Screenshot of Instragram on the Visit San Diego user page

As more information is shared about how social media and other web sites work, more people are interested in better control of when they  data and what they share on-line. I also sense that people feel a lack of control and futility in trying to change what they see and experience on the internet. There is a tendency to blame the all-knowing, all seeing Algorithm™ which is unfathomable and unchangeable.

Here's the thing, the social media, search engine and shopping sites use software that is programmed by humans for certain goals. The primary goal is to increase usage of their site so they can sell more advertising and/or products at higher prices. As a secondary goal they also gather and sell data that users share or store in their sites. These goals are met by increasing a user's time spent on a website using the algorithm. These are the goals most people object to but there are other goals that are helpful. Sorting the posts, finding posts of interest and other activities on a website are all controlled by algorithms. I was reminded of this by a post on another site, all software is just algorithms, parsing data and displaying it for humans.

The problem with the primary goals of many companies is that users don't always know exactly how the data is used and who is using it. The data collected might be used to help end climate change, feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Or it might be used to enrich the owners, create confusion, and weaken communities with divisive content. Without transparency for how the software works, it is a good idea to be careful of how we interact with various web sites.

Once these goals are known it's possible to affect the algorithms and return software to more of a tool for the user instead of a driver of behavior. Here are my disclaimers for these tips.

  • Steps on how to use these tips for each website is not included. I have tried to use terms for the sites so people can search for tutorials on how to do things like turn off notifications, filter content, etc.
  • The tips do not address ways to stop data sharing by companies. Right now the only true method to stop data sharing is to not post anything to the Internet. While that would stop bad data sharing it would also stop the good purposes the data can be used for, such as connecting with others and finding ways to learn about new topics.
  • This is not a complete list of ways to tame the various algorithms. Consider this list a starting point to raise awareness of techniques used to get your attention and your data. Be Aware as you browse.

Screenshot of reddit site on the San Diego America's Finest City subreddit

  1. Turn off notifications - The first thing I do with new software or websites, I find the settings and review the notifications options. In most cases the notifications are all set to on and to notify me by email, text messages, direct messages, carrier pigeon, smoke signals, singing telegrams, and morse code messages. Well, maybe not carrier pigeon but I'm pretty sure the services would use these methods if they could. These sites have promised advertisers that people will be looking at their ads, day and night, over hill and dale and by gum, if users aren't notified that a leaf blew down and cluttered the lawn of Some Important Person, they aren't doing their job. However, for your mental health, review the notifications and turn most of them off. I would add that this is a good rule for anyone's cell phone, answering machine, email and other methods of communication. If you aren't on call or worried about a family members who is overdue, it's a good idea to turn off notifications. Once notifications are off, a schedule can be setup and used to monitor communications in a way that doesn't add to stress.
  2. Filter the feed - Social media sites usually have something they call a 'feed'. As in feed the starving children of the social media company I assume. The feed is the central part of the social media app and it displays a never ending flow of posts from family, friends, internet acquaintances, news organizations, the angry neighbor down the street, intelligent cats, scammers and other persons who want your attention. When the user selects the sources for this feed, that is exercising control of the content you see and interact with. Unfortunately, the default is that the algorithm will select and display posts that benefit the company. A user's goal is to change the settings and see what the user thinks is important. By using filters on the feed, you get back some of your control. A filter consists of topics or users that you want to exclude from your feed. People can be blocked or muted and topics are stored in an exclude list. Different sites use different names for their filtering, such as block, mute, and filter. All sites seem to have the capability to block/mute other users, not all sites seem to have the capability to filter topics in your feed.
  3. Display the newest posts instead of the top posts - When the algorithm is populating your feed, it looks for posts that are popular, especial with people that have similar interests. When popular posts are chosen for a feed, they keep changing and make it harder to tell when an end has been reached. However a user misses news that is not popular but may be important because it is from family and friends. By choosing to view new posts first you shift things so your feed is populated by posts as they are posted. This increases the likelihood of seeing posts from family and friends instead of the latest gossip/scandal/weird stunt that is circulating. This also gives you a natural line to stop when you start seeing posts you've already read. When you see a post you read earlier in the day, you get a signal that you've read all of the new content and can stop.
  4. Be thoughtful of your engagement with posts - Social media sites all have ways that people can mark a post as something they are reacting to. When you mark a post as a thumbs up/heart/up arrow or as angry face/down arrow, the algorithm only notes that you engaged with the post so it should be shown to other people. Many sites allow negative reactions that indicate dislike/anger about the post. Studies have been performed that show posts that evoke emotion, especially anger, increase engagement and ad viewing. As a result the algorithm tends to increase exposure of these posts.  First, if you are feeling a strong emotion after reading a post, take a deep breath and look away before reacting. Ask if your reaction helps other people or helps sell advertising. This is true of most emotional reactions such as anger, frustration, sorrow, and joy.  If you are reacting emotionally it's more likely that you'll be helping advertisers make more money. Be aware of the fact that when you engage with a post by clicking on something you are encouraging the post to be shared with others. Take a moment to think on whether that particular post should be boosted with a potential to go viral.
  5. Lists of interests/people you want to see - A list is another tool for controlling what is shown in a feed. A user adds topics or other users to a list. Not all sites support lists for users. In those cases a search box on the site can be used to search for specific topics or users. I've noticed the search boxes tend to remember previous searches so they can be used as a makeshift list to repeatedly find specific topics. This is a way I've found to view posts from people I like but their posts aren't shown often in my feed.
  6. Be aware of moderation and ownership of the site - With the current exodus from Twitter there are many people looking for new sites where they can connect with others. When doing so be aware of who owns the company and what their moderation policies are. Is the primary company/site maintainers in your country? Who owns the company and how longs has the company been around? Are there moderators who will help handle problems or are users on their own? What are the policies about sensitive topics and how are posts about those topics handled? Does the site follow local laws for moderation, children signing up, respect of copyright and other legal topics? The answers for these questions will help you decide if a new social media site is right for you.
  7. Use a browser, not an app for social media - I know that social media sites have created apps to help users with viewing their posts. However, all of the sites can be viewed in a browser. Again, the apps goal is to keep eyeballs glued to the screen no matter what. By using a web browser, the user takes back some of their control. In addition, the use of a browser reduces the ability of an app to gather data from other apps on your device without your knowledge. By using a web browser, you are putting the company on notice that they are in your world now and they need to work with you. And yes, web browser do work on phones.
  8. Block the ads - By using a modern web browser you can install a plug-in or addon that blocks ads. Blocking ads makes the sites a lot more pleasant to browse. You will also be protecting yourself from accidentally clicking on links to malware that wants to install on your computer or phone.
  9.  Support creators - There are probably people you follow on social media who create art, share photographs, report news, and write great articles or books. Some are able to share freely because they have other income to support them. Many other creators share and depend on the revenue as their job. If you are following creators who are trying to make a living do what you can to help. Find their tip jar, support their Patreon site, buy their books, t-shirts, art work, photo prints, commission a drawing, and generally help them out. If  there isn't enough money for direct support, help them by boosting their posts. It also helps to give positive reviews for their products, share their posts and let them know you like what they create. In this case liking/hearting/reposting/retweeting is helping a human being and not just an algorithm.

Screenshot of Pinterest user for Abandoned San Diego pictures

This list is meant to be simple things users can do to improve their experience on the internet. It is not complete and I continue to learn new tips and tricks for managing social media and other websites. The important thing is that people can take back some control and software should be a tool for everyone.

Pictures by J.T. Harpster, prints of selected photos can be found at our Redbubble shop

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