“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
I’m writing this piece for coaches, trainers and those on the front lines working with people physically. Let’s start with a question that I’ll keep coming back to: Are social media platforms supporting or undermining people’s efforts to become more fit, healthy, and well? IF it turns out that these platforms are actually undermining our efforts to become more fit, healthy and well then WHY would I send those that I lead to an environment that is fundamentally toxic and misaligned with this purpose to begin with?
Last summer I was talking with Phil White, co-author of Unplugged and The 17 Hour Fast, about the role of social media and how it relates to my business and vocation as a coach. Over the following weeks and months, we got deeper into the conversation and began to recognize that we weren’t discussing some disposable subject, but rather one that impacted everything we do personally and professionally. As we combined anecdotal observations, personal stories, and research with more objective analysis, it became clear that this wasn’t a simple topic and that we’d need to go much further, both for the sake of furthering our own understanding and, even more significantly, for the good of the athletes and coaches I serve.
Eventually, we got to the point of needing to challenge our assumption that social media was a distraction that detracted from helping people achieve the positive changes they’re asking me and our team at Oak Park (home of CrossFit Los Angeles) to help them achieve. So we used the apps Moment, Freedom and RescueTime (irony noted – using technology to evaluate a problem with technology) for two weeks and found that we were both spending around 45 minutes on social media each day. The next step was to do what author Cal Newport would propose in his book Digital Minimalism – a 30-day social media fast, during and after which we’d note the quantitative and qualitative changes in how we apportioned our time and attention.
Personally, I’ve always felt worse after spending time on the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. After studying how these (and a few other) platforms work, it turns out that there are biological, sociological, primatological, anthropological, neurological, and physiological reasons why anxiety, social isolationism, and depression tend to increase when exposed to these mediums specifically. Additionally, as tech leaders like Tristan Harris, James Williams and Tim Wu have pointed out, humans have limited attentional capacity and the role, design and purpose of these technologies is to extract as much of it as possible, as often as possible.
Personally, I’ve always felt worse after spending time on the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. After studying how these (and a few other) platforms work, it turns out that there are biological, sociological, primatological, anthropological, neurological, and physiological reasons why anxiety, social isolationism, and depression tend to increase when exposed to these mediums specifically. Additionally, as tech leaders like Harris, Wu, McNamee, and Zuboff have pointed out, humans have limited attentional capacity and the role, design and purpose of these technologies is to extract as much of it as possible, as often as possible.
As of writing this piece, the mediums (conservatively) capture the time and attentional of 2+ billion people at two plus hours daily, according to the Center for Human Technology. Despite most of us thinking we can control it, the fundamental concept of free will (the conscious choice of responding to stimulus) is brilliantly hijacked by the addictive and efficient designs of these technologies. As a coach and someone who communicates with many others in the field, it seems logical that amplified negative emotions, reduced attentional juice, and behavioral habituation that reward impulse over intention likely aren’t the key ingredients to helping people grow.
Human vs. Technological Goals
In Stand Out of Our Light, Silicon Valley engineer turned Oxford University ethicist James Williams comments on the contrast between what we want for ourselves and what those behind attention-grabbing gadgets and platforms want for us. The former are, “Probably goals like ‘learn how to play piano,’ ‘spend more time with family,’ ‘plan that trip I’ve been meaning to take,’ and so on. These are real goals, human goals,” Williams writes. He goes on to contrast such aims with what the Silicon Valley attention merchants desire for our lives, which include, “Maximizing the amount of time you spend with their product, keeping you tapping or scrolling as much as possible, or showing you as many pages of ads as they can…these ‘engagement’ goals are petty, subhuman goals. No one wakes up in the morning and asks, ‘How much time can I possibly spend using social media today?’”
Williams asserts: “There’s a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us.” This is particularly and pointedly true when one of the things you’re pursuing is greater fitness, health, and wellness. As Cal Newport put it in a March 2019 newsletter in which he commented on pro athletes’ addiction to social media, “Most coaches would never tolerate a habit that was clearly harming their players’ physical fitness, regardless of how popular it was in the general public. The same standards should hold for their players’ cognitive fitness.”
Anxious, Depressed, Lonely
“Twitter is fun, but most of us would still rather our biggest minds quietly wander the paths surrounding their Black Forest hideaways, hunting transformation over retweets,” Newport wrote in another recent post about the ruthless focus of philosopher Martin Heidegger. “We can hope that as long as this instinct persists, a correction to our current slide toward shallowness remains inevitable.”
A week later, Newport went further in a musing on the connection between Digital Minimalism and ancestral health, asserting, “Social media reduces our sociality to low-friction online likes and comments, which provide a simulacrum of connection, but are barely recognized by our primal brain as socializing at all — leaving us paradoxically lonelier. Algorithmically-optimized distraction delivered through a ubiquitous screen provides a pleasant escape in the moment from the difficulties of our lives, but it also banishes every last vestige of solitude, throwing our brains into a shocked state of low-grade anxiety.”
We know from the work of humane technology advocates Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier that the more time people spend updating their social media feeds and voyeuristically viewing other people’s, the more anxious, depressed, and inadequate they feel. As Harris has pointed out, these technologies are, “In a race to the bottom of the brain stem.” The design of these technologies is based on the reward aspects of behavioral psychology. The problem here is that we get rewarded for impulsivity over intentionality.
The odds are that most people reading this would go, “Yeah, the best version of myself is not the impulsive one but rather the intentional one…” Yet, a great chunk of humanity is conditioning (and potentially addicting) themselves to two hours of impulsivity training daily. Harris refers to this as a “downgrade,” of the human experience. Lanier bluntly defines these technologies collectively as “BUMMER.”
What both have identified is that not all technology does this. Rather, they’re singling out platforms that intentionally extract your time and attention using behavioral psychology and repurpose that info/data to influence your future behavior and consumption without the user/ product knowing (aka privacy – the largest digital issue of our time) against our larger, more significant conscious purposes as humans is at the heart of us understanding this existential issue.
By design, Facebook/Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube reward the emotional fight, freeze, or flight parts of our brain, while simultaneously preventing other regions like the prefrontal cortex (PFC) from making executive decisions, like turning off the platform to do something else with your time and attention in the first place. While staring at our screens, the experience feels important, urgent, significant, and even good (due to the rush of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that are released). As Adam Alter writes in Irresistible, the technology is designed to tap into our basic emotions and survival mechanisms and keep us there in behavioral loops rather than encouraging us to reflect and chose actions and behaviors with greater intent.
Again, nobody wakes up intending to spend two plus hours a day on socials. Yet that is our broader reality. The PCF, on the other hand, makes bigger life decisions via intentional awareness, extends our attention span, enables us to contemplate possibilities and plan around them, and makes it easier to stick to said plans with great focus. Sound like a 45 minute YouTube bender watching Fire Marshall Bill or Homie Don’t Play Dat? Not so much. Sound like daily YouTube benders? Not so much.
When the PCF is stressed or anxious, it tends not to work well. We tend to express things like laziness, lethargy, and feel uninspired, easily distracted, poor at completing things, and overly emotional. My guess is that if you’re a coach, having people stick to your plan while keeping their goals in mind is different than working with somebody that is distracted, uninspired, lazy, and stressed out all the time. If we’re coaching to the best of our abilities, we need people to have the capacity to tap into the part of their noodle that gets stuff done over time. And social media is de-emphasizing this. In other words, by interacting with current models of social media we train the behavior of instant gratification NOT delayed gratification.
Core Values as Rational Decision-Making Tools
Despite outlining a broad case that time spent on socials is, on the net average, harming humans, there are likely many taking exception to what I’m pointing out. Perhaps you are a coach, who’s now thinking, “Yeah, but I don’t hurt people with the things I share. Instead, I post about people making a personal best, community events, inspirational and aspirational qualities, and things that shine light on all the good things going on for those that I lead. Additionally, it connects me to family and friends that live far away, and gives me insights into things I didn’t know about.” Fair enough. Yet intention and outcome are at odds here. Therefore, it’s critical to point out the role of reason in all of this. If we concede that your intent is greater than the net power of the medium itself, then we wholly dismiss the bigger point that time spent on socials typically makes people worse off.
