You sit down after dinner to research a few home improvement ideas on the web. A funny picture with a link catches your eye and… when bed time rolls around you’ve read fourteen motivational stories, watched a series of skateboarding turkey videos, grumbled on Facebook about obviously corrupt politicians in another state, shared some really pretty pictures of Antarctica you found, and not done any research! How did this happen? How does this keep happening?
How well you adapt for the rest of the 21st century will depend mainly on how well you defend against the distractions and outright manipulation in the increasing stream of available information. With the rise of social media, the voices screaming “look at me!” have shifted tactics – not only are they trying to get your attention, they’re trying to hijack your friends list. It didn’t take long to discover how to push our buttons; the psychological techniques are becoming well-known and ubiquitous. Every social media whore dreams of “going viral” and will post any outrageous thing if it gets a few million hits to their crappy ad farm.
“Go viral” is a good term for it; these are attention viruses spread via social media, using your resources as a host body to spread themselves. In addition to wasting your time, they tend to be inflammatory, misleading, and low in information. They make the internet a worse place. And I, for one, have gotten sick of seeing the same kinds of headlines trying to suck me in, the same kind of misdirection and manipulation stirring the internet’s collective psyche.
The good news is that you can fight back. The enemy may have your number, but you can learn to recognize the manipulation and avoid it. Here are some current ways – but rest assured that their bag of tricks will continue to adapt (you might want to run a search every so often for the latest).
1. Avoid posts with numbers in the title
Perhaps it’s the sense of accomplishment we feel as we tick through the list. Perhaps it’s the curiosity to see “are there *really* (only) that many?” Perhaps it’s just to see if we’re already smart enough to know the whole list. Maybe numbers are inherently more credible. Whatever the reason, social media experts have figured out that we will pretty much click on (and share) any damn thing presented as a numbered list. Even if you know it will probably tell you nothing new. (Numbered lists aren’t the only offenders; consider, for example, the trend of “99% will fail this simple test!” articles.)
Actual news is not presented as “25 things you didn’t know about XYZ”. Useful advice is not presented as “4 easy steps”. In fact, it’s incredibly rare for it to have any number at all in the title. So if it does, that’s a red flag: you can feel simultaneously smug and smarter about skipping this link because it is undoubtedly an attention virus.
Especially with an addendum like “Number X blew my mind!”
2. Avoid titles with emotionally charged words
“Shocking!” “Amazing!” “You won’t believe…” “Blown away” “Can’t stop laughing/crying” “Epic” ALL CAPS!
These and other attention-seeking techniques are used exclusively by attention-desperate social media whores. Not by actually informative articles. Not by people who have a purpose for writing other than maximizing clicks and shares. It is manipulation, pure and simple. The more prevalent this sort of thing becomes, the more it drowns out balanced, informative writing on the internet. And the more you read it, the more often your blood pressure and cortisol levels will rise needlessly. Don’t click that link! Don’t do it!
3. Avoid posts that you react to with “no way!” or “oh yeah?”
If you can feel your eyebrows rising just from reading the headline (police brutality, stupid politician tricks, “you’ll never guess”), you can bet it’s deliberately misleading in order to shock you and draw you in. Resist. And for the love of Bog, don’t get drawn into threads 100 comments long by people who didn’t even read the article. You will accomplish nothing but making yourself and perhaps a few others angry. Don’t bother unless you’re a troll and that’s how you get your lulz.
4. If you find yourself reading an attention virus, at least avoid sharing it
So you might enjoy following Facebook links for some meaningless entertainment from time to time. I get it. But… do you have to infect your friends too? Do you have to reward these time vampires?
No. You don’t. In fact, with the Information Deluge unfolding this century, it’s your responsibility not to.
If (perhaps by accident) you find yourself visiting one of these, at least keep it to yourself. You cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, right? Have the same courtesy for your readers’ brains. Or are you one of those people still forwarding stupid chain letters?
