I am my own filter: Kate’s Social Media Rant

I know they get clicks – that they are, in fact, the quintessential click-bait – but I am so fucking tired of those articles about what you should or should not do on social media.

“Five things you do on Facebook that you should stop doing!” could also be translated as, “Are you insecure about whether your online ‘friends’ are actually friends or whether they are judging you for oversharing or bragging? Click here and give us money and we’ll probably make you feel worse!”

So here’s my take on it, click-bait or otherwise (aside: were I to write anything that could even remotely be described as “click-bait” I would be delighted).

One of the things that is listed as an internet no-no is usually “having a whinge”.

Having a whinge

I think that having a whinge is one of the most important things we can do, socially and psychologically, and I suspect I may be in the minority on that. I have limits on what I think is appropriate, and I’ll express those when asked, but for the vast majority of the time I only apply those limits to myself.

If you read my Facebook, you might be very surprised that I apply any limits to myself, since my Facebook feed runs the gamut from the political (rare), the scientific (moderate), the cute (frequent) and the intensely banal (embarrassingly frequent), but we’ll get back to this.

People like to complain about complainers (the irony of this is often lost on them; I often find that sort of complaining far, far more irritating than the original sook), and they often like to say it is for the following reason:

“People should do something about their problems instead of just complaining about it.”

Now, this might genuinely be their motivation – I can’t read minds – but, cynical beast that I am, jaded by my day to day internet addiction and experiencing the death of a thousand cuts ill-considered internet comments, I honestly think that it’s more that they are made uncomfortable, or personally annoyed.

“I hate reading about someone’s [crappy day/experiences with bigotry/deaths in the family/personal suffering] because it interrupts my preferred flow of [political discussion/musical discoveries/cute cat pictures] and sometimes it makes me bummed.”

There’s nothing invalid about that response. It’s pretty normal.

So back to that first rationalisation: if it’s genuine – if this dichotomy of talkers vs. doers is why an anti-whinger is having trouble with their sulky Facebook or Twitter feed – I have a piece of very exciting news.

It’s a bombshell. Stand back.

These two categories are not mutually exclusive.

You can both whinge about a problem while contributing to solving it. I like to think I do this from time to time. I’m an expressive sort of person (I like to say that I am nothing if not verbose, and honestly perhaps that should be the subtitle of this blog…). I think in narratives, and arguments, and conversations and rants. I do not, alas, think in pithy one-liners. These posts would be much shorter if I did.

This applies to everything from intensely banal personal problems (i.e., my frustration with the current state of our carport and the paved areas in our yard) to much more significant political stances (i.e., my frustration with the current Australian government, my frustration with the endemic sexism, racism and other assorted bigotries in our society, my frustration with the wanton destruction of fragile marine ecosystems…).

I don’t fool myself that expressing my frustration with any of these things will solve the problem, but I am not so busy expressing my frustration that it will stop me from trying to do anything about it (although admittedly my political activism is largely about online conversation and discussion, and I have only changed one or two minds to date, but I count those as successes; also donations. Not as good as volunteering time, but still something).

To return to the banal: I can complain about the state of my carport and also clean it up. I can complain about endemic sexism and also call people on it when it occurs and have that conversation. I can complain about some ill health problems and also address them medically.

Now, sometimes it’s not the case. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do about a situation, or nothing I am willing to do for various reasons ranging from laziness to fear to lack of resources; and I may whinge anyway.

Good Lord, Kate, says the anti-whinger, why are you doing that? That’s self indulgent and only pisses people off.

I do it for a few reasons, and in no particular order, they are as follows:

  1. I am, as stated above, expressive by nature. I find nothing so satisfying as accurately and precisely delineating my thoughts and feelings on an issue, no matter how insignificant. It’s as though it ticks a little box in my brain. I have successfully described and outlined a problem. Dopamine reward!
  2. This is more an extension of (1), but venting feels good. It’s not entirely supported as a positive act; psychologically it is better to vent productively (i.e., outlining a problem, why you feel that way, possible solutions if any), but sometimes it’s good to just let it rip (I would argue, though, that you should always choose your audience with care when you do this. Never forget that the internet is forever).
  3. Sometimes it makes a good story. When shit happens, and especially when it gets ridiculous, there’s a part of my brain that says, “This will make a great anecdote later.” I am happy to whinge and try, if I can find the energy and the narrative, to make it as entertaining as I possibly can. I see it as a challenge, and it also helps me deal with the problem.
  4. Because I bloody well can.

