The recent documentary The Social Dilemma has raised a lot of questions both in and outside the Kenzai community. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the film, it does an admirable job at conveying the complicated reality behind social media, and the reasons you see the things you do when you log on.
If you haven’t seen the documentary, in a nutshell it outlines the ethical problems that have arisen out of social media. To sum up:
- Free social media apps make you and your behaviour the core product. You, as the product, are sold to advertisers. This means that the content you see is designed to make you spend more time and attention on the app, with the end goal that you buy something or change your behaviour in some way (like voting for a particular candidate).
- Most of the optimization and activity that goes into capturing your attention is run by algorithms which have no particular care for your mental health. If the app finds that people tend to spend 2.3 seconds longer looking at their screen when a certain kind of content displays, the algorithm will push more of that type of content to you. User interfaces are similarly optimized to make them as sticky as possible, with alerts, hearts, ellipses (indicating someone is typing), and all manner of subtle design tweaks A/B tested millions of times to create an atmosphere that keeps you engaged (again, with the goal of selling you something.) All of this means our brains are essentially being hacked by complex, black-box algorithms who no one (not even their creators) truly understands.
- Because our brains are able to be hacked in this way, it’s easy to get sucked into the social media world, at the expense of our relationships, happiness, and physical well-being. Unlike other forms of media or speech, there’s no regulation on social media beyond what the companies decide to make their internal policies. This gives a handful of enormously wealthy tech companies a frightening amount of unaccountable power.
These questions aren’t new. I’ve been following the work of Tristan Harris since hearing him speak in 2016, and we discuss this topic frequently at Kenzai HQ. I’m glad these once niche issues are now reaching a mainstream audience, and as a founder of what could be called a social media platform, I’m here to tell you my perspective on this problem and how Kenzai fits into it.
First, let me say that our business model is NOT the same as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reddit, or any of the many other free services out there. We don’t sell your data, and will never sell your data. Our business model is simple, we charge money for a service, and deliver that service to you. Your privacy and data security is at the core of our business.
Second, you’ll never see ads in the Kenzai app. Our goal is to give you a distraction free environment in which to educate yourself, exercise, stay on diet, and share the journey towards good health. Ads don’t fit in that equation. You know when you log in that our only responsibility is to you. There are no third parties lurking in the wings.
Third, we emphatically don’t want you spending all day in the Kenzai app. Our goal is to give you a clean, usable technology that gets you to the information you need so you can get down to work on eating right and training in a supportive community. We don’t optimize the app to keep you staring at your screen, we optimize it to help you get things done.
Our social stream isn’t there to get you addicted to Kenzai, it’s one of the tools we use to get you results. When people train in isolation, without a sense that anyone else is struggling or succeeding, without feeling that anyone sees them at all, they tend to fail. Having the social aspect of training creates better results for you, which is why we keep it front and center.
If anything, I hope our trainees see the Kenzai app as a place of shelter from the manipulative, ad-based services that compete for their attention. As with all technology, online platforms can be used for creative, productive human activity, or used for destruction and strife. Kenzai stands firmly on the light side of that divide, and will keep fighting back the dark.
I don’t like to do purely “meta” posts at Kenzai (Kenzai articles about Kenzai itself), and so I want to leave here with some of the tips I’ve found most useful in my own battle to win back mental clarity from the algorithms, advertisers, and optimizers that work night and day to keep us glued to our screens. Here are the things that have worked best for me and my family.
Cull your notifications to things that are important to you. I like to know when my family is chatting me. I like to see what’s going on at Kenzai. Every other notification on my phone is set to off. During times when I need to really concentrate, even chats and Kenzai gets turned off by using my phones “do not disturb” mode.
Delete social media apps if you can. If not then stop posting on them. It’s not realistic for everyone to completely delete their social media platforms. But a simple way to get yourself out of the reward loop is to not interact with the service as much. If you don’t post as much, you won’t be as interested in all the feedback that comes from your posting. It’s kind of like extricating yourself from an unpleasant conversation at a dinner party. You don’t have to leave the party, you just move away from the crowds.
Never argue on social media. Let it go. I can’t think of a single time when my mind has been changed by an online comment, nor when I’ve changed anyone’s else’s mind. What you will do is stress yourself out, go to sleep grumpy, and spend way too much mental energy on something which isn’t worth it.
Have a “no screen” night once a week. After sunset all screens are put away. The conversations, books, board games, and musical instruments come out. Once you get the family onboard with this it can become a highlight of the week. Just try one night first, then move on to one whole day and one whole weekend. As different members of the family deal with the pull of habitual screen checking, talk about it without shame or guilt. We’re all working on this together.
Charge your phone in another room at night. This means you won’t be tempted to read in bed before you sleep, or as the first action you do in the morning.
Use an ad blocker. There are lots of extensions which limit the ads you see, uBlock origin being the most widely used. They don’t work as well on phone operating systems but for your main computer you can have an ad free experience with just a minute of set up time. Be aware that blocking ads will take money away from content creators you like, so you should whitelist those sites if you want to support them.
Use the grayscale setting on your phone. Most phones have the ability to turn the screen black and white for people with special visual needs. I use this feature when I want to be mindful about how I use my phone. Seeing everything in drab gray on the screen is a jolt that breaks the habitual checking and rechecking that creeps up on you when you’re not aware.
Leave your phone. If being completely disconnected is problematic, consider a smart watch. There’s no better way to get off your screen than to leave it at home as you go out and have adventures in the real world. However, a lot of people need to be in touch for calls and texts while out and about. For me, having a smartwatch that takes cellular calls is a great solution to this problem. The watch’s limitations are its selling point. It’s there to take a phone call or stream a podcast on a long walk, but not so compelling that I want to stare at it. I know it’s pricey and not available for everyone, but since getting my smart watch phone screen time has gone way down.
None of these tips will solve social media’s deeper problems, but they will give you a sense of control and agency over your device usage. You bought your phone to be a tool to make life easier. With a little practice you can put the phone back into that “tool” category and stop letting it push your buttons.
Let us know your own tips to deal with the unique challenges created by social media. No one has all the answers. We’re all lab rats in this global experiment of creating a hyperconnected society. But unlike a rat, we can stop, question the status quo, find clever solutions, and break out of the maze.
I strongly believe a huge part of that escape is getting back to the fundamentals of feeding and exercising your body right. Nothing clears the mind like reconnecting with your physical body through your nutrition, cardio, and muscle building work.
When technology is working well it can help you with these physical goals, and then get out of the way as you live a rich and vibrant life. That’s how we’ve always designed our tech at Kenzai, and how we’ll keep doing business into the future. Thank you for your support as we keep doing things the hard way!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder