Here are some browser extensions and tools I’ve been using to make my experience on the Big Three social networks better:
Since 2012 I’ve been using Fix Twitter to swap the right and left columns to put the feed back on the left, as it was pre-2012. Mostly cosmetic, but for me preferable.
Make Twitter Great Again hides two things that have made web Twitter nearly unbearable recently: other people’s liked tweets popping up in my timeline and promoted tweets.
Twitter Demetricator hides all the site’s metrics for followers, likes, retweets, and notifications in order to, per its creator, “disrupt our obsession with social media metrics, to reveal how they guide our behavior, and to ask who most benefits from a system that quantifies our public interactions online.”
I recently enabled Tweet Delete to automatically delete tweets older than two months.
I’m not deleting my account, not yet anyway. For work and other reasons it’s just more convenient to have one. The next best thing to do in response to the company’s rolling malfeasance is to deny them their power source, so I’m using Social Book Post Manager to bulk-delete my old posts and plan to post a lot less. It’s a little clunky, and you have to do the process repeatedly to actually get all the posts, but seems to be working.
I’m starting with the earliest, from the summer of 2006 when I first joined, and working forward. Since you get to watch it work through your posts in real time on your Activity Log, you get to quickly reminisce—or cringe—at all of your status updates and comments of olde (common topics for a while there: Lost, the Oscars, The Office, and the Packers). Once all your posts are removed from a given year, the updates that remain—Life Events, your friending history, photos you’re tagged in—reflect an interesting kind of online anthropological history.
I like Instagram generally, but I don’t like how easy it is to waste time scrolling mindlessly. I also don’t like the feed showing me whatever the Almighty Algorithm decides to show me rather than what was posted chronologically.
My hack for this is to delete the Instagram app from my phone after each time I post a photo. This cuts me off from the mindless scroll, from obsessing over my likes and follows, and forces me to decide whether posting a photo is worth the extra time to download the app and sign in again.
A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.
Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:
When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.
He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.
Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.
Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:
Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.
…and then zooms out on its larger implications:
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?
Dear lord I hope not.
A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.
And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.
[Trump’s] tweets, however, are exposing something else in many of Trump’s friends and supporters — an extremely high tolerance for dishonesty and an oft-enthusiastic willingness to defend sheer nonsense. Yes, I know full well that many of his supporters take him “seriously, not literally,” but that’s a grave mistake. My words are of far lesser consequence than the president’s, yet I live my life knowing that willful, reckless, or even negligent falsehood can end my career overnight. It can end friendships instantaneously. Why is the truth somehow less important when the falsehoods come from the most powerful and arguably most famous man in the world?
I’ve watched Christian friends laugh hysterically at Trump’s tweets, positively delighted that they cause fits of rage on the other side. I’ve watched them excuse falsehoods from reflexively-defensive White House aides, claiming “it’s just their job” to defend the president. Since when is it any person’s job to help their boss spew falsehoods into the public domain? And if that does somehow come to be your job, aren’t you bound by honor to resign? It is not difficult, in a free society, to tell a man (no matter how powerful they are or how much you love access to that power), “Sir, I will not lie for you.”
GOP gratitude for beating Hillary Clinton cannot and must not extend into acceptance (or even endorsement) of presidential dishonesty and impulsiveness. Trump isn’t just doing damage to himself. As he lures a movement into excusing his falsehoods, he does damage to the very culture and morality of his base. The truth still matters, even when fighting Democrats you despise.
“Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world’s store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It’s a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.” — Alan Jacobs
At the beginning of December I had my wife change my Twitter password so I couldn’t access it. I’ve learned that I’m a cold turkey guy. Maybe I have some elements of an addictive personality, because for things like social media that act as mini dopamine triggers, I can’t use them moderately. I’m either on them every day, usually several times, or I deactivate the account and pretend they don’t exist for a time in order to unclog my mental plumping.
I really like Twitter. It’s nice to communicate occasionally with people I admire, get the latest on the things I enjoy, and above all share the things I’m proud of or interested in. I don’t have to deal with the spam and garbage trolls that celebrities and well-known figures endure, so it’s generally a pleasant experience.
I just sought it out too much. This sabbatical forces me to live without it for a time—to rewire my brain to not think in tweets, seek validation in retweets and likes, and be proud of how clever I am.
In a sloppy but understandable attempt at satire, Justine Sacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she got on a long plane ride to South Africa. During the flight her tweet went viral, enraging the easily enraged bastions of social media and catapulting the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet around the world. When she landed in Johannesburg she was out of a job and in the throes of a scorching, unmerciful online public shaming.
