Instagram, Nextdoor, and “Be Nice” Nudges

One of the first pieces of empathy-building tech* I wrote about was an algorithm built to recognize when comments on a newspaper story went off the rails. It was a tough story to place because it was hard to understand and even harder to explain. (I’m forever grateful for good editors!) The gist was that a group of researchers wanted to see if they could cultivate an environment in the comment section of a controversial story that would facilitate good, productive conversation. Their work eventually turned into Faciloscope, a tool aimed at detecting trolling behaviors and mediating them.

Like many research projects, it’s kind of hard to tell what happened after the initial buzz – grants change, people move, tech evolves, etc. All’s been pretty quiet on the automated comment section management front for a while, but over the past few months that’s begun to change. Now we can see similar technology popping up in the apps we use every day.

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Photo by Randalyn Hill on Unsplash

Earlier this year, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri announced that the app would soon have new features to help prevent bullying. The official plan was released yesterday, and it boils down to one new function: Restrict. According to Instagram, “Restrict is designed to empower you to quietly protect your account while still keeping an eye on a bully.” It works letting you approve Restricted people’s comments on your posts before they appear – and you can decide to delete or ignore them without even reading them too, if you want. You won’t get notifications for these comments, so it’s unclear to me how you’d know they happened unless you went looking for them, which hopefully you aren’t doing, but let’s be honest… we all do that

Anyway, what about direct messages? DMs from Restricted people will turn into “message requests,” like what already happens when someone you don’t know sends you a message. The sender won’t be able to see if you’ve read their message.

Inexplicably, Instagram also used this announcement to tell us about its new “Create Don’t Hate” sticker, as if that’s an anti-bullying feature… when it’s literally just a sticker you can put on your story. So… okay, cool?

I wouldn’t exactly call this empathy-building tech, but I would hear an argument that it’s an example of tech showing empathy for its users, with the usual caveat that this is probably way too little, way too late. It seems like a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It just should have been a thing much sooner.

This won’t have much use for me, because I’ve already unfollowed or blocked the people whose comments I’d least like to see. What I’d really like is a pop-up kind of like what Netflix has, that alerts me after I’ve been scrolling for more than 15 minutes… “Maybe it’s time for a break?” Or the ability to customize a pop up for when I visit one of my frenemies’ accounts… “Remember why you unfollowed this person??” But I could see it being useful for a teenager who gets bombarded with bullying messages. It’s a start, at least.

Nextdoor, essentially a neighborhood-specific Facebook/Reddit hybrid, did recently release prompts that might encourage empathyLike all social media platforms, Nextdoor has gained a reputation for fostering nastiness, NIMBYism, and even racism. So it launched a “kindness reminder,” which pops up to let you know if your reply to someone’s comment “looks similar to content that’s been reported in the past” and gives you a chance to re-read the community guidelines and rephrase your comment.

Nextdoor says the feature is meant to “encourage positivity across the Nextdoor platform,” but they also seem to suggest that it will make neighborhoods themselves more kind. They claim that in early tests of the feature, 1 in 5 people chose to edit their comments, “resulting in 2-% fewer negative comments” (though it’s not clear to me exactly how they measure negativity). They also claim the Kindness Reminder gets prompted less over time in areas where it’s been tested.

This, like Instagram’s Restricted feature, is an example of a social media company responding to many, many, many complaints of negative behavior and impact. But in Nextdoor’s case, there at least seems to be more transparency. In their post explaining the new feature, Nextdoor says the company built an advisory panel of experts, including Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social scientist who wrote a book about racial bias. There was apparently a session with some of Eberhardt’s students in which Nextdoor employees (executives? unclear) shared their experiences with bias in their own lives as well as on the platform. So, that’s something. If nothing else, I could imagine the Kindness Reminder at least making me stop for a second before dashing off a snarky comment, something that doesn’t happen as much as it used to but is still an unfortunate possibility for me…

One big question about all of this, of course, is why can’t we just use our internal “kindness reminders”? Most of us do have them, after all. But it’s hard when, as Eberhardt notes in the Nextdoor press release: “the problems that we have out in the world and in society make their way online where you’re encouraged to respond quickly and without thinking.” We can create as many empathy-focused tools as we want, but as long as that’s the case, there will always be more work to do.

 

*When I first started writing about this stuff, the concept seemed new to a lot of people and it seemed obvious that the words “ostensibly” or “supposedly” or “hopefully” were implied. Today, not so much, for good reason: a lot of tech that’s advertised as empathetic seems more invasive or manipulative. So, I hope you will trust me when I say I understand that context, and I think about the phrase “empathy-building tech” as having an asterisk most of the time.

