You Are What You Eat: Digital Edition
Why who you follow is more important than who follows you
Lately, I've noticed that my time spent on X leaves me either feeling extremely uplifted or quite down. I know many of you reading this aren't fans of the platform, but I've come to appreciate the people I've met there and the things they've taught me. My interactions with folks are generally good, but they're hit or miss. My X feed tends to be filled with irrelevant posts about the platform itself rather than the people and topics that interest me.
As is my habit when something bothers me, I started discussing it with others to gain their insights. As I always say, learning from others is the best way to learn. I spoke with a few people, including my brother-in-law who shared similar thoughts and suggested ways he had tailored his X feed. I also had a brief chat withabout this topic. He's another writer who teaches coding in Python. We're both writers and we share a similar audience, so his viewpoint was incredibly insightful.
Both my brother-in-law and Stephen offered an unexpected piece of advice: you don't have to use the algorithm at all. Both had taken the time to deliberately curate their following list and were making better use of the 'Following' tab than I was.
I see the irony in this situation: companies pouring millions of dollars into perfecting algorithms while users desperately look for a way out. As a machine learning engineer, I appreciate what an algorithm can offer but also understand that they can go wrong. The algorithms companies create aren't designed primarily to assist the user, but to help the company. If that involves helping you, they will, but that's not their main goal. I've discussed this in a previous article so I won't delve into it further here.
I will discuss something equally as important that I realized from these discussions: What sets most people apart on social media is the decision to focus not on their followers, but on curating who they follow. In an era where everyone is obsessed with follower counts, many overlook the importance of carefully curating their feed.
I equate this with the saying "You are what you eat." Consuming meaningless content can lead to mental stagnation and negativity, much like eating junk food can cause health problems over time. Just as we need a varied diet for physical health, we also need diverse sources of content for our mental wellbeing (something algorithms aren't particularly good at providing). Thoughtful curation of who and what you follow can provide varied viewpoints and engaging interactions.
Curating your following probably has a greater affect on growing your followers than any course an X growth guru will sell you. If you think about it: curating who you follow helps you create a stronger network, spend more time on the platform, and enjoy your time spent on the platform. These are all things necessary to grow a following.
I've only been actively curating my 'Following' for about a week now and I've been doing it slowly but I've already notice a significant improvement in my enjoyment of X. My previously draining feed has become more focused and purposeful.
Initially, I was concerned that this approach would limit my ability to connect with new people. However, I've found the posts and people shared by those I follow to be enough. Engaging with those sharing interesting information who genuinely care for those they connect with has made a significant difference — they curate my feed better than any algorithm I've experienced.
I know there are already plenty of negative posts about social media out there. I've actually written one myself. But my intention here is to share what's made social media a positive experience for me. I believe social media has an important role in society; we just haven't figured out how to use it optimally yet. The value of social media is a more nuanced problem than we initially thought.
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on this matter—what do you think is the best way to communicate without algorithmic interference? How do you curate your digital consumption?
In fact, I'd love to create an algorithm-free space where the Society's Backend community can converse and share ideas. I've tried using Substack Chat, but I know most of you are reading via email instead of the Substack app. Let me know which of the following options you think would be best to create a Society's Backend community chat.
As always, feel free to reach out on X or LinkedIn. I love chatting about topics like this and anything having to do with machine learning, technology, and its relationship with humanity. I’m also planning on creating YouTube videos to complement these articles. Subscribe there so you don’t miss out!