Some months ago I deleted my Instagram account. Among the reasons that I had was that it fostered in me a form of superficial consumption. I would open Instagram to skim posts and stories without considerable effort. Soon after I would find myself having spent some time doing nothing. I had no recollection whatsoever of what I had seen. Scroll, swipe, scroll, swipe.
Why was I doing this?
A lot has been said already about the way in which these services are designed. They prey on our appetite for instant gratification. I'm sure everyone has recognized that in some shape or form.
Nonetheless, that appetite is not their creation. They leverage that which already exists inside of us. In my case, I was prone to doing this whenever I was feeling anxious or distracted. But that still happens today, with or without Instagram.
I frequent Hacker News almost everyday. It is one of those sites that I indulge in when looking for that gratification. I'll wonder “gee, I bet there's something interesting going on in Hacker News right now”. Here's what happens next.
First, I'll get carried away by titles at the top of the list. These tend to have a higher comment or upvote count. Then I click on “comments” and read some of the top comments. Finally, I return to the front-page and I'm off to the next one. Rarely do I read the actual posts.
Why am I doing that?
Often times the top comments trigger that appetite for instant gratification. I have conditioned myself to use the top comment as a filter for the actual source. It helps me gauge whether it is worth opening the actual link.
I ask myself, how is this different to how I used Instagram? Content shared in Hacker News can be of substance. And yet, I'm still only skimming.
Scroll, swipe, scroll, swipe.
Hacker News is not alone in this. I'll use any other aggregator (e.g Reddit) in a similar fashion. I now call this “Metric driven browsing”. It encourages me to delegate the effort of reading and forming an opinion of my own.
I'm still unsure about the end result of this. In one hand, there's a lot of content being shared daily but only so much that can actually be digested. This could be a way to distill the firehose of information into bite-size pieces.
But I am not in control of what I get to consume. It is as if I'm being lead astray into content that I would not bother to read otherwise. But even then, I'm not actually reading these things. I'm acknowledging them and reading someone else's opinion about it.
Both Instagram and Hacker News push me to superficial ways of consumption. They each do it in a different way, but they build upon the same raw material that exists within me. So why quit one and not the other?
I do not feel like Hacker News is out there preying on my attention like Instagram did. I may be vulnerable to aggregators built around metrics like comments and upvotes. Still, I do recognize that some content shared in Hacker may be substance.
To that end I'm curious to know what would happen if I read a stripped down version of Hacker News. One without comments and upvotes. I hypothesize that I would still use it but in a more self-driven way.
It would be interesting to compare the list of posts that I read versus the list of most popular posts. Would there be an overlap? Would I find myself reading the more unexpected ones?
Communities built around aggregators are not inherently good or bad, desirable or undesirable. I have read insightful contributions and discussions. The opposite is also true. But there is a tangible drawback to them, at least for me. It makes it harder to browse and consume content in an honest and impartial way (what is though?).
I'm now trying to change this particular habit. I'll write a separate post on how I'm trying to regain control of my attention. But this is not possible without recognizing that behavior in the first place.
Let me know if this is something that happens to you as well. I'm curious to hear how others deal with this.