| LifeLines |

Social Studies

I don’t take on social media companies as clients anymore, because I can’t, in good conscience, advise them how to get users addicted to their software.

From the time I was a kid, I was always drawn to technology.

Like a good Jewish boy, however, I pursued a degree in business administration, after learning Torah full-time for a number of years. Yet even after I earned my MBA, technology kept pulling me, and I became involved in some high-tech start-ups. Eventually, I began offering consulting services to these companies, mostly on how to market and launch their products.

Every app goes through a production process: sketches, wireframes, visual design, beta testing, etc. I work with the front- and back-end developers, making sure the programmers who write the code and the designers who develop the graphical user interface are on the same page, both literally and figuratively. I also help products get attention via various media channels and partners, whether online or conventional.

Early in my tech career, people warned me that the creative side of cybertech was not a place for a frum person. “There’s a lot of depravity going on there,” they explained. “The people who work in web development are promoting all sorts of morally questionable products, and they’re living lifestyles that you want to stay far away from.”

When I was hired by a certain company to do a product launch, the employees themselves advised me not to attend company parties. “The parties are really crazy,” they told me. “There’s a lot of drinking going on, and other stuff, too.”

I was duly warned. Thankfully, working as a freelance consultant, I wasn’t required to participate in any parties. I did have to attend events and meetings where alcoholic beverages were built into the program, but I managed to get away without imbibing — and without offending anyone — by telling my hosts that I had a drinking problem. (Had I said it was a religious or ideological thing, they would have been insulted.)

I didn’t have to work much with people face-to-face, though. Most of my work I did remotely, at home, communicating through e-mail or instant messaging. So I didn’t have much personal interfacing with the people I was working with, nor was I exposed to the dark side of the industry that I had been warned about.

Some of the projects I worked on involved promoting communications apps, in the style of Instagram and WhatsApp. The biggest challenge for the companies that produce these apps is how to keep the user engaged in their platform when countless other applications are competing for his attention. More user engagement translates into more advertising revenues for app-building companies, so these companies hire consultants like me to advise their software developers how to make their products as attractive as possible to the user.

Working in high-tech, I knew I needed to erect some barriers between myself and the problematic areas of the Internet. In the wake of the internet asifah and calls by gedolim for measures to protect ourselves against the hazards of the Internet, I duly installed filters and reporting software on all of my devices. I downloaded WebChaver, making my rebbi a partner on my home computer, where he can view all of my Internet activity. On my phone, I installed NetSpark Mobile, which I consider the best filtering software available. Not only was I protected from virtual schmutz, I was fortunate enough not to have to work in Manhattan, or in an office with people whose dress and values were repugnant to me.

As a freelancer, I could set my own hours, so I was able to maintain a morning learning seder. I didn’t have a boss who could demand that I punch a clock at exactly 9 a.m., nor could any of my clients insist that I be available at a given hour.

But there was only so much distance I could keep between my standards and the underbelly of the industry. To keep on top of developments in my industry, I often attend what are known as design conferences, where software designers gather to learn about the latest trends, advances, and applications. At one of these conferences, I participated in a seminar on the topic of “Triggering the nucleus amygdala.” The nucleus amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions — the type of positive-feedback-loop reactions that software companies want to elicit in users so that they will keep coming back to the company’s app.

The presenter of this particular seminar was the head of a software development company. “How can we encourage habitual use of a platform?” he asked, as part of his presentation.

“Your app doesn’t just need to provide a function,” he explained. “It needs to get users hooked, so that they keep coming back whether they want to or not. Basically, we’re trying to get them addicted to our software.”

Why his words came as a shock to me, I’m not sure. I myself had been working for years on driving users to my clients’ platforms, be they websites, blogs, communication apps, or social media sites. And it’s no secret that developers look for ways to make their software as engaging as possible, to keep users coming back. There’s even a name for this: the network effect, in which the value of a product increases as more people start to use it.

I guess it was the matter-of-fact way that the presenter threw out the word “addicted” that sent me reeling. I felt as though I was listening to a tobacco manufacturer candidly disclose how he adds addictive substances to his cigarettes to make it as difficult as possible for people to quit smoking.

The problem isn’t that people don’t have enough willpower, I suddenly realized. It’s that huge teams of software developers are working to overpower the users’ self-discipline and short-circuit their willpower.

That realization was enough to make me decide to go antisocial and delete every single one of my social media accounts and communications apps. These platforms were not helping me connect with people — they were substituting real communication with the mindless noise of social media. If anyone wanted to communicate with me, I resolved, they’d either have to call me or send me a regular e-mail, e-mail being more formal, less instant, and less banter-friendly than text messaging.