Now that we’ve dealt with whingeing, and how I think that it’s perfectly appropriate 99.9% of the time for someone to have a sook in their own feed, everything else falls into the category of miscellaneous.

You can’t please everyone; don’t try

If you’ve consulted one or many of those “what you shouldn’t post on Facebook of Twitter” articles, you will have spotted a pattern – or rather, you will have spotted a lack of a pattern.

Variously, apparently, you should not:

  1. post about fitness (this includes everything from “I ran a marathon” to “gym killed me today”)
  2. post about nutrition (self-explanatory)
  3. post about medical stuff (oh noes! Oversharing! How dare you mention that you are in overwhelming pain all the time and you’re feeling a bit bummed and would like a little emotional support!)
  4. post about politics (that just makes people angry!)
  5. post about religion (I can channel myself here. People posting about their religion makes me want to stab myself in the eye, but since that would be unproductive, I take the radical step of minding my own business)
  6. post about their relationship (because who cares how much you love your snoogy woogums?)
  7. post about their children (because who cares about your sprogs?)
  8. post about their pets (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA I’m sorry I can’t comment on this one even a little)
  9. post about their failures (this comes under “whingeing”, I believe)
  10. post about their successes (because you’re showing off – or humble-bragging – or rubbing it in)

And one might reasonably wonder – after reading all this – what one can post about without upsetting the Buzzfeed authorship. Relatively few people seem to complain about people posting science or music or art, but then those can push political buttons.

And this self-righteous superior malarkey basically ends up in one place:

“I have things that I prefer to see in my feed, and these are obviously universal because everyone reacts the same way to these things that I do. I am the quintessential Internet Human and there is no variation around this mean.”

Twit.

I’m sorry (spoiler: I’m not sorry), but hell, it’s not hard to step back and think that maybe what you want to see and what I want to see and what other people want to see might vary just a tad.

I like to see posts about my friends’ kids, not just for the cute factor, but for the reality factor (these posts are not always overwhelmingly positive), and because I’m quite genuinely interested in what’s happening in my friends’ lives. Also, I like the kids.

I like to see posts about pets, for very similar reasons.

I like to see posts about medical things, about fitness, about nutrition. I like to see posts about politics.

I’m ambivalent about relationship posts. It’s not my thing – in many cases, unless carefully worded, such posts can come back to bite you very hard in the backside, and maybe you’re into that, but they make me squirm a little. Still, it’s absolutely your call. I do occasionally post about my relationship, but only when I find it very entertaining (given the nature of my relationship with Husband, it is usually pretty entertaining, at least for me).

I really hate religion posts (with the exception of very thoughtful pro-atheism posts, because I agree with many of those, and who doesn’t like a nice echo chamber?), but if you want to post about religion, go nuts. It’s your call, your feed; they’re your thoughts and your feelings, and if you want to use social media to share them, if you find that empowering or even just fun, then please do it. Don’t worry about people like me who are driven nuts by it. We’ll get over ourselves and move on. You can’t please everyone and it’s not worth trying.

What I really love to see? I love to see posts about friends’ successes. I want to hear about your promotion, your new job, your grant, your new best time in a 5K run, your new sculpture, your market stall, your paper, your novel. The idea that posting about good things in your life is “bragging” is just about one of those most vile things I can think of. Are some people having a brag and being a bit superior? Well, probably. Whatever. That’s not my problem. If you really don’t want to see good things happening to your friends, I think you might have some other problems you want to deal with, and I’m not being passive-aggressive: I mean there’s some insecurity and some anxiety happening, and it’s worth having a think about it. Sometimes it is hard to see someone succeed where we have failed, even if we love them; sometimes it can be stupendously hard; but most of us see that we can’t make it their problem. It’s our problem, and we deal with it. There’s no need to take off their shine.

Social media is a place where a bunch of different people raised in different ways – in different countries, towns, religions, and under different social rules and regimes – come together. When they do come together, they bring their baggage with them – their personal rules and preferences on what is, and is not, appropriate – and they often presume that their rules are universal.

People post about what they care about. They post about their passions. Sometimes they admittedly just post about what they had for dinner (I can take or leave that one; it’s similar to my banal “Oh God I’m in the lab and I haven’t had coffee, which end of the pipette goes where?” sort of posts). They post about what’s on their mind, and the thing about social media is that you can use it how you like. You can use it to promote things you are passionate about; you can use it to stay in touch with friends; you can use it to tell anecdotes about your day; and none of these things are mutually exclusive.

Here is how it works: social media is about things going outward from the writer, not inward towards the reader; or, to put it another way, the focus is on expression, not consumption, of material.

