The Social Dilemma

In the same way I avoid frequent flyer miles and coupons, I make a conscious effort to grow the following account blacklist:

  • Facebook + Messenger
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Snapchat
  • TikTok
  • Pinterest

These are all things I have never used, or that I may have previously but are now abandoned or completely expunged. There’s no avoiding the tech giants (he types in the google doc draft, on his macbook, while eating delivered groceries), but I can at least strive to balance value creation and capture slightly more in my favor.

Isn’t my YouTube browsing then subsidized by the mindless masses and enabled by my relative wealth from generations of privilege? Sure, to some extent. There are troubling aspects of capitalism. It’s really wonderful that folks are speaking up as our social immune system and protecting American values from first principles. In this case, elucidating the dangers of the “tilted floor” created by dark patterns.

But I think the biggest issue here, and the most useful forward-looking lever, is much more personal.

The title of this blog post references a lovely documentary on Netflix. The film glosses over an important point a skeptic makes: that movies, for example, have been around for a long time. Netflix lowers the barrier to binge watching, but this is just a natural step in the progression of information technology and entertainment services…along with TV, video cassettes, Blockbuster, or even your local public library.

The documentary paints online interaction with the brush of doom. Does email deserve it? I don’t think broad strokes are helpful here, since the broadest strokes would probably say email is a useful tool and leave it at that. To really understand the moral priorities, we need to go deeper into the specifics.

As usual, I tend to agree with Seth Godin. He has a lot of thoughts on email, a medium he helped pioneer commercially. He wrote an open letter to gmail and created the 98 voices project. He generously shares best-practices like this gem from Danah Boyd that says, “I’m on vacation so any email you send me will be deleted. If it’s important, please re-send after this date.”

I like Seth’s life operating system. Contribute as we can to the public and political discourse, advocate for more healthy incentive-aligned design and legislation, but personally focus most on living a good life. Building good habits and doing good work.

Even without all those social media accounts, I still eat buckets of ice cream. I walk around my block to procrastinate. My brain finds many ways to throw up Resistance, to prevent me from challenging myself at my desk and growing. Social media is a small part of this larger struggle to act rationally in my long-term self-interest.

I typically find blogging to be time well spent. I’m thinking originally. I’m challenging myself to communicate more clearly and deliver a finished product. I’m exercising my freedom to the best of my ability. I’m doing it for its own sake, and for my own. I’m taking responsibility and showing up.

This is an activity that generates value. The output is something I’m really proud of, for many reasons. I met a stranger last week who told me she looked me up and found my writing thought-provoking. I’ve also had a couple messages come in from friends who read my last post:

“Btw, I have listened through the Mars and Venus book, life-changing, I am so glad I have read it, and believe me it is the best book for couples to read”

“Finite and Infinite games is my favorite book. Life changing. Genuinely happy you found it.”

The quality of this content is so much higher than social media for me. I love owning my website, having it serve my sole purposes. I love how the only engagements are silent and unknown to me, or extremely positive and thoughtful like these messages. There is so much more signal, so much less noise.

I wish more of my friends would blog. I don’t want to see your shallow emoji lifestream. I want to spend time with you. If it has to be async, then I want to see your mental milestones, your personal evolution, your deep conversations. Showcase your personal journey, your self-work.

I feel similarly about reading books as an activity. They are fuel for growth, challenging and useful and meaningful. I engage to the degree I truly want with the material, not out of addiction or passivity. Sometimes, perhaps, they can be entertaining and distracting, but much less so than news headlines and articles.

Some articles might be written with the same integrity and love and generosity I’m putting into this blog post. However, the documentary shows that such content is often deeply rooted in the attention economy. For the average consumer, these are simply distractions, agents of Resistance.

People often misunderstand my relationship with chess. Chess used to be like writing for me. On balance, it was a real hobby, an activity I enjoyed and studied carefully. I devoted myself to serious work.

Then, high school ended in 2014, and other activities took precedence. Chess, once my great love, turned into a stale default comfort, like eating chocolate instead of making it. I no longer read chess books or played regularly in long time control tournaments. It’s quite clear that my performance has correspondingly stalled.

I’ve continued to sink a ton of hours into casual play and internet speed games. I regularly follow chess news and watch tournaments. As far as addictions go, it beats drugs. But nevertheless, time wasted is time wasted. Playing chess is no longer a high-quality hobby for me as much as it is entertainment and Resistance. (Teaching it, on the other hand, is something that I do still find value in.)

For me, the answer to the social dilemma is simply good habits and some reasonable self-awareness. I do what I can to eliminate notifications and decouple the useful functions of online tools from their addictive traps. I wrote a chrome extension to limit my compulsive chess futzing.

Removing sufficiently many distractions, the only thing left is the work of living true to oneself. Of acting freely.

Right now, I have three main personal goals / activities: writing, fitness, and dating. I don’t always do particularly well, but at least it’s a compass I can anchor on. Consistent effort invested in these buckets moves my life in a positive direction.

There’s this extreme saying to “live as if today were your last.” I prefer to consider a spectrum. What if this is my final week, month, year? The six month to two year timeframe is probably best. It’s just long enough to make this blog post worth writing and short enough to drive urgency around what matters.

Western Individualism underpins property and free markets and the evils of social media. But it also gives us agency to live well, to make our own choices each and every day. What will we focus on and do, as individuals? Have we earned the trust of our ancestors, and our posterity? When will we decide to steer our ship well?


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