We Have the Power to Make Social Media an Instrument for Positive Change

“The Power of Gods Without the Wisdom.” After years of studying and defending the virtues of social media, I’ve found myself at a crossroads. In the

Antoine Geiger, antoinegeiger.com
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Brian Solis

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Principal Analyst, Altimeter, a Prophet co., Author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, Keynote Speaker

“The Power of Gods Without the Wisdom.”

After years of studying and defending the virtues of social media, I’ve found myself at a crossroads. In the process of researching this technology and using it to share my work, I’ve become one of its billions of victims.

Social media has shrunk my attention span and made it difficult to focus on larger, more challenging projects. Recently, I realized how big a problem this had become when, right in the middle of completing an article titled “How to Focus While Being Distracted,”… I became distracted.

My personal addiction to staying relevant through social media had made completing the work that makes me relevant almost impossible.

We see it everywhere. This inability to focus has become an epidemic. Our compulsion to multitask results in the completion of dozens of small tasks (answering email or putting out fires) while important work gets neglected.

Nurtured by the evil geniuses behind Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all our favorite apps, social media (which had and continues to have so much potential for good) has become a monster with one overriding mission, to distract us. This epidemic is reducing our productivity, compromising our ability to focus and think deep thoughts, eroding our self-esteem, our empathy, our humanity.

The Beauty Trap

Recently, a large beauty brand hired me to study the impact of mobile phones on self-esteem. Was a digital culture that encouraged teens to constantly take selfies eroding their confidence and making them obsess over achieving an unreachable standard of beauty?

After digging deeper and completing this internal research, I presented my results and left the project deeply worried – horrified, actually – by this underreported issue.

Teenage girls are measuring themselves by an impossible standard of beauty, while almost no one is talking about this issue or funding research into its impact.

The Kids Aren’t Alright

This search for unattainable beauty is one unexamined problem, but all of Generation Z is fighting a losing battle to focus on one task for more than a few minutes.

I’m finding, and my research and personal experience backs me up, that we all struggle today with tasks we used to master with a certain amount of ease.

This can be seen in the fast-shrinking attention spans of American high school students. Less than four years ago I found that students could focus on school work for just over two minutes without checking social media. Two years ago that number shrank to 30 seconds.

Today, it’s just real time. They’re tackling the rigors of A.P. Physics and Calculus with one eye on their work and the other on their cell phones.

Left to Our Own Devices

When we look around at people of all ages, but especially teens and pre-teens, what do we see? Animals that may appear to travel in packs, but that aren’t interacting with each other at all. They’re lost in their computers, tablets and phones. A sort of Zombie Apocalypse has quietly crept up to our doorsteps.

I’ve seen it in research and with my own eyes, dozens of people of all ages, impervious to traffic and the risk to their own lives, crossing the street glued to their phones.

In New York, thousands of teens end up in the emergency room every year thanks to traffic accidents caused by cell phone use. We’re talking pedestrian accidents-texting on foot, not behind the wheel!

Around the world, urban planners are rethinking crosswalk design to prevent this type of thing from happening, while sidewalks in China now have designated cell phone lanes.

You Really Like Me!

It was one of those “Ah ha, but of course” moments when I learned that the “like” button on Facebook was based on the same principles that make slot machines so addictive!

We’ve all experienced the power of this principle. Whenever we take out a device and post something, we’re expecting an equal or greater reaction in a moment.

It’s making everyone incredibly impatient and creating a generation of what I like to call ‘accidental narcissists,’ self-focused, easily frustrated people who base our fragile self-esteem on how many “likes” one of our posts receives. We’ve become so impatient that, in New York City at least, the average time someone is willing to wait for an Uber before opening the Lyft app is about five minutes.

We initiate new friendships, and even terminate old ones, based not on the quality of our face-to-face interactions or whether someone stands by us during a crisis, but on how much attention they pay to our Facebook posts. “I like Jill and I always ‘like’ her posts, but maybe it’s time to rethink this friendship because she doesn’t like mine back.”

Twitter is just as bad. I’ve actually had people get visibly mad at me. They say, “I followed you! Why didn’t you follow me back?”