As it happened, one of the clients I was working for at the time was a company that operated an instant-messaging platform similar to WhatsApp. I deleted their app from my device, and I sent out an e-mail to the people in the company that I would no longer be reachable via their app.

It was with considerable trepidation that I sent out that e-mail. Some chutzpah, I could just see the company management thinking.

To my surprise, the CEO of the company expressed no reservations about my refusal to continue using the company software. “Actually,” she wrote to me in an e-mail, “I don’t use any social media myself, because of the danger of harassment, and because it forces me to communicate with people I’m not actually interested in connecting with.”

I couldn’t believe what this woman was telling me. Here she was, aggressively promoting an app that kept users glued to their devices, while she herself gave the app a wide berth?

“So how do you stay on top of your messages?” I wrote back to her.

“I check my e-mail account twice a day, at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” she responded, several hours later. “I have a smartphone, but if you need to reach me urgently, call my dumb phone. That’s the one I use.”

Wow. Talk about antisocial.

After that exchange, I decided to start doing some informal research. When speaking to friends or relatives, I asked them whether they have accounts on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Yik Yak, or similar platforms. If they said yes, I inquired, “How does social media make you feel about your own life?”

“Horrible,” was the most common reaction I got.

“Why?” was my next question.

“I see people doing all sorts of fun things and looking so happy,” one person said. “And then I wonder, why does everyone besides me look so great?”

Of the 24 people I surveyed, not one reported any positive feelings or outcomes from their social media use.

“So why do you continue using it?” I probed.

“It’s a catch-22 situation,” came the answer. “If I’m online, I’m distracted from the things I’m supposed to be doing, but if I’m not online, I feel that I’m missing out.”

The more people I spoke to, the more intrigued I became about the dynamics of social media use. Clearly, people were not benefiting from being plugged into their devices, and their self-esteem was suffering. But was this a minor problem, or did it have serious ramifications?

I did some research online, and discovered that social media was implicated in a whopping 14 percent of recent divorces. The studies that this statistic was based on were performed in the general population, however, so I wasn’t sure they had any bearing on the frum community. I decided to speak to a few divorce lawyers serving the community to find out.

“I would say that texting and Facebook are among the leading causes of divorce in the frum community today,” one lawyer asserted.

“Social media definitely accelerates divorces,” another lawyer noted. “Seeing what’s going on in other people’s lives, even if it’s only from innocuous sources like simchah websites, can magnify people’s dissatisfaction with their own lives and marriages.”

I had spoken to the people on the ground, and to the lawyers. Next, I approached a number of marriage therapists and chassan teachers to find out what kind of effect online communications were having on engaged and married couples. They confirmed that texting and social media cause lots of fights between couples and put strain on relationships. “People write insensitive things in texts that they wouldn’t dream of saying to a person’s face,” a therapist told me. “Also, the potential for misunderstandings in texting is huge. People write things quickly, without thinking, and all that the recipients see are the stark words on the screen, devoid of the facial expression, tone of voice, and body language that might soften or reframe the communication. And the written word doesn’t go away — it can be read again and again.”

After hearing this, I went to speak to some rabbanim. I contacted rabbanim in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Lakewood — chassidish, litvish, Sephardic, Modern Orthodox — and every single one of them reported that they were dealing with problems in their kehillos related to social media use.

“So why don’t you take a stand against it?” I asked.

“There’s no point,” one rav said. “If you think banning social media use is going to help an iota, take a look at what’s going on in the schools. Plenty of schools have made rules that their students are not allowed to have smartphones, but if you go into any pizza shop, you’ll see 13-year-old kids snapping selfies and uploading them to Instagram.”

As an industry insider, I was all too familiar with the dangers of kids posting pictures of themselves online. There are all sorts of weirdos out there who pilfer photos, retrofit them, and use them for unseemly purposes. In addition, every photo on the Internet is meta tagged, so Google and Instagram not only know who you are, they also know your location, based on the GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken. For adults, this means increased risk of identity theft; it also means that burglars can break into your house when they see you posting photos while you are away on vacation. For children, the implications are even more sinister.

If there are age restrictions on cigarettes, alcohol, and motor vehicle operation, I wondered, shouldn’t there be restrictions on social media use?

I posed this question to some leading web developers I knew from my work, people who were responsible for creating some of the most widely used social media platforms.

