Surprise: it’s worth taking a break from social media

If the last few days haven’t already convinced you that social media can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health, perhaps some research will. Evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, in an effort to convince his kids that social isn’t all that, has been digging into the evidence.

First, research from psychologist Jean M. Twenge on what she dubbed “the iGen“ – people born in or after 1995:1

According to Twenge’s exhaustive analyses of the data, the time that they spend on social media has caused big spikes in iGen anxiety, depression, and suicide. The individual youngsters who spend the most time on social media and text-based interaction experience the greatest risk.

The news is not all bad. iGen don’t drink as much, they don’t have as much risky sex, and they don’t take risks with drugs and dangerous driving as much as the preceding generations. As Twenge put it in The Atlantic, today’s teens present more danger to themselves than to one another.

But, of course, it’s not all about young people. They may receive an overwhelming amount of attention when people talk about trends online, but they’re not the only ones affected by it. Especially when it comes to politics.

Here’s Stotts, describing a study from four economists who had people quit Facebook for a month:

Americans get more of their news through Facebook than any other source, a fact blamed for the intense polarisation of the American polity. Study participants who quit Facebook knew less about what was going on in the news, attended less to politics, and were less politically polarized than the control group who kept their Facebook accounts active.

The people who quit Facebook were happier, more satisfied, less anxious, and less depressed after the study.

But that mightn’t be the most interesting takeaway from their study. The researchers also found out how much they’d have to pay people to stay off Facebook for a month. Turns out, for the people who applied to take part in the research, it was $102.

Makes me wonder how much people would pay to access Facebook, if it came without everything that makes it a nightmare engine. Some have suggested that “Facebook makes about $2.40 profit per user per year from selling targeted ads.“ If it takes $100 to keep people off the platform for a month, chances are FB could make more than $3 a year to keep people on it.

It probably wouldn’t scale, of course, otherwise they would’ve already done offered that kind of deal.2 But it’s an interesting thought.

Anyway. The point is take social media tends to make people’s lives worse in some ways. Surprise.


  1. We’ll never stop with naff generational markers, will we? 

  2. Unless, of course, charging for access to Facebook would open them up to more responsibility for what people share and endure? 

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It’s okay to punch Nazis

Two people are arguing. Person A starts interrupting Person B, refusing to let them make their point. Person A also repeatedly insults Person B. Eventually, Person B interrupts so they can speak. They do so in a way that insults Person A.

If you watched all that unfold and then told someone you watched two people interrupt and insult each other, you wouldn’t be wrong. But the person you told wouldn’t have any idea what really happened.

In the aftermath of the September 29 US Presidential Debate, we saw a string of “both sides“ headlines from major presses, describing what they saw as insults and tirades from both Trump and Biden. This is a debate where Trump called upon white supremacists to “stand back, stand by“ (which said white supremacists saw as a call to arms) and Biden asked if Trump “ever shuts up“ after a stream of rants and interruptions.

But that’s not what some headlines reported. Media outlets resorted to both-sidesism and treated every discretion as equal:

  • “Sharp personal attacks and name calling chaotic first debate” – The New York Times (who then changed tack)
  • “Personal attacks, sharp exchanges mark turbulent first presidential debate“ – The Washington Post (who also changed their line)
  • “Trump, Biden trade barbs in first presidential debate“ – The Wall Street Journal

They missed the context.

Despite being a less-than-ideal way of understanding conflict, it extends to countless other areas. Take Trump himself: he routinely compares people who protest police violence and, in response to what they see as intimidation, throw things at police offers to the officers who have shot at and killed unarmed civilians.

He’s not unique in that. You’ll see it on the news, you’ll hear it from family members. It’s pervasive and often hard to argue against.

In this world view, people who defend themselves become equivalent to people who attack first or respond with disproportionate violence. In a world where so much manipulation and coercion happens with the threat of violence (be it implicit or explicit) – for example, Trump saying that looters will be shot – it makes it impossible for the victims to respond in turn without being labeled as part of the problem. The headline will read that they’re just as bad.

