It can be h*ckin' rough out here

It can be h*ckin' rough out here


I’m joined  by Charlie Warzel on the podcast this week. Charlie is a writer-at-large at The New York Times Opinion Desk who dissects technology and social media. We had a great conversation about how people relate to their web selves and the consequences—both positive and negative—of our new digital world and how we’re adapting to rapid changes to our lives online and offline.

The World Wide Web has offered a trove of benefits to humanity, but it also appears to be costing a lot of people their senses of sanity.

I put out a call on Twitter for listeners and readers to submit their thoughts on the relationships they have with social media and technology. The words I seemed to read most often in the responses were variations of “need” and “struggle,” indicating an impulse to always be online and an uncertainty of how to manage that craving. Here are quotes that stood out to me from some of the responses I received:

“My relationship with social media is one of the most complex, love/hate relationships I have in my life, if not the greatest.” -Cameron

“Yes, social networking web sites offered us a lot of convenience, and in the beginning they were great. Over the years, though, they have taken the convenience away, taken the content away, become abusive, and perhaps even become a danger to democracy.” -Matthew

“I feel like I need it, and feeling like you need something sucks." -David

“Social media can be so easily weaponized because of the mob mentality and this new mindset of not being critical of what exists on the internet.” - Juniper

“The bifurcation of the self across platforms and ‘brands’ can become exhausting, and translating the digital experience to real life can be challenging, even down to engaging in informed discussion in person because recall only comes in the context of certain websites on a screen.” -Eric

You’ll see there is a theme, here. I brushed on this topic a couple weeks ago when I wrote about the Notre Dame fire, but the premise of this show and newsletter is being too-damn-online, so let’s go one deeper.

Every part of this seems bad.

The American Psychological Association released a study earlier this year that found “sharp increases in the number of young adults who reported experiencing negative psychological symptoms,” with a spike happening after 2011—around the time that social media companies really began to earn buy-in from the masses. Another found that regularly using Facebook had a negative effect on a user’s general sense of well-being. Other studies have found that those who limited their social media use to 30 minutes or less per day reported “reduced depression and loneliness, especially those who came into the study with higher levels of depression.”

These websites are making a lot of us miserable, and additionally, we are sacrificing obscene amounts of our personal data. The tech giants recognize our faces. They read our license plates.  They know who our friends and family are. They can pinpoint our exact locations. Last year, a PEW Research study found that roughly half of Americans do not trust the government or social media companies to handle the data they collect responsibly. I would imagine that public distrust has grown since that survey.

All the while, tech companies are finding new invasive ways to exploit us to the tune of record profits.

The city is at war
And it's playtime for the young and rich

Private jets and cutting-edge corporate offices ain’t cheap, kid. To fund the empires, tech giants implemented design changes that turned the internet into a giant feedback loop meant to keep us online as much as possible, and thus input more data that could be sold. Down to the introduction of red notification icons, it was engineered with the purpose of turning us into hopeless addicts scouring for our next hit of adrenaline from precious, precious engagement with our content.

A working theory of the internet I have is that the negative consequences and threats of exploitation by big tech were always present, but that society experienced the joys before we could feel the pains. The Arab Spring offered us hope; the data breaches scared us straight. Now, we ache.

The internet promised us a radical tool for collaboration, free expression, and creativity. Revolutions existed online, and content was able to break free of the thresholds of media gatekeepers like record industries, publishing companies, and regulated airwaves. And, best of all, for the cost of a broadband subscription, this whole digital world was accessible.

As the negative side effects of the internet continue to sink it, it can generate a sense of betrayal at the current state of the web. Everyone is fighting, people exist in silos, and the world is burning.

Some companies, like Apple, have introduced features to help us tailor our addictions to these platforms and tech services, but I often wonder whether the companies that engineered this problem can save us—and, perhaps a better question, whether we should trust them to.

A fix seems nearly impossible.

When one seeks potential solutions for these ails, a chorus sings “moderate the content.” After all, one of the reasons being too-online can feel abrasive to our sanity is the fact that toxic and divisive content runs rampant online. Whether it’s disinformation, harassment, or general trash, logging on to one of the major social media sites can often feel debasing.

But moderation of any platform becomes exponentially more difficult as its user base grows, our second guest Garrett Davis will tell us. He’s studied moderation tactics on Reddit extensively. At some point, Garrett said in a conversation before we recorded, moderators of a growing hub have to throw in the towel and focus on frying the biggest fishes. There’s also some incredibly hard lines that need to be drawn when moderating against things like disinformation, and it appears that tech companies are attempting to pass the buck to our government. (This is concerning!)

Last year, Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox wrote at The Verge about Facebook’s “impossible job” of moderating billions of users’ content on its platform. The duo writes that the task is “an unfathomably complex logistical problem that has no obvious solution, that fundamentally threatens Facebook’s business, and that has largely shifted the role of free speech arbitration from governments to a private platform.”

The social media giant announced last week it would remove from Facebook and Instagram alt-right sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos, anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson and Alex Jones, neo-Nazi Paul Nehlen, and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. Pour one out for the worst there are online!

Of course, the type of content that these accounts were publishing will continue to exist on these platforms. The harsh reality is that within a few weeks, the audiences of these content creators will have all but forgotten about these creators and will move on to the next new thing.

De-platforming and moderation can have significant benefits in the greater information ecosystem, and the measures reduce the volume in which hate and disinformation presents itself to those outside its own communities. Severing major sources of toxicity in a community is an important move in slowing the spread of poison. However, taking prominent personalities offline doesn’t change the fact that there are communities online that enabled those creators to become well-known, and moderating that issue is a much more difficult task.

Stricter moderation will not solve the systemic design elements that rot our grey matter and make us miserable. What’s “healthy” will ultimately vary person-to-person, but it’s important that we recognize our own patterns and behaviors with our online selves and take measures to ensure we aren’t losing our goddamn noggins.

There may be some hope, still.

Our societies are engaging in more conversations about the way we relate to technology and what healthy digital use looks like. Additionally, lawmakers are eyeing regulations and anti-trust actions against social media and tech giants. It may take some time but I don’t believe the future is hopeless…


Did you have thoughts about this portion of the newsletter? Shoot me a line at

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a healthy dose of good posts. Thanks to Jordan Uhl for the one up top, and be sure to check out his fresh newsletter, The Blue Note. Here’s some more of my recent favorites.

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No comment.

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We’re just asking questions, folks.

Teresa, this is a horrific photo.

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DND players will understand this. As for the rest of you…

Change dot org petition to put Parker in the Twitter penalty box?

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Not even Jesus Christ can save me.

I’d like to personally congratulate “schmoyoho” for 10 years on YouTube. Growing up, I got a lot of enjoyment out of their “Autotune the News” series. They published a remix last month of their first viral hit: transforming Katie Couric reporting on climate change before it was cool into a song. (Warning: This will get stuck in your head.)