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Living a better life on social media

Published onJan 18, 2021
Living a better life on social media

Ready to quit social media? You’re not alone. So many of us feel bad about our lives on social media right now. Some people are worried about bad actors spreading bad information; others just don’t like watching so many people fighting. Some of us feel stressed out about how much we want to read; others feel like social media are filled with too much junk. Plenty of people (including our elected officials!) are upset at the companies that run these services. But some of us just feel like we’re addicted and we don’t like it, or our social media interactions just feel “off” somehow.

I got a head start on leaving social media: I left Facebook in about 2012 and started spending a lot less time on Twitter in 2016. And I can tell you, I actually feel the difference. My stress levels have dropped tremendously. I have less FOMO (fear of missing out). I feel less addicted, and the places where I do spend time online feel a lot more valuable to me.

That’s the trick: You don’t have to give up on your friends when you leave big social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. There are sites and apps that don’t have the same business models as Facebook and Twitter—those algorithm-driven models that serve up ever more upsetting and addicting stuff.

I have successfully gotten together with friends who wanted off the sites and made the case to the rest of our friends that we’d be happier spending time somewhere else. We have moved to private channels where we have more control over what we see and talk about. And we’re a lot happier this way.

The best thing about not being on public, algorithm-driven social media is that you have more control over moderation. No more waiting for Facebook and Twitter to ban trolls, harassers, and other bad actors. More-private online spaces let us decide on our own what “bad behavior” is, and manage the space on our own. This gives us room to open up and really be social—not to perform that our lives are “perfect,” not to only share the most sanitized parts of our lives, but to really share our struggles and our small joys. I honestly believe “social media,” as they stand today, are really “antisocial.” They aren’t like our in-person social lives because of what they need to do to turn a profit.

I’m going to share with you the secret recipe of one of my favorite online communities, because the choices we made really improved our lives. Building a great online space takes some careful work, but the rewards are huge. I feel far, far less lonely, upset, and angry than I did in 2014, when I was still struggling with how crummy social media were making me feel.

This recipe isn’t for everyone. But you also don’t have to take on every single “ingredient” here. Just doing a few things—muting notifications, picking an app that lets you “thread” conversations, or setting some ground rules for what you do and don’t talk about in a given channel—can make your online social life less stressful. Pick and choose what works for you and your friends.

Here’s how we built one of the friendliest online social spaces ever,

in chat apps that don’t use algorithms to show us stuff. First of all:

Our community is by invite only.
There’s a difference between public and private spaces in the rest of your life, right? Same goes for online. As I said in Keep Calm and Log On, this is the difference between “broadcast” speech and interpersonal speech. You speak differently to your grandma, your drinking buddies, the kids you babysit, your church group, and your intimate partner, right? If you know you might be speaking to all of them at once, you’re going to be careful in what you say. That’s “broadcast” mode. In Keep Calm and Log On, I quoted one of our community members, who says “broadcast” speaking is like singing on stage, which is really different from how you’d sing if you were singing a lullaby to a baby.

When we’re in a more private space, we can open up about things we wouldn’t be comfortable talking about with everyone watching. So everyone we invite to our online chat space is known to at least one of us, and we get to know each other well.

In our space, we also bring new people on slowly, so as not to suddenly drastically change the culture of the place. We also tend to bring on two or three people at a time, to make sure new people don’t feel like the only one who is suddenly learning about all these new guidelines and people.

Making a community invite-only isn’t the only way to keep it friendly. There are online communities like MetaFilter that have kept it friendly for years while also being effectively public spaces; you can read about how MetaFilter does it here and here. One of the key things is having a code of conduct.

Our code of conduct

We have a code of conduct, and when it gets broken, we talk it out.
A code of conduct is absolutely crucial, and it’s the thing that big social media platforms are usually bad at enforcing. They do have terms of service, sure, but those are more about the companies’ legal liability than what we need to have a productive, drama-free conversation. They’re not as detailed as some people may want when it comes to rules about kicking out troublemakers. And for the most part, companies don’t hire enough people to effectively enforce them, or back up the people they do hire. (Reddit is an interesting case. This social media service has volunteer moderators, but the rules in each sub-Reddit differ wildly. So finding a friendly community can be kind of a mixed bag.)

