At this point we’ve all heard that social media
I’m going to talk a lot about “social media” in this post and “following people.” When I say those words you should know that I’m not picturing TikTok or Instagram or whatever it is that people actually use these days. I’m old. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. YMMV.
is bad for your well-being. There is much to be wary of, hence this post. But suffice-it-to-say I think it comes down to how you use it. Maybe follow more authentic people than influencers. Resist the temptation to make your feed interesting by filling it with FOMO-inducing excitement. Instead fill it with bus ticket collectors who are so charmingly eccentric that their passion gives you vicarious joy.
At some point I’d like to write about the rise of authentically individual media, but not today. Today let’s talk about politics. More specifically, whom do you follow (if anyone) to keep up with current events in the world and to get their takes on those events.
Historically (pre-2020) I filtered out most sources of news from my feeds, since following the news has a tendency to make you dumber.
Information conveyed by news tends to be high on random facts and low on understanding. Merely knowing more facts doesn’t make you dumber. What makes you dumber is on the meta level. Having more facts in your brain on a subject tricks your brain into being more confident about it. You end up thinking you understand more without actually understanding anything better, hence you are now dumber.
Given that we are in a period of historic change,
Not exceptionally historic by any means. If you study history even a little you realize these periods of change happen quite frequently. But some years more so than others.
I feel naked when I don’t know which way the wind is blowing. So recently I have not just relaxed my news filter, I have gone out of my way to seek out new people
Cool trick to find people to follow: pick a current issue and research it more deeply than the headlines. You will almost certainly run across information that more closely resembles the truth than what most people are talking about. Use search tools to find who has been sharing that information. Browse a sampling of those people and follow whoever seems interesting.
to break out of my filter bubble.
The result of my curation efforts is—dare I say—a joy to read.
Having a too enjoyable feed introduces its own problems. It has forced me to develop discipline in the form of habits around when I do and do not consume the feed.
A political feed doesn’t have to be consistently outrage-inducing. Having reflected on the success, I would like to share with you one of the key principles why I think it works.
The word of the day is: kindness
Now… kindness is a fairly broad term. So tactically I want to focus on two specific flavors:
- Kindness in discourse – does the person belittle others? Do they refuse to extend a principle of charity?
- Kindness to groups of “others” – does the person express callous indifference or ill-will to entire groups of people?
Kindness in discourse
This one doesn’t require as much explanation. While it can feel rewarding to see someone on your “side” put down someone on the other side, the feeling is fleeting. Hanging around jerks—no matter how justified their actions seem
When dealing with people not worth having civil discourse with—typically the target of belittling—often times the best move is not to play.
—just drags you down into negativity.
On top of that, seeing people belittled invokes System 1 thinking. An easy way to blind yourself to the valuable things (however few they are) that the target of belittling has to say.
Kindness to groups of “others”
This phrase requires a little more unpacking. The short version is: I don’t tolerate people who have succumbed to the kind of thinking that wishes ill-will on an entire group of people.
The longer version involves exploring a nuance: it doesn’t bother me when someone is ignorant on an issue.
I’ve noticed a particular line of reasoning that has become popular in recent years. A frequent example involves the label “racist,” but the general shape applies to many labels. The argument goes like this: policy X / politician Y / faction Z promotes or contributes to racist outcomes, therefore anyone who supports X / Y / Z is a racist. Or “they decided it wasn't a deal-breaker.” Analyzing this argument would be a whole post of its own. But suffice it to say, not all those people are nearly as bad as you think, and filtering out their thoughts entirely from your feed runs you dangerously close to living in an echo chamber.
Perhaps it’s an opportunity for me to educate others. Or perhaps my assessment of their ignorance was unfounded and there is an opportunity to correct my own ignorance. Similarly, I am not necessarily offended by people who knowingly accept a bad outcome for a given group, if it was done with a heavy heart after weighing all the options and deciding one option was best on net—even if I happen not to agree with the decision.
Where I draw the line is when people forget that groups of people are made of individuals. Individuals who may or may not have chosen to be a part of the group, and who may have had nothing to do with whatever sins that the group is perceived to have committed. Perhaps individuals “deserve” a fate, but no group of people does.
You may draw your line in a different place. That is fine. What I am suggesting is you can draw a line that includes people of opposing viewpoints, while still keeping out people who practice morally bad thinking.
Not a moral philosophy
Don’t let me discourage you from confronting unkind expression on the internet, if that is your goal. I am not suggesting these things because it is the moral thing to do. Nor am I suggesting how communities should moderate themselves in response to unkind actions. “Civility is a tool of the oppressor,” and all that.
My claim is far more limited: filtering out people
I acknowledge that not all aspects of social media are consensual. Some people attract harassers faster than they can ban and unfollow people. This is beyond my area of experience.
who fail to be kind will lead to a happier you, without having to stop following politics and current events entirely.
A World Full of People
There are a lot of smart, insightful, funny, and entertaining people who fail my test. Some have zillions of followers. Some are undoubtedly a net force for good in the world. They might even be kind people overall. But if they can’t be kind in my feed, I don’t need their presence in front of my eyeballs.
Your attention is finite. The number of people you could follow? Effectively infinite. When the cost of unfollowing someone is so low, just move on.
Heck, social media companies are heavily incentivized to help you find new people to follow, so take advantage of it? This introduces its own problems. Perhaps the subject for another day.