As I’ve attempted to live on first principles, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal has been the ability to opt out of participating in systems that I feel are harmful, unjust, induce deep skepticism, or give power to those who I feel gain such power undeservedly.
Nonparticipation is a powerful and transformative tool. It is a pillar of self-governance. Exploring this principle has had a transformative effect in my life. This idea is so powerful, in fact, that it can seem a bit bewildering in its simplicity. The power in nonparticipation hides in the fact that power relies on participation. If you choose to not participate, you choose to not give power to those who mean to take it.
A very visible example of nonparticipation exists with dietary restrictions. Vegetarians opt out of participating in the meat industry. Vegans opt out of any animal product farming entirely. While the reasoning for such decisions ranges widely from health to ethics, the collective nonparticipation allows these folks to live in accordance with their principles while still eating food required for sustaining existence.
One powerful example in my life is my nonparticipation in social media. Years ago I deleted my Facebook account. When I decided to move out of the US, I also deleted my LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. This represented a liberation from the private surveillance systems constructed in the name of behavioral analytics that are sold to advertisers. A sort of voyeuristic panopticon that exploits our weakness for variable reward and pushes us to participate in a strange sort of corporate surveillance that is ever-consuming in our lives.
I’ll be direct in saying that quitting social media has been one of the most important decisions for my mental and physical health in the last ten years of my life. I spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter keeping track of what was going on. I was hooked on the dopamine rush that comes from the variable reward system that is social media. Architecturally, your Facebook Timeline or Twitter feed isn’t different than playing the slot machines. Very occasionally you hit the jackpot. Hitting the jackpot feels good. A little more often you get a small coin return; that feels ok. Most of the time you get nothing; that doesn’t feel great. You still remember how great getting the jackpot feels, so you pull again. Social media, casual gaming, and email all fall into the variable reward pattern. Our phones and our computers quickly turn into little crowd-sourced dopamine casinos.
And what’s in it for Facebook? What’s in it for Twitter? Our attention and our behavior. That data is sold to the highest bidder so that they can return value to their investors. It’s fascinating to think about. We’ve taken the internet, something that represents a vast commons of decentralized servers, and largely replaced it with the equivalent of hanging out in privately-owned virtual shopping malls.
The social media industry is entirely reliant on participation to survive. Your participation is, in fact, the product that these companies sell to their advertisers. I’m not comfortable with that arrangement, and so, I don’t participate.
Of course, cutting off ties to social media might sound inconceivable to some. How will people reach me? How will I keep up with friends and family? What about Facebook groups with people who share common interests? If you have an audience and community, are you supposed to just leave all of that behind? For me: yes, and it has been wonderful. First of all, the important people in your life, and I mean the truly important people, will accommodate a social media free you. I use a combination of messaging apps for various parties, primarily: Signal, Keybase, and WhatsApp. I use email and the telephone for everyone else. I no longer spend any time “crafting” a status message. I don’t check to see if a Tweet, Instagram post or Facebook update got some validation threshold of likes. Instead, I reinvest the time I’ve gained from sparing myself from constant distraction into working on deeply rewarding projects and occasionally writing for this blog.
My nonparticipation in social media lead me to turn down the volume on dopamine-inducing reward seeking, and the deep quiet and clarity of mind have lead me to work on personal projects that are deeply important to me, such as killcord. The focus on reducing the over-stimulation of reward centers stemmed from my discovery of Robert Lustig’s The Hacking of the American Mind, which helped me deepen my understanding that our diet and behaviors have such a deep physiological influence on our ability to be content. But that is a topic for another post.