A compelling theory on why social media promises fun but ultimately leaves us bored and listless
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.”
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