Controlling your time and emotions on social media

Nearly every organization with a social media presence wants something from you (OK, maybe not you specifically, but they want something from someone).

They want you to click on links. They want you to like their posts. They want you to leave comments and share their content with your friends. They aren’t posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other platform for any reason other than to get you to engage. Whatever the organization is trying to accomplish long-term, they know there’s a good chance that they’ll eventually benefit from the engagement that comes from tapping into a variety of human emotions through compelling social media content.

These organizations have a variety of motivations. Obviously, if a business is selling something, they want you to make a purchase. News organizations want you to click on their articles and then click on the ads that they’re running on those articles. Non-profit organizations may want you to sign a petition, email a legislator or make a donation. Behind all of this is probably a public relations agency or social media manager who needs to produce a report at the end of the month to justify being paid (actually, it’s probably this that determines the quality of the social media content you encounter on a daily basis, more than anything else).

I’m not saying these are all bad things, but this is the reality of what drives most of what is posted by organizations on social media. I know, because I do it for clients every day of the year.

So what does this mean for you?

Even though it sometimes feels like we’ve been using social media forever, most people set up their first profile less than 10 years ago. That means a lot of people are still figuring out how to productively use these platforms. This also creates an opportunity for organizations to exploit emotions for their own goals, whatever those may be. That’s fundamentally how marketing works. But what’s different now is that, until recently, marketing and brand engagement wasn’t as much of an interactive experience — with potentially serious consequences for society.

There are obviously a lot of upsides to the digital world we live in now. You have access to more information that, when harnessed correctly, theoretically makes you smarter. You’re able to keep in touch with loved ones regardless of distance and you can reconnect with long lost friends. You can learn about and acquire useful products that may not otherwise be available in your local market. You can consume virtually unlimited news and information from around the world. You can more easily learn about political issues and engage with your elected officials directly. I could go on.

But there are also some downsides which we’ve started to better understand within the last couple years. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to hide behind a keyboard and draft an inflammatory response to someone that you wouldn’t say if that person was standing in front of you. And this behavior is dividing our country in a way that has a lot of people questioning whether social media is a net positive or net negative for society.

Clearly, as a public affairs consultant, I want you to spend time engaging online. I want to be able to tell you about the initiatives my clients are focused on and how you can get involved with issues that might be important to you. I want you to click on my clients’ links and take action. But as a human being, I also want you to be happy and healthy.

So what can you do to be a more satisfied and productive digital citizen?

1) Pause before you engage. Question everything. Consider the source before you have an emotional response – positive or negative. Ask yourself why you’re having a reaction to what you’re seeing.

2) Think about how you would respond if a piece of information was presented to you in a room full of people you know and respect. Consider whether you would make a purchase if you had to drive to the store to complete the transaction. Critically evaluate how content related to public policy issues aligns with your beliefs. If you’re inclined to have an immediate emotional reaction to something you see online, put down your phone or step away from your computer and drink a glass of water or take a walk around the block. Then decide if it’s worth engaging.

3) Pick your battles carefully. Is spending time, energy or money on something you’ve seen on social media really improving your life or furthering a cause that you truly care about?

4) Be aware of your triggers – whether it’s a political issue or human-interest story or a certain kind of product. Know when to recognize that you’re being emotionally manipulated and have a plan for walking away, if needed.

5) Set social media time limits for yourself. De-emphasize its importance in your life and prioritize how you’re going to invest the time you do spend online. Ask yourself what you’re really getting out of arguing with strangers in comment threads about random news of the day. Ask yourself if buying that item is really going to bring you happiness. If something is regularly causing you to have negative or unwanted feelings, unfollow it. On the other hand, if you feel passionately about a particular cause or interest, focus your efforts on connecting with brands and people who are talking about those things instead.

6) Stop thinking that you have the ability to control other people’s thoughts and behavior. If that’s your motivation for spending hours in comment threads, you’re wasting your time.

The Internet has improved our lives in countless ways. My career focus has changed significantly over the past 15 years – in a positive way – as the political world has moved online. I love the freedom of being able to work for myself from anywhere in the world. It’s amazing how accurately Facebook and Instagram target me with advertising, and I’ve purchased some great products that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. I belong to social media groups related to my profession and hobbies that have been valuable sources of information and a fun way to connect with people who have similar interests. I started a blog that turned into a book deal and became the source of many happy memories over a decade. I engaged with a lot of people in the comments section of that blog who ended up being sources for my book and, in a couple cases, real life friends. There are so many positive things about my digital life for which I’m thankful.

However, I’ve become increasingly disciplined in recent years about how much of my life I’m willing to give up to social media platforms. Arguing with random strangers about politics does not bring me joy. FOMO and status anxiety are silly reasons to spend excessive amounts of time scrolling through posts from people who aren’t otherwise in my life or to consume news that really doesn’t impact me. I can’t afford to click on every product advertisement, even if that wine of the month club looks better than the one I subscribed to last year.

Make an intentional decision about how much time and energy you want to dedicate to social media, prioritize where you are investing that energy, and take control of your digital life before it takes control of you.