5. Use ad-blocking browser plugins
The push for sensationalizing the internet is all about displaying ads. More clicks mean more ad views and more revenue. If you kill the ad revenue, you stop rewarding the behavior.
Also, you don’t need to waste your attention on ads. I have basically never seen an ad on Facebook. I don’t really see any ads on the web other than the occasional text ad or YouTube intro. How? I’ve been using ad-blocking software since it was an esoteric art requiring running a local proxy and manually tweaking browser settings and blacklist entries.
It’s a lot easier now. For years it’s been as easy as searching for browser plugins and clicking a few buttons to install them. I know about AdBlock+ for FireFox and AdBlock+ for Chrome. If you’re using something else there’s probably a plugin for that too (even for mobile).
Personally, I think advertising funding is a blight on the internet (“you won’t believe” I once worked for an advertising startup) and would like to see it destroyed in favor of other models. If you disagree and feel morally obliged to allow websites to manipulate your mind in return for the benefit they bring you (or even find targeted ads actually – choke! – informative), you can usually configure an ad-blocker to allow ads selectively, and still starve the time vampires you stumble upon.
6. Use site-blocking browser plugins
Self-restraint is a great thing to cultivate, but most of us would admit to needing a little help. And the wonderful thing about the information age is that there are tools to help you… automatically.
You can use site-blocker plugins to block whole sites that you know are full of trash, or just to restrict the amount of time that you waste at them. For example, BlockSite for Chrome and BlockSite for Firefox can block sites at specified times and days of the week. Also consider StayFocusd for Chrome, which tracks and limits the time you waste as well as providing a “nuclear option” to block all “bad” sites or allow only “good” sites for a few hours to help you concentrate. LeechBlock for Firefox appears similar. These double as procrastination-blockers, useful beyond simple avoidance of attention viruses.
Consider blocking all of the most addictive sites on the internet or pretty much anything linked from Buzzfeed (they recommend blocking themselves!). Or just look through your browser history to see where the time goes.
7. Filter your news sources
The easiest way to save money is to have it automatically deducted from your paycheck. You don’t miss the money you never see. Similarly, the easiest way to reserve your attention for worthy topics is to block ones you know tend to be trash. You don’t have to decide to ignore the tripe you never see.
Spam, trolls, and general “noise” have all been with us since the dawn of the internet. News-readers on usenet used killfiles to automatically ignore posts. Once email became a cesspool of spam and phishing, filtering became a standard tool there too (some services automating it with great sophistication). Social networking may take a little longer because frankly, Facebook’s profits are built on sucking you in and using your friends list and interests to advertise to you. It’s unlikely they’ll be providing useful automated filters of any variety soon.
Sick of the clutter on Facebook? Try F.B. Purity. It’s a browser plugin that essentially rewrites the Facebook interface, allowing you to filter out what you don’t want (hopefully this post has given you some good ideas). It’s pretty easy to install; just be aware that Facebook’s interface is changing all the time, and when it does you may experience bizarre glitches due to a mismatch between what Facebook provides and what F.B. Purity expects, at which point you’ll need to (1) recognize what’s going on (2) possibly wait for an update from FBP or just disable it for a while, and (3) update FBP. So this isn’t for everyone, but it’s what’s available right now. Perhaps other social networks that aren’t as invested in cramming junk in your face will lead the way in enabling filtering, forcing Facebook to do the same. Or perhaps Facebook will become irrelevant. I don’t know what will happen, but if users don’t start valuing the ability, it won’t appear of its own accord. I suggest taking matters into your own hands.
Other sources often do provide methods of filtering, or there may be a browser plugin to enable it. Search for these and use them.
Am I aware of the irony/hypocrisy inherent in this post at multiple levels? Yes; yes, I am.
But now you know. If you make this post the last time you’re ever roped in by these tactics, I can die happy.
Now share this with all your friends, and leave some comments below!