Algorithms

Algorithms, particularly social media algorithms, have been on a lot of our minds lately. But what even are they? Well one definition I found says that algorithms are: a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. So basically they are like an ever evolving blueprint guiding the computer’s actions. This isn’t much different from the way that our brains work, at least from my limited understanding of both.

I was thinking over how strange and ironic it is that we as a society have been struggling so much with technology and social apps. Even though we don’t want to argue, fight, compare, etc. These apps feed us the type of content that will get us to react in that way. This morning the parallel between that struggle, often leading to mental illness, and the struggle to cope with mental illness itself really became apparent to me.

Sometimes it’s almost as if the universe presents us with clever metaphors to force us to confront the things we try to avoid. Humanity has been running from itself, especially in the last few decades. We’ve submerged ourselves in these digital landscapes as a distraction from our thoughts and worries and fears. The internet, in a way, is the ultimate form of disassociation. Yet, there is still so much we can learn about ourselves through this unlikely medium.

It’s ironic that the very place we’ve gone to escape ourselves has become a mirror of the worst within us. These algorithms online tailor what we see, they filter the world through a lens of violence, outrage, and disgust. As I explained before it’s because we are naturally inclined to react to these things more forcefully than things that inspire joy, happiness, comfort, or love. Even while pointing that out in my post about personal responsibility, it didn’t occur to me just how much these algorithms are actually amplifying the algorithms within our own brains.

This public discussion about social media and Facebook are actually a fascinating parallel to the discussion of neuroplasticity. Unfortunately, no one has the power to change the algorithm in our heads except us, so in this instance, while not our fault, it is up to us to make a change. While that autopilot algorithm does do a lot of the work behind the scenes of our consciousness, we are able to take back the wheel and steer ourselves in a new direction.

Let’s get back to what I mean when I say this is a metaphor though. Think about the internet, for the most part, we all understand that what comes up in our feed every day isn’t all that exists on the web. Yet, somehow the things we take notice of in our everyday lives, start to seem like all there is to notice. We become cynical, or at least I did.

I can still remember arguing with someone when I was in high school. I was insisting that life was mostly negative or neutral events with light sprinkles of happy ones in between. How sad it is to look back at my young self who truly believed such a terrible thing. At the time, that was true though, at least for me. Because that’s what I was looking for, so of course, that’s all I found.

We are always subconsciously looking for evidence to support our beliefs, even when those beliefs aren’t something we are happy about. It starts with a belief, just like our apps start with an interest. Our “feeds” in life then fall into place around that central idea. That isn’t all there is to see, but it is all that we’ll see.

That inner world of ours, our perceptions of life and those around us, seem so real. It’s hard to conceptualize that there may be so much more that we are not aware of, that our view is skewed by the limited scope of what we are taking in. The world around us is continuously colored and altered by our mood, our knowledge base, our preconceptions, our biases, our past experiences, and so much more. These are the “filters” that we use on the universe. But the small amount that we are able to take in, that is not an accurate reflection of existence. Just as our Facebook or Instagram feed is not an accurate representation of the content available online.

So don’t get too trapped in your own perceptions of this life. While we may not be able to make a new account or scrub our hard drive so we can start again from scratch, we can make an effort right now to challenge our preconceived notions. We can practice compiling new evidence to support beliefs that we choose to hold. We can make our mantra each day that the world is good, that there is beauty and happiness all around us. I promise you, no matter how dark the world may seem to you now, practice believing that there is light and you will find it.

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Personal Responsibility Paradox

I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the information and research leaked to 60 Minutes by a former Facebook employee. This information came as no surprise to those of us that have watched documentaries about the issue such as The Social Dilemma. The bottom line always seems to be: social media is bad for our mental health and our society overall. But does it have to be that way? That’s the question a lot of people are now asking.

The perspective I’ve noticed a lot of people having is that AI and algorithms cannot be inherently bad or evil. They are simply a reflection of what humanity wants. If that ends up being violence and divisiveness, can we really blame the algorithm? Or should we be turning that microscope on ourselves instead? There is certainly a lot of nuance to this issue, but here is what I think.

