Building a More Wholesome Online Life

By Harvey James

If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” The Social Dilemma, a documentary exposing the dangers of social media use has scared the bejeezus out of us. In treating us as a tool for profit, the documentary suggests consequences of mental health degradation, psychological manipulation, political polarisation, and democratic erosion. Emma Betuel in Inverse writes, “A study on 6,596 teenagers found that just 30 minutes of social media use per day was linked to higher rates of mental health issues.” Other triggers such as hate speech, disinformation, comparison of idealised versions of self, addictive behaviour, a pressure to respond to people, and feature richness of apps entrapping users, can be detrimental to the mental health of the user.

For two weeks, I deleted ‘traditional’ social media apps (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook etc.), banned usage from my laptop, and began my online life afresh by seeking out a more mindful approach. Here are some results of alternative products I tested in this interim:

Minds: Anti-Facebook, Open-source social media. They respect digital ownership and fairly reward contributions by paying in crypto.

The first taste was a Trump supporter posting a sort of “take down” of a “hater.” That same vitriolic energy of other social media ringing true. When posting, you can set how many views you want to get by paying with cryptocurrency. Is paying for your popularity healthy? Other social media operate under similar conditions, but not as brazenly. The content has a spammy, sub-cult feel to it; but not in an intriguing, nuanced, or interesting way. It seems like a spillover from a bygone Internet era and not one that I want to be a part of.

Vero: Subscription based. Doesn’t share data. Chronological feed.

Vero’s main page offers featured artists, photographers, and creatives, all of a high-calibre quality (unlike Instagram’s). The chronological feed means you can actually complete it and you are forced to disengage. Posting gives intuitive categories for content and allows you to build a social media profile that’s truly reflective of you—music, articles, books, photos, places and text. I think its only real downfall is its lack of users. But, it is an honest, refreshing, and intuitive replacement for the data-grab megaliths.

Medium Subscription based blogging site. Pays for content. Emphasis on curation. Publication communities and non-addictive algorithms.

Here, I’ve found a good sense of community over the years and the “clap” function allows you to dole out and receive graded levels of adulation. There’s usually an engaging, lively comments section and I’ve found it to be supportive and collaborative. It doesn’t have the same addictive quality of other social media.  I use it as a more wholesome, more interesting time-filler if I want to browse my phone for a bit. It isn’t somewhere to connect with friends, but somewhere to foster your own community, find your own voice, and explore your interests with nuance and depth. (Follow me @harvjam!)

Nextdoor: Allows you to connect with your local community.

Within minutes I read a post complaining about joggers in a park I run in everyday. Running had become an integral part of maintaining my mental health in lockdown, but now I was almost made to feel guilty for doing it. There were opinions on there that I didn’t feel were reflective of the community at-large—like a village notice board, or an online forum (which it is), it’s sometimes the angriest voice that are heard. “It’s quite dispiriting to read this thread of responses signifying a lack of consideration for others” said one user, to which another replied, “that is par for the course on here unfortunately.” I deleted it about 30 mins after I downloaded it.

MeWe: “No ads. No spyware. No BS. The Next Gen Social Media”

Their hearts are in the right place. They don’t share or sell data, you have total control over your newsfeed and their goal is to “enhance your real life, not just entertain you.” However, not a single one of my friends is on MeWe. It’s great. But it’s like turning up to Glastonbury with no people. A lot of outlets post through it and it is mildly amusing seeing people engage with serious news using an array of blunt emojis.

MarcoPolo: App focused on video messaging connection. Doesn’t sell data.

It essentially takes one form of WhatsApp function and packages it as an app. I can see it working well for long distance relationships, or generally sharing videos through different time zones. It certainly does foster a more wholesome, engaging connection, as you are forced to reply properly when you have time to record a video, rather than squeeze out a disengaged text under the table while trying to listen to someone else talk.

Conclusion:

This process of avoiding woe online, allowed me to rediscover what brings me joy. I love my beer app “PintPlease” because I have a laugh with it, no one I know is on it, I love beer, and it feels ostensibly mine. So, just find your niche. Don’t feel restricted to the big social media platforms. Personalise your social media, find communities and expand your social media horizons. Vero stands for something. It works. It’s engaging, less stressful, and is a platform for positive and interesting content. If you are looking to replace the old titans of the internet, Vero is definitely the gauntlet to take up.

Another affective strategy is to use external programmes such as “Moment” which tracks time spent on your phone and the number of times you picked up your phone. It also alerts you for every 15 minutes spent looking at your phone. You can start groups to set joint boundaries, hopefully resulting in more in-real-life exchanges. “Flipd” offers a more productive approach with in-app Pomodoro timer, live unplug & study sessions, plus self-care reminders.

By combining all of these, or finding your personal formula, there is hope for a healthier, less damaging social media future.

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