All of these trends point to one thing – We’re learning how to place the wrong types of value on everything around us and its being reinforced by the tech we use.

Time for a Tech Detox?

We spend just under three hours (177 minutes to be exact) a day on our phones; our time is being sucked away and most of us don’t even realize it. Across a world of cultures and societies, technology has hijacked our minds, meaning:

  • Fewer inputs
  • Less Empathy
  • Increased stress
  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Harder to disconnect
  • More anxiety
  • Less sleep
  • Less Thinking

It’s not just the young, or the undereducated, who fall into the social media trap. Almost all of us are easy prey to its seductive siren song. It’s particularly dangerous because, for someone like me who communicates for a living, sharing information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and here on LinkedIn is essential to our work, not only on a superficial level (building our Brands), but also as a means for sharing the very real work we’ve been doing with the widest audience possible.

Organizations like It’s Time to Log Off even offer detox camps for teens, sponsor 30-day digital detox challenges, along with classes, workshops and even books on ways to wean ourselves off our phones and laptops.

And if you think “Detox” is too strong a term, listen to this-Ramsay Brown, the COO of start-up Dopamine Tech, admits his team uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to increase usage. In his words:

“The biggest tech companies in the world are always trying to figure out how to juice people.”

Resetting Our Course

They had the power of Gods, but without the wisdom. Years after they set this dangerous process in motion (and collected billions of dollars in the process), Sean Parker and some of the other minds behind Facebook have started conceding the negative power of social media.

Society also has begun to acknowledge the problem too, but what can we do to free ourselves from the social media scourge, to find balance in our lives, and set a new course for coming generations? How do we change the meaning of FOMO to “Finally Over Missing Out”?

One great start is to explore the work of innovative thought leaders like Tristan Harris, founder of the non-profit initiative Time Well Spent. Tristan has spent years studying the influences that distract us, that prevent us from thinking in depth and taking action.

Drawing on resources from literature about addiction, behavioral economics, persuasive design and more, he is developing a framework for ethical persuasion that relates directly to tech companies.

The capacity to focus is precious and its slipping away. Based on Tristan’s findings, as a society we need to demand that designers create more systems that allow us to work in a productive middle ground – one that exists somewhere between constant interruptions and completely unplugged. We need options that allow us to block non-essential emails and instant messages while we focus for longer periods and complete larger tasks.

The challenge of helping kids and teens develop healthy relationships with technology is a conversation for another day.

It’s Time to Wise Up & Rise Up!

Control the narrative. Be a beacon for truth.

With bots, fake news and multiple online sources spreading misinformation that passes for truth, many of us are tuning out, assuming almost everything we read is some type of hoax. It’s time to demand that online news sources be accountable for lies and to create more reliable, accountable sources online.

If there is no leadership aside from selfies, bots and fake news, then somebody has to take control. And we can’t wait around for that someone to be someone else. It’s going to have to be you and me.

The good news is that we do have a voice. The same networks that are used to spread lies, to divide us and to distract us for hours at a time can be used to bring people together, to build movements and create meaningful change.


The real currency of social media is our action and our voice. By being consistent in our messaging, we can develop trust and build relationships; By controlling the narrative, we can become beacons for truth.

In this video from my recent South By Southwest presentation, I cover a number of the social media topics discussed in this article, please watch, share and lead the way! Brian Solis is principal analyst and futurist at Antoine Geiger is a French-Swiss artist and architecture student in France. His “soul sucking technology” pictures echoe the SUR-FACE project. It is placing the screen as an object of “mass subculture”, alienating the relation to our own body, and more generally to the physical world. , the digital analyst group at . He’s also a world-renowned keynote speaker and 7x best-selling author. His latest book, X: Where Business Meets Design, explores the future of brand and customer engagement through experience design. Invite him to at your next event. Follow him on , and .

We’ve been seduced, but now it’s time to wise up. In a world with so much misinformation and so much vanity, someone has to speak the truth.

Now that we know technology was designed to distract us, what are we going to do about it? I welcome your suggestions and feedback.

Principal Analyst, Altimeter, a Prophet co., Author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, Keynote Speaker

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