Do you have a responsibility to entertain people? Of course not. A social media feed is not a journalism feed. It’s not a magazine, or a novel, or a newspaper. People who write in those contexts, who write professionally, are subject to a wide swathe of ethical responsibilities. Social media is not a professional context: it’s just a bunch of people spewing whatever comes into their head at odd moments, and that has turned out to be enormously popular and enormously effective and incredibly annoying in a variety of ways.

But – my own opinion – you also do have an implied responsibility not to ruin it for everybody else, by which I mean: don’t show up self-righteously to tell people how boring their posts are, or how they’re using social media “wrong”, and while I won’t generally tell people what to post or what not to post, I have very little patience with meta-whingeing: whingeing about other people whingeing (although if you’re of a recursive mindset, my own stance is meta-meta-whingeing; DUDE, MIND BLOWN).

And in my own, excessively verbose way, I’ll get to the point:

Be your own filter. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. I scroll past “God is good!” You can scroll past “Look at my adorable children,” or “i hate my ex [sic]”. If you want to argue about the merits of a political position, that’s your call (I do and have done so, depending on the issue and how much I feel like I can be bothered getting stuck into it). If someone consistently posts a bunch of tripe that drives you mad, you can filter or unfriend them. That’s a power that you have.

I mean, you could just show up on posts you don’t like and tell people that their thoughts, interests and feelings are of no interest to you or anyone else and they should shut up, but that’s kind of an arse move, and it makes you the problem.

When do you Science?

[I am now working out this blogging thing. What I’ve determined is that if something needs references and images, it gets delayed – so my new policy is that, for every post that needs references and images, I’ll put up a few that are just basically mental screeds on things I care about. That speeds things up. –KN]

Nearly a year ago now, I was at a conference dinner,  discussing the fact that some scientists appear to have a bit of a cognitive disconnect. Scientists, I lamented in that post-one-or-two-glasses-of-wine sort of way, are so often only scientists from nine to five. Then they go home and stop being rational.

The woman sitting next to me looked taken aback. You can’t be rational all the time, she pointed out. That would be awful.

Since then, I’ve decided that what we are stuck on is our use of the word rational. Take it to mean sensible. Take it to mean, essentially, that most advertising should be taken with a grain of salt, that media rhetoric should be dissected to find the underlying message and to assess whether or not it is supported, that herbal foot baths are not going to remove “toxins” from your bloodstream and that fish oil probably isn’t going to boost your kids’ brainpower.

Don’t take my use of the word rational to mean “unemotional” or “robotic.” That seems to be a common misunderstanding. You can be passionately rational. Being rational – sensible – isn’t at odds with being passionate, or loving, or miserable, or creative. It isn’t at odds with expression or the exploration of ideas and symbolism. It isn’t at odds with artistic or cultural pursuits or loving your children.

To be confessional about my own sins in this regard: I have a guilty irrational pleasure (well, one that I know about, anyways). It’s skincare. I like having soft skin that smells nice. It’s part of a physical indulgence for me. At the same time, I am well aware that stimulating the production of collagen is probably not what is going to happen in response to the use of eye cream. I don’t believe that, every five minutes, someone discovers a new soothing flower oil that magically dissolves wrinkles, clears pores, tightens skin and – how convenient! – doesn’t smell like a horse’s arse (although I appear to be one of the few people in the entire world who hates the smell of both jasmine and lavender, so that’s a qualified feature right there).

I like massages and facials, but I let my eyes glaze over when they start talking about toxins and so forth. There are some truisms in skincare (“sorbolene is an excellent moisturiser”, “barrier creams help stop your skin drying out when you have to wash your hands fifty times a day because you work in a lab” and “antibiotic skin treatments do seem to reduce acne for sensible and obvious reasons”) and it appears to be true that you can make oily skin less oily, dry skin less dry, and neither-oily-nor-dry-skin stay neither-oily-nor-dry. Other than that, I’m not game to commit. I’m not a dermatologist. The only time a dermatologist recommended I use a particular skin product, it was in the well-over-$50-per-jar range which was way out of my budget (if anyone’s curious, it was all that alpha-hydroxy-acid stuff. This was after I finished a course of Roaccutane and my face was feeling rather traumatised).

It’s worth mentioning that when many serums and so forth say “supported by clinical trials!” the actual data is something like “Ten out of ten respondents reported that their skin felt better.” This doesn’t distinguish it from a placebo effect. I pretty much use skincare as a placebo effect, for the most part, unless I have some environmental exposure I need to guard against (i.e. the aforementioned lab work, or SCUBA diving. Diving wrecks my skin. You have no idea), and yes, I am aware that this means I drizzle away money when I do this.