This way of thinking is rife in the world (and it extends far beyond people in the media, even if their commitment to “both sidesism“ is a real problem). And it makes it difficult to consistently point out the problem and the steps required to solve it. It’s held back vital reforms in areas as varied as police reform and health.

False equivalence and violence

Family violence provides a clear, and telling, example of how this approach to viewing a problem limits our ability to understand what’s actually happening. It also illustrates how people can take this misunderstanding, politicise it, and use it against victims of violence.

In her fantastic, harrowing book See what you made me do about domestic abuse, Jess Hill dedicates a chapter to when women use violence. In it, she details a disagreement between two parts of academia: ’family conflict’ researchers and ’violence against women’ (VAW) researchers.

Family conflict researchers, Hill explains, “insist that in the home women are just as violent as men.“ VAW researchers, on the other hand, “rubbish claims of ’gender symmetry’ and insist that perpetrators are overwhelmingly men“.

Both groups, says Hill, point to credible statistics to prove their point. And that there are “respected experts who have come to reasonable conclusions“ on both sides of the debate.

One of the reasons for this, according to Hill, is the way family conflict researchers have collected and understood their data:

Almost all the studies that ’prove’ women are as violent as men get their data via an instrument known as the Conflicts Tactics Scale, or CTS. It asks respondents to answer a series of questions: does violence occur in the relationship? How frequently does it occur? What does it look like?

The survey frames domestic violence as an argument that gets out of control (and thus misses some of the most dangerous examples of domestic violence). It asks if either partner in the relationship has used force to settle a disagreement and, if so, what kind of force. It then ranks “forceful acts on a scale of severity“.

But it’s not interested in why or how an act of force happened. The researcher’s job “is to record and rank each incident according to severity“. Context goes out the window. And that’s a problem when you’re trying to understand violence.

Without context, for example, the CTS gives equal weight to a kick that barely leaves a bruise as it does to a kick that causes traumatic brain injury. The kick whose intended meaning is ’leave me alone’ is registered as equal to a kick that means ’if you try to leave the house again, I’ll break all your ribs’.

This can lead to a distortion of the data and a misunderstanding of what’s happening:

’Those who have perpetrated several violent “acts“ (now matter how serious) and those who have reported committing a single act (no matter how trivial) are both defined as “violent“,’ write VAW scholars Russell and Rebecca Dobash. A woman who tries but fails to hit her partner will be recorded as ’violent’ - just as he will be if he beats her unconscious. According to the CTS, this relationship consists of one violent woman and one violent man in a situation of mutual violence.

Now, researchers who use this approach and end up believing that men and women are equally violent in a relationship aren’t “sloppy“, according to Hill:

It’s because their research focuses on how couples resolve arguments - calmly or violently? From the family conflict viewpoint both the man and woman above chose violence. Even if one of them had a greater impact, both are culpable, because both used violence.

Even the best intentions can have disastrous consequences. Family conflict researchers are clearly stating their goals and their rationale. But it’s still limited and, in many ways, flawed. That hasn’t stopped “men’s rights activists“ from clinging to their results and repeatedly, loudly, and forcefully using them to derail countless discussions about the violence women face in the home and even the smallest steps to address it.

How we understand conflict

There’s a world of difference between violence in the home, conflict in streets, an argument on a stage, and any other example you can think of. And, in each instance, there will be a different mix of things like racism, sexism, misogyny.

This line of thinking, this both-sidesism, exists on a continuum. It applies to the small indiscretions and the most systemic violence. Seeing it in stark examples can make it easier to see how it plays out on smaller stages.

But, throughout them all, there will be a few constants: a desire to control; to influence; to exert power; and to claim dominance. The stakes will change but the intent will remain. It’s important to know how we understand conflict and violence. And it’s important to know how we’re trying to tell others about what happens.

Context will always be important. We can’t reduce any conflict or violence to a simple tally or binary yes/no scale. And we can’t throw up our hands and say “well, they’re both doing it“.

Doing so is tantamount to giving up. It’s a surrender to the status quo. And it tells the aggressor that they’re safe to keep doing what they’re doing.

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“There’s no launch party for decay.”

