HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: Hi. I’m Helen Horstmann-Allen, the chief operating officer at Fastmail. We make email you can feel good about. If you’re ready to escape big tech, your private Fastmail account is waiting for you. I hosted a conversation about privacy the other day. People were talking about their own personal privacy practices and got really sheepish when they talked about social media, like it was in conflict with caring about privacy or having a healthy online life. Does being a good digital citizen mean you’ve got to get off social media?
RICARDO SIGNES: Well, the first question is if you cut social media out of your life, are you a digital citizen anymore? If your experience of the internet is social media and someone says to be a good internet citizen, you have to cut out social media, you’ve been given a paradox to solve. So I think we need to think about how do you remain a good digital citizen without getting off social media, or at least understanding what the trade offs are that you’re making.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: Social media is a really big umbrella here. I don’t feel the same way using Instagram or Pinterest as I do reading Facebook or Twitter. So, what even are people feeling bad about?
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah, I think that people need to think about the fact that social media encompasses a lot of different spaces and some of those spaces are crowded, angry bars and some of those places are calm, serene parks, and you have to think about which places you want to spend your time in. That means paying attention to what the spaces even are to begin with because they all look like websites, but they feel like different things.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is a local newspaper, recently cut off their comments. Are websites with comments social media too?
RICARDO SIGNES: I don’t really know the answer to that. I think that social media is one of these terms that we use to mean a whole lot of different things. Are sites with comments social media? They’re social and they’re a medium for communication, so maybe yes. Is email social media? Well, it’s a medium for communication and it’s social, so yes. But do I get a different sense about communication and the feelings that I have doing so when I am doing it on a public comment board versus when I’m responding to a mailing list message from five of my friends? Absolutely.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: So who are you talking to today?
RICARDO SIGNES: We’re going to be talking to Tom Webster. He’s the senior vice president at Edison Research. Edison Research is a research company that looks into consumer research, and they look at how people consume things like social media and podcasts, by the way.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: What are you going to talk about?
RICARDO SIGNES: We’re talking about social media. We’re talking about social media, how it makes us feel and the big contradiction that most people we talk to, or that Tom Webster’s talk to, say that they do consume social media, but it makes them feel bad. So why is that, and what are we going to do about it?
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: So do you use social media?
RICARDO SIGNES: I do. I do try to be mindful of which rooms I’m spending my time in. I deleted my Facebook account a long time ago. I feel like it might even be 10 years ago and I haven’t looked back. But I’m still on Twitter, but the way I use Twitter changes every time that I realize that I dislike it. Of course, I have an email account. I’m on a bunch of other places, but I try to pay attention to how I feel when I’m using any particular app and is that the app that’s actually making my life or anybody else’s life better.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: So which apps do you use that actually do make you feel good?
RICARDO SIGNES: I really like Fastmail. I like Twitter, and I think that I need to spend more time in lists. I made lists a while ago that were people who I knew and who I like to hear from, and that was nice. I’m on some Slack for private communities of people I know. I’m on some internet relay chat servers, but communities that include the whole internet—Twitter might be the only one right now in my life, and I think a lot about cutting it out.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: You said that how you use it keeps changing. How have you turned the dials on it?
RICARDO SIGNES: Well, subscribe to more people. Subscribe to fewer people. Cut people out who are a drag. Turn off retweets. Add more lists, or switch to using lists. Don’t open it before I get out of bed in the morning I think is a pretty good piece of advice, which is hard to stick to because when you open your eyes, and it’s 7:00 AM, and you could just be productive by picking up that computer next to your bed and scrolling through Twitter. It’s no way to start your day.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: What about Instagram?
RICARDO SIGNES: I do have an Instagram account and I think it’s delightful when I open it up and I see all the things that my friends are posting, but frankly, I look at it pretty rarely. I get killed by scrolling through all these nice pictures, and then I end up on an ad, and I don’t understand that it’s an ad for a little too long, and then I just feel out of sorts and it stops it. Really, Instagram is something I open very occasionally. I see what my friends are up to, and what I really open it for is to see if the restaurants that I like going to have any specials, which is definitely not the on-label usage, but that’s my primary use for it.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: Okay.