A friend suggested I should use a product on half my face for a while and use that as a test, but I admitted I was too vain to do that. If it was going to work, I wanted it to work, and if it didn’t, well, then it didn’t, and either way I wasn’t willing to look like Harvey Two-Face.

Image

In the end I decided (based on some before and after selfies) that it had a decent effect, but not enough to justify the expenditure, and I moved on to slightly cheaper pastures.

Skincare is just one example. We can stand around in a lab in our seasonally-inappropriate closed-toed shoes, and still someone might recommend homeopathy, or multi-vitamins, or reiki, or one of any number of things that don’t do you any good at all outside of a placebo effect (although the placebo effect can be very powerful, and for reiki and homeopaths in particular, being in an environment where you get to sit down or lie down and relax, where someone is going to actually have the time to listen to your problems, really is a recipe for feeling better. It won’t cure illnesses, but it could definitely reduce stress, and, alright, if stress is causing your illness…) (and having said that, I have no patience with homeopaths. At. All).

The fact is that, sometimes, being rational can be exhausting. Unless it comes from a trusted source with access to solid facts, you can’t take anything on faith. You constantly question your assumptions. You spend most of your time living inside an interrogative framework (when you’re not just mechanically pipetting samples and reagents from one place to another place, which is how I spent half my day yesterday). Does this work? Why does it work? How do I know that this is why it works? Is there a loophole in this reasoning?

I try to do the same thing with my dogs. As any half-decent dog owner knows, you do have to be rational with dogs. You have to remember what you are expecting from them, what signals you are giving them and, crucially, that dogs don’t speak English and don’t necessarily know that the vague fluffy hand signal you’re giving them now means the same as the decisive hand signal you gave them this morning. They don’t necessarily know that the same word, in a different tone of voice, means the same thing (that is a hard one for English speaking humans to learn). They don’t know that the same gesture or command in a different situation means the same thing – or perhaps something different (which is why, in our house, “Down” means “get off the damn couch”, “No jumping!” means exactly that, and the command to lie down is “drop”. If I used “Down” to mean both “drop” and “get off the damn couch”, I have no right to tell off or correct my dogs if they get confused).

It can get messy. Sometimes someone will say something that you know is not supported by the evidence, and you have to choose whether to simply say “Hmmm,” or nod and smile,” or to bite the bullet and say, “Well, actually, there have been a few studies on that…”

Everyone can get butthurt when you challenge them on their use of the word “holistic” or the phrase “Western medicine” no matter how gentle and tactful you are about it. The alternative is to let people muddle on and make inaccurate and potentially harmful decisions based on crappy information.

Now, I was under the (mistaken, naïve, egotistical) impression that scientists would be less butthurt if they were challenged on misunderstandings, instead open to the possibility of “Oh? Really? I didn’t know that. I should look into it!” as a response, since that is what we have to do all day. It turns out even someone who is rigorous and consistent within their area of research and work can start to sulk if you suggest that perhaps homeopathic vaccines are not going to do them any good.

To be fair (and this is important), people don’t necessarily go to work to debate their lifestyle and medical choices, so I can see how it would be confronting regardless of your scientific training.

I don’t have an answer to this issue. It’s not just scientists who need to be rational outside of working hours, of course: everyone does. Irrational decisions lead to, at best, wasted time and money (homeopathy, erm… expensive skincare products) and, at worst, death and suffering (vaccine refusal, terrorist activities). In spite of what I just said, you can’t really expect yourself to be rational all the time – you’re human. You have a number of built-in cognitive biases that actively work to prevent you from being rational, from seeing the big picture, from breaking things down into useful statistical blocks. Humans as a group are bad at risk assessment, bad at probability and statistics, and absolute slaves to confirmation bias (i.e. placing more weight on arguments that support what they already believe rather than the opposite, instead of evaluating the merits of those arguments).

As a take-home message, it would obviously be beneficial for people to think more about some of their decisions as they make them, and try to be more honest about whether they’re rationalising or not. This includes me, looking down upon everyone from my lofty perch on the couch, in my pyjamas. We have to go easy on ourselves (see the aforementioned cognitive biases), but we really should give it a go.

I mostly mentioned the pyjamas because no matter how I edit it, this post sounds a little sanctimonious. I just get frustrated sometimes.

Also, they’re cute pyjamas.