How Twitter hijacks our desire for meaning in life

Insights are one of the things that give us a sense of meaning in life. The more patterns we recognize and the more insights we have, the more meaningful our life feels. From an evolutionary point of view, our desire for pattern recognition and insights makes a lot of sense. The more you understand the higher your survival chances.

[There is] good experimental evidence of the following: If you give people a bunch of scenes that make sense to them, that they can sort of determine an underlying pattern to, and then ask them how meaningful their lives are, they will rate their lives as more meaningful. The act of making sense, of finding coherence, actually makes people experience their lives as more meaningful. - John Vervaeke

Analogous things can be said about the evolutionary need for reproduction, love, and the desire for sex. Another great example is the evolutionary need for energy, appetite, and the desire for sweetness.

In all of these instances, it starts with an evolutionary need. This evolutionary need is made palatable to us through an emotion and a related desire. And unfortunately, these intricate interplays have recently all been hijacked by savvy entrepreneurs.

First it happened with sweetness. Food companies started to add refined sugar to all kinds of foods because, well, humans like sweet food. For most of human history, sweetness was a great indicator of a food’s energy content. But as soon as companies started to manipulate this indicator using refined sugar, it all went bust. The second well-known example is how apps liked Tinder hijacked our evolutionary reproduction needs.

While these examples are nowadays well-known, the third somehow manages to fly under the radar. Social media critics always talk about the dopamine kicks people get when their posts are liked. But what we’re completely missing from this perspective is that most people spend far more time scrolling on social media platforms. People are not rewarded with likes if they scroll, but still they do it for hours each day.

Instead, what people are looking for when they do this is insights. Completely analogous to what food companies did in the past century with sweetness and sugar, companies like Twitter have managed to hijack our desire for insights.

To understand why this so dangerous, it’s useful to make the food analogy explicit.

Informational Macros

A tweet is to insight what refined sugar is to nutrition. A tweet is an isolated insight. All the stuff that usually surround it is stripped away.

This is analogous to how in nature, sugar only occurs in combination with lots of other things like proteins, water, and fiber. If we isolate sugar or an insight, we’re left with something that’s very tasty and attractive to us humans. But it’s also not very nourishing and can lead to all kinds of problems in the long run.

If your diet primarily consists of refined sugar, you’ll soon be confronted with all kinds of health problems. Analogously, if your information diet primarily consists of isolated insights, you’ll soon be confronted with all kinds of mental problems.

The best way to notice this is by avoiding isolated insights completely for two weeks. The changes you’ll notice might initially be small. However, as soon as you consume isolated insights again, it’ll feel like a DDoS attack on your brain.

Another problem with refined sugar is that once you get used to it all non-sugary foods taste bland. Hence you crave more and more sugary foods and lose the ability to appreciate finer tastes. Similarly, isolated insights make you lose the ability to appreciate ideas that can’t be summed up in a tweet, but instead need a novel-length exposition.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend any time on Twitter. Instead, just like for sugar there is a certain place and time for it. For example, if you’re playing soccer and need a quick boost for the last 10 minutes then it can make perfect sense to eat a sugary snack. But you shouldn’t rely on these kinds of tactics in your everyday life.

Stop snacking isolated insights during breaks and use Twitter purposefully to build an audience and to connect with others. Develop a proper digital hygiene to make sure you’re always able to get back on track without wasting too much time.

And most importantly, your information calories should primarily come from nourishing sources like old books. (The problem is, of course, not just found at Twitter. Try to determine for yourself, what’s nourishing vs empty information calories. For example, the isolated insight perspective also allows us to understand why book summaries often do more harm than good.)

You might wonder why I wrote “old books” instead of just books. Here again our nutrition analogy comes in handy. It is well-known that the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables has declined over time. Since people became more and more addicted to sugary foods, farmers started to cultivate sweeter plants. Moreover, to maximize profits farmers started to cultivate bigger fruits and vegetables which, however, only contain more sugar and water and not more nutrients. Analogous developments took place in the publishing industry and this is why older books are usually a better choice. (And, of course, older books have stood the test of time and hence have a higher chance of being relevant in the future.)

In summary, while reading or hearing isolated insights might feel great, you need to be aware that they’re not healthy. In the long run, you’re much better off by restricting your consumption of empty information calories and by focusing on nourishing sources like old books.

PS: I feel it might be possible to develop a fully-fledged theory of informational macros but I need to give it a bit more thought. For example, stories are like fibers, analogies like proteins, and examples like fats or something along these lines.

Written on July 28, 2020
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