Mental dieting in the age of “The Feed”

It is insidious how quickly our mental spaces get taken over by The Feed. That unceasing, algorithmically optimized, torrent of photos, pithy tweets, advertisements and listicles designed to maximize retention and boost click through rates. The feed seems like it is there to serve you, the user. To deliver to you exactly what you want, exactly when you want it when, in reality, you are there to serve The Feed. One pair, out of billions of pairs of eager eyeballs each worth a few hundredths of a penny to TWTR or FB.

Facebook Feed circa 2010 — Seems innocuous in retrospect

Even when Facebook was a relatively new phenomenon, researchers started to understand how the feed, with its real-time feedback of likes and shares and comments was manipulating our brains, often to our own detriment. The quote below is from a 2012 Harvard Business Review article:

Here is the seed of the problem. Social media can be so rewarding, that it overwhelms our ability to focus on other things. Our brain has terribly weak circuitry for inhibiting impulses, especially impulses that look delicious. Like our limited ability to do complex calculations in our heads, impulse control is a limited resource that tires with each use. For decades, food marketers have used this poor impulse control against us, to the point that there are now literally more people overweight than starving in the world, in large part due to empty calories that are all too readily available. Our minds may be going the way of our waistlines, as a result of “empty neural calories”: fodder for the brain that stimulates but doesn’t fulfill.

David Rock author of “Your Brain at Work”

A few weeks ago I read Mark Suster’s post about deleting the Facebook and Twitter apps from his phone. The results he saw encouraged me to try it for myself and I have experienced similar outcomes. I feel less anxious about the world in general, but not because I’m completely unaware of what’s happening, simply because I am regulating how I learn about it.

In my case, rather than taking in everything The Feed threw my way, I chose to read the New York Times each morning while the house is waking up, and occasionally listen to NPR when I find myself in the car.

This self-experiment came at an interesting time for me. I had also recently cut almost all sugar from my diet. Like The Feed, sugar is excellent at releasing dopamine, and given that our brains evolved in a world where sugar was once scare and now available in abundance, the inevitable result is dependency.

For the first 72 hours after I deleted the Facebook, Twitter and other social media apps from my phone, it felt like the first few days of quitting sugar, or quitting smoking. I was irritable, I constantly pulled my phone out of my pocket and looked at it even though there was nothing new to see, I even started using my laptop in the living room since I could still access the web version of everything I had deleted from the phone.

Gradually, over the course of a week or so, much like my other previous addictions, the urge to indulge became less prevalent, and when I did, the dopamine hit was less satisfying.

It’s too early to tell if the social media app embargo will be a permanent fact of my online life, or simply a temporary way to find better balance. I know that I’ve missed knowing what my friends are doing, and I feel a sense of disconnect because if it, so I might have to find ways of catching up that don’t involve feeding The Feed.

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