say no to the world around you. It can become a vicious cycle. For example, facebook use is correlated with depression. Regardless of causality, if you use facebook when you’re depressed, and then you feel more depressed, and then you use it more, how can you escape?
Below are three practices that will help you to develop more valuable social experiences.
1. Don’t Click “Like”
As I’ve discussed in this Digital Minimalism series, the “Like” button was a radical shift in the facebook user experience. A site full of information to be glanced at became a venue for social validation, one thumbs-up at a time. Every post became a quest to be assured of exactly how much your network appreciates what you have to say.
The truth is that “Like”s tell you almost nothing. For a social animal, capable of near mind reading, the “Like” is worthless. In digital terms it is literally the smallest amount of information you can communicate, a binary one bit of information.
As Cal Newport, a computer scientist, explains in Digital Minimalism
To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.
See “Like”s for what they are, a useless signal that helps machine learning algorithms better target you for advertisements. Next time you’re tempted to click a digital heart, recognize that it’s one more second you waste on low bandwidth social connection, instead of high bandwidth conversation.
2. Consolidate Texting
I have a hard time with this practice. Rapid back-and-forth text-based conversation feels so gratifying to me. Perhaps I was groomed by AOL instant messenger in my teen years.
Regardless of how high school wired me, I know that texting is disruptive and less important than the people around me. To manage my texting impulse, I’ve turned off notifications for incoming texts. In fact, I’ve turned off all notifications except actual calls.
Cal Newport proposes that turning off text notifications and setting aside a couple of dedicated times for texting each day will have significant benefits. As he explained in his last book Deep Work, reducing interruption from texts will improve the quality of work you produce in a day. It may also reduce anxiety and end the perverse habit of ignoring flesh and blood people around you to check your phone and get a hit from a text conversation.
3. Hold Conversation Office Hours
“Phone phobia” is real. Call a new acquaintance and you will hear the surprise in their voice, if they pick up. To spare people any doubt about whether you are available for an actual phone call, set office hours.
In Digital Minimalism, a Silicon Valley executive describes the value of telling everyone that he is open for calls during his evening commute. What does he do with a confusing email? He asks the sender to call him any day at 5:30PM.
Even if you don’t commute, you can set aside time like this. You can even hold office hours for in-person conversation at your workplace, a local coffee shop, or your favorite pub.
Steve Jobs used to set aside time for walking conversations and even walking meetings.
The specifics are flexible. The point is to eliminate friction and stress around setting up an actual conversation.
For more, read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.