Indi Samarajiva:

In the last three months America has lost more people than Sri Lanka lost in 30 years of civil war. If this isn’t collapse, then the word has no meaning. You probably still think of Sri Lanka as a shithole, though the war ended over a decade ago and we’re fine. Then what does that make you?

America has fallen. You need to look up, at the people you’re used to looking down on. We’re trying to tell you something. I have lived through collapse and you’re already there. Until you understand this, you only have further to fall.

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Journalism is a team sport

Another day, another reminder of two things:

  1. It’s financially viable — sensible, even — for some journalists to go solo
  2. More reporters going solo is, at best, a short-to-medium term solution to the news industry’s woes.

The latest high-profile example is Casey Newton, formerly of The Verge and now of Substack-newsletter Platformer. Platformer will be a continuation of Newton’s work at The Verge, where he covered ”the collisions between tech platforms and our democracy”.

The main goal? “Holding the world’s most powerful companies to account.” Certainly worth a few dollars a month. But the secondary goal is at least as interesting: testing (and perhaps demonstrating) the viability of a market where there are fewer traditional media companies and more indie journos doing their thing for readers that pay them directly.

It’s a powerful proposition. And an even more powerful bit of myth making.

Rogue reporters

Here’s how Newton frames his vision:

But I can’t stop thinking about a world in which we blow up media companies into their smallest constituent parts — individual reporters, aggressively working their beats, for an audience of paying customers grateful for the work — and allow them to rebuild from the ground up. A world where hundreds of new publications are born, and thousands of journalists are once again employed — in jobs that only their readers can ever take away from them.

I’m ready to find out if such a world is possible, and to do my part to make it happen.

To be fair, there’s a lot to like about his thought. And, credit where credit’s due, Newton’s using his sizable platform to articulate, test, and (hopefully) build out this vision.

He also touches on something else important, and currently lacking, about the media:

Platformer is dedicated to the proposition that the world’s most powerful companies — and everyone affected by them — deserve a publication that goes narrow and deep.

Newton is right about the value of ”narrow and deep”. And, unfortunately, specialist journalists were among the first to go as payroll budgets cratered. They’re one of the most important, and most criminally undervalued, parts of a robust news outfit. But they’re also expensive. And, when you’re desperately trying to cover more news than you can afford to, you start to value cheaper generalists over the more experienced, but more narrow, reporters.1

These journos — the ones who go ”narrow and deep” — are in a fantastic position to build sustainable audiences around their work. They can build passionate audiences in niche areas, some of whom will be willing to splash out a few dollars.

And that’s great — genuinely great. Those reporters can, and do, add tremendous value to the world. But a collection of solo journos doing it themselves for small communities built around shared interest in a niche topic does not a health democracy make.2

There are a few potential issues, though. And only one is financial.

Diminishing returns

Here’s a boring statement: there are a lot of people and services that ask for your subscription dollars. Only so many of those people and services will get them and even fewer will get enough of them to actually make a living.

I do think the doom and gloom around that sentiment is overstated: somehow, against all odds, there are more subscription dollars floating around the ether. And I do think someone approaching a sustainable ecosystem of subscription publications will emerge (and that it’ll be bigger than people expect).

But, still, cynicism. Those dollars will likely flow on disproportionately to the bigger publications (who can thus dedicate yet more time and resources to their work). And solo publications, by nature, call for more time and more effort to promote yourself and find readers (unless you already have a platform). That means they favour people who are already financially stable, already well known, or can just afford to work what amounts to two or three full time jobs until they can go completely solo.3

There will always be stories off the single parent of two who worked full time at the dead-end desk job but wrote great stories of an evening until they cracked the big one. And there will always be stories of passionate reporters who struck off on their own to build an audience. And there will always be yet more stories of smug young guys who ”did it on their own (just don’t look at the family money behind them)” that are used as examples of the solo model being both possible and desirable.

But all of the above are rare. And they perpetuate a myth that, frankly, needs to die. Especially when it comes to journalism.

In this together

Journalism is a team sport. The best work — the most powerful, the most meaningful — comes when a room full of people or a small team work together to create something bigger than themselves.

