A Break From Social Media, Being Present, and Unconstrained Optimization

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A Break From Social Media, Being Present, and Unconstrained Optimization

Published March 5, 2021

The Experiment

I recently found myself spending too much time on social media sites. This wasn't something new. I became active on sites like Facebook and Reddit in middle school and I've been connected ever since. While these technologies have their benefits, how much time is too much to spend on these sites? This will differ for everyone, yet recently I've noticed that more and more of my time is spent - even wasted - on these platforms. This has coincided with two things: first the coivd19 pandemic that has me at home and second that I've recently graduated from university and am looking for work as a software developer. As such, much of my time is in front of screens and it is very easy to take a "quick peek" at these sites only to lose myself in the lives of others online. I came to notice that these little distractions added up to a significant amount of time resulting in me being unproductive. For this reason I decided I would experiment with cutting out these platforms for a week and see if doing so would lead to me being more productive.

I'll first describe what platforms I used  (or were available to me) and how I ensured I would not be tempted to use them. On my phone I deleted the following apps: Twitter, Snapchat, Bumble, Tinder, Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook.

Some were easier to quit than others. I tried getting into Twitter but it never caught on and only remained on my phone as something to do when I was bored of the remaining apps. Back in the day I used Snapchat frequently, however a chain of problematic updates made the app unusable and the appeal wore off. As for bumble - during my time with highways I worked in gravel pits that had less filters than Bumble. While it is a way to meet people it really takes the fun out of it. In contrast to Bumble I've found Tinder an excellent way to meet new people, but as Covid became worse, meeting people is a no go.  As for Facebook it has really lost its shine too, and I only use it for its marketplace features.

The toughest to give up where Instagram and Reddit. I find Instagram's recommendation algorithms to be excellent (however this is not necessarily a good thing as I discuss later) and, in part, is the reason I use it so much. It also seems many people my age have shifted from Facebook to Instagram in recent years. Reddit is a whole different beast. I also believe Reddit has an superb algorithm for present it users posts that will keep their attention. However as Reddit is a site that truly seems to have everything, there is always something new to keep you hooked.

In addition to deleting these apps, I also used a website blocker to block the browser sites of these platforms. From past behaviour, I've found that willpower alone was insufficient to keep me away from these sites. I believe this speaks less about my personal strength and more about the power that these sites have to addict people to using them; I'd be interested in knowing if you've had a similar experience. Finally, I spend a lot of time on YouTube only second to Reddit. Interestingly I am better at managing my time on it than on other sites. For example on Reddit I can read a post and the top comment threads within a minute - a short enough time to justify the break from my work. Yet to click on and watch a video on YouTube, I register this as time being wasted and something not to do. Additionally, YouTube has several tutorials which I use during my working hours. As such it was not a site I deleted from my phone or blocked in my browser.

I started the experiment on a Sunday and my daily schedule was as follows: I would wake around 7am, shower, eat, and be in front of my computer around 9am. I partitioned my work into hour long blocks. About 45 minutes of undistracted work with a 15 minute break. During these breaks I would typically go into the other room to read, stretch, or take a short walk around the block. Around noon I would take a longer break for lunch and be back to work within the hour. Around 3pm I would take another hour break for a longer walk, run, or bike ride; the afternoon slump hits me hard. From 4pm to 6pm I'd end my work day, have supper followed by another walk (yes I have worn out my shoes), and decompress the remainder of the evening. Sometimes I try to be productive in the evening but it is usually in vain. Instead most of this time is either on Netflix of talking to friends and family.

 

As to what I was doing during my working time, I am currently filling out job applications and creating projects to buff-up my resume. This involves searching for jobs on sites such as Linkedin, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc. and following tutorials for projects and reading documentation for languages and coding frameworks.

I made the following observations throughout the experiment. At the beginning of the I would reach for my phone to open Instagram or open a new tab to visit Reddit. These actions were more by habit than a desire to interact with them. While I did not track the number of times these urges occurred they were substantial. Following tutorials and reading through documentation is not the most joyous part of developing software but it is necessary. These urges would occur every few minutes - the amount of time the instructor needed to get through a topic or the time needed to read a few paragraphs on how to implement a feature.

However by the second or third day these urges did subside. They were less frequent and mostly came as a thought; not something that was acted on. By the end of the week I noticed that I was less distracted (although the urges to be distracted by social media sites did not go away completely.) The result of this was more time being focused on the tasks at hand.


Being Present and Aware

It is one thing to be distracted by events around you. It is another thing to being addicted to being distracted. For the most part, I see people's fascination with apps that allow us to be instantly connected with one another as more of an addiction addressing a primal need than as merely a way to pass the time.