“Of course kids shouldn’t have access to social media,” each of them told me, in succession. “I don’t let my own kids use it.”

The results of my informal but extensive research were in: Regular people, divorce lawyers, therapists, chassan teachers, rabbanim, and web developers all agreed that social media was wiping out people’s self-esteem and hijacking their relationships.

There was one more piece of the puzzle, one that I myself held. As a marketing consultant, clients regularly call upon me to advise them on how to use social media to drive up revenues.

“You can’t,” I tell them flatly.

“What?” they ask in surprise.

“Social media does not create revenues,” I say, “at least not in any measurable way. If you look at the latest studies, you’ll see that social media has been a disappointment in terms of sales and fundraising. It can get people to do a lot of browsing, scrolling, and clicking, but real results we’re not seeing.”

No one has to take my word for it. “Social Media Not Driving Sales” was the title of a recent post on AdExchanger, a high-tech news and analysis site. National Public Radio (NPR) reported that “while Facebook and other social media sites can be good at putting issues on your radar, they are pretty ineffective at getting people to click away and actually donate.” The reason, says NPR, is: “When people are scrolling through posts, say, on Facebook, it’s incredibly rare for them to decide to click away to some outside website — let alone an outside website that’s asking for their credit card information.”

“Social bounce” is a new term that describes what happens when social media users fail to engage in the way their online hosts would like them to. Reducing bounce rate is the big challenge for my web developer colleagues, but until the problem of social bounce goes away — which I don’t foresee happening — I advise my clients to invest in their own websites instead of throwing their money into social media, which provides a lot of static background noise but very little turnover.

The more research I do, the more astounded I am at the way intelligent people blindly embrace every new online platform that comes out, without even waiting until the effects of the new technology are studied and the benefits and drawbacks analyzed. When Instagram first released its Android version, in 2012, the app was downloaded more than a million times in 24 hours.

Everyone claims to need social media for their work, but I have yet to meet one person who can prove that his parnassah improved because of Facebook or Twitter. The upsides of social media are all speculation, while the dangers are already well-documented; just google “social media and suicide” or “Facebook and depression.”

Back when people warned me of the depravity in the field of creative technology, I thought they were referring to the schmutz of the Internet and the problematic lifestyles of the greater Silicon Valley community. Today, I understand that the worst depravity of the industry lies in the creation of platforms designed to cultivate addiction and act as a virtual substitute for meaningful human relationships.

I don’t take on social media companies as clients anymore, because I can’t, in good conscience, advise them how to get users addicted to their software. I do attend design conferences, though, just to keep my knowledge current and stay on top of trends in the industry.

Let me tell you, the people at these conferences are a bunch of hypocrites. They don’t use the social media apps that they themselves create, because they think those apps are for losers; you should hear the disdain in their voices when they talk about the lemmings who live on social media. They’re writing the programs for your smartphone, but they themselves are using “vintage” phones.

The old flip phones are actually considered quite trendy in these circles. So if you’re really smart, you might want to hang on to your dumb phone.

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Available now from ArtScroll/Mesorah — The Best of LifeLines, with all-new postscript follow-ups to each story.

Between the life lines

The juxtaposition, in successive weeks, of the stories “Mother of Pearls” and “The Ribbono shel Olam’s Kinder” (Issues 589 and 590, respectively) was unintentional, but it did give me pause.

“Mother of Pearls” was the story of a woman with 20 children, kein ayin hara, who is one of the happiest, calmest people I’ve ever spoken to. When I asked her what was the hardest part of raising her family, she thought and thought, and could not answer the question. “I don’t know… maybe toilet training,” she finally said, after I repeated the question a third time, in different words.

Contrast that with the narrator of “The Ribbono Shel Olam’s Kinder,” a mother who lost a young child to cancer, after the child’s leg was amputated to try to prevent the spread of the disease. The amount of pain the mother had experienced was indescribable, and although the intensity of the grief had naturally lessened in the 30 years since the child had passed away, the loss was still a palpable reality.

Speaking to her, I was struck by a startling thought. If the loss of a child — or even one limb of a child — can cause such profound, lasting grief, then the amount of joy a person derives from a healthy child should be correspondingly intense.

Now, I had a glimmer of understanding of why the mother of 20 could not think of any hardship in raising her family. Each one of her children was such a source of joy to her that the difficulty of raising them — significant as it must have been — paled in comparison. When a person is able to fully enjoy and appreciate the blessings they are given, then the difficulties that come along with those blessings are not something they much notice or remember.

Food for thought, indeed.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 591)

 

 

 

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