Remember when social media was fun, uplifting...even inspiring? These days, the constant stream of bad news on our feeds, not to mention the added threats of fake news, can make going on social media downright depressing, at times.  

But the "good" is still out there. It's just that using social media now, more than ever, requires having a game plan of sorts. These tips are by no means rocket science, but--as someone who lives and breathes social media--they've helped me derive more value, and hope, from my feeds.  

1. In all things, moderation

There is something undeniably pleasurable, even addictive, about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other networks--from the little hit of dopamine you get from liking a post to the thrill of connecting with a friend halfway around the world. But too much simply isn't a good thing. In fact, some studies suggest that this constant atmosphere of distraction is actually lowering IQs and contributing to "continuous partial attention."

That's why the first step to getting more out of social media is using it less. One fix is to set boundaries. Schedule dedicated "social media times" in your daily agenda, just as you would for meetings. Turn push notifications off so you're not constantly interrupted. If you're lacking the willpower, apps like Forest, Freedom and Self Control let you block your own access to certain sites for pre-determined periods of time. This approach has helped me treat social media less as a snack-food binge--all empty calories, thoughtlessly scarfed down--and more as a deliberate gateway to richer, deeper content.   

2. Be a savvy media consumer

Here's some Media 101. Every media company (including social media) is a business. To succeed, they have to hook you in and get you to keep coming back. And they all employ psychological tactics, either consciously or not, to do so. Back in the newspaper days, the old mantra was, "If it bleeds, it leads"--editors knew that violence attracted eyeballs and played it up accordingly. These days, social media sites are laden with "triggers"--provocative cues that beg for a response--from posts that deliberately incite negative emotions to the gratuitous use of the color red, which humans are programmed to treat as an alarm signal.

Awareness here is half the battle. Scan your news stream with your own internal radar up. Am I being baited into clicking on something here? Is this update preying on my need for distraction or a quick, thoughtless pick me up? Back in the pre-Internet days, we knew not to take the National Enquirer and all those salacious tabloids at the supermarket checkout line at face value. We knew Elvis wasn't alive. We knew aliens hadn't landed. It's time to apply this same healthy skepticism to social media. If it looks too good (or too bad) to be true, it probably is. Don't fall for it. Don't click.

3. Reboot your follower list

What shows up on your social media feed isn't random, of course. It's dictated, in large part, by what the people you follow are posting, clicking and commenting on. This is what makes social media "social," and network algorithms, in one form another, all prioritize content from your circle. So...drumroll, please...if you want to see more positive, helpful and insightful news on social media, follow more people who are positive, helpful and insightful.

The problem is we're not always so judicious when it comes to making connections. It's easy to end up with a feed dominated by a few loudmouths you barely know with a knack for stirring up controversy. That's why I recently embarked on an experiment on Twitter. I unfollowed everyone and am slowly rebuilding my follower list from scratch, with the goal of populating my home stream with updates that are actually valuable. But even unfollowing a handful of perpetual whiners or troublemakers can make a dramatic difference in the tenor of your feed.

4. Skew local

Something to ponder: if we lived in the age of Jack Ripper, we might not have known--or, more to the point, worried about--Jack the Ripper. London may have been consumed by the grisly murders back in the autumn of 1888, but much of North America was, for the most part, blissfully ignorant at the time. Of course, we now live in an era when news--and calamity--from every corner of the globe is updated on our social feeds in real time.

It's important to be a global citizen, but there's something to be said about focusing on problems we can solve, events we can attend and people we can actually impact, rather than always worrying about what's going on a world away. I've found that the more local your social media connections are, the more rewarding the experience is. Find and follow local groups--charities, bands, sports clubs--on Facebook. Seek out local politicians, journalists and businesses on Twitter. Follow your coworkers and your kids' teachers and the guy who runs your favourite cafe on Instagram. Treating social media as a facilitator of real world interactions--rather than a replacement for them--ultimately makes the experience infinitely richer. Plus, you sleep better at night.

5. Demand algorithm ethics

Right now, most social media algorithms are optimized with one metric in mind: engagement. You're dished up whatever content is deemed most clickable and most comment-able, with little regard for its veracity, news value, utility or other factors. For the networks themselves, I can understand the appeal and economics of that approach. It has the veneer of objectivity. You don't have to get into the messy business of making judgement calls.

But we've already glimpsed where this path of least resistance leads. Blindly serving up the most clickable content, for instance, let fake news proliferate unchecked on Facebook last fall, swaying one of the most contentious presidential elections in history. Facebook recently promised more human oversight of its automated ad systems. But this problem calls for a more radical fix. The algorithms that serve up our content need to, at the least, take credibility into account. Better still, they need an ethical coefficient--a weighting for civic value, basic decency and social good.

Would this be contentious? Maybe. Easy to implement? Maybe not. But the absence of an ethical code leaves social media a dumping ground for humanity's worst impulses, rather than a platform for its best. Considering the reach and power of the medium, I think we deserve better. (Interestingly, Facebook has just acquired positivity-focused polling app tbh, which may end up injecting some more optimism into our feeds.)  In the meantime, one simple step to change the look of your Facebook stream is just to switch the News Feed settings from "Top Stories" to "Most Recent"--this ignores the popularity factor and serves you up content in strictly chronological order.    

I don't mean to get preachy here. I love social media. It's powered revolutions around the globe, brought people closer together and made it possible for all kinds of entrepreneurs (like me) to find success. So take these tips with a grain of salt--I hope there's an idea or two that resonates with you. And if you're still looking for the "good" on social media, there's always Tank's Good News. It never fails to pick me up when I'm down.

Published on: Nov 29, 2017