Humans are curious creatures. From both primitive and modern viewpoints it is better to know too much than know too little. In the distant past if our ancestors knew too little about their world it could have grave consequences, such as a concealed beast within our territory lunging from the scrubs in search of its next meal. In modern times it is social pressures that are most prevalent. Life is easier together within a community than alone. We all have the desire to be accepted and loved by those around us. We want to be invited to play and to be trusted by our friends; what does it say about us if we miss out and fail to like a picture of our friend in their new home or comment our condolences on a post that a loved one has past away in their lives? 

It is even worse that such platforms are aware of these effects on our psyche and are designed to encourage us to engage. At the end of the day these platforms are businesses and we the consumer; the more time we engage the more they profit. A discussion about these platforms warrants its own post with a thorough exploration of what exactly is the problem, a deep dive on the techniques they use to make users addicted, and how they can be fixed (social media will not simply go away; there are also great benefits these platforms provide.)

If found the following to be key in overcoming distractions - I needed to be aware that they were occurring. By habit, by addiction, I would open Reddit or check Instagram whenever I became bored or stuck in my work. By acknowledging that this behaviour was not desired, that I failed to maintain my focus, I become disappointed in myself. This is good! We need to (yet only for a moment) be upset with ourselves when we do bad as only by knowing we've done bad can we correct ourselves. Being present to what I was subconsciously doing, present to knowing that it was not what I wanted to do, forced me to see these minute distractions as a problem to overcome.

I know little about clinical addiction and even less about ways to treat it, yet a starting point to addressing such problems is to identify that the behaviour is not desired. You can only hit a target if your eyes are open and you view it as something worth targeting. I it would do us all well to be more attentive to our behaviours and how they align with our goals.

I felt that I learned a lot from this experiment and that it has made me more productive. I have not installed the apps back onto my phone, yet I interact with Instagram through my phone's browser. Interestingly this better for me; the Instagram webpage is not designed to be viewed through the browser on small screens. While it is still usable, its poor user interface discourages me from mindlessly scrolling through its content. I've unblocked the sites on my desktop and I am happy with the few times I open Reddit throughout the days after the experiment. Some days are tougher than others though and I still have the chrome extension installed to block sites when I'm particularly bad at being present. Even if you are happy with the amount of time you spend on these social platforms I would recommend going for a few days without them. Remove their apps from your phones and block their websites from your machines - you may just be surprised by your urges.


Unconstrained Optimization

I'll conclude this post by discussing a powerful technique these platforms may use to engage us and a downside that is either not considered by the engineer who designed it or simply that they do not care. The subfield of artificial intelligence known as reinforcement learning  tasks a computer (or agent) with learning what actions it should take, given some state, to maximize a reward signal. That is, each time the agent takes an action there is a consequence to the action which the agent can determine as "good" or "bad" and we optimize their actions to maximize taking good actions. Personally I find the methods (algorithms) the agent uses to learn which actions to take to be fascinating yet they are a bit heavy on mathematics. It is sufficient to know that for several problems, such as recommendation, these methods work well.

 

Consider the following example using Reddit where the agent needs to choose which posts to show you (the actions.) Further, from information Reddit has bought about you from Facebook and Google, along with your viewing history on Reddit, the agent has some knowledge about you such as what your political views are, your preference on movie genres, and what your favourite gaming console is (that state.)

Now here is the crux of reinforcement learning methods - the engineer must specify something called the reward signal. Specifying the reward signal correctly is key to get the desired result from the agent and states for each action taken from each state just how good the action is. Now what kind of behaviours would these companies want from the agent? Remember that these companies are businesses and their services can only remain if they are profitable. Thus a simple reward signal for each action is how long that user will engage with that post. The longer engagement is, the more advertisements can be shown to the user which leads to more profits. Reddit could employ a separate tool for predicting this engagement time (remember they have all that data about you.) Therefore when you open the front page of Reddit, the agent will choose twenty posts from thousands to show you such that you'll maximize your time on Reddit.

Here is the kicker: a reward signal is only as good as it is defined. Maximizing time on the platform may be good for business but it may not be good for the user. What is missed from the reward signal is that it is 3am and the user has been scrolling through posts for hours or that constant political posts is making the user despise their neighbours. It may be that without these additional features describe in the state of the system that the agent has learned it can have you on Reddit for hours if it shows you mostly posts from your faviourite subreddits.

This is interesting as there is no incentive for the platforms to discourage over use nor is it clear that this may be a problem for the user until they are forced to address it. An interesting and probable future is the use of biosensors planted within our bodies. With such technology, services could directly monitor things like stress or sleep levels of their users and modify their behaviour accordingly. However a thorough discussion on this too deserves its own future post.

Photo by karsten madsen

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