RICARDO SIGNES: What about you? What are your social media apps that are actually getting opened?
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: I think definitely Instagram is the place where I can go and count on not getting a lot of negativity, but I only follow a few people there. I am a very heavy Twitter list user. That is definitely where I start. I only will look at my general feed to kill time, which is never a good term to associate with social media usage. I do have a Facebook account that I use for various organizations that I’m part of, various community groups. If you use it very rarely, then it really does function a little bit like your alumni newsletter. Who’s having a baby? Who got married? Who is moving? That part is nice, and a lot of the other stuff. If there are too many comments, it’s a clear sign not to click on it. So, what do you think is getting covered today that you really want people to be listening for?
RICARDO SIGNES: The number one topic that comes up more and more is mindfulness, but there’s another component of it, which is just, we’re constantly making choices all the time. Every moment of the day, we’re making some choice to do something or not do something else. That’s what we need to be aware of, the idea that what you do on social media is a choice and which social media sites you use are a choice. When you make a choice, that should be informed by something. So you need to notice that you’re making it, and then you need to have information that you feel helps you make the right decision. We spend a lot of time on autopilot, making the same choices that we made yesterday, getting into the same ruts, following the same path because we’re not noticing this trend.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: Gosh, Rik, I feel like I need to go back and listen to your previous episode about fixing my habits.
RICARDO SIGNES: Well, it’s right there in your favorite podcatcher help. All right. So let’s listen to the conversation that I have with Tom.
TOM WEBSTER: I’m Tom Webster, the senior vice president at Edison Research. We’re the best known, I think, as the sole providers of exit polling data for the national news networks, also vote count data.
RICARDO SIGNES: I know part of your research you’ve done is this report called The Social Habit about social media. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. We’ve done things under the banner of The Social Habit for over a decade now because we’ve been tracking social media in a study we call The Infinite Dial® every year since about 2006. Now, we have a sort of a newish product out, which is a weekly tracking study. We’re actually collecting data every day on all of the social media platforms, who’s using them, their attitudes about social media, their attitudes about the platforms, and their impact on society. We’ve just really only scratched the surface of publishing some of the data from that, but there’s lots more to come.
RICARDO SIGNES: I heard the report. I saw your screencast of it and recently, your blog posts about it. The thing I thought was most interesting, especially when you were elaborating on it in your blog, was talking about you can’t have a glass that’s half dirty. You brought up the metaphor of your little reservoir where your water comes from. I want you to explain that for everybody else.
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. One of the things that we found in the survey is that with a significant sample of social media users, about half of them felt like social media was doing them some harm in some way or another. Of course, the other half did not agree with that. I think whenever we see something, a statistic like that, our brain falls into familiar patterns. The pattern that your brain might’ve fallen into is the glass half empty, the glass half full, but actually, the glass is completely full. Everybody has an opinion about it. Half of those people that have an opinion think social media is harming them. So in my mind, it’s not a glass half empty, a glass half full, it’s a glass full of half dirty water. And you can’t have a glass that’s half full of half dirty water. It’s dirty.
TOM WEBSTER: I think social media has… In the minds of many of social media’s most active users, it’s done them some harm. It’s done us as a society some harm. Many reported, individually, suffering harassment or suffering insult, or at the very least, being criticized for their beliefs in ways that maybe they wouldn’t be exposed to not on social media.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah, I thought some of the specific terms that were called out were interesting to me. More than half of people are saying social media is full of disinformation, that it was a source of conspiracy theories. It really boils everything down to it made them feel bad emotionally. Just sticking the word emotionally on there really, I thought, drove it home. It makes them feel that emotionally, but they’re still using it. Also, this huge, huge number of people who are using social media every day. So first question, why are we using it?
