Feeding the Feed: Rebuilding What We Consume Online

I am a millennial, a homebody, and (let’s be honest) a bit of a nerd. I spend a lot of time at my computer, and I consume a lot of content online. Despite what some would say, I don’t really think that’s a problem, on its own. The problem, I recently realized (as many others have), was that whether I was on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, or anywhere else, I was always seeing some version of the same thing:

  • Endless stories and perspectives on how terrible the world is
  • “Hey, look at this frustrating thing someone did!”
  • People attacking each other and acting superior
  • A general fog of anger, cynicism, and hopelessness
  • The comments section. Oh lord save us, the comments section

Believe it or not, I’ve managed to get away from a lot of that junk, and not by abandoning the screen (we all know I was never going to do that).  Now when I spend time online, I still get my share of negativity, but I’m much more likely to see:

  • Uplifting news and things to be grateful for
  • People supporting, encouraging, and celebrating each other
  • All manner of silliness, weirdness, and fun
  • Engaging and respectful conversations about complex topics
  • Informative and inspirational content that gives me new ideas and energy

I want to show you how I did this because it has had an outstanding positive impact on my life, mood, and growth. And it started with realizing that it was all my fault.

Your Feed Is What You Feed It

What you surround yourself with, immerse yourself in, and consume shapes the life you live. This is hardly a new idea. We all know that the company we keep, the news we watch, and the books we read have significant influence. People are always growing and adapting, largely as a result of our environment.

And your online feed is a major part of that environment. It’s an information and influence superhighway with significant power over your mindset and worldview. But what you may be less aware of, is how much power you have over your feed.

You are what you eat, but your feed is also what you feed it.

From Instagram to Netflix to TikTok, wherever you spend time online, you are constantly sending signals that are used to shape your experience. The choices you make on each platform shape the flow of posts, articles, and suggestions that come your way. 

We’ll get into some tools and tactics that you can use to make this work in your favor, but first we need to talk a little bit about algorithms.

Unmasking The Almighty Algorithm

Ah, The Social Media Algorithm. The mysterious and all-holy logic that determines what we see and when. Readers rage at its ineffectiveness, marketers worship at its altar to curry favor, and traditional media lambaste its dangers (but let’s be honest, they’re just jealous).

Do you know what an algorithm actually is, though? It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds. 

An algorithm is nothing more than a set of steps to solve a problem. We often talk about software algorithms, but even a banana bread recipe is technically an algorithm. It’s a set of steps to reliably solve the (potentially life-threatening) problem of not having banana bread.

So when we talk about, for instance, Instagram’s algorithm, all we’re referring to is the “recipe” it uses to solve a certain problem. The problem in this case is giving its users a steady flow of engaging content that will keep them interested.

Teaching Your Feed

Have you ever stopped and looked at what The Algorithm actually does for you?

  • You buy a toilet seat on Amazon and now get endless suggestions for new toilet seats
  • Remember when you looked up “season 2 release date” for that new show you liked and now get every drip of news or gossip about that show sent to you?
  • Oh, you read an article about that politician you hate? Step into my office…
  • You click on one friend’s post about how they were mistreated online, and suddenly all you see is angry posts about people who are jerks

The point is, while it may get a bit complex under the hood, The Algorithm isn’t some genius or unknowable entity. It wants to keep you around, so it shows you similar stuff to what you’ve engaged with in the past.

Therefore, you have a great deal of control over what The Algorithm puts in your feed. Your behavior sends signals. There are active signals, like the things you click on, subscribe to, block, etc. And there are more passive signals, like what you spend more time reading, or revisiting.

So why doesn’t this naturally work in our favor? If our feed has such an influence on us, and we have so much control over our feed, then why aren’t we all consuming a steady flow of funny videos, big exciting ideas, happy stories, and puppy pics? Well, this is where the problem comes in: us.

Negativity Bias and Doomscrolling

The Algorithm has no concept of what is healthy for you or what makes you feel better. It knows only what you pay attention to. That is its compass, and it’s far too easy to point this compass in the wrong direction because of, well, the way we are.