Williams points out that this is like paint some decades ago. Everyone can agree that painting a home is great. Doing it with lead is not. Did the families with beautifully painted homes know that their kids were getting sick because of it? Not immediately. Yet after a while, the world recognized the dangers, the market shifted to lead-free paint, and human health improved. Similarly, the “paint” of our technological landscape may help us to “Share, connect, expand, inspire etc.,” but it is lead-filled. Our intent as coaches is to improve quality of life, and “leaded” technology compromises this.
Before I can expound more on the misalignment that James Williams is writing about and why I believe social media is causing so many people to miss the mark, I think it’d serve us well to take a look at what exactly we’re aiming for here at Oak Park as a team of coaches committed to building a thriving community that’s bought into intentional sustainable growth. To this end, we use five core tenets to help us reflect and make decisions. These drive everything we do, and the following are some thoughts on how social media is diametrically opposed to them:
1) Purpose: socials sap purpose by consuming time, attention, energy and reflection
Our purpose at Oak Park is to support intentional, sustainable growth for those we serve. We achieve this through training that improves quality of life through an iterative growth process. This takes significant effort from coaches and clients/athletes alike to align on the purpose to train in the first place. We relentlessly endeavor to make the connection between purposeful training and the broader context of life itself. Clarity here requires time, attention, and energy.
Socials compete for human time. Two plus hours a day per “engaged” human, and growing. When goal setting with your athletes, do you mandate this? Probably not. Fundamentally when helping someone orient towards a goal, a typical and helpful conversation would be about where and how time is allocated, given its finite nature.
If we can assume that positive psychology is helpful here, we understand that humans want autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As we’ve already identified and will continue to explore, the amount of time spent on socials increases negative emotions like anxiety, depression, social isolationism, narcissism, and decreases the capability to self-regulate – none of which facilitates confidence or competence on the ground floor of human development.
The net cost of time spent on these mediums only serves to distance ourselves from our bigger purposes. As a coach, it’s just common sense that when one is distant from purpose, excuses and reasons not to train and adhere to a program are ample. And as our reasons not to train increase, so does our emotional fragility and momentary moodiness about what kind of training we should do based on which way the Instagram winds are blowing.
To me, this looks like habituated mental and emotionally fragility with more information to process, no way to filter it, and less real time daily to reflect on any of it. Humans have a remarkable capacity to be irrational and time spent on these mediums reinforces and amplifies this. Yet, if we exercise rationality here, we can see that the net aggregate (not your desire to do something positive by posting, sharing, etc.) is that socials increase negative emotions and decrease self-regulation. The intent of these technologies is to consume your time and monetize your attention. Yet, if positive psychology is anywhere near the mark that at their core people want autonomy, mastery, and purpose, there seems to be a profound misalignment between the monstrous distraction of time committed to socials and one’s deeper purpose.
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. 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, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, impairs recovery from physiological stress.
And what about the long-term consequences? Generally speaking, if we are habituating information overload in a decontextualized way, we are likely 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 a 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 lead-based technologies.
Energy flows where attention goes. If we are redirecting attention to something that depletes humans, we shouldn’t expect an energetic return from them in real time during real human-to- human interactions. These technologies fuel and get energy from our human attention. The reverse is not true, despite it feeling so in the moment. Dopamine is combustible. So is anxiousness. So is feeling socially isolated. And being depressed. What about outrage? Have you recently experienced “Hate-liking?” (the actual feeling of hating someone you care about for posting something that you’d like to be doing but you “like,’ their post because it’s the right thing to do)?