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. So, that’s a really tricky one, Rik. What social media has given us in ways that we used to have in… I don’t mean used to as in 2020, I mean used to, as in the ’60s that we used to have from geographical attachments, the health club, the American Legion, your bridge club, bowling, all of these things that are less and less a part of our lives. What social media has done is give us the 2020 version of all of that, which are the weak ties that are part of our life.
TOM WEBSTER: You can still pick up the phone and call your best friend. You can still pick up the phone and, hopefully for many of us, call your parents, call your children. The strong ties, you have multiple ways to communicate with. But what social media has done is give us that web of weak ties and yeah, by definition, they’re weak. Maybe it’s someone you talk to once a year. Maybe it’s someone who without social media, you would never interact with, but you do interact with on Facebook. The thing about all of those weak ties is that taken in unison, they are the web that holds us up from day to day where anyone may be weak, but if you were to cut them all out, we would feel bereft in many ways because we would lose that entire outlet to the weak ties of our life. So social media does play a role, both positive and negative. I think that the goal of the report was really to put a spotlight on both of those things.
RICARDO SIGNES: It’s given us these ties that you say it’s replacing our local connections, or maybe it has replaced our local connections. The other thing I think about when you talk about our local connections is that people have talked so much about the internet, and first it was online media, and now social media, replacing the news. What’s the report tell us about how many people get their news, their knowledge of what’s going on in the world, from social media as opposed to print journalism?
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. This is a statistic that I think gets abused a lot. There is certainly a significant percentage of Americans who say they get their news from social media. But the last I looked, Facebook and Twitter didn’t have news bureaus. They’re getting their news from their friends. They’re getting their news from their friends who are getting it from other sources, and those other sources may or may not be incorrect. What social media has given us as a society the opportunity to do is amplify the lesser heard voice. In many cases, amplifying the lesser heard voice is helpful. It is helpful to address the needs of a minority community or an underserved or an underheard community. But in other cases, it also serves to put misinformation on a platform that it might not normally get. So, social media plays a role in that. It plays in the amplification of messages. I guess the question is, does social media and specifically, do the social media platforms themselves have a role in vetting that information because they sure as heck are amplifying it.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah. I think that is a really interesting question. The report said people also think that social media outlets should be held accountable. What does it mean for social media to be held accountable?
TOM WEBSTER: Well, I think it means certainly an even stronger emphasis on things like fact-checking, and I think most reputable editorial-driven organizations have a cadre of fact-checkers. In this most recent run-up through the election, I would say we got more calls and emails from Facebook fact-checkers than almost anybody else. So, they are doing the work. The question is, is it an intractable problem? When you have over 60% of Americans using Facebook on a day-to-day basis, think about that. That’s a single brand over 60% of Americans are using. Is it an intractable problem to ask that organization to vet the news? I think whether it is or isn’t, I think there is a growing concern amongst some Americans that, well, that’s their problem, and they’d better solve it.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yes. It’s a scaling problem. How can they moderate millions or hundreds of millions of voices being transmitted to millions or hundreds of millions of listeners at scale in ways that maybe were tractable problems when media was more of a local concern. We’ve lifted this up to a global concern and eliminated the bottlenecks that made it possible to trap these problems.
TOM WEBSTER: We’ve also decentralized the news. We’ve decentralized the news to a significant extent. Today, the nightly audiences to the three or four main broadcast news networks, or at least the nightly newscasts that they put on are quite small, honestly. You can watch the advertising to see who’s watching them, and that’s been replaced. The tower that used to be the central arm of broadcasting this information out, that tower has been replaced by your [Uncle Ralph 00:15:27] and a thousand more Uncle Ralphs. They’re picking up information. They’re picking up news. They’re rebroadcasting it, and they are retransmitting it in a vacuum. I don’t think we can completely take the onus off the social media networks themselves to regulate those sorts of things because they are doing harm.
RICARDO SIGNES: So we’ve said so far, people believe social media is full of disinformation. It’s full of conspiracy theories. It makes them feel bad emotionally. There’s a possibly intractable problem related to the ability to fact-check at that scale. You’ve got me horrified at the idea that my Uncle Ralph has now inherited the Fourth Estate. It seems to me that this puts us in a position that we have to regulate something ourselves. We have to build a shield for ourselves individually. Is that the next step? And if so, what does that look like?