The reason these algorithms are feeding us content that angers and polarizes us is because that is the type of content that gets the most consistent and reliable engagement from users. At first glance this appears to be the AI giving us what we want. But consider this: Facebook and other social media apps understand that even though we are more likely to engage with content that is inflammatory, that isn’t what we want. They don’t care what consumers want. They care what will make them the most money, regardless of the damage that it may result in.

Evolution has primed us to react more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli for survival. Our negativity bias is not a reflection of our relative good or evil as a species. If we ignore a positive experience there is much less harm than if we were to ignore a negative experience that has the potential to hurt or kill us. So we may have a more visceral reaction to seeing a child be hit by a car than seeing a fireman give a child a lollipop, but does that mean we prefer to watch gruesome tragedies? I don’t think so. We just pay more attention to them in an effort to ensure our own safety.

It isn’t that we wouldn’t engage with the platform at all if there were more positive content, it’s just that we’ll engage even more when our feeds are full of things that upset or enrage us. Facebook was doing fine before these detrimental algorithms were put into place. But capitalism says the more money the better, regardless of the cost to the consumer. Therefore this negative feedback loop has begun to spiral out of control to the detriment of everyone.

It seems like a lot of people are hesitant to give up the idea that they are completely autonomous and always make conscious, educated decisions for themselves in life. It is unpleasant to consider that a lot of our behavior is being directed and influenced by things that are largely out of our control or even our conscious awareness. Nevertheless, that is the truth.

I think part of the problem is that people really want to believe they can avoid the negative mental health effects of social media because they are addicted to it. As humans we’ll make excuses to continue indulging in whatever addiction we may have. We’ve all known an alcoholic living in denial, loudly proclaiming at any opportunity, “I could stop if I wanted to.”

It’s hard to acknowledge that something we do every day is bad for us. Especially when stopping the behavior results in negative social consequences. I know a lot of people that want to stop using Facebook, but feel that they can’t because it would upset their family and friends and lead to a certain degree of social isolation. I struggled with this myself before I ultimately decided to stop using social media apps. Luckily for me, I was able to overcome this easier than others. I’ve never been one to care much about social norms or how others may perceive my life decisions. While these are things I consider, they’ve never held much weight for me. I empathize with the fact that most people place a lot more emphasis on these factors.

At the end of the day, yes, the individual is not absolved of all responsibility when it comes to societal issues, but the lion’s share of the responsibility is still on the developers of these sites. No one has to use social media. We do have the potential to feed the algorithm different information now that we know how it works. By actively choosing to engage with more positive content than negative we could make a difference. However, this is not a very practical or realistic solution when it comes to society as a whole.

The United States may claim to value freedom above all else, but the amount of freedom we actually have is often deceptive, especially when new generations are being influenced by these things at earlier and earlier ages. Are we really free to use social media in a mentally healthy way when the AI running the show are directing us and influencing us from behind the scenes? To me, the freedoms we fight for are often illusions of freedom perpetuated by a corrupt capitalist system that is profiting off of that “freedom.”

My main point here is just to say, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing the best you can within the framework our society and government have built. Freedom is a tricky concept. While we may have the freedom to choose in many aspects of our lives, those choices are also limited by our environment. You are not a helpless victim, but you are also not the only one responsible as many in the media would have you believe.

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Missing Social Media

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It has been over a year now since I stopped using most of social media. I still have a Tumblr, but I don’t really know anyone on there or interact much. I just post my drawings for my handful of followers and scroll through pretty pictures mostly. I also somewhat consider my time of here “social media” because I do get that dopamine rush from seeing likes and comments on my posts. But I’ve completed cut myself off from Facebook and Instagram. I never had a Twitter or anything else.

It was a lot easier to stop using these sites than I thought it would be. I don’t have tons of friends or family that talk to me on there anyway. It was a wonderful relief to not have to think about what was going on in that virtual social landscape all the time. However, if I’m being honest, I miss having the opportunity for attention. Dying my hair really got me craving some virtual validation. It would have felt nice to post some pictures of my new hair online and get lots of likes. There is something so satisfying about that.

As a woman, I also miss always being able to get attention from guys online. There are certain days when I feel so lonely. It was nice to know I could always find someone new to talk to even if I ultimately decided not to. I do recall thought that most of those impulsive introductions led to nothing but frustration and disappointment. There was also a good bit of anxiety when I decided I wanted to disappear but felt guilty about ghosting.