Today’s digital version of “keeping up with the Joneses” takes a lot of energy. The question is, “Does this energy expenditure line up with my larger purposes – like training consistently so I can be strong as a grandparent, get a contract extension, or run my fastest 5K?” The current narrative is that there are just too many good things on socials to help with all of this. But just 10 years ago, senior citizens were training, professional athletes were getting extensions and people were PRing 5ks. The inconvenient truth here is that these technologies don’t inherently support reflection, rest, or digestion. And yet it’s in this state that we use up the limited energy we have left to repair ourselves. Whereas if such energy is appropriately placed, we are more likely to sync up with our greater purpose.
2) Growth: socials limit growth capacity
Growth is a behavior. In this section we’ll review the role of self-reflection, adherence, and consistency as behaviors of growth.
Physiologically, we know that to grow the body needs to pair stimuli with rest and recovery. Similarly, growth as a person requires reflection after an experience. Victor Frankl famously talked about what exists between stimulus and response is our ability to choose how we respond. Unfortunately, the training we get on socials depreciate perhaps our greatest asset as a species: self-regulation.
These technologies specifically reward impulses above intentions. If it’s true that people are checking their phones every six minutes, I would say this is more compulsive addiction then an act of intentional consciousness. Is doing anything 150 times a day an act of conscious choice? And although every impulse to touch or look at our phones is not tied to social media, it’s obviously a direct line to them. Like Mos Def said, “It’s all mathematics.”
The more exposed we are to addictive tech, the more likely we are to induce habitual impulsiveness. In so doing, these technologies intentionally and literally mitigate the user/ product’s capacity to self-reflect. Decontextualized, fractured information bits continue to pour into customized feeds at high speeds. Meanwhile, the hippocampus can’t do one of its jobs and contextualize what it’s seeing, and the PFC becomes a boss that is completely ineffective when stressed and wholly ineffective of making intentional choices. And the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), which regulates neurotransmitter releases, goes haywire.
If we practice, reward, and habituate impulsiveness at the expense of self-reflection – which is what is happening on these platforms – we distance ourselves from the habit and practice of self-regulation. And the further we get from our capacity to self-regulate, the harder it is to grow. Am I saying that if you’re on socials you can’t grow as a person? No. What I am getting at is that the aggregate math is not in your, or humanity’s favor over time if you value clarity of purpose and self-reflection as a growth habit.
As Williams points out, “Unfortunately, far from helping us mitigate these challenges of self- regulation, our technologies have largely been amplifying them. Rather than helping us to more effectively stack and clear the Tetris bricks in our lives, they’re making the blocks fall faster than we ever imagined they could.”
Leading the growth of our population at Oak Park (both physically and as a people) requires four key things:
- Behavior (adherence & consistence)
As we point out when on-boarding new people, the growth one seeks is most likely to occur if:
- You have a purpose for your training (ideally tethered to something meaningful)
- Your behaviors match your intentions and goals (train, fuel, rest/recovery, reflect) consistently
- Those you surround yourself with, particularly your coaches, can offer the value of knowledge and experience to support your purpose and keep you behaviorally accountable, and…
- The environment as a whole (the people in it, the systems that govern it, and the location/ space) naturally support your deeper purpose, behavioral consistency, and quality human relationships.
When all of these things are in line, sustainable growth is likely the outcome.
All of this is fueled by willpower. As the “Ego Depletion” hypothesis James Williams introduces on page 25 of Stand Out of Our Light suggests, our self-control and willpower is a finite resource. And we’ve already made the broad case that socials drain the behavioral fuel of self- reflection. Practically speaking, adherence and consistency are very unlikely if one doesn’t have much left in the will power tank. Yet, as Dr. Andy Galpin, my cohost on The Body of Knowledge routinely points out, “The number one predictor of any nutrition or exercise program is adherence and consistency.” (I.E. Quadrant 2)
Related to social media, this is where the whole thing gets off kilter. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, YouTube (and a few others) all train people in real time via engagement to behave for instant gratification – the opposite of delayed gratification. The will power it takes to train regularly with a thoughtful plan can be extremely challenging when you’re competing against a Tetris-like matrix that is literally designed to keep you concerned about what others are doing, saying, and claiming at all times. In other words, making you hyper vigilant at all times. In working with general populations, a deep concern I have is the combination of information overload absent of context and the obfuscation of authority and expertise. The fitness, health, and wellness worlds produce endless content specifically formatted for socials with the explicit intent of consumer engagement and monetization. A common net effect is outright confusion and lack of understanding altogether of rather basic things. “Biohacking” starts to replace the basics like sustained commitment, sleep, hard effort, recovery, clarity of purpose, and elementary nutrition.