Musings on The American Meme and my Instagram Addiction

In the past 7 days, I’ve spent 8 hours and 35 minutes on Instagram, according to my phone’s Screen Time tracker. That’s an entire workday’s worth of minutes watching celebrities talk and friends feed their babies and advertisers try desperately to get me to buy Allbirds shoes (at this point I’m not buying them on principle). And my usage is down 11% from last week!

I know that I have a problem. It’s not that I can’t go an hour without looking at Instagram. I could put my phone in my purse and stare harder at my computer screen, or go for a walk, or sit and think for a few minutes about what’s actually behind my urge to open the app. I’ve spent enough time thinking about this that I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, though: I’m anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or tired. Instagram has become a little security blanket for me. It’s a place to get lost in other people’s lives for a few (or 30) minutes at a time so I don’t have to consciously think about what’s bothering me or, more importantly, do anything about it.

Yes, this is terrible! I sound like a jerk. The worst part is that now that I’ve psychoanalyzed myself to the point of understanding this, almost every time I open the app I feel guilt on top of it all. I should be treating myself better. I should be more authentic. I should be spending more time on actual work. This spiral is exhausting, and that feeling just makes me want to see if any of the people I follow have posted a new Instagram Story while I’ve been typing this…

I’m not unique in this. Instagram and its fellow social media platforms were built to become indispensable to us in this way, to cause little dopamine rushes that keep us coming back. Maybe that’s sinister, or maybe it’s just business.

On Sunday night I tried to put my phone away for a little while and watch a documentary. Naturally, the doc I chose was Netflix’s The American Meme. It’s essentially Behind the Music, for social media influencers – people who hawk brands and destinations and their own lives for money on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (and formerly Vine, RIP).

The doc follows a few different influencers, some I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was most surprised by how much I learned about Paris Hilton, and what a sympathetic character she was, especially in comparison to some of  the other people in the film. I had heard of comedian(?) “The Fat Jewish” before, and even followed him for a little while until he was outed for stealing other people’s memes and passing them off as his own. When the interviewers asked him about this in the documentary, his answer was basically, “yeah, so?” Among other things, he now runs an apparently very successful wine business. Lesson (from TFJ and several of the others): lying sells!

Is this new? No. But as with a lot of millennial-focused content, what’s unique is the sense of nihilism that permeates this documentary. There’s a feeling that nothing matters, nothing is real, no one actually cares about anything or anyone, so why not spend your nights pouring champagne on women’s bare asses at night clubs and making fun of fat people for money? Why not create elaborate hoaxes with celebrities and trick entertainment news organizations into covering them as if they’re real for attention? Why not do the most ridiculous and physically dangerous stunt you can think of, for followers?

One of the things that struck me most was a quote from the mother of Kirill “slutwhisperer” Bichutsky, who, defending what her son does for a living, said something along the lines of, “he’s like an actor playing a bad person – you don’t judge the actor as if they really are that person.” Don’t we? Where is the line, really? I’m not an influencer, but should I be judged by how I present myself online, or in person? Is there actually a difference? It seems to depend who you ask.

I didn’t want to relate to these people, but ultimately I couldn’t help it. The story of Kirill, a photographer and Instagram influencer who pours champagne on women’s asses and calls them sluts, among other charming things, broke through to my empathic heart despite my best efforts. The Kirill in this documentary is exhausted, ashamed, and depressed. He seems like he’s ready to give up being an asshole for a living and meet someone he can make a life with. He says this is what he does because it’s what he has to do – because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. I feel trapped by social media because it helps me escape, but I can’t imagine feeling like I truly had no other choice.

When Kirill posted something that made it seem like he might be suicidal, fans told him not to kill himself – they still wanted to party. He was 33 when the doc was being filmed, in 2017. After watching, I wondered if he’d hung up his champagne bottles, but a glimpse at Instagram shows that slutwhisperer is alive and well, with a new slogan: Assholes Live Forever.

There’s no big lesson from The American Meme. It probably doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you follow these people. But watching it felt like it might have felt to watch a Behind the Music about a drug-fueled 1970s band in the middle of the 1970s. That’s one of the wildest things about our media landscape now – we can analyze things so much more easily in real time. We can watch ourselves be taken over by “addiction” to social media, realize it’s happening, but not really know how to get away from it.

At the end of last year I finally deactivated my Facebook. I don’t miss it at all. But that’s partly because most of the people I was interested in following there had migrated to Instagram. Over the past year I have also spent a lot more time with people in real life – coffee dates, dinners, book clubs. I wonder, if I gave up on Instagram too, would my obsession turn to in-person hangouts? Or would I finally succumb to Snapchat?

Anyway, it’s been a long day (and a long post). I’m really looking forward to going home, sitting on the couch, and catching up on Instagram Stories. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help me relax. More likely it will make me feel anxious and lacking. But I’ll do it anyway.