March 25, 2019

Tech We’re Using: Social Media’s Re-engineering Effect, From Myanmar to Germany

Maybe the effect is broadly negative. Maybe it’s broadly positive. Probably it’s mixed. But it is almost certainly profoundly disruptive in ways that we may spend the rest of our lives trying to understand.

Whether they set out to or not, these companies are conducting the largest social re-engineering experiment in human history, and no one has the slightest clue what the consequences are.

In the meantime, I’ve turned off Facebook push alerts and have reinstated a longstanding practice of avoiding any activity that would train an algorithm in what makes me click. I use sites like YouTube only anonymously and with my browser in incognito mode. (Separately, like my colleague Nellie Bowles, I set my screens to grayscale.)

It’s not that I fear some devastating privacy breach or misuse of my data. Rather, these platforms are incredibly sophisticated at learning our habits and keeping us engaged in ways that are not necessarily healthy for us or our communities. Most days, it’s unhealthy only on the scale of a candy bar or secondhand smoke, but who needs it?

Outside work, is there a gadget or software or some other tech tool that you or your family loves using? Why?

I do a lot of cycling, for which the United Kingdom’s rural quarters are a paradise, so my iPhone is stuffed with various weather and transit apps. Google Maps has mostly replaced the GPS gadgets and old-fashioned bicycle maps.

The only app of those worth recommending, London Air, tracks London’s air quality. I learned about it from a story by my colleague Ceylan Yeginsu.

To give social media some credit, some of my favorite serialized entertainment of any kind is the Twitter feed of Nicole Cliffe, a writer for various publications, which could exist and feel so personal only on a platform like Twitter. My sister and I regularly send each other tweets of hers, like this recent story about her mother’s quest to reclaim stolen marijuana plants. They’re funny and well written, as well as unfailingly kind and warm.

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