Our code of conduct in our space includes the following points:

We trust each other with our secrets, and the secrets of others.
Because the internet increasingly gets treated like your “permanent record” that can be held against you, it’s important to us to ensure that what is said won’t be repeated to someone’s boss, coworkers, their family members, or the internet at large. It’s part of making a space where people feel free to open up. Not every online community needs this rule—we just needed a place to vent, and so we set this rule up.

We assume each other’s good intentions.
As I said in Keep Calm and Log On, written communication and other lack of context can make it really hard to understand what someone means when they write something online. Are they being sarcastic? Are they attacking us? What tone of voice should we hear in our heads when we read what they say? Because it’s so easy to imagine that someone is picking a fight with you, “assume others’ good intentions” is a good rule to remind everyone that what someone is saying may not be meant as an attack. If someone is doing something we find upsetting, we may ask for clarification about what they’re trying to do or say. And we’re honest when something hurts us, framing it in “I” statements.

We have each other’s backs.
This particular community was started as a support group when a lot of us were frustrated with things happening in our workplace and our profession (basically, some #MeToo moments), and we needed a place to compare notes and get reassurance. This rule encourages us to be supportive when someone is struggling, and to offer resources when they’re needed.

We’ve established this as a community that isn’t about drama for its own sake. It’s not about teasing or one-upping each other. If interpersonal drama arises, we have methods for talking it out, which I’ll describe in a second.

We are compassionate first and foremost...
We are careful if we need to criticize others. We don’t offer corrections to hurt others or elevate ourselves over them; rather, we do it to help them avoid being hurt or understand how they may be coming off to other people. A rule of thumb is we aim to be two out of “true, kind, and useful”—guidance that comes from philosophy and mindfulness traditions.

Note that “true, kind, and useful” means not prolonging an argument just because you think you know the truth and someone else does not (you may be familiar with feeling like “someone is wrong on the internet!!!!1” as a longstanding source of online drama). It may be true that someone in your community is making terrible life choices. But telling them “you’re making a terrible choice!” isn’t necessarily kind or useful—the person may not reconsider their decisions just because you said so, and you putting it that way may just increase strife. There may be moments where you need to say something that’s only true and useful, but not necessarily kind—but it’s a good idea to think very carefully about whether it will have the impact you want.

…but we ask before we get “helpy.”
Sometimes people are just looking to vent or get support from their online crew. They may have already thought hard about how to fix difficult situation they’re facing. They’re not actually looking for advice or help. For this reason, we often ask “are you looking for advice, or just emotional support?” or “what can we do to support you?” first. This helps avoid another pattern I talked about in Keep Calm and Log On: sometimes, our desire to help is more about feeling good about ourselves than it is about actually helping the other person.

We don’t fault anyone for being away or unresponsive for a while.
Again, as I said in Keep Calm, it can be really easy to convince yourself that someone online hates you or is snubbing you if they don’t respond, because it’s hard to see what’s going on in their life—they may be dealing with a family emergency, be depressed, or just be busy at work. So we make sure people know it’s OK if they have to take time off. Anytime someone apologizes for being away for a while, we greet them with “Universal free pass! Nobody is obligated to read everything that was said here!”

That said, we do check in with people who haven’t been around for a while if we’re worried about them. We also check to see if they still want to be involved, and remove invites to those who don’t want to be involved, just so it’s easier for everyone to keep track of who we’re speaking t.

How we set up our chat apps

There are a handful of guidelines that aren’t so much about our code of conduct; they’re more about how we use the app to make the community happier:

We have multiple channels, based on what people do and don’t want to see.
If you want a quick and easy way to turn down the firehose of information, this is a great one. We have channels for politics, parenting, work, and cute animals, among other things, and people pick which ones they participate in. This way people who want to nerd out heavily over, say, fanfiction or food photos can do so in those channels without clogging a main channel when other people aren’t interested. In one of my online communities, splitting discussion into multiple channels has led to some great changes: one of my oldest online friends, who was feeling overwhelmed by how much he had to read and how out-of-order it seemed, is now much happier chatting with us.

My main online community also tends to make separate chat channels for things that might be upsetting or require a “content/trigger warning”—for example, medical issues (one for people and one for pets) and frightening things in the news, or things others might not want to see at work (sexytimes, etc). We did this so people can avoid things that will send their blood pressure through the roof if they want to. It’s not censorship, it just lets people control what they see and when.

Think of it like rooms in a house. The toilet, kitchen, and garage are separate for good reasons. And people have different reasons why kids’ and grownups’ rooms may or may not be separate.

We have a special channel for talking out problems that arise.
The people having the argument take the discussion there, sometimes bringing along other neutral parties who they trust to help resolve the problem. Having a separate channel for this is surprisingly important! When the argument takes up a lot of room in a regular channel, people who aren’t part of it get fatigued really fast. It has nearly caused our community to fall apart a few times. Making sure there’s still room for the everyday flow of work gripes, successes with the kids, and cute animal pictures as well as the argument is a big part of keeping the community healthy and happy.

We make use of discussion threads.
Threading is the term for a software interface that makes it clear who is responding to whom, rather than just putting all new comments in a big line. Reddit and Tumblr have strong threading interfaces; Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp less so.

You might be surprised at how much of a difference threading makes to keeping conversations readable and understandable—not to mention civil! But it really makes a lot of sense. When we talk face to face, we turn to each other, gesture at each other, and make eye contact to make it clear we’re responding to someone else. Written comment threads don’t give us that opportunity. Audio chat doesn’t fully support making it clear who you’re talking to. Even video chat doesn’t do a great job replicating what we have in face to face conversations—if you’ve ever gotten annoyed that someone wasn’t looking you in the eye on a video call, you know what I’m talking about.

Threading is one of the better ways to clarify who’s responding to whom, by associating new comments with older ones. Slack does a particularly good job of supporting threaded conversations.

We use threads in a couple of ways, in our community. One is to keep from flooding a channel with a lot of comments at once. Another is to hide spoilers for books, shows, or movies we know some people haven’t seen yet. And we also use them to give people the choice to skip upsetting content or read through it if they want to, with a content warning in the beginning of the thread.

A lot of us aggressively mute our device notifications.
I am always surprised when I run across someone who still lets their phone make noise and flash at them every time they get a new message. How do you function?! I can’t even cope when a message makes a new icon up in the top bar. Getting notified about everything is a HUGE source of the stress our devices make us feel.

My main online chat group is in Slack, and Slack does a good job of letting you dial up or down how much you get notified. There are a few different places you may need to set your notifications—both for the app on your device and for sound and email options within the app itself—but once you get them set up right Slack is delightfully quiet. My favorite part is muting individual channels. If you mute them, they don’t pop to the top brightly when they get a new message, and they don’t tell you “ELEVENTY SQUILLION+ NEW MESSAGES” when you go back to read them. The channel just starts you with the last message someone wrote. It’s a relief having that option.

So how do you get started setting up a new community away from algorithm-driven social media? Which app should you choose?

Apps and sites where you can get multiple channels, threads, and muting

Slack, Discord, Mattermost, Telegram, and Zulip are easy-to-use apps where you can get the benefits of multiple channels, threading, and muting options. They are, however, all owned by corporations. (And don’t believe Telegram’s privacy and security promises.) Zulip and Mattermost are open source, which means more security professionals can take a look at their code and ensure it protects user security and privacy. Free alternatives that you can set up yourself are usually more technically challenging to get started with, but for the truly old-school, there’s IRC.

If your group is small (say less than six people) and doesn’t talk much, so you don’t really care about channels or threads, WhatsApp, GroupMe, or better yet, Signal could even fill your needs for socializing without everything you post being in public or served up via some mystery-meat algorithm. Signal is run by a nonprofit with the goal of protecting user privacy, and I highly recommend it (and in fact, since I started writing this a few weeks back, its popularity on app stores has gone through the roof). WhatsApp and GroupMe, again, are run by big tech corporations (WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and GroupMe is owned by Microsoft); they just don’t show you things based on an algorithm, which I think is an improvement over the services we usually think of as “social media.”

If you’re using Slack and are worried about your conversations being leaked in some way, you might want to make use of this Chrome plugin to delete your old Slack messages. Here are some thoughts from my friend Mary Gardiner on why you might want to delete older chats.

There you go—that’s a lot, but like I said, you don’t have to make every change I recommended here. Even making a few can improve your online social life.

For more ideas on shaping a friendly community

Check out the Coral Project’s blog.

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