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. This is any number of, I think, superhero movies go down this same path. You either regulate yourselves, or we will regulate for you.
RICARDO SIGNES: Right.
TOM WEBSTER: I think that’s the position that the major social media platforms find themselves in, regulate yourselves or we will do it for you. I have to tell you, us doing it for them is super problematic. I think about the role of the FCC. There’s no governing body like the FCC that covers things like social media. There are government policies that cover aspects of it. But I will tell you this, the FCC in its current form… I remember back when Howard Stern was on broadcast radio. He’s now on satellite radio. But on broadcast radio, it took one complaint to the FCC to file an investigation.
TOM WEBSTER: So, if somebody in Schaumburg, Illinois puts in a complaint to the FCC about something Howard Stern said, it started the machinery of the government. In many cases, I remember some of the issues that Howard Stern got into were the result of a couple 100 complaints, many of whom were from the same person. If this does in fact get assigned to a single government agency, that sounds equally frightening to me. I don’t know. But you’re right, Rik. Ultimately, it is a scaling problem, and we are the experiment. It’s in beta. We are all the beta testers of it, and it isn’t quite working.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah. It’s a scary idea to have this one agency regulate things. In fact, I think a lot of people believe that the current, I’ll use the word success although I use it cautiously, the success of social media, or more broadly and less cautiously, the success of the internet has been in a lot of ways, possible because of this lack of regulation. Because these sites could be a common forum who did not need to moderate at scale as they grew from Zuck’s dorm room to cover the globe. So I, Rik, I need to do something. Or you, Tom, what do you do to make your experience on social media, which I believe you use? How do you prevent yourself from being made to feel bad emotionally?
TOM WEBSTER: What a great question, Rik, because I use social media a lot. I think ultimately, there’s a lot of good to be had on social media. I’m certainly not going to throw the baby out with the bath water even though I’ve already suggested that the water is half dirty. I do actually take steps. Part of what I do to maintain my sanity is that I don’t read editorials. I don’t read opinion-based pieces. I don’t read things that are attitudinal, or opinion, or editorial-based in any way. There are a lot of those on Twitter. Sometimes, you’ll see these really long Twitter threads. Because it’s a Twitter thread with 240 tweets in it, it can seem authoritative. It’s not, it’s somebody’s opinion. I get my news from a handful of news sources that I trust, and even in those, I don’t read the editorials. I read the New York Times. I read The Economist. I read the Washington Post. I don’t read the editorials. So, I stick to the facts, and I’ve found this to be enormously helpful for my mental health.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that, the op-ed pages in The Times, because I had written that down to ask you when you finished. My hot take here is there’s a parallel to be made between the op-eds you see in Twitter and what gets published in The Times. It’s an entirely different kind of material that you’re taking into your body by reading both of these materials and cutting that in both places is an interesting tactic.
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. I think the major news networks, all of them do for their actual news broadcast, if they’ll do a pretty credible job. I do avoid the editorial shows, whether they’re on TV or online or podcasts and things like that, but ultimately, I think you need to have multiple streams. I think it’s a lot to ask for the average person to become a fact-checker, to become an editorial assistant. In some ways, I think at some point, you do have to find sources that you trust, but I think you have to look at the percentage of opinion that is factoring into what you’re reading and make your own opinions.
RICARDO SIGNES: Taking that way back to the local reservoir on your half dirty water. We know when the water is clean because you can ask the water authority. What do you do when you want to figure out whether the media you’re getting is biased or is something you should or could trust at all?
TOM WEBSTER: You can’t test the water, but you can test your friends. Ultimately again, social media is a collection of people you follow. I’m a rampant unfollower of people. My water test for people, honestly, is not that they disagree or do they agree with me. It’s, can I push back? Are they open to reading something different? Are they open to challenging that viewpoint? That’s a direct conversation I’ll have with people. I will say, “What you’re sharing, I don’t believe it’s true. Here is a source that I believe invalidates that or conflicts with that or repudiates that, would you be open to considering that?”
