Sam Holstein

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How to Protect Your Mind From All the Junk Content on the Internet

The great promise of the internet was that it would give everyone access to the world’s information. Anyone can educate themselves about economics, history, or astrophysics with the click of a button.

Sure, the internet has democratized information. But most people don’t use the internet to educate themselves. In fact, the way you use the internet makes you dumber, not smarter.

You can use the internet to access the greatest works by the greatest minds humanity has ever seen. Fiction and nonfiction, the world’s knowledge is at your fingertips. But that high-quality information is buried under junk: memes, political blogs, conspiracy theories, phishing scams, and spam crowd out valuable information ten thousand to one.

You may be having defensive thoughts right now. “Hold on, I listen to a podcast or two! I read audiobooks! I’m not only exposing myself to the junk of the internet.” And that may be true. But honestly ask yourself: How often do you do this? An hour a week? Two? Compare that to how much time you spend surfing Reddit, looking at memes, and entertaining yourself with Tik Tok. One dwarfs the other.

What’s worse, the internet creates bubbles. When you’re in an internet bubble, you feel like your corner of the internet is the entire internet. You think everyone is like this. This makes it easy for you to think your irrational beliefs, conspiracy theories, and unoriginal jokes are at the height of human sophistication when nothing could be further from the truth.

We all think of ourselves as sophisticated, discerning thinkers. We consider ourselves people who can spot fake news, make good arguments, and devise useful plans. But the sad fact of the matter is, most of us — including you, reading this article, and me, writing this article — are not like this. We’re regularly taken in by fake news, we make arguments from emotion and exaggerate them with embellishments, and most of our plans were never going to work out anyway.

The quality of your thinking is directly related to the quality of the content you consume. If you read educational and sophisticated work every day, you will become an educated and sophisticated thinker. If you read Facebook memes all day, your mind will become a Facebook meme machine.

With the internet, anyone can become a genius. But most people are using the internet to enable their own intellectual mediocrity.

How the Internet Is Designed to Trap You

It’s not your fault you find yourself here. The system is rigged against you.

The internet itself is a neutral technology. It’s just a network of computers that sends information to your computer. But individual websites on the internet are designed to trap you in information bubbles. They suck you in with attention-grabbing or outrageous content and keep you clicking by upping the ante every time.

Above all, they want to keep you clicking. They only make money from advertisers when you click. They are happy to serve you whatever content will make that happen, even if that content is dangerous conspiracy theories.

Valuable information isn’t usually attention-grabbing. A foundational understanding of cell biology is extremely important for understanding evolution, pandemics, and medical technology… but your average Facebook user doesn’t click on headlines about science, so Facebook doesn’t distribute this kind of content widely.

In fact, what’s attention-grabbing is usually the least valuable. Conspiracy theories, over-the-top fake “fun facts,” and pictures of rich and attractive people get great engagement but contain no useful information.

You’ve seen the consequences of this design in the real world. Over half of all US adults have been exposed to Russian propaganda on Facebook. Your friends, neighbors, and coworkers increasingly believe in a variety of bizarre conspiracy theories. You probably have one or two irrational beliefs yourself (at least).

How to Break Out of Your Internet Bubble and Find Great Content

The key that makes this internet-junk-content-machine work is the feed. You know the feed: The Facebook News Feed, the Twitter Timeline, the Reddit Front Page, Instagram’s photo stream, Tik Tok’s video stream, and any other place on the internet where you can access a never-ending stream of content.

Some people think they can make the feed “work for them.” They think if they can be “mindful” of the accounts they follow and the content they consume, they can make feeds work for them instead of against them.

But these efforts are in vain. You can never make the feed work for you because it isn’t designed for you. It’s designed to generate income for the platform by getting you to see, click on, and buy from ads. Entire thousand-person companies exist just to make an algorithm that’s really, really good at this. Trying to make such a powerful algorithm “work for you” is like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.

