My friend Clo, a user experience designer specializing in mindful design, organized a salon on digital wellness. To kick off the discussion, she asked the participants to explain their methods of taking care of themselves in their digital interactions. One person talked about their experience of going off the grid, i.e., not using social media, for a full year. In contrast, others spoke about setting their phones into a do-not-disturb mode, unfollowing people (without unfriending), and tools that block the websites’ distracting parts. That is something I do, too, and I created a browser extension for this purpose called Disable Twitter Feed. However, even those of us who admit to social media’s addictiveness agreed that staying away from it in its entirety for a long time is very difficult. For example, local businesses often use Instagram as the primary channel to communicate their offers, instead of a website or a newsletter. That could be a whole discussion in itself and an exciting challenge to move small businesses towards the IndieWeb and increase their independence from social networking silos without losing their audience. Another way for individuals to improve their social media experience with discipline is to set intentions for it. The choice is to use it actively, i.e., engage with content and people, instead of passively, i.e., “doomscrolling”. One attendee said that she only opens the Twitter app on her phone with a specific goal in mind.
The discussion took a quick and unexpected turn from social media to work-life balance and the boundaries separating people and their employers, especially when working remotely. The main problem is that people use the same device to receive social notifications and messages from their work teams, combined with managers setting the expectation of always-on employees. In this regard, there are substantial cultural differences between countries and industries. For example, European companies are much more respectful (and legally obliged) about these boundaries than their US-American counterparts. Related to that is the cult of working long hours, typical in Silicon Valley, consulting firms, and the finance industry. While some people may enjoy it as a learning experience, it shouldn’t set everyone’s expectations. It’s worth improving company culture and establishing proper communication etiquette, but it is hard to do from the bottom when employees feel insecure. Leaders should set a good example and consider it a measure of employee retention to treat their teams with additional respect for their time off. One way could be scheduling messages to deliver when we expect the other person to work anyway.
For the next part of the conversation, we talked about news production and consumption and the problem of filter bubbles. Regarding news production, there is a problem with the business model and the incentives. Articles that go viral trump everything else, which drives news organizations to focus on outrageous topics. Once they’ve identified a specific niche audience, they may double down on it, and that’s how Americans got Fox News. There are better funding models such as public media, subscriptions, donations, and services like Scroll. It would be a fallacy, though, to believe that paying more and getting rid of ads would suddenly make all news enjoyable.
As consumers, we can curate our newsfeeds with different sources to avoid being locked into a single perspective. The Internet allowed us to expand our circles beyond our immediate surroundings, and we should leverage that. Of course, even a curated feed is still a manufactured reality that doesn’t represent objective reality, if such a thing even exists. On the other hand, always challenging our views is exhausting. A filter bubble is a comfort zone, and sometimes we need to retreat into one as an act of self-care. Escapism isn’t always bad, and avoiding news or politics and going into a “peaceful” mode may sometimes be the right move. Most information is irrelevant anyway or lacks the context that allows us to judge its relevancy properly. The bigger picture and valuable learning evolve from looking at history or engaging with deep-dives such as long-form writing and podcasts. As usual, engaging with current news is a trade-off, similar to focus and serendipity in general, and requires a bit of discipline. Reading on paper can also be great as there are no hyperlinks that make us jump around, so it’s easier to focus on a single piece.
The next part of the discussion was about digital privacy and business models in more general terms beyond the news industry. We talked about how it’s hard to convince tech companies to implement “humane tech” when it may hurt their bottom line. Companies provide options to customize settings but generally apply the defaults that benefit them. As a result, consumers and companies continually blame each other for the responsibility. Consumers don’t reward apps that care by favoring free-with-ads options when they exist. On the other hand, privacy appears to be a privilege when many people and organizations, especially in lower-income countries, cannot afford better, more privacy-friendly tools.
Open-source tools that give users more control don’t have a great user experience because technically-minded people build them for other technically-minded people. These people possess a “purity mindset” regarding privacy and decentralization but aren’t working with designers to make their solutions accessible. Again, it’s a funding issue, but maybe philanthropists could step in, as they do for the Signal messenger.
Near the end, Clo circled back to the beginning and asked us if there are any tools that we want to add to our toolbox. Participants mentioned time-blocking, virtual co-working for accountability, looking to contribute more on social media than consuming, stopping using devices in bed, and trying to get rid of FOMO.
Clo’s salon was a great conversation touching many topics related to digital wellness, but there’s so much more that requires a discussion. For example, how sustainability plays into it. Also, it’s crucial not just to discuss the problem but also to find solutions.
I’m looking forward to follow-up discussions, whether that’s on social media, in one-on-one chats, or another salon.