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Why is it so difficult to reduce social media use?

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The jury’s out. Cutting down social media usage has many benefits. It can make you both more creative and happier. But cutting social media can be surprisingly hard to do. So in order to do so, you need to understand just what makes it so difficult.

The answer lies in the study of cybernetics: how to understand systems.

Cybernetics: how to understand systems

Although the work of the greatest pioneer in cybernetics, Gregory Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”, was published almost 50 years ago, it’s still relevant today.

You don’t need to read Bateson’s work to understand the principles; simply think about driving a car. You press the gas pedal and the car goes faster. You can see the speedometer creeping up, and the world through the windows moving past. This is a feedback system. You do something, and you see the response.

But when you’re driving, even if it’s a Formula 1 car, you don’t keep going faster and faster. There’s a physical limit to the force that the engine can produce, there are bends that can’t be taken at speed, and of course, in the real world, there are traffic laws and other road users to consider. This is an example of a closed system: you can make changes, but only within certain limits.

Incomplete feedback from likes, views, and shares

How does this apply to social media? Firstly, as a user, you’re getting incomplete feedback. The system provides some feedback, in likes, views, or shares, but much of the rest is hidden. You get an incomplete view of other users’ lives.

Your Instagram feed is full of people looking happy and fit, eating delicious food in exotic places, and living their best life. What will you choose to post? Your ordinary day, your boring meal, your untidy house? Probably not.

From a cybernetic point of view, this is feedback. You post your pictures, and you get something back, which influences what you post next.

However, everything you see is being curated and edited but presented as if it were real. This is like driving a car with a malfunctioning speedometer and a video feed of the Bahamas instead of windows. It’s unlikely to end well.

Secret algorithms of social media companies

Secondly, you’re part of another, parallel system which never gives you any feedback at all. Social media companies aim to make money. To maximize their revenue from advertisers, they need to increase user engagement – they need to make you click more, for longer.

How they do this is entirely opaque. Of course, their algorithms are commercially sensitive, and they’ll never be shared with users, but from a cybernetic point of view, this is a disaster.

It’s the equivalent of driving a car (or more accurately being a passenger) with no owner’s manual, in which the pedals and controls seem to produce certain results though you can never be sure why, and at any time the manufacturer can remotely change what particular controls do, or stop them working at all.

Endless dopamine reward

Finally, social media isn’t a closed system. There are two feedback loops that can potentially spiral on forever.

The first is your dopamine reward system, which social media companies exploit in order to get money from advertisers. You post something and other people like it. Your brain is wired to favor social connection, so you get a hit of dopamine. You feel good, so you post again, or comment more often, or spend more time liking other people’s posts.

But surely there’s a point where you’re feeling good all the time, so you can stick at that level? Unfortunately, another feature of the human mind is hedonic adaptation. You’ll never get to the point where you’re at constant maximum happiness, so you’ll seek more and more validation from social media.

Endless content

The second open, infinite system is the social media themselves. Technically it’s a closed system in that there’s a possible endpoint where every person on earth is spending every moment of their life online. However, for practical purposes it’s unlimited. There is endless content. While the platforms remain there will never be no more pictures on Instagram, no more tweets, or no more Facebook posts.

Imagine driving a car that makes you feel good when you go fast and bad when you slow down, but which has no upper-speed limit. Hour by hour you go faster and faster, and hour by hour it becomes harder to control.

Conclusion

Understanding the basics of cybernetics, that systems are built on feedback loops and can be closed or open, helps to understand why reducing social media use is so hard. The feedback that you’re getting, which should help you to moderate your use, is either distorted or missing completely. And because it’s an open system, there’s no natural point at which you’ll reach equilibrium: there will never be an “enough”. If you want to change the way you use social media, recognizing the ways that these systems work is an important first step.

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