Back in 2008 the Internet was a simpler place. Here’s how it broke down:
To talk to people 1-1 you knew in real life, or sometimes to people you worked with, you used mostly e-mail but sometimes “instant messaging”, which used to be different from texting because texting was only what you did on a flip phone with a 0-9 keypad, and only if you had the dexterity of a Japanese teenager.
To talk to people you didn’t know on the Internet you used mailing lists or one of many shitty forum interfaces (or if you were really old, you used USENET). These systems generally scaled to a few tens of thousands of users at most. Occasionally there might be drama, but it was always localized.
Some people would write comments on blogs. Those people were to be ignored.
I remember when someone first told me about Twitter in 2008. “A web site where you can post AIM status messages? How adorable” is what I thought to myself. I made an account and mostly ignored it.
I also remember when I got tricked into using Facebook. Until then Facebook was primarily a platform for college kids and other riff-raff. Somehow I thought my parents had joined to keep tabs on my siblings. I did not find out that this was not the case until too late.
With the benefit of hindsight I think the Internet would have been a better place if these systems had not been built. But their existence was probably inevitable. Others had tried before them (friendster, myspace, livejournal, orkut, iTunes ping (just kidding, this one does not count)) and at some point you had to believe that there would be a centralized location on the nets for people to feed the insatiable human need for approval from their peers. Ultimately this is what the sites are really about. You post things. You get little endorphin rushes from the likes. I’m not judging. I do this too.
That said, I think less experienced users of online systems don’t really understand how to both use the systems and minimize the extent to which you end up in a place where the system does nothing but make you hate the world.
Here is the number one biggest problem with using the Internet to communicate with people: free and unfettered interaction with people who you do not know on the Internet is a provably bad thing. But, social networking systems are built with the core goal of making it hard for you to avoid this. Their entire model is to minimize the distance between you and randoms, mostly by making it possible for anyone in the transitive closure of your acquaintance graph to find you and talk to you for no reason at all. Even Google+, which tried to allow you to control this, defaulted to letting anyone you knew at Google read and write your timeline unless you stopped it. Luckily the system never grew beyond just the people you knew at Google.
So here are the anti-social rules for using social networks.
Rule 1: Don’t Talk to Anyone
The most important rule on the social networks is to work hard not to talk to anyone at all. Even if this is your core behavior it will be the case that you, being human, will occasionally let something leak out. If this happens always make that thing as context free as possible. Don’t express opinions. Don’t mention other people. For god’s sake never reply to your mentions.
Other random things to never talk about on social media: work, family, work and family, politics, any subject matter requiring subtle thought or layers of meaning, anything you are angry about. It’s almost to the point where even things as vacuous as sports and pop culture need to be off limits (see Gamergate).
The most stress I ever had online was when I called a writer on NY magazine a moron for writing a really moronic thing about “techies” in Silicon Valley. I have a short fuse when it comes to stereotyping people who are good with working with computers. The comment set off a seemingly unending stream of replies at various levels of invective. I think at that point and time I would also get emails whenever anyone mentioned or replied to me on twitter. Which made it even worse. Which leads to rule 2.
Rule 2: No Notifications
Unless the only way you will find out about an important death in the family is a social network notification, just turn them off. Jesus. What could possibly be important enough on twitter or Facebook for you to want your phone to make noise when it happens? Notifications are for text messages from the 10 people who might tell you someone important in your family has died. Otherwise leave them off.
Of course if you happen to use twitter or facebook as the primary way to stay in contact with those 10 people then what can I say. I guess you have to leave the firehose on.
Rule 3: Don’t Follow Anyone
I don’t really mean this literally. What I really mean is that you want to minimize the size of the initial wave front that the systems use to generate their transitive closure on you. This is what I do:
Don’t follow too many people.
Don’t follow people who post too much.
Twitter corollary: for god’s sake never follow anyone who posts tweetstorms or “threads” as we seem to call them now. In fact, just don’t read threads at all.
Mostly block retweets (or equivalent behavior).
Try to follow vacuous but entertaining people, rather than intellectual but always angry people.
Don’t follow people who say stupid things.
Block people who follow you who you do not know.
Always be ready with the block or mute button for people who talk too much or fill your timeline with nothing but their shares/likes/retweets.
Partition people who follow into buckets so you don’t have to look at everything at once. Both of the major systems have shitty ways to do this. But it’s mostly worth it.
Rule 4: Break the Transitive Closure
Ha ha just kidding. You can’t actually do this.
Facebook has always been the most aggressive about shoving their transitive closure engine down your throat. For some reason the people there think that it is much more interesting for me to see what everyone is sharing or liking or replying to rather than just the stuff they have directly posted. I assume this is because hardly anyone just posts plain data anymore, but the feeling is that my timeline needs to seem “busy”. Fuck that. The only way to really avoid it is to not use the system at all. So while I still have an account I try hard not to pay attention.
The situation at twitter is more subtle. They have tried to roll out their own versions of the facebook behavior, but it’s always somehow worse and more stupid. Twitter’s damage is completely packaged up in the fact that everything you post there is broadcast to the entire world and you have no way to keep the entire world from responding.
Digression: If I were actually following my own rules I’d lock my account and get on with my life. But doing this removes the ability to occasionally reply to the random post from people who are not following me, because they won’t be able to see it. Strangely, the random friendly reply is one of the only good things about twitter even though it shouldn’t be. Thus I’ve never managed to keep my account locked for any period of time.
The problem with twitter is you never know what thing all the randoms are going to see and decide to use as an excuse to storm into your replies. More importantly, you never know what thing the randoms are going to get really really angry about. I’ve only experienced a couple of small reply storms and really hated it. So over time I try to post less and less to the site, to avoid the inevitable mistake that I will make that will cause a reply storm that requires me to delete my account and quit my job.
Thus we have looped back to the rule 1.
Having written all this down, I conclude that I should really lock both of the social accounts that I use so I can’t actually post anything ever. But that probably won’t happen. This is why the Internet is the disease-filled hell-scape that we know and love today.