Sometimes, that’s a couple of reporters and an editor working together for years to break a seismic story. Sometimes, it’s a radio station pulling shifts to cover a disaster — as a former employer of mine, ABC Melbourne, did during the Black Saturday bushfires.

But they’re just the big ones. The real value of media organisations comes from the grunt work no-one cares about and from the structure they provide to help train new journos.

Hands up if you’ve paid any attention to your local courts lately. Or ever. What about your local council meetings?

Chances are you haven’t. Because no one does. Because they’re boring. In the case of local council, probably deliberately so. But both are vital. And so is sending a journo along to them.

That grunt work — the boring stuff, the court reports and the council meetings — are critical to a healthy media system. Maybe you don’t get a cracker of a story out of them very often but the stories you do get form the basis of the bigger stories down the line.

But who’s going to pay for a newsletter dedicated to your local court system or council? Who’s going to build a viable indie press out of that?

No one. But both are absolutely critical. And both form a foundation for a broader whole that can serve its readership well.

Another thing no one’s going to pay for? The newsletter from a 20-year-old kid fresh out of their cadetship or degree. No contacts, no bylines, can’t tell a lede from their shoes. Those kids need to come up somewhere. And they need to develop the editorial nous required to make a great story from someone.

That’s where institutions excel. Sure, they do foster some bad habits.4 But they also instill a lot of the habits that matter.

Gather up

That’s not to say there isn’t value in Newton’s world where ”hundreds of new publications are born” and more reporters take their careers into their own hands. It’s not like there are many big organisations that are doing well by them, anyway.

But his vision does by into this ideal of rugged individualism that, to my mind, has caused more harm than good. It’s the Die Hard of journalism: the lone reporter, surrounded by bad actors and worse business models, strikes out on their own to change the world.

Alright. Cool. Yippee-ki-yay.

Something special happens when a publication shrinks down all the way to a single reporter’s point of view. The publication feels more trustworthy: you know who the writer is, and where they’re coming from.

That kind of approach works great for reviews or opinion pieces. I want and value they kind of long-term relationship so I can contexualise what they’re saying.

But I don’t trust any single reporter more than I trust, say, the ABC here in Australia or The Guardian. Because I know the codes of conduct they’re bound by and I know the editorial processes they go through. And I know that, for a lot of stories — for the stories that matter — that I won’t be getting one person’s view with all the biases, be they unexamined or otherwise, and limitations that entails.

An informed society takes a village. And that starts with the people doing the informing.

Variety, spice, life

Fortunately, the model of journalism Newton’s espousing here will help in that regard in some ways.

Ben Thomson of Statechery explains it well:

Just because this model works for stars like Newton doesn’t mean it is exclusive to folks who could easily have jobs with traditional media companies. Indeed, I expect the greatest societal benefits from this model to be the emergence of more and more creators whose voices would have never been heard previously.

And that’s great. More voices, more thoughts, more potential for great work. Having more people try to make a go of it has a lot of benefits, even if they don’t pan out.

It’s in that doing — of more people throwing their hats into the ring and trying — that little communities of publishers emerge, each feeding off each other and building a place where ideas and skills evolve.

Maybe they’ll even pool their resources together. Maybe we’ll see publishing collectives make a comeback. Not that they ever went away: collectives are nothing new, online or otherwise. But they haven’t held a lot of sway in the public consciousness for a long time.

Artists have led the way: multiple independent artists, each doing their own thing, but operating under a loose banner and sharing resources.

Imagine four or five indie reporters, each from adjacent fields, operating their own publication but banding together to help each other out and share subscribers. They get more than they would individually; readers learn more than they expect (another benefit of larger publications with broader remits). Maybe they can even bring younger, less well-known and experienced reporters into the fold now and then.

Sure, it’s not as romantic or easily mythologised as a solo journo venturing into the world. But it’s the kind of future I’d like to subscribe to.


  1. The Conversation, a former employer of mine, is a good example of the value of specialists. Every article is written by an academic and edited (and usually commissioned) by a specialist journalist. The site is consistently a source of high value, timely information about the world and its doings. 

