Directed and Undirected Consumption
April 9, 2022
Like everyone else who’s even remotely aware of the harmful effects of social media addiction, I wanted to cut down on, not just social media, but all unwanted digital noise in general. This has been an ongoing effort since the end of 2021 and I can now say It’s been quite succesfull. During this journey however, I realized that the underlying problem has to do with how we consume what we consume.
If you clicked on this post looking for insights into dietary experiments, I’m sorry. This is going to be primarily about media consumption in the digital format in our modern society. I’ll probably think about writing a post on my diet experiments some other day.
I’ve been through that unhealthy pattern of opening up a social media app and then just scrolling through mindlessly to find something, just something. That something doesn’t show up, of course, and you end up devouring unwanted information. I’ve come to call this kind of consumption Undirected consumption. Pretty self-explanatory, but this is the type of consumption when you don’t know what you’re looking for to consume but you’re consuming anyways. The flip side of this is Directed Consumption, which is a rather conscious decision about what you’re consuming. Let’s understand each of them.
Undirected Consumption #
Undirected consumption is almost always is by design. Social media companies like Twitter, Reddit and Instagram have setup their homepages(feeds) to optimize for Undirected consumption. If you open up Twitter.com, you’re bound to see tweets not in chronological order but based on a certain heuristic designed to show you engaging content. Even more important is to show the content right on your face first thing you land on the page. And the cherry on top is the infinite scroll, you can comfortably spend countless hours on these things. This is extremely common amongst all such websites. However, I’m compelled to mention Google.com here for they have not done something like this with their search homepage(yet) and I wonder why but that’s a good thing (cue: iGoogle).
For example, let’s say you’re bored waiting for someone, and so you unlock your phone, open the first app in your recent applications list and start looking for a so-called serendipituous encounter with every new byte of information that takes up screen space on your device as you scroll.
I haven’t mentioned other apps like Snap, Tiktok etc here because I haven’t had much experience with them but I’m assuming they also optimize for Undirected Consumption given how successful and popular they are.
Directed Consumption #
Directed consumption, on the other hand, is about a more conscious usage of social media. This means you’ll not open an application because you’re “bored”. You’ll not seek solace with irrelevant pieces of information in the form of text, images or videos. Unlike Undirected Consumption, which is optimized by the teams behind the product, Directed Consumption has to be optimized or rather put in place by the user. This means you’ll make it a point of not landing on the home page of such apps, or any app for that matter, to decide what to do. Instead, you’ll have a reason to be opening a particular app. This is very different from quitting cold turkey, which involves deleting or disabling one’s account completely.
For example, your friend shared a tweet with you over message. You’ll click on the tweet, read the content, have a discourse with your friend and then that’s about it. You don’t click on the twitter logo to open your, now infamous, feed because that will unknowingly trigger Undirected Consumption. And there’s a very good chance something like that could happen. As Tristan Harris mentioned once, “Some of the brightest minds of our times are working to take control of your attention using the latest technology.” So unless or until you’re a proven Stoic, don’t try to take that one cursory glance at your feed, chances are that you’ll have been played for by the time you realize.
Breaking out #
How do you transition from UC to DC? There are various options. First and foremost is a willingness to commit because whatever approach you end up choosing can be undone just as easily. Once you’ve sorted things out in this area, you can leverage technology to structure or limit your consumption. These are some of the ways I’ve tried which have been working well for me for the past 6 months or so:
- Site blockers: You’ve heard about these, these are apps that block a certain list of apps during a configured period of time. For e.g. LeechBlock, Freedom. Different apps provide you with different levels of blocking and the flexibility to disable those provisions to cater to people with different levels of discipline. Choose what suits you best.
- Habit tracker: You can use gamification to build out this habit. I’ve tried maintaining a streak of “not using social media” which seem to work really well. Habit tracking in general is a really good tool to build strong habits which you stick to. I started seriously habit tracking after reading about it from James Clear.
- Timelines: Social media is not all that bad either. I’ve made some friends online and have come across interesting information relevant to my career. But I’m not willing to sacrifice a majority of my time dilligently looking for such info. I’m okay with a perfunctory visit once in a while to check up on the hullabaloo. I felt it much better than totally giving up. So for e.g. I use whatever social media I want to use just on Sundays and not on other days.
Even if you try all of the above, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be transmogrified into a Directed Consumer out of the blue. But it’ll definitely make you think about it. To paraphrase Joshua Fields Millburn, we tend to think about the impace of things we were accustomed to but have now given up. This is to say, once we remove Undirected Consumption from our lives, we realize how much time of ours it used to take up.
The intent of this post was to put out this “theory” of our digital consumption model and how I’ve dealt with it. This is in hopes of helping or encouraging those who’ve had issues with our modern-day information overload and who want to do something about it. But as the old adage goes, being aware is the first step. And so I’ve seen a lot of folks who are not even remotely aware of what’s going on and it often becomes difficult to nudge them in the right direction. So If you’re reading this post, just think about how you consume media and whether you need to do something about it or not. Altruism is best avoided when it comes to helping someone with their digital consumption.
I’m tempted to end this post with this witty excerpt from Walden: