Five books about how the Internet is changing us

If I were to pinpoint a specific theme for this blog, and generally what fascinates me, it is how the Internet is changing us, and perhaps making us psychologically weaker. We are only really starting to understand the effect the Internet is having on us, and by now it is perhaps too late. I recently wrote a blog with five of my favourite psychology books, today I wanted to share five books that I think really helps us understand the effect the Internet has on us. They are essentially tech books, but in a lot of ways they are just as much about human nature as the ones in my previous list.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

No book has ever changed my online behaviour more than So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it is horrifying and would otherwise be a very difficult read were it not for the fact that Ronson is both very empathetic and very funny. The book is all about how Twitter encourages mob mentality and documents a number of cases where normal people have had their lives ruined for relatively minor transgressions on social media.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know all about how every day there is a new thing everybody has become outraged about on social media. It is a constant occurrence, one which thankfully I think the world is starting to realise is unhealthy for society. The ‘pile ons’ are more frequent but less devastating these days (in part because everyone moves onto the next one sooner).

Nethertheless, I would be lying if I didn’t say that this book made me incredibly gunshy about posting anything remotely controversial online, as well as making me often stop myself before joining a Twitter ‘pile on’. Like all Ronson’s work it is utterly brilliant and a must read.Continue Reading

Digital minimalism when you work online

Cal Newport

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while may remember my guide to improving reading speed, which referenced the book Deep Work by Cal Newport (whom I also was lucky enough to interview). Cal’s blog is superb and he is something of a guru when it comes to digital minimalism. This week he wrote an interesting blog post where he coined the term Facebook Phreak, to reference people who have installed apps and other mechanisms to reduce the number of distractions Facebook unleashes upon us.

In the blog post he referenced people who cull their friends, use Facebook specifically for special interest groups, deleted the Facebook app from their phone and installed blockers on their browser to kill the news feed. It turns out I am a Facebook Phreak because I do all these things.

Digital Minimalism is becoming very important to me, it is something where I have made some massive strides but also fall back into bad habits often. I use to block distracting websites when I work, I have removed email and browsing apps from my phone (if it wasn’t for podcasts and a weather app I’d be using a ‘dumb’ phone right now), I have started to mute a lot of political words from my Twitter, I only use Twitter socially in very specific time periods and I have even blocked the news channels on my TV. Watching people lose their shit over Donald Trump and arguing with people online about relatively trivial things is something I am trying to put to an absolute minimum in my life.

There is a problem, however, in that for my day job I need to stay plugged in to social media and news. I am the editor of a large poker website and a lot of my job includes working with our social media accounts and writing industry news (most of which comes one way or another from social or news sites). This naturally is at odds with my desire to keep my online interactions controlled and to a minimum.

I’ve by no means perfected this, but here are a few ways in which I have managed to stay plugged in without letting social media overwhelm my working day.Continue Reading

How the media feeds the outrage machine

simpsons-mob_featuredI’ve written recently about how comedy has come under fire from ‘outrage mobs’. I wanted to talk today about the role of the mainstream media in this.

One of the reasons why this culture of grievance has been allowed to ferment is because of the way digital news media is incentivized to produce content. It has always been the way that scandal has been primed to sell newspapers, but you can turn that effect up to 11 in the era of clickbait. Previously the media would get a flat fee from advertisers and/or make money by selling the most copies. While juicy stories and well crafted headlines would therefore be a big selling factor, there would also need to be a strong degree of quality and familiarity with the content. If you opened up a paper a few times and the content was poor or didn’t match the expectation the front page gave, you would soon stop buying that paper.

These days the business model of online news media is not entirely incentivized to give any such quality assurances over the content, in fact the model is so skewed towards crafting good headlines that a lot of websites exist purely to trick you into thinking the story is one way, when it is another. The news media business model largely relies on getting paid a small fee for every time somebody views a page with advertising on it. Usually something along the lines of getting $4 for every 1,000 page views. This changes the business model from one of producing quality content, to one of producing a lot of content and making the marketing of it the key focus. The more content a writer can produce, the more articles there are in circulation to get page views. There are no guarantees from this advertising model, no flat fees, which means that way more effort is put into marketing than previously in newspapers. One of the best organic ways of doing this is by crafting good, enticing and sometimes misleading headlines, known as ‘clickbait’.Continue Reading