  2. If it did, subreddits would be a lot more worthwhile than they are now. 

  3. ”Afford” in this case refers to both money and time. Both are a currency. 

  4. Far too many Australian journos call every story a ”yarn” and it has to come from somewhere and that somewhere needs to be destroyed. 

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“Doomer trad wife” and reactionary culture

Ryan Broderick, writing about a growing sense of reactionaryism in some online communities (and what it could lead to), in Garbage Day:

I’ve had this feeling as if I had seen this sort of online discourse before and after seeing the “doomer trad wife” meme it finally dawned on me. It reminds me of the early days of the incel community, before it had become a full-on extremist movement. I’m not sure a lot of people remember this, but incels started on a message board called PUA Hate. The board started as a space for frustrated men to vent about how they felt ripped off by the pickup artist industry. These men had bought books or taken classes and tried to become masters of seduction or whatever, failed out, and became radicalized.

I think we’re seeing a similar reactionaryism happening in certain Gen Z online spaces right now, but instead of a pushback against the pickup artist industry and traditional ideas of masculinity, it’s a response to an oppressive and all-consuming attention economy. It’s a growing resentment of the parasocial relationships happening across social media platforms and it seems to be getting worse.

Ryan has been writing about this here and there for a while and his concern seems justified. Combine this pushback against against the attention economy with the QAnon crowd and the anti-sex community and things could be interesting pretty soon.

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Political leaders are sabotaging renewable energy

Christine Milne, former leader of the Australian Greens party:

If you fail to remember the past you are condemned to repeat it. In the UK in the 1860s the horse carriage industry and new railways were threatened by the self-propelled motor vehicle. So the government swung into action on behalf of its supporters, sabotaging the new industry by requiring every motor vehicle to be preceded by a man waving a red flag. All it achieved was to deny the community the benefits of the new technology and transfer the innovative advantage to other countries.

Now the same thing is happening with renewable energy.

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Windows 10 ignores your default browser to launch Edge

Microsoft have relaunched their Edge browser and they’d like you to know about it. In addition to randomly launching and pinning itself to taskbars (and being generally gross), Windows 10 is now bypassing your default browser settings for no good reason at all.1

The Windows 10 start menu has general search functionality: hit the Windows key, type your search query and, in addition to searching your software and files, it’ll also search the internet.

(As a fun bonus, if you search for your web browser the menu will also suggest Edge. Charming.)

Say you decide to follow one of those web searches. Windows won’t launch your default browser. That’d be too obvious. No, it’ll pop open Edge for you. And then ask if you’d like to make Edge your default web browser.

Really don’t see that happening any time soon. Sorry.


  1. Not that there was ever a good reason. 

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Microsoft’s console names make yet another good feature confusing

IGN:

Microsoft has confirmed that the Xbox Series S will not run Xbox One X Enhanced versions of backwards compatible games, and will instead run the Xbox One S versions of Xbox One and Xbox 360 titles with other beneficial features.

Microsoft‘s consoles names are a joke and this one paragraph hammers home how cumbersome they make it to explain what should be a simple feature. A commenter on Eurogamer summed it up best:

So the Xbox Series S can’t do the Xbox One X doing the Xbox but can do the Xbox One S doing the Xbox but the Xbox Series X can do the Xbox One X doing the Xbox?

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The world could use a little bit of tact right now

Corina Stan:

Tact, or délicatesse, was an old obsession of Barthes’s, going back to the early years of his career in the polarised, Manichean world of the 1940s. That had been a time, as the historian Tony Judt in 1992 showed, when experience, choices, humanity itself were ‘divided … into binary categories: good or evil, positive or negative, comrades or enemies’. The suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War in France, when both Left and Right were in Barthes’s view equally compromised, required not political commitment, as defended by his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, but a particular kind of neutrality – difficult to define, because it was not an absence of concern or lack of care; rather, it came from a desire to preserve the integrity of life itself, in its endless human differentiation. The neutral is, for Barthes, a refusal to participate in oppressive social systems; an anticipation of utopia.

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