I know that overall, my life is better without social media. It is unnecessary and mentally and emotionally unhealthy. It’s just a distraction that inflates my ego. I have to keep reminding myself why I left in the first place. I don’t want to go back to fishing for validation from strangers. Even my writing on here has become a little too much about what people will think of it. I want to write these posts every day for me, regardless of what anyone else thinks about what I have to say.

Social Media is a misdirection. It convinces us that the happiness we seek lies elsewhere, in the approval and attention of others. We become addicted to being constantly acknowledged. We become a pseudo celebrity in our own minds. We start to feel empty without the gaze of the masses constantly upon us. But we don’t need anyone else to see our lives for them to matter. We don’t need anyone else to have happiness.

When I am feeling this hollowness, this sense of emptiness within me, there is still that urge to look outside of myself for something to fill that space. But the answer isn’t to indulge that urge. The answer is to sit with this empty feeling, not to run from it. It is a part of me, a part of this experience we call life. And I am the only one who has the power to fill that void. I already have everything that I need.

The Social Dilemma

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The Social Dilemma is a new documentary on Netflix that everyone needs to see. It is a harrowing look at what social media and the internet in general are doing to us as individuals and society as a whole. I’ve long suspected that this new age of technology was having a deleterious effect on our brains, but never could I have imagined how serious it actually is.

We have been trapped under the wheels of a machine that we created and set into motion but now have no power to stop. The tropes about robots taking over and destroying humanity didn’t manifest in exactly the way we pictured it, but I would argue the age of AI overlords has already begun. We have become the victims of our own advancements. Our biology and slow rate of evolutionary change simply cannot keep up with and stay on top of the rapid growth of technology.

Our psychology is being used against us for the sole benefit of corporations and advertisers. This documentary points out that we are no longer the consumers. We are the products being sold. More specifically our attention is being sold. And it seems for the most part we are helpless to overcome the addictive nature of this new market. Not only that, while we feed into this system, society as a whole is becoming more and more anxious, depressed, and isolated from one another. This isn’t necessarily a purposeful outcome, yet it is an insignificant side effect for the people and algorithms running the show.

If you’d like some first hand evidence, try logging off of Facebook for a few weeks. I have been avoiding that site for over a year now. You wouldn’t believe the lengths the site has gone to try to reel me back in. I found it funny at first, seeing notifications for less and less relevant things when I did open the app. How desperate Facebook is to somehow regain my attention! But now I think it’s actually quite scary.

I will say I have felt much better mentally since I stopping using Facebook. I don’t spend nearly as much time on my phone for one thing. I am not weighed down by constant updates and online drama. I don’t waste time thinking up a status update or obsessively checking to see how many people liked it. It is freeing. I feel lighter now.

However, despite my success at overcoming the algorithm in that regard, I am still not completely free of the strong psychological drive to seek dopamine “rewards” online. For instance, I now post on here everyday. I do greatly look forward to seeing how many people like what I’ve written. Although I limit myself to checking my notifications once a day. I also still scroll my feed and post drawings on Tumblr. Not to mention I am perpetually watching either YouTube or Netflix all day long.

While I am able to remember, and think back fondly, on a time before the internet and social media, newer generations will not have this luxury. This new form of society is all they have ever known. Soon humanity will not even be able to conceive of a world without these detrimental influences.

I desperately long for the simplicity of my childhood spent away from screens, enjoying the real world. But even more than that, I pity the children of today. They have become victims without even realizing it. And what choice do they truly have? While disconnecting from our devices is liberating and beneficial in many ways, it is also extremely isolating in others. It is choosing to be apart from the rest of society in a major way. Even though it is better for your own mental health, it is also lonely, a virtual exile.

Ultimately I don’t know what the solution could be to this problem we’ve unwittingly created. Humans are forever hopeful. The executives that once had a hand in creating this new world seem to believe we can overcome it somehow. But I don’t know if I agree. I see it as just another sign of our rapidly advancing inevitable demise as a society and as a species. Although I sincerely hope I am wrong.

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