Netflix has a new documentary out about social media and the algorithms it uses that make us all so addicted. The film spends about an hour and a half questioning former silicon valley tech people on just how screwed we are and the answer, universally, is very.
It’s not just an addiction to social media that is the problem either. Rates of self-harm, depression, and suicide in young people have skyrocketed since 2009 when social media started being used on phones. Political polarisation and wild conspiracy theories have become rampant and threaten our ability to work together as a society. And the corruption of democracy and manipulation by bad actors threatens to plunge us all into totalitarianism.
It’s grim. So what can we do? If you’ve seen the film you’ll know that the fight is between you, the individual, and the life’s work of some of the smartest people on the planet. The algorithms know everything there is to know about you while you know almost nothing about them. It’s hardly a fair fight.
But there are a few solutions that the people who made these problems share at the end of the film. While they might not solve everything, they can certainly stop making the problem worse.
Delete All Your Social Media Accounts
This is the most extreme and it’s the view put forward by author and tech philosopher Jaron Lanier in his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It’s a tough sell and one that even Lanier admits is unlikely to convince many people but at the base of it, that’s what’s going to make the biggest difference. Cut yourself off, save the world.
Delete the Apps
If you find yourself being sucked into hours of mindless scrolling and you want to regain some control it might be a good idea to delete all of the apps off your phone. That way, you can still get all of the benefits of social media without the time-sucking negatives by only using it when you want.
Turn Off Notifications
A big part of the film focuses on how social media nudges you toward interacting with it by sending you constant notifications to draw you in. In your settings, you have the ability to stop all that by turning off notifications or choose the ones you want so you only use your phone when it’s really necessary.
Greyscale Your Phone
This is a slightly weirder one in the theme of breaking your phone addiction but part of the reason your phone has such a strong grip on you is because of the pretty colours. Yes, deep down, we are all children. If you go into your settings you can make the screen black and white which makes scrolling social media just… less fun. It’s worth a go.
Don’t Let Your Browser Choose Your Content
This works on places like YouTube where the algorithm will select the next video based on what it thinks you’ll like but also what other people like. As we see in the film, this kind of selection means it can prioritise things you may not want to see and that’s how you end up thinking the earth is flat.
Get off Google
This is what Guillaume Chaslot — one of the engineers of the YouTube recommendation algorithm — argues. He suggests people use search programmes like Qwant that prioritise user privacy. There are also apps like Ghostery that will stop your browser from tracking you too.
Don’t Fall for Clickbait
There’s a reason clickbait is so popular — it works. There’s also a reason the Saved You a Click movement is big on Reddit or Stop Clickbait has so many fans — people hate it. If you don’t fall for it, the algorithms won’t and publishers who write it won’t keep doing it.
Don’t Just Follow People You Agree With
Part of the issue feeding polarisation is that people are literally seeing different things online depending on what they believe. If you tell the algorithm that you’re a well rounded, balanced person by following people you disagree with, it won’t pigeon hole you and slam you with content that just reinforces your beliefs.
These ideas are definitely a strong starting point but the problem goes a lot deeper and will probably require just as much brainpower and collaboration as it did to fix it. Let’s hope The Social Dilemma gets us all talking and thinking about the problem before the algorithms eat us all.