The human mind is oriented toward negativity. From a Darwinian perspective, you generally have better odds of survival by focusing on big scary things before fun, pleasant things around you .

When it comes to consuming news and other information, we feel like we need to get the bad news first. And then The Algorithm interprets the bad news as our favorite thing.

But reading that angry post or ominous article doesn’t take our anxiety away. And the next one is always ready. Even when actual bad news is finite, the number of hot takes, fresh perspectives, and hypotheticals never is.

This is where we get doomscrolling: the epidemic habit of anxiously staring at one’s feed, furiously refreshing, chasing the next hit of negativity, fear, and rage. It momentarily soothes a silent worry that if we don’t do this, we’ll miss the next big thing.

Therefore, we feed our feed signals telling it we like negativity, and it feeds us back negativity in a vicious cycle. But we can break that cycle. We have to break that cycle. Here’s how.

Tips for Feeding a Healthy Feed to Feed a Healthy You (Say That 5 Times Fast)

1. Vote with your clicks, and your eyes

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: every time you click a like button, watch a video, or add a comment, you are creating a data point. That data point indicates your interest in that thing. And together, these data points paint a picture of what you want to be shown. If what you want to see on Twitter is motivational quotes, fitness tips, and jokes, but what you click on is political rage, celebrity scandal, and hate threads, the latter is what you will get. Vote for a healthier feed by engaging with healthier stuff.

2. “I’m not interested in this”

In a more direct version of #1, most platforms have a button where you can directly say you’re not interested in that thing. When you see a pin, tweet, post, or suggestion that brings you down or distracts you from the good stuff, tell that to your feed! Trust me, they’re eager to listen and learn. And that isn’t the worst thing in this case.

3. Stay out of negative neighborhoods

It doesn’t stop at individual people or posts. Many online communities are breeding grounds for negativity and rage. You can probably think of at least a few Facebook groups, YouTube channels, or subreddits where the entire purpose is for a group of people to be mad about something together. Whether that thing is a certain group of people, a particular idea, or the final season of Game of Thrones, the effect is the same. Trust me: leave these communities behind. You won’t miss them.

4. It’s okay to block

Sometimes a simple “no, thanks” isn’t strong enough. Sometimes you need a resounding “…and STAY OUT!!” Don’t feel bad about blocking people and pages online that only bring you and others down. These features exist to create a safer online environment for everyone, and we should feel comfortable using them. There will always be some who say you shouldn’t block anyone. Usually they’re people who tend to get themselves blocked a lot. 

5. Listen for the echo

Regardless of your stance on an issue, it can be dangerous to trap yourself in an environment with only those who already agree with you. Echo chambers stir up rage, melt away nuance, and stifle growth. It’s good to be mindful of this when applying the above tips. The goal is to filter out our feeds from sources of excessive fear, anger, or hatred. But that shouldn’t mean closing the door on everyone we disagree with. Lend an ear to those who can respectfully challenge your views and ideas, and see if you don’t both have something to offer one another.

6. Separate information from sensation

This one applies in particular to news and current events-related content. There is usually less actual bad news going on than the 24-hour news cycle would like. So they make up the difference with endless perspectives, opinions, and “what-ifs” from the finite supply of actual bad news. Before clicking on that next scary headline, ask yourself if it looks like actual important news, or just something preying on negativity bias.

7. Consume for growth and happiness

A lot of these tips so far have focused on removing sources of negativity from your feeds. But a healthy feed is more than a double-negative. What you say yes to is just as important as what you say no to. Say yes to the good stuff. Turn toward the content that makes you feel happy, gives you new solutions and energy, and helps you learn and grow. In other words, the stuff that makes your life a better place to be. Choose this every time, and your feed will listen.

8. Build positivity in your community

Positivity comes not just from what you take in, but from what you put out as well. What are you posting online? Are you lifting people up or putting them down? Are you helping to address problems, or throwing kerosene on them? The presence you put out drives a lot of how you view and feel about yourself. It also determines who else chooses to be around you online, and what you pick up from them as a result. Positive people attract positive people and positive lives, and that’s something we should all work for.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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