TOM WEBSTER: That’s a really difficult question to say completely no to, but if you do, then I think we’re done here. But if you are open to it, then I’m willing to have that conversation. A good reporter will accept that pushback. A good reporter will rethink everything based on a good pushback like that. But if your Uncle Ralph doesn’t, then look, you can’t uninvite Uncle Ralph from Thanksgiving dinner, but you don’t have to follow him on Facebook.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah. Also, I’m pleased to know I don’t have an Uncle Ralph, so I feel good continuing with this.
TOM WEBSTER: I don’t either, and certainly, I’ve done him dirty here on this podcast. Luckily, I don’t either.
RICARDO SIGNES: I like what you say about unfollowing the people who are being a source of bad information, and beyond unfollowing people, unfollowing streams. We’re not reading the op-eds, we’re not reading the one of 706 tweet storms. You have a conversation with another person. You can get a sense of that. How does that work in a community? How do you scale your interaction or how do you as a member of a community guide it to be a place where there can be a multi-party conversation that isn’t just one person yelling?
TOM WEBSTER: Well, a community is an interesting thing, and I’ve never been a community manager per se, but I have 25 years of doing focus groups. Each one of which is a little 90-minute community. I think it’s the job of a community to make sure that A, everybody feels heard. Do you feel heard? Sometimes that means mirroring back what they have said. Then B, are you harming anyone else? I think if you feel like you are being heard, if you are not harming anybody else, then you are contributing to that community. If you are not being heard. Then, it’s the role of a community to make you feel like you either belong in that community, then if they do belong in that community, then they deserve to be heard. They deserve to have their thoughts understood and mirrored back to them as long as they’re not harmful to the community itself. Ultimately, what this all stems from if you want to get really deep here, Rik.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah, please.
TOM WEBSTER: When we go to our physical jobs, when we come home, when we go out to a physical JP McBeers and have a beer with somebody, when when we do things in public, in our school system, in our neighborhood, in our community, more and more, year after year, we are interacting with people who agree with us. We naturally gravitate to homogeneity. That’s happened gradually over the last 50 years to the point where we are no longer skilled and able to have face-to-face civil debates with people with whom we have to interact with in other ways, and whose kids go to school together, and so on.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah. It sounds like there’s two problems there. Again, going back to the beginning of talking about removing ourselves from a localized context. We’re no longer in a world of we get information from our local peers and we’re forced to interact with local people who are in some way, distinct from us, different from us. That’s been taken away. We now, both locally and online, can engage with people who are more and more like us and more and more of them. So that even though there’s a vast number of people, we can stay in more and more homogenous groups. That’s stripping us of our ability to engage with people who aren’t like us, or maybe even of our will to do so. Is that an accurate reflection of what you’re describing?
TOM WEBSTER: Yeah. It removes the agency behind it. We don’t have to. I guess I realize in a way, I’m contradicting myself since I just noted that I often will unfollow people, but I don’t unfollow them because I disagree with them. We’re not as accustomed to debating each other’s beliefs. I remember the first time I ever did business in France. This is back in the mid ’90s. I went out to dinner with a whole bunch of my French clients and I, the smiling 20 something American was horrified by how much they were grilling me about American politics. I was like, “What in the hell is going on here?” What I realized was that they’re very good at debate, that they love this. They were not going to take anything personally. They were not going to reduce me to the sum total of a singular belief, but they wanted to engage me. They wanted to see what lies beneath the surface. We did that, and it was refreshing.
RICARDO SIGNES: Okay. So we talked about a lot of problems, talked a lot about how social media makes you feel bad and it’s full of nastiness, but we’re not leaving. I also use social media. What’s your top couple bullet points of what to do? We talked about a few of these, but how would you sum up your whole advice to engage?