Socials chew time, combust available attention, deplete both energy and self-regulation, and naturally confuse one’s ability to understand something deeply enough to adhere to it. As a coach of any kind, you’re trying to reinforce the opposite of all these things. The continual bombardment of rapidly changing and never-ending posts, likes, comments, and so on manipulates behavior into ever-shorter and more reactive cycles with stimuli that never make it to the “slow thinking” parts of our brains (see Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this). As a result, we condition distraction so much that we never engage deeply enough to deploy a growth mindset or maintain consistent follow-through.
The messages we’re sharing at our gym cannot be distilled down to 140 characters and reacted to unconsciously in an instant with the swipe of a finger or click of an emoji. They’re communicated human to human, session by session, experience by experience, and reinforced over time by teachers committed to imparting meaningful concepts. These lessons need to be carefully considered, reflected on, and implemented through daily practices. As Marshall McLuan said, “The medium is the message,” and fragmented, chaotic, and distracted online media cluttered with disposable content are not the right fit for the essence of what we’re trying to convey at Oak Park.
3) Human Connection
Ideas might well be able to scale, but human-to-human experiences do not. That’s why at Oak Park, we’ve decided to make a large impact on 100 to 200 people over the long haul, rather than staying in the shallows with a bigger online audience in the moment. This is antithetical to the fleeting, surface-skimming nature of social media interactions, which are like Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr’s role in Jerry Maguire) – only focused on amassing bigger numbers and all about the hustle. For years, I’ve had people telling me, “You’ve got to be on social media to grow your business,” but this is a faulty assumption, at least for us. As a leader, I want to point our team and those we lead to watering holes we know fuel and refresh the human experience. And we know that socials create anxiety, depression, isolation, that further drain our emotional well.
Additionally, addictive online platforms actually decrease one’s capacity for empathy, according to research cited by Lanier and Williams. As our job is a human-to-human one, this is a serious problem. Not one of our team members or anybody I know who has used socials to promote their coaching, their gym, or their brand has willingly done so to hurt anybody. All of us want to help people. Truly, that’s the human part of coaching that keeps us all doing it. BUT what we ARE pointing out is that socials actually disconnect the very humanity we are trying to inspire.
The Attention Economy Crash_antisocial media pt 1_July 12 2019
Furthermore, 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, which validates our approach. And contrary to devoting mere milliseconds to fleeting interactions on social feeds, Dunbar told Scientific American that “The time you spend is crucial” when it comes to nurturing these 150 (or so) relationships. And we’re not trying to scale our human connectedness, we’re trying to deepen it. I think what people have been trying to tell me is, “Hey, you need to market yourself to get the word out.” I agree with that. But social media isn’t the only way to approach marketing. Whether you are spending time cultivating the perfect post or focusing on referrals only is up to your company. Reflecting your values in your actions matters here. And at Oak Park, human connection is central to everything we do. Scaling that part of our value proposition doesn’t work anthropologically.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen the growth of the community-based fitness model morph through the years. One thing has remained consistent: the majority of gym owners I know have trouble maintaining a communal connection and start losing members when their client list grows to between 150 and 225 people. I believe this to be a reflection of Dunbar’s work, as people can begin to become anonymous in these situations, sub-groups start to sidebar, and splintering can occur. It’s only natural for humans in intimate environments to have a ceiling for the number of people who they can maintain bonds with. Frankly, this model requires that the coaching team care. That they are inherently invested and naturally enjoy the effort it takes to support the growth and journey of others.