If you really want to free your mind from the destruction of internet junk, you need to stop going to the source. You need to stop using feeds.

Step 1: Turn Off All Your Feeds

You don’t have to delete your accounts with feed-based platforms if you don’t want. You can still use Facebook to check on friends’ profiles and Tweet all you want. What you need to do is block the feeds that go with these social platforms.

  1. Delete all your feed-based apps off your phone. This includes all social media, Reddit, and even Medium. You don’t want to fall into these content black holes.
  2. Download browser extensions that block feeds. I use Dawdle Block to block my Medium feed and UnDistracted to block everything else.

I still use Medium, LinkedIn, and even Reddit on occasion. But when I do, I don’t see anything their algorithms recommend to me from the feed. I decide what information I consume, not a profit-driven algorithm.

Step 2: Save Valuable Content

Once you cut out junky internet content that makes your life worse, you want to replace it with content that makes your life better. Content that supports your values.

The first step is to ask yourself “What do I value in content?”

Here’s my answer:

  1. I value content that is evidence-based. I want to read articles and watch videos supported by reliable data, not assumptions or shoddy science.
  2. I value well-argued content. I want to read articles and watch videos by people making tight and logical arguments, not ad hominem attacks and emotional appeals.
  3. I value long content. I want articles and videos that explain concepts thoroughly and honor their complexity, not creators who present a subject superficially and pretend it’s the whole picture.

What you value in content will be different than what I value. You may value artistry, visual aesthetics, or certain philosophical approaches. The important part is knowing what you value.

Once you know what is valuable, do some research and find websites that make great content that supports your values. Bookmark these websites. Here are some of my favorites:

Click on these websites, and you can see a theme. Instead of a feed or search mechanism with access to massive amounts of junk content, these websites have strong editorial oversight and feature only high-quality content for people who want the best for their minds.

Do a little research. Find the best websites for your bookmarks. Look for websites that have a special focus on data-driven conclusions, whether that be economic data for political arguments or market data on the efficacy of different sales pitch techniques. There are shysters in every industry.

Once you’ve bookmarked a couple of sites, you should be good to go.

Step 3: Enjoy Better Content

Now whenever you’re bored, don’t open a feed-based app and scroll there. Open one of your new bookmarks and browse there instead.

For the first two weeks, the only change you’ll notice is boredom. This better content doesn’t stimulate or excite you as much as the hooks in your old feeds. But boredom is a good thing. Your mind was used to an overstimulating diet of junk information. Boredom is the feeling of your mind adapting to a slower, more thoughtful way of life.

Stick with the change for a month, and you’ll notice a startling transformation. Junk content that used to be endlessly distracting will now bore you. Your attention span will get longer fast. You’ll find yourself genuinely interested by complex topics that used to bore you.

All that from one small change.

In Conclusion

The internet is a powerful tool for self-education and personal growth. But like most people, you use the internet in a way that makes you stupider, not smarter. If you want to protect your mind, you need to change the way you use the internet.

What makes the internet so bad for your mind is feed-based technology. Highly-paid engineers design feeds so they serve you distracting and emotional content, not educational or valuable content. The first step to protecting your mind from the internet is to give up your feeds.

The second step is to replace your feeds with valuable content. Find websites and content creators you want to learn from. Bookmark their work. Do some research and find websites that support your values.

Whenever you feel bored, don’t go to a website with a feed. Go to one of your bookmarks instead.

At first, this will feel boring. You’ll wonder about the funny stuff you’re missing out on. But if you stick with it for two or three weeks, you’ll notice a massive transformation. You’ll get a lot smarter a lot faster. You’ll understand things you never did before. You’ll regret all the time you’ve ever wasted on internet crap.

You don’t have to cut internet junk food out of your life if you don’t want. It’s your life. But do you want to spend your one life on the same diet of information junk everyone else is on? I certainly don’t.

The choice is yours.