The hidden power of social media algorithms

Ideas and think pieces that still stick from the year gone by – on burnout, the environment, long term thinking, media and more

As an experiment, what about looking at the think pieces and ideas that still stick from 2023 – rather than the newest new thing or predicting trends that may or may not come to pass?

For me, some of the articles I still think about, that still resonate from last year focus on issues such as sustainable success, cognitive overload and how to protect against it, neuroscience, long term thinking, journalists traumatized by work, the end of platforms, the environment – and how burned out people will keep burning down the planet.

In other words, I’m thinking of the big picture and how we can better equip ourselves for meeting the many complex problems we face today in a sustainable way – both on the micro and macro level, both as individuals and through companies, organsations and societies.

And as for burnout, I’m not planning to get on a high horse here – I’ve had at least one major burnout early in life, probably a few smaller ones later, and I learnt valuable lessons from it all - but I read this poignant and moving post on the topic in December, one that still resonates with me.

I attended a deeply fascinating debate on consciousness, work culture and work life at the start of December (expertly  organized by Guro Røberg), and stumbled across this piece by one of the eloquent panelists, Snorre Vikingsen, published on the same day, on why he crashed and why that was a good thing (Linkedin):

“How Ironic. Giving a talk on the business of burning out, advocating for a more balanced working culture, and not realizing that I was at the brink of burnout myself,” he wrote.

“Burned out people will keep burning up the planet’ is a slogan highlighting the interconnectedness of human health and planetary stewardship coined by Ariana Huffington. In a nutshell it connects humanity’s inability to create environmental sustainability with work pressure and the exhausting performance mindset.

“How can we create great conditions on the outside If we are unable to create great conditions on the inside?... Burnout symptoms affect cognitive functions, especially the prefrontal cortex, which governs long-term decision-making.” Full post here (on Linkedin).

Or as Huffington wrote herself: “When we’re burned out, exhausted and depleted, we operate on short-termism and day-to-day survival, just trying to get through the day, or even just the next hour. We’re not just less able to create new and more sustainable habits, we’re also unable to think about the future, make the wisest decisions for the long term and come up with creative and innovative solutions to complex challenges — like climate change.”

This reminds me of an old, favorite quote of mine, often misattributed to Ghandi: “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another,” Chris Maser, Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest

A few main issues here are short-termism, cognitive overload and the interconnectedness of human health and planetary stewardship – or the interconnectedness of everything, if you like.

Adam Tinworth wrote well on this in his piece on how “Long-term thinking is our best weapon against the permacrisis”.

“The major part of the pandemic’s impact on our lives is now over. So, why aren’t we truly back to long-term thinking? Well, sadly, crisis became permacrisis. Even as the worst of the pandemic wound down, the sudden outbreak of war in Europe and its impact on supply chains and energy supply kept us focusing on the now. We had a new problem to manage, a new crisis to resolve.

It kept us reactive.”

Or, in Johann Hari’s words:

“As a species, we are facing a slew of unprecedented tripwires and trapdoors – like the climate crisis – and, unlike previous generations, we are mostly not rising to solve our biggest challenges. Why? Part of the reason, I think, is that when attention breaks down, problem-solving breaks down. Solving big problems requires the sustained focus of many people over many years."

The quote is from his book “Stolen focus: Why you can’t pay attention”, which I read, enjoyed and blogged about last year (in Norwegian). The book has been portrayed as a book on how social media is stealing our focus, but it’s basically looking at how social media is ONE of many things potentially stealing our focus and undermining our concentration – AND how to reclaim it.

That last bit, about how to reclaim it, is equally important, especially after the digital overload of the pandemic world.

And the answer does of course not have to mean to abstain from all the things potentially stealing our focus – but to be aware of the challenges, balance use, find more chunks of time for uninterrupted work etc.

Another way to phrase that is to lead a more balanced life, be more conscious and restrictive of your media / social media consumption etc. That’s not always easy as a journalist, as being up to speed on things can be such a big focus of your work.

It may seem odd to a non-journalist, but I remember having to wean myself off stuff like watching terrorist attacks unfolding live on Twitter (by way of Twitter updates) back when I moved on to a non-journalism job.

Twitter, back in its heyday, was such an excellent tool for keeping up on unfolding news of that kind.

But what kind of content and the amount of it we consume will of course impact us. To an extent you can use techniques to counterbalance it all, but it’s vital to be conscious of the impact and how to alleviate it.

That is why another great read from last year was Joanna Geary’s post on resiliency and leadership:

“Working my way up in local news, I met so many people traumatised by the work. From the reporter who relayed to me harrowing details of arriving to victims of a house fire before emergency services; or the editors who learned it was not ok to talk about the stress of doing more with less so instead turned to alcohol or painkillers among other things.

“When it comes to supporting people in news, we could and should have done a lot better sooner. But we didn’t." She goes on to offer sage advice on ways to address this.

On this topic, Headlines Network founder Hannah Storm gave an excellent talk on how newsroom leaders need to step up their commitments on mental health and wellbeing of staff (I was also delighted to be able to stream her talk on a similar topic at the Perugia Journalism Festival):

“Everybody's emotional load varies, but many colleagues tell me they are exhausted. Burnout is classed by the World Health Organisation as an occupational hazard, and it is forcing people to leave our industry…

“…Sadly, one of the most common concerns I hear from colleagues – anywhere – is they are still scared that admitting they are distressed will prevent them from getting the next promotion, or story. And yet, it can be transformational for all of us when people feel safe sharing their stories.” Ultimately, trauma in the aftermath of a terror attack was a major reason why I left journalism for my current job - so it’s so good to see people like Storm address these issues.

Then there was this piece on Psykologisk.no on energy, “Burnout - a consequence of a very good life?” (in Norwegian):

“Unfortunately, and fortunately, we are designed so that we can pull the energy master card and use more energy than we actually have when the going gets tough. But borrowed energy also has sky-high interest rates," the author wrote.

That’s hardly controversial.

But he argues that spending energy on “healthy” things like working out or hanging out with friends to compensate for things like a demanding job and a demanding family life may not work – that you ultimately cannot get energy by spending energy. Nor, he argues, can healthy habits prevent burnout if you commit to way too much in too many areas of life.

Perhaps all this is self-evident, but the article offered plenty of food for thought for me. For me, a thing like exercise is certainly a source of energy and something that feels essential to a good life – but yes, I have overdone that as well, so I guess it’s all about the overall balance.      

Another big topic I keep reflecting on, more related to my professional life, is the end of platforms. It’s easy to quip that this may solve the issue of social media stealing focus, except of course we’re just moving into a more fragmented social media landscape. Another way to look at it is, as Kevin Anderson wrote in this insightful piece “The Platform Era is ending, and the AI era is just beginning”.

Incidentally, ALL of the media debates I attended, and blogged about, last year was on AI – not to mention this brilliant one just before Christmas (in Norwegian).

But in addition to its many benefits, AI raises a whole new set of challenges – not at least, from an environmental perspective, considering how much energy it consumes. That is, if not new research, such as this on Atomic Layer Depostion (in Norwegian), comes to the rescue.

This is all in addition to all the other challenges we face ahead: Europe’s water crisis: how supplies turned to ‘gold dust’ (FT, paywall), the crisis in earth quality (in Norwegian), in biodiversity, the wars, the state of the world…

So many hard, complex challenges to solve – we really need full focus, undivided attention, and health to be able to tackle these... 

BrightonHorizonSea

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