Digital well-being

You’re going to be hearing a lot about “digital well-being”. This is the phrase Big Tech is using to nudge people into healthier media consumption habits.

Google started this discussion a few weeks ago at their annual Google I/O Conference. They introduced new features coming to Android smartphones that will help users use their phones less. Most of the tricks are subtle. One, called “wind down”, slowly desaturates the screen when it’s near your bedtime. It’ll suck all the color out of the screen so big red notification badges and high-contrast Instagram photos look a little less enticing.

Another feature helps users configure “Do Not Disturb” modes on their devices with greater control. Apple has plans for screens that don’t show you notifications during bedtime, finer control of notification settings, and reporting mechanisms to tell you how much time you spend in apps. They’re allowing parents to set usage limits on apps, too. Microsoft has already rolled out changes for their version of Do Not Disturb, now called “Focus”, in Windows 10.

Digital well-being has been a focal point for researchers like Tristan and the Center for Humane Technology. They think Google, Apple, Facebook, and others have deliberately designed their products to be overly addictive.

I tend to agree, but I don’t think anyone set out to add stress to our lives. Red notification badges add that sense of unnecessary pressure on a phone’s home screen. The ever-lasting ding of new emails is continually problematic for the sort of deep, focused work expected of professionals. These things were always there, under the surface, and our phones expose them more.

How we take advantage of this addiction and screw it up

When you want to promote your next event or product on Facebook or elsewhere, you’re seeking to hook into the same addictive measures currently in place on user’s screens. None of us like the noise we endure, but when it’s our noise, we think everyone should listen. As you’re painfully aware: no one wants to listen to your stuff either.

This isn’t exactly no one’s fault. But there is some responsibility you, us, and other creative professionals must own up to.

Roosevelt Fireside Chat
Roosevelt gives his first fireside chat on the banking crisis 8 days into his first term. He would give 30 chats over his 10-year presidency.

I’m reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. To modern spectators of history, we assume those fireside chats were regular events. They feel like they must have been a weekly or bi-weekly event.

They weren’t. Roosevelt conducted 15 fireside chats in 10 years. His rationale was simple: people would get tired of hearing him if they were always on the air. Use them sparingly and they have more impact. Television uses the same pattern in a show’s season.

The difference between Roosevelt and you is he was fighting Nazis as President of the United States. For most of us, we want some people to sign up as an event sponsor or buy a $10 product.

My guiding rule has always been: say something when you have something to say. Make sure it is helpful to some specific person or group of people. Imagine you were writing your update to one specific person. If you wrote every email as if it was going to your grandmother, you’d have a lot fewer terse emails.

This all comes together as we examine our own digital well-being. If we stress every week about thinking of something to report on or send in an email campaign to our followers, we’re polluting our digital well-being. Ultimately, we’re polluting other’s, too.

For sales-hungry and dollar-starved organizations, the idea of throngs of ready-to-buy people sitting behind Facebook or Instagram is too lucrative to pass up. Our email list is just sitting there, so we should say something. So we glom on to glitzy graphics as a way to get people to notice us.

You have to decide where your sense of ethics lies. Do you want to re-send every email campaign that doesn’t have a high open rate? If so, you’re assuming people were too lazy or aloof to open it the first time when in reality they chose not to. Do you want to pummel your Twitter stream with constant claims to buy something without ever saying anything else? If so, you’re assuming people are there for the sole purpose of giving you money.

By using these services and competing in the same graphical horse-race as everyone else you’re trying to hijack the same vulnerabilities as everyone else. You’re trying to show you’re prettier, or that you’re smarter, you know more, or your product is better.

Advertising does not work when you make an appeal to buy because it’s from you. Or “avoid the other guy”. These campaigns never work and have been a fundamental tenet of advertising since the early 1900’s. But people default to it. They can’t think of anything else better than “we’re the best”, “we have the world’s greatest”, “you’ll have a great time”, or, “Join us for a fun evening”.

The result is a weak message that stresses you out, pollutes your reader’s inbox and message stream, and does nothing but harm. You must be specific, well-defined, and detailed. “Join 200 other civic leaders”, “Produces 50% less noise than competitors”, “Lasts 3x longer” are all much more specific. They get the point across faster and don’t cloud readers with suspicion.

For more on digital well-being, consider reading Tristan Harris’ thesis on how technology hijacks our minds. Of particular interest is the notion that checking your phone’s notifications each morning frames the start of every day as, “Here are all the things I missed since yesterday.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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