TOM WEBSTER: Have a healthy diet. I think, understand the sources of all the information and news that you’re getting on social media. Don’t unfollow people or block people because they disagree with you, but unfollow them or block them if they are disagreeable. You’re under no compunction to be connected with people, even relatives if they’re just disagreeable people. It’s good for your mental health, I think. Be very careful with opinions and editorials. They’re designed to inflame. They’re designed to incite. They’re designed to get you to move or act in one way or another. I think, just be really cognizant of that, and then we’re all locked in in some ways, socially to Facebook and for some of us on Twitter, but look for the smaller velvet rope communities. Look for the smaller communities that are based around some mutually enjoyable activity.
TOM WEBSTER: I think that those kinds of smaller velvet rope communities are really the magic of social media. They’re where I spend most of my time. That’s where you can really get a chance to know people when you do have mutually agreed upon common ground. It’s then okay to disagree because you have that thing you can go back to. But we’re just wildly colliding with each other on social media in ways that I don’t think our psyches are fully able to handle. I don’t think we have the vocabulary to express ourselves very well in those situations.
RICARDO SIGNES: Okay. It sounds like a lot of good advice. I will have to review myself now and see if I have a sufficiently healthy diet. This is all really interesting. I have a lot more questions I want to ask you, but I’ve been given a strict time limit and I’m a real wanderer, so I better stop.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: Wow. You covered so much ground and gave me so much to think about. I really loved the idea of a healthy social media diet. What do you think the key takeaways of that conversation are, Rik?
RICARDO SIGNES: Well, I think first of all, the key point in every line is that social media impacts how we feel. The things that happen on social media are the things that are happening in the rooms that we’re spending our time in. When you spend time in a place, it’s atmosphere changes how you feel, and social media is part of that. That means that number two, you should be putting your own mental health first. You shouldn’t be spending your time in a place that makes you miserable or a place that makes you unhappy and unable to make decisions and unable to feel good about how you’re spending your time.
RICARDO SIGNES: You should be prioritizing what is good for you. Social media lets you connect to a lot of people. You can communicate with all kinds of people throughout the whole world, but that doesn’t mean that they’re people you have a strong connection to. They’re not necessarily your friends or family members. You need to be mindful of the distinction between being empowered to communicate with people who are far away, but important to you, and people who are far away, but in the same chat room. They’re very different things. When you’re deciding who you’re listening to, it’s not just a question of whether they’re in the same chat room. It’s a question of whether you trust them, and that’s really important when it comes to news.
RICARDO SIGNES: People get their news these days from social media, whether it’s someone doing independent reporting on their blog or someone who’s just sharing a clip from some uncited news agency, which could be anyone. You should be getting your news that tells you the facts about the world from a site that you trust to give you facts, not just social media in general. That’s how you form your view of the world and that’s what lets you feel good about your understanding of the world that you live in. So just like Tom said and just like you said, engage with this. This is an important part of the modern human experience, but you gotta have a healthy diet of what you’re consuming and how you’re consuming it, and that means paying attention to what you’re consuming.
HELEN HORSTMANN-ALLEN: I thought Tom’s point about not consuming any opinion was something that I have a really hard time doing myself, but it was a really fascinating idea. That’s something that he noticed was making him feel bad or clouding his own mindset about the world. I hope that there’s something in this conversation for everybody to think about what makes sense for them, what makes them feel good, and what makes them feel bad. Things that make you feel bad don’t deserve a spot in your day and definitely don’t deserve pride of place first thing in the morning as soon as you open your eyes. I hope that everyone listening today can find some actionable steps towards better digital citizenship.
RICARDO SIGNES: Yeah, me too. Not just today, but on our previous episode and in the future episodes to come, I hope that we’re able to continue to provide some helpful advice or at least some good points of view on what you might want to spend your time thinking about. So that’s it, that’s the episode. Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the choice email provider of savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our producer is Paul Colligan. Our assistant producers are Haley Hnatuk and Lenore Hart. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Fastmail CTO Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player. For a free one month trial of Fastmail, you can go to fastmail.com/podcast. For more episodes, transcripts, and my takeaways, you can go to fastmail.com/digitalcitizen.