Social networks are fun, and even useful. But they’re a terrible primary tool for staying informed about the world. Here’s why—and what you should be using instead.
I’m not saying social networks are bad! I got this job basically by tweeting, and I really value the relationships I’ve made online. I also find a lot of informative articles using these networks, which is awesome. But social media isn’t a great primary tool for learning about current events.
Nuance Rarely Goes Viral
People tend to share and upvote things that resonate on an emotional level and confirm an existing worldview. In politics, this means jokes and headlines that “prove” the other side is wrong. In the tech ecosystem, where I work, it tends to be articles that “prove” the company you don’t like is bad.
There are exceptions, of course. But this is a very real pattern.
It’s too bad, because stories like this are rarely useful. I’ve written for a number of technology sites and have seen this play out several times. Stories that I put a lot of work into, that I’m proud of, barely attract an audience. Meanwhile, quick stories that have an emotionally resonant headline spread far and wide, quickly collecting hundreds of thousands of views.
An article being emotionally resonant doesn’t mean it’s bad. But writers can’t cover every useful subject this way, and sometimes trying to do so is distracting. It’s hard to be fully informed reading only articles that totally ‘own’ one side or another.
I’m lucky to write for a site that doesn’t obsess over numbers, giving me the freedom to write boring stuff without consequence. I hope you’ll find some time to read stuff you initially find boring, because it’s the only way to learn about new subjects.
Algorithms Know What You’ve Been, Not What You Want To Be
There’s a difference between the person you are and the person you want to be. Social media algorithms don’t acknowledge that.
This means these systems end up encouraging your worst habits, without you even realizing it. Say you think that unconfirmed gossip about public figures isn’t helping you learn more about the world, or making you a better person. And yet, you sometimes click them. That’s relatable, right?
But every time you click a gossipy headline, you’re teaching an algorithm that you like those sorts of articles, which means you’re going to see those sorts of articles more often. This in turn gives you more opportunity to click those sorts of articles, and continue teaching the algorithm how much you like them. At no point will a social network ask you whether this is the person you aspire to be—they’ll just continue to quietly encourage what you yourself might feel is a bad habit.
Social networks are picking up on our worst habits, encouraging us to continue in those bad habits, and telling us it’s because that’s who we really are.
Social media algorithms don’t know about your aspirations. They only know about what you’ve done in the past.
You’re Missing Out On Good Stuff
Stop me if you’ve said this before: “the media” isn’t covering an issue that’s important to you. Sometimes that’s true, which sucks, but often the media is covering that issue. It’s just that the story isn’t getting a lot of likes, shares or retweets, and isn’t showing up on your news feed.
Major media publications write about a variety of topics, but a lot of the most important information is too dry to ever go viral. And if you get all your news from social network, you’ll never see it.
Don’t Quit Social Networks, But Get News Somewhere Else
Again: I am not proposing that you give up on social media. It’s a great source of entertainment, and even a useful tool at times.
Instead, I suggest building a different habit for staying informed. Find some way to regularly see a broad cross-section of headlines about a variety of subjects. Stumble upon new ideas. And even better, stumble across those ideas in a forum where commenting and sharing isn’t as big a thing.
Here are a few suggestions I have for doing this:
- Find a few media organizations you trust and visit their homepage regularly. You’ll see a wide cross-section of news on a variety of topics, curated by human editors instead of machines.
- Learn how to use RSS. You can add the feeds for a few news organizations you trust and see every headline from them, instead of just the few stories that happen to go viral. You’ll be surprised how much you’re missing out on.
- Subscribe to some physical magazines and newspapers. Oldschool I know, but something about paging through paper makes you more likely to read about topics you otherwise wouldn’t be interested in.
- If paper is just too retro, use Calibre to download entire magazines to your Kindle instead. It works surprisingly well, and is free.
- Google News just had a major update, and it’s a great way to browse articles about any topic from multiple reputable news sources, including local ones. Give it a try.
These are just a few tips, of course: the specific steps don’t matter. The important thing is you build some kind of habit outside of social media that keeps you informed. No app is going to do this for you, so it’s important that you build your own discipline.
And hey, if you find something interesting and nuanced, you could also share it online. You’ll be fighting the pattern of nonsense, and maybe it’ll get a couple of likes.
Photo Credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com