max patrick schlienger, the ennui emgine, social media addiction
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A young girl deeply engaged in a doom scroll.

The advent of social media and smartphones has nearly eradicated the idea of the empty moment. We no longer have to sit with our thoughts when waiting in line at the supermarket. There’s no need to strike up a conversation with someone at the bus stop to pass the time.

One doesn’t even need to remember to grab a book before getting on a flight.

Social media makes the promise that it’s possible for us to be entertained and engaged during every waking moment. Writer Max Patrick Schlienger (@RamsesThePigeon on Twitter) challenges that idea by making a convincing argument that our habitual scrolling actually leaves us bored and listless.

Schlienger made his case in a Medium article entitled, “The Cargo Cult of the Ennui Engine.”


Schlienger says this trouble started once online content creators realized that the bar was set pretty low on the internet and they could get a lot of attention with minimal effort by creating low-quality content.

“Content creators took note of this trend, and while many of them resisted it, many more adjusted accordingly. After all, why should they expend a lot of effort on something when lazy offerings were seeing more success?” he wrote.

“Before long, accuracy, quality, and correctness became optional requirements, and online audiences learned to expect mostly low-effort content instead of refined assemblages,” he added.

While watching videos of a guy eating it on a skateboard on Instagram or someone explaining psychological disorders in 17 seconds on TikTok aren’t bad in and of themselves, low-effort content is quick and simple and demands little of us so we consume it passively. It’s a lot different than reading a book where we co-create meaning with the author or watching a film that asks us to make sense of complicated characters and plot developments.

Further, our constant diet of low-effort content also leads to more of it being produced.

“When we amplify these things—using our likes, upvotes, retweets and shares—we encourage the creation of more low-effort content, and in so doing, we send the message that higher quality offerings are unwelcome and unwanted,” Schlienger wrote.

“After all, if we enjoy the low-effort content, why shouldn’t we ask for more of it? Why shouldn’t we encourage it?” he wrote. “Therein lies the real problem, however: We don’t enjoy the low-effort content … at least not as much as we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that we do.”

So how are we fooling ourselves?

“Every second that we spend scrolling represents a tiny investment of emotional energy, the well of which is slowly drained as moments pass. To return to a previous metaphor, we start off hoping for a jackpot, then grow increasingly desperate to just break even,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, since we’ve already demanded that we be served only low-effort content—and since that same jackpot is being buried—we’re doomed to lose every time. We point to tiny blips above a baseline of boredom as evidence that we’re still enjoying ourselves, and we deny that our banks are being depleted,” he adds.

Upworthy spoke with Schlienger and he compared habitual scrolling to an addiction.

“I think it's a great thing that we've been entering into an era where mental health is much more at the forefront of our attention. Folks are much more open about their internal struggles. And yet in spite of that, we're going around chain smoking and encouraging others to do the same,” he told Upworthy. “When you start scrolling, when you start looking at this low effort content, it's hard to stop. And, just like a smoker, you tend to snarl at anybody that says, hey, that’s bad for you.”

Schlienger believes that this addiction to low-effort content is rarely challenged because everyone has a phone. “I can sit and scroll through TikTok, and maybe that's bad for me, sure. But you know what? Nobody can criticize me for that because I'm using a phone just like they are,” he said.

In addition to consuming a lot of our time, Schlienger says it also throttles our motivation. In “The Cargo Cult of the Ennui Engine” he makes the case that every time we pick up the phone and go hunting for something engaging, we are burning emotional energy on an activity that will rarely replenish what it has diminished.

“It's like consuming junk food where you're not actually getting any nourishment, but it's still filling you up. It's getting rid of your hunger, although in this case, the hunger is sort of inverted and it's motivation. It's draining your motivation,” he said.

Schlienger’s theories are backed up by recent studies on social media and boredom. Researchers from the Netherlands' Radboud University recently found that “phone usage wasn't an effective method to alleviate boredom and fatigue and even made these feelings worse in many cases.”

Schlienger’s idea that passively consumed low-effort content distracts more than it alleviates boredom is echoed by psychologist Nancy Irwin. “Boredom is generally a quest for fulfillment from external sources. However, real fulfillment is an internal job,” she said.

The first step in overcoming the addiction to low-effort content and habitual scrolling is to understand its limits and to be conscious of our daily behaviors. Schlienger doesn’t believe we should immediately delete our social media apps, but to be more mindful of our use and careful about what we encourage.

“Instead, we should remain self-aware and discerning as we traverse the web, encouraging, applauding and insisting on effort and earnestness from anyone who intends to contribute (no matter how small or substantial their contributions might be),” he wrote in “The Cargo Cult of the Ennui Engine.”

“Amplify emotional investments,” he wrote, “not blips above the baseline.”

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Actions speak far louder than words.

It never fails. After a tragic mass shooting, social media is filled with posts offering thoughts and prayers. Politicians give long-winded speeches on the chamber floor or at press conferences asking Americans to do the thing they’ve been repeatedly trained to do after tragedy: offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers. When no real solution or plan of action is put forth to stop these senseless incidents from occurring so frequently in a country that considers itself a world leader, one has to wonder when we will be honest with ourselves about that very intangible automatic phrase.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik brilliantly summed up what "thoughts and prayers" truly mean. In a 1.5-minute clip, Jeselnik talks about victims' priorities being that of survival and not wondering if they’re trending at that moment. The crowd laughs as he mimics the actions of well-meaning social media users offering thoughts and prayers after another mass shooting. He goes on to explain how the act of performatively offering thoughts and prayers to victims and their families really pulls the focus onto the author of the social media post and away from the event. In the short clip he expertly expresses how being performative on social media doesn’t typically equate to action that will help victims or enact long-term change.

Of course, this isn’t to say that thoughts and prayers aren’t welcomed or shouldn’t be shared. According to Rabbi Jack Moline "prayer without action is just noise." In a world where mass shootings are so common that a video clip from 2015 is still relevant, it's clear that more than thoughts and prayers are needed. It's important to examine what you’re doing outside of offering thoughts and prayers on social media. In another several years, hopefully this video clip won’t be as relevant, but at this rate it’s hard to see it any differently.

Joy

50-years ago they trade a grilled cheese for a painting. Now it's worth a small fortune.

Irene and Tony Demas regularly traded food at their restaurant in exchange for crafts. It paid off big time.

Photo by Gio Bartlett on Unsplash

Painting traded for grilled cheese worth thousands.

The grilled cheese at Irene and Tony Demas’ restaurant was truly something special. The combination of freshly baked artisan bread and 5-year-old cheddar was enough to make anyone’s mouth water, but no one was nearly as devoted to the item as the restaurant’s regular, John Kinnear.

Kinnear loved the London, Ontario restaurant's grilled cheese so much that he ordered it every single day, though he wouldn’t always pay for it in cash. The Demases were well known for bartering their food in exchange for odds and ends from local craftspeople and merchants.

“Everyone supported everyone back then,” Irene told the Guardian, saying that the couple would often trade free soup and a sandwich for fresh flowers. Two different kinds of nourishment, you might say.

And so, in the 1970s the Demases made a deal with Kinnear that he could pay them for his grilled cheese sandwiches with artwork. Being a painter himself and part of an art community, Kinnear would never run out of that currency.

Little did Kinnear—or anyone—know, eventually he would give the Demases a painting worth an entire lifetime's supply of grilled cheeses. And then some.

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