“In the attention economy, winning means getting as many people as possible to spend as much time and attention as possible with one’s product or service. Although, as it’s often said, in the attention economy, the user is the product.”

– James Williams, Stand Out of Our Light

The following is a letter to the coaching team at Oak Park and any other coach willing to take on a big issue with meaningful action.

We are coaches, so our duty is to lead people to fitness, health, and wellness. We do this with high touch, human-to-human coaching. Along the path, we support the sustainable growth of our athletes and clients. This is hard and requires effort on both sides to do the work of growing. Intentional, sustainable growth takes time, attention, intentionality, free will, self-regulation, self reflection, purpose, human connection and positive emotions. As the longer version of this article shows, ALL of these essential resources are depleted and often negated completely and thus, when we post to Facebook, IG, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube with the dual purpose of “building our brands,” and “helping” those we lead, we’re simultaneously hurting the people we care about.

This is very hard to see in real time and reconcile with the ongoing narrative that I hear often: “You gotta meet people where they are. Posting is just a necessary evil and simply part of business. When I post it’s different and therefore not hurtful by intent…” Clearly, no coach is trying to harm anybody using these platforms. HOWEVER, our intent and the collective outcome are very different things. We are leaders and we need to challenge these assumptions and crosscheck our actions.

With this in mind, I ask for patience as you familiarize yourself with the key points below, then take a deeper dive into the linked article to fully understand the consequences of our participation on these platforms.

  1. Time
    1/3 of humans are spending two plus hours daily on these platforms. As you read, these numbers grow. Generally speaking, if you could help your athletes reclaim two hours a day where might it come from? Family, work, study, training, life goals, sleep…or social media? By design, social platforms are in direct competition with each of these critical areas of life by diverting real time that could be better spent elsewhere.
  2. Attention
    Unfortunately, information abundance creates attention scarcity. This cannot be understated. As Daniel Pink shares in his book When, the human brain can only focus deeply for a few hours a day. Humane technology advocate Tristan Harris points out that these technologies are designed to increase your arousal state so you pay attention. Silicon Valley attributes value to attention by adding time spent on a platform to “engagement” (likes, comments, shares, etc.). By design they feel urgent, that if you’re not part of it, you’re missing out. This returns us to the math problem we’re reckoning with: a couple of hours a day of feeling urgency and constantly getting metaphorically picked for a kickball team (or not) continually and deliberately pricks your sympathetic nervous system. In the moment, this satisfies the urgency and the deep anthropological, primatological, and sociological desire to group with others, which is a powerful combination to capture any human’s attention. But in doing so, it subtracts from the limited amount of focus we have to attribute each day, and keeps us in a stress state. As a coach, I know that our clients have a finite number of possible focus points per day. And if someone is checking social media dozens of times a day, they’re quickly spending much of this attentional currency, to the detriment of the health and wellbeing. 
  3. Impulsivity at the expense of Intentionality
    Once a social platform has your attention, it goes to work using a reward system that literally trains impulsivity at the expense of intentionality using behavioral psychology (think Pavlov’s dogs). These technologies and our interactions stay in the base of the brain stem by design. Tons of information comes in, all of it seeming and feeling urgent. The hippocampus can’t do its job and create context for what it’s seeing, and the prefrontal cortex can’t reflect and make solid choices congruent with one’s deeper purpose. In the process, the cost is significant: loss of free will, loss of self-regulation, and loss of self-reflection. EVERY time we interact with these “tools,” we reinforce our impulsiveness, while undermining our capacity for deliberate decision-making. Sound like a long game for any human?

    As a coach, this may be the most important point here. Generally speaking, if we are habituating information overload in a decontextualized way, we are depleting our brain’s resources to do something meaningful that requires attention – like learn a new physical skill. If you’re a coach who teaches movement of any kind, I’d like to think that this is an important consideration. I’m not saying there is clinical evidence (yet) that people can’t learn new skills if they are on socials.

    That said, we do know from the work of neuroscientists like Amy Brann that it can take 45 minutes or longer to come down from emotionally up-regulated negative emotions and transition into more of a learning state. If the average human is checking their phone 150 times a day, and let’s say conservatively they are looking at socials 10 times, then the odds are they may not be in the headspace to take on the thing you want to teach. And if you’re anything like me and our staff, it seems that most people have enough natural stress in life just being human – let alone being triggered by these technologies.

    And while human impulsivity is literally being capitalized, it is also becoming routinized. The solution to helping others certainly does not lie here. 
  4. Negative Emotions
    At our core, all humans have a deep biological need to connect socially. To date, this is how we’ve survived as a species. Interestingly, we have natural limits in our capacity to maintain human relationships. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, has clearly demonstrated that the human brain can only sustain meaningful contact with a maximum of 150 people.

    The role of most companies is to scale. Scaling the manufacturing of tires is one thing, extracting our humanity daily and scaling it is another. These technologies exploit our deepest need to connect as humans and scale them. What happens when you are drilled for posts, likes, comments, and followers? You give your time and attention to the maintenance and expansion of these things. The more this happens, the more likely impulsivity is to kick in. And this is where the human extraction project really gets going. Survival instincts kick in, impulsivity fertilizes fear, negativity, and loss of empathy (Lanier, Williams, humanetech.org). The plants that grow from this look like outrage, catastrophe, and anger.

    If our business is truly based on human relationships and genuine connections with those we serve, then we must consider what mediums we use. Technology is not the enemy here. Tech that extracts the resources that support human growth is. Nobody reading this is intentionally hurting anyone, but these platforms are and worse still, they’re monetizing this. 

What do I suggest we do?

  1. Turn off the socials
  2. Double down on the human part of the business
  3. Tell our stories on technologies and platforms congruent with our intention of supporting intentional, sustainable growth.
  4. Grow referral capacity until we hit our ceiling
  5. Show the industry that humans are the center, not tech that depletes them.

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