Oak Park’s commitment to staying small means that the majority of our communication with our community can be handled by our team of coaches who are directly and deeply engaged with our athletes/clients daily. As our in-house performance psychologist Jared Cohen says, “Situation times behavior equals results,” and what we’re after is an environment that fosters the default behavior of growth with sustained capacity to reflect and be consistent over time. The relationships needed to facilitate this take a long time to develop and sustain, and a methodical, patient approach is the only way to achieve it. Posting pictures with #culture below them is not.
4) Contribution and Legacy
We got this core tenet from Legacy, James Kerr’s revealing book about the culture of the winningest team in sports history, the New Zealand All Blacks. One of the principles that incoming players must subscribe to wholeheartedly is the desire to leave the jersey better off than they found it. Why would we direct people’s limited time, attention and energy to an environment that depletes those resources at the cost of cognitive fitness, which although complicated, has everything to do with physical fitness? And if part of being an Oak Park coach is to leave those whom we lead better off, then why wouldn’t we tackle this question head on? We have to make the hard choice, the one that isn’t convenient and is likely antagonistic to the current consensus about how to, “reach people where they are at.”
This is a moment when we must challenge the assumptions that if left unchecked will undoubtedly make the situation worse. When faced with all of the available evidence, posting positive things to counteract all the bad stuff or using socials to tell others how to limit their time on their such platforms is not dancing with the devil as a “necessary evil” – it’s actually proliferating its offspring at the expense of our own. When we post, we fuel algorithms that quietly diminish our free will and capacity to self-regulate. In these windows of engagement, narcissism spikes, sometimes to the point of pathology, according to Sam Vaknin’s scathing assessment of social media’s toxicity.
Although the stated intent of these platforms is to connect people, it’s actually disconnecting us. When we prioritize fragmented and abbreviated online communication over extended, in-person conversation, we begin to function “Alone, together,” as MIT professor Sherry Turkle terms it. If you’re trying to “build a community,” would you intentionally fertilize it with narcissism, social isolation, and a loss of empathy?
All of this explains why I want to go totally dark on social channels that are at their core designed to extract and diminish, rather than contribute to and enhance, our humanity. Coaching at Oak Park requires the continued capacity to connect as humans with those we lead. That voice inside some of you that says, “Yeah, but I’m not an anxious, depressed, socially isolated narcissist, with no capacity to feel for others. And this article is making a bigger deal of the whole thing because I don’t intend any of this for self and others. What about when someone PRs and we post a video/picture of it?” I hear this translated as, “We want to celebrate, be positive, and shine a light on the amazing thing somebody accomplished.” I get it, 100%. This is why we coach, and we certainly should celebrate these meaningful moments – in other places, in different ways. Your intent here is not greater than the biology of humans. Additionally, your intent is not greater than the technology’s broad capabilities and design.
Lastly, if I were to make a case for continual social media use, I’d have to simply dismiss the fact that the platforms I’m talking about are bad for people, misaligned with the kind of deeper purpose that supports sustainable growth, and disruptive to human-to-human connection. I’m not interested in a legacy contribution that I can justify by saying, “Although I had the best intentions, I just couldn’t resist the temptation to send those I lead to places that have now been proven to create attentional scarcity, deflate free will, decrease auto regulation, consume meaningful time, increase sleep loss, and foster social isolation, narcissism, anxiety, and depression.”
This is a moment in time where coaches who are aiming to improve the physical health of those we train must tackle this issue on and truly add to the human experience by taking the “upgrade” approach that Harris refers to. How? By being true to our core values, encouraging activities that make people more healthy, fit, and well, and guiding them away from those things that are harmful.
What is valuable to humans? Time, attention, and energy. Socials don’t add value here. In fact, they subtract from it.
What else? Experience and wisdom. For thousands of years, people have been paying others to provide experiences and offer meaningful knowledge. At Oak Park, we extensively, rigorously develop coaches to offer human-to-human experiences that reflect purpose, the capacity to lead others to the growth they seek, and establish and enrich human interactions in a communal environment absent of anonymity.