I was on Twitter the day #HasJustineLandedYet was in progress. When I figured out what it was about, I probably chuckled, thought “Sucks to be her…” and clicked elsewhere. But Justine, freshly captive prey of the collective shaming committee that is the Internet, wasn’t allowed to move on. The invisible, crushing weight of public opinion had pinned her to her momentary mistake. Jon Ronson interviewed her about this experience for his new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an eye-opening panorama of the dark, menacing, deceptively fleeting phenomenon of online shaming. His dissection of these digital witch hunts led him on a listening tour of other recent victims like Jonah Lehrer, Lindsay Stone, and Adria Richards, who were, months or years after their respective ordeals, still haunted by a modern twist on PTSD. Call it Post Traumatic Shaming Disorder.
Before her Twitstorm, Sacco was director of communications at IAC, the parent company of OkCupid, whose co-founder Christian Rudder wrote another fascinating book recently released called Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking). I read Dataclysm right after So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was fortuitous not only because both books feature the Justine Sacco saga, but because Rudder’s deep dive into the data about our online selves—dating site profiles and otherwise—weaved perfectly with Ronson’s closely observed stories of public shaming. And the joint conclusion we can make doesn’t look good.
The “when we think no one’s looking” part of Rudder’s title is key here. Dataclysm focuses on OkCupid users, but he might as well be writing about Us. “So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication—asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority—also makes it frightening,” he writes. Nearly everything we do online we do when no one’s looking. Even if a real name and picture is attached to a Twitter profile viciously trolling the Justine Saccos of the web, the ramifications are few. Kill that account, another will pop up.
The really interesting stuff, then, is what lies beneath the cultivated online personas, the stuff we don’t have incentive to lie about or craft for a particular purpose. What if your Google searches were made public? (Because they basically are.) Our searches would paint a much finer (though not prettier) portrait of ourselves than our Facebook posts, try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise.
Compared to Facebook, Rudder writes, which is “compulsively networked” and rich with interconnected data, dating sites like OkCupid pull people away from their inner circle and into an intentional solitude: “Your experience is just you and the people you choose to be with; and what you do is secret. Often the very fact that you have an account—let alone what you do with it—is unknown to your friends. So people can act on attitudes and desires relatively free from social pressure.”
OkCupid users are prompted to answer questions the site’s algorithms use to find other compatible users. The answers are confidential, so like Google searches they tell a more nuanced story about the user than whatever they write in their OkCupid self-summary. And yet there persists a wide discrepancy between what people say they believe—what they tell the algorithm—and how they actually behave on the site. The stats on who they chat with, for how long, and whether an in-person date occurs end up revealing more about a user’s preferences than their expressed beliefs.
Does the same apply to the hordes of people behind #HasJustineLandedYet? They might not be quite as evil and sadistic in real life as they seem online, but they can afford to play-act in whatever persona they’re cultivating because they’re protected by distance: abstractly, the virtual world being a different, cloudier dimension than the physical one; but also concretely, in that the odds of bumping into your shaming victim on the street is practically nil.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Dataclysm travel on the same track, but start out in opposite directions. Both concern themselves with the real-life implications of desire, how it’s wielded and to what end. Desiring companionship, love, or sex, OkCupid users seek opportunities to encounter whatever it is they’re looking for, personal fulfillment usually being the ultimate goal. Ronson’s case studies, heading the other way, illustrate the deviousness of desire—when on the road to euphoria we carelessly or even intentionally run down whoever gets in our way. “There is strength in collective guilt,” Rudder writes, “and guilt is diffused in the sharing. Extirpate the Other and make yourselves whole again.”
Yet neither book is as depressing as I’ve portrayed them. Dataclysm wades into a bevy of interesting data-driven topics, like the most common and uncommon words used in OkCupid profiles based on race and gender, how beauty gives people a quantifiable edge, and the emergence of digital communities. And Ronson’s journey leads to a host of stories, historical and contemporary, that lend depth and nuance to a social phenomenon desperately in need of them.
Above all, these books should make us think twice before hitting Send. “If you’re reading a popular science book about Big Data and all its portents,” writes Rudder, “rest assured the data in it is you.” Whether we’re chirping into a stupid hashtag or perusing profile pics in search of The One, someone is always watching.
I finally read Joel Stein’s Time magazine piece on the Millennial Generation, called “The Me Me Me Generation.” For the record, unlike some of my Millennial cohorts I hate “selfies” (the term and the thing it describes), I don’t feel entitled to a great job right out of school, and I don’t sleep next to my phone. But I don’t think the article deserved all of the antipathy it received from the blogosphere. I thought it was a fair if slightly fogeyish and surface-level assessment of overall generational characteristics. The problems my generation struggles with — like narcissism and a sense of entitlement — are so noticeable largely because of the times we live in, with everything more public and social technology more widespread. You don’t think the Baby Boomers would have peppered Instagram with pictures from Woodstock? or that Gen-Xers would have had entire Spotify playlists dedicated to their collection of sad and angsty ballads? The manifestations of narcissism by young people today merely belie the human condition that plagues all humankind: We’re selfish creatures, no matter how old we are or how many Twitter followers we have.