We’re pursuing a high-touch, relational model of human improvement through exemplary, deeply involved coaching. Going back to Robin Dunbar for a moment, he shares a telling phrase in his TED Talk: “relationships are expensive.” In other words, our connections with other people are built on an investment model. Each interaction costs us time but is crucial to building and perpetuating the bonds on which real community is founded. “The strength of that relationship, the sense of emotional closeness, is determined by how much time you invest in your individual friendships,” Dunbar says. And just like your retirement account, your eventual payoff is largely dependent on your ongoing contributions over a long period of time.
That’s why we will continue to put our time into interactive, two-way coaching/learning experiences rather than posting on extractive platforms. Getting a few hundred likes, a dozen retweets, and a handful of comments isn’t the “engagement,” we are seeking, and would in fact mean misalignment with our leadership tenets and tools for making hard decisions. This doesn’t mean that we won’t use technology to capture or share all of our awesomeness. It does mean that we will reflect on how well we’re thinking, doing, and being the values we profess.
The Trust Equation
How do we get new and existing members to buy into the core values above? By putting them out as hash tagged tweets? Perhaps with me doing a weekly Facebook Live session? Or maybe finding some Instagram images that represent each one is some cleverly esoteric way? No. That’s not the point of this article. Instead, we must develop trust slowly in each interaction. There’s no real rocket science needed here. First, we need to ensure that me and the other Oak Park coaches are embodying purpose, growth, high-touch connection, legacy, and value in everything we do and say. Second, it’s imperative that we demonstrate competence and expertise in our coaching. Third, we need to create an authentic community that satisfies the social needs embedded deep in all of us. Fourth, we must show that we can choose the harder path to do the right thing for ourselves and those who depend on us to lead them.
One quick way to erode such trust would be to contradict our values through what we say and do. If we look at the social media model for a moment, we see a fundamental disconnect between the stated intentions of the platforms that dominate so much of our time and attention and how they actually operate. For example, Facebook claims that its aim is to connect the world. If that’s measured by pure numbers alone, then the two billion monthly and 1.47 billion daily users it has amassed indicates that it is succeeding.
But the company’s real goal is not to foster online community, but rather to get you and I to spend as much of our time posting, liking, and commenting as often as possible. Why? When founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked by a Congressional committee what his company’s business model was, he gave us the answer to my question, too: “Senator, we sell ads.” To the tune of $47 billion in the most recent fiscal year. The company has also let its Silicon Valley peers like Netflix read users’ supposedly private messages, and allowed Cambridge Analytica to harvest personal information on millions of users.
As Roger McNamee states in his book Zucked, Facebook had the opportunity to fix these issues, make its carefully concealed terms of service agreement simpler and more readily available, and change its business practices. Instead, McNamee writes, the company pursued its usual policy of “deny, delay, deflect, dissemble.” He finished the book in 2018, so maybe Facebook has stepped up, admitted, responsibility, and vowed to do better in the interim? To listen to Zuckerberg, you’d think so.
Early in March 2019, he claimed that Facebook would tighten its privacy policies to meet “the basic responsibility of protecting people’s information, which we failed to do with Cambridge Analytica.” Yet just a couple of weeks later, Facebook filed a dismissal motion for the class action lawsuits that resulted from the scandal, stating, “Users were told everything they needed to know, and therefore consented to the sharing of their information with third-party apps.” The motion went on to claim that because “no emotional harm” was inflicted, that there was no foul on the company’s part. Say one thing, do another, again.
This is a betrayal of user trust on a grand scale, though it’s perhaps unsurprising given that Zuckerberg once referred to early adopters of his nascent project, then called “the Facebook,” as “dumb fucks.” If at Oak Park we pursued a similar policy of making claims about our intentions and values and then proceeded to consistently undermine and contradict these tenets, we would lose our members’ confidence, they would leave, and we’d all be out of work. It would be unthinkable to create a scenario in which we, in the words of Jack Johnson in Sleep Through the Static, “say not as we do.” And yet this is exactly what has happened and continues to happen not only on Facebook but all the major social media platforms.
This is yet another reason why our gym will “go dark” and shutter our feeds at some point. We cannot continue to embrace platforms that not only contradict our goals of making people fit, healthy, and well, but also act in ways that erode the kind of trust that our business is based upon.
Life can get hard. Adversity is likely coming for all of us in a variety of ways. Having experienced thirteen deaths of family members and friends and a fire that burnt the land I grew up on and was our family business to the ground, I’d contend that circumstances can get really gnarly, really fast. Why add to this by engaging with the platforms that catastrophize all of this? Life is complicated enough without subjecting ourselves to stimuli that may seem to provide micro- moments of distracted validation on the surface, but over time actually lower our emotional baseline. As a result, we’ve become less joyful, more depressed, and twitchier than we would be if we stopped projecting online to hundreds of pseudo-friends and followers and started actually living our lives authentically in a community that requires continual investment in real relationships.
While working through the tough times I mentioned, what I should’ve been doing is spending more time with my children explaining to them why Daddy was upset, or seeking comfort in the company of my wife and friends. But instead I found myself taking the easy way out and seeking solace that surfing the social media wave could never provide. I would’ve been much better off surfing actual waves, developing my coaching craft, or doing anything that Newport calls “high quality leisure activities,” rather than chasing what he refers to as “spoon-fed digital trinkets.” These not only failed to deliver the relief I was seeking, but also diverted me away from pursuits that would have actually boosted my wellbeing.
The divide between the virtual world and the real one was punched home hard when I posted a picture of my newborn son. Instead of taking every moment I could savor with him and my wife and reflexively and concurrently reach for the phone. I’ve never really posted much but here I got how it feels when a post, “does well.” 100, 200, 300 likes, and climbing. “Not bad,” I thought. Right then, with the number of likes cresting close to a thousand, I got a call to say that my mom had passed away. Shortly thereafter, I was on a plane all the way across the globe. I wouldn’t see my newborn son for two months (due to complications of leaving Sweden where he was born, my immediate departure to handle family business, and navigating US border policies to get him and my wife back in the US).
Nobody knows exactly how life will shake out. As it turned out, I only had a few hours with my boy and my attention was split between him and getting a dopamine hit on my social feeds. At the time, I had to come back to the States to handle family affairs and run the business that I had just purchased to pay the bills of our now-expanded family. I had no idea that I would have only a few days with him at the beginning. I will however hold onto the feeling that I never want to return to: arbitrary distraction from those I love and the thing I want most from life: connection. Human connection.
Time to Act
It’s not just a question of whether social media is good, bad, or indifferent for society as a whole. Or whether it either supports or undermines the goals and core values of Oak Park (though I firmly believe it’s the latter). As a leader who wants to set a positive example, I also had to ask myself a far more personal question: Am I being the person and doings the things I’m asking others to be and do, or not? A rigorous period of self-examination led me to the conclusion that while I was still using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I was not being true to myself or the people I have pledged to lead. This meant there was an unacceptable misalignment and, when it comes down to it, a lack of integrity between what I preached and what I practiced. And the deeper I dived into my research, the more I came to see that there was also a contradiction between the use of these platforms and the aim of improving physical, social, and emotional vitality. So I decided to take decisive action and realign my life.
“Whatever the things we’d like to achieve, the goals of the attention merchants are generally at odds with ours,” Tim Wu writes in the aptly titled book The Attention Merchants. “We must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.” For me, responding to Wu’s rallying cry has meant getting off the platforms that divert my focus away from making myself more fit, healthy, and way and prevent those I serve from doing the same. In the end it’s not really about what I’m taking away from my life, but rather the steps I’m taking to make me, my fellow coaches, and my mission more coherent, authentic, and whole. That’s how trust is built. That’s how positive change is made.
To conclude Social media platforms ARE undermining people’s efforts to become more fit, healthy, and well. We can start building trust, making positive change and support the growth of those we serve by getting uncomfortable, challenging assumptions and redirecting behavior to match intent.