The combination of the influence of technology and how we collectively were reared — being told how special we were by over-protective helicopter parents — also contributes to how we are currently growing into adulthood. Generally speaking, we’re able to postpone full emergence into adulthood and still live with our parents because (a) we can and our parents don’t seem to mind (or at least don’t say so), and (b) because the economy sucks and has changed so much that traditional jobs and careers aren’t as feasible anymore. The Boomers were anxious to get out of the house and their parents were eager for them to leave, so naturally the way things are done now clashes with the way of the past. Welcome to The Present Reality.
Having said that, we can’t abdicate responsibility for making choices about our lives. We don’t have to live with our parents or check Facebook ten times a day or start a YouTube channel to get famous, but we do anyway (well, not me, but the collective We certainly do). And that doesn’t just go for Millennials: Facebook usage is declining among younger people because their parents (Boomers! shakes fist) have slowly taken over. Magazine columnists can try to pin the narcissism epidemic on young people all they want, but when I go to restaurants nowadays I see just as many if not more parents on their phones than younger people. We can’t simply blame the times and the technology for our behavior, because we’re human beings with the capacity to choose whether to succumb to societal forces or to instead carve our own path, peer pressure be damned.
I think we’ll be all right. Like generations before us, we have a great opportunity to make things better. That will involve some pushing back against the political and cultural acrimony that has characterized the Boomers’ ascendency and reign, but every generation has had to clean up the messes of its predecessors. We Millennials will inevitably make mistakes, and our kids will have been formed by them in some way, for better or for worse. Let’s just hope it’s for the better.
There’s a scene in Saving Private Ryan when Matt Damon’s Pvt. Ryan and Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller sit and chat, waiting for the impending German offensive to hit their French town. Ryan’s three brothers had recently died and he can’t remember their faces. The Captain tells him to think of a specific context, something they’d shared together. When the Captain thinks of home, he says, “I like of my hammock in the backyard or my wife pruning the rosebushes in a pair of my old work gloves.”
Ryan then tells the story of the brothers’ last night together before the war took them away, his enthusiasm growing as his face brightens with the look of recognition. After he finishes the story, he asks Captain Miller to tell him about his wife and the rosebushes. “No,” the Captain says. “That one I save just for me.”
In this the Age of Oversharing, this is a refreshing if soon-to-be anachronistic sentiment. I’ll admit to feeling the ongoing urge to inform The World via Twitter of funny or interesting things that happen to me during the day, or to display my pithy wit with a topical one-liner. But lately I’ve been compelled by a new urge, similar to that of Tom Hanks’ laconic Captain Miller in this case, which tells me to think twice before sharing whatever it is I want to share with the world.
Perhaps this is due to my being an inherently reserved person, reluctant to simply give away every little thought that enters my brain. Some people, I fully realize, aren’t built this way; they want to share themselves and their lives entirely and get fulfillment out of this. That’s perfectly fine. But I like the idea of keeping some moments – the rosebush prunings of our lives – special, not posted on Twitter or Instagram or even a WordPress blog.
This requires a lot of discipline. Being hyperconnected to social networks makes sharing intentionally easy, so overcoming the desire to post a picture of a sunset scene you’re sharing with a loved one is tough, especially when the desire to share has been engrained and even encouraged by our plugged-in culture. But I think a special moment like that becomes a little less special when every one of your Facebook friends and their mother shares it too.
This notion runs counter to many of my identities. As an amateur techie, I marvel at the capabilities the Web can give ordinary people to express themselves and enhance their lives. As a history buff and librarian/archivist in training, I understand the value of information as the record of history and the zeitgeist of an era. And as a user of Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress, I’ve come to enjoy having easily accessible and usable media to help me share cool photos, links, and thoughts short (on Twitter) and long (on here) whenever and wherever I want.
In spite of all these conflicts of interest, I’m OK with, once in a while, letting moments and images and quotes pass by undocumented and unshared, if only so I can feel in that moment that I got a glance, however fleeting, at something beautiful or inspiring or funny or tragic or all of the above, and that it’s all mine. The memory of that moment may die with me, but hey, that’s life. No matter how high-quality resolution the camera or beautifully eloquent the prose, these second-hand records will never be quite as pure as the real thing, the moments they seek to honor.
So here’s to, once in a while, living in the moment and only in the moment.