Importance of Intentionality in Digital Consumption

Written at 2024-03-13 - Updated at 2024-05-24
Discussions: (hackernews)

A significant amount of my time of the day is spent interacting with computers and cell phones. Some of these are due to habits (like having a feeling of missing out), some are due to reasons related to dopamine (like watching movies, tv-series or content which are supposed to be fun), and some are related to work (software development) or productivity (writing, communicating, researching). So, I am regularly exposed to all kinds of stimulants that are available on the internet.

I am quite confident that it is not “normal” for us human beings to be exposed to lots of different kinds of digital stimulants at such a fast, mindless pace.

We Can’t Keep Up

Ways to consume stuff always seem to get faster and faster. For most people, the content they consume is transforming from deeper and wider content to shorter content that is in the form of compensated “pill"s. The existence of “YouTube Shorts” and “Instagram Reels” is a good example of this. I don’t think there is an inherent problem with content presented in the form of “pills”. I understand that they can be useful when we don’t have much time to grasp all the details of a certain topic. However, the problem I see is that this way of consuming content becoming the norm. Many of us constantly train our brains to seek brief moments of feeling good, rather than deliberately focusing on one concept and exploring it in more depth. And this happens all the time without us even noticing it.

I think the key thing that we need to recognize is that the amount of satisfaction (or benefit) that we obtain from consuming these contents does not always seem to increase at the rate they become available.

The quality of our being, how we feel, and how we learn, are not solely determined by the content or information we’re exposed to but also determined by how we intentionally react to them. The way we do things is just as important as what is being done. The effect of intentionally watching a certain movie is not the same as watching randomly suggested YouTube videos … The effect of choosing a topic and taking the time to learn about it is not the same as a random platform such as YouTube recommending a random video for learning X in Y minutes.

Think about it, even when it comes to learning and education, we see the results of this. There are concepts well-known to many people such as “tutorial hell”. It is also quite common for people to feel like they are improving yet they are not.

How content is consumed is just as important as the content that is being consumed. We have to become more mindful when interacting in the realms of the internet if we want to benefit from it.

I think this is where the concepts of we pulling information and information being pushed to us come in handy.

Pulling vs Being Pushed To

In communication, ‘pulling’ refers to the phenomenon where the receiver actively requests specific information and then receives it. ‘Pushing’, on the other hand, refers to the phenomenon where a particular piece of information is sent to the receiver without them asking for it.

You are essentially pulling information each time you search for stuff using Google. You are the one who is intentionally asking Google what piece of information they need to show it to you.

In contrast, information is pushed to you when one of your favorite platforms sends you a push notification from your phone or sends an email to recommend you to check out their brand-new cool stuff.

Keep in mind that it is not always as easy as this to distinguish whether information or content you encountered was pulled by you or pushed onto you. Consider the case where you open YouTube, it is you who initially triggered the process to open the YouTube, but as soon as you open it, you are welcomed with a page that is full of video recommendations that you did not specifically ask for. While from a technical point of view, it might be our HTTP request that triggered that piece of data to be fetched, from a user point of view, we see a page that is full of things that we did not initially intend to see.

Maintaining Balance

While both pulling and pushing seem to be necessary, an unbalance between these two concepts makes it harder for us to live mindfully. If you are constantly being pushed information, you are not actively and intentionally spending your time. You are like a leaf that is blown away in each wind. Not to mention you can also be controlled more easily by those apps that you use thanks to their recommendation algorithms. You converge into what is presented to you. Likewise, if you are completely closed to information being pushed onto you, then you are like a closed box, you might miss some of the important stuff which are happening around you.

The thing is, it is much more common for people to lose balance by constantly information being pushed onto them. So what most of us need is to reduce the amount to which we are being pushed.

Pulling is Usually Better for Being Intentional

When I reflect on my old school days, most of the things I actually learned were not the ones enforced by the school curriculum. They were the topics I found interesting anyway and took the initiative to learn on my own.

Pulling information is a more engaging process than things being pushed onto you and our brains seem to place higher importance on the subjects we are actively engaged with.

I think if we want to live our lives more intentionally, what we should aim for is to be more active in the way we learn, watch, and do. The alternative is leaving ourselves at the initiative of the companies’ recommendation algorithms which are purposefully designed by professionals so that they keep you on their apps.

Most of the things we are notified of, or shown are distractions.

This being said, what can we do if we want to reduce our exposure to pushed informations?

Reducing Our Exposure To Pushed Content

I highly suggest that you go to the notification settings of the applications you use. Disable all kinds of notifications that you think are not something you want to see deliberately. For example if you are using a social media platform, try to disable all kinds of in-app notifications except mentions, comments, and so on… I also highly suggest that you disable push notifications almost for all the apps you use unless the kind of notifications that are being pushed to you are not related to things that are urgent like calls, etc. The end-goal here is not to get rid of all notifications but to get rid of notifications that are not important for us or neither urgent.

Sometimes, an app might continue to push stuff onto you by sending emails and so on. Using different emails for primary applications and secondary applications might help with this as well.

Also, remember that it’s a mistake to register an app with your primary email if you’ll only use the app for a brief moment. Use disposable emails for those cases.

We have talked about how it is sometimes hard to identify the stuff that is being pushed on us. In some cases, even a UI element can be thought of as something that is being pushed to us. And indeed, I think there are many cases where certain UI designs cause more harm to us than good (while benefitting the related company). I think “recommendations” sections are usually one of these. Seek for alternative, lightweight frontends for the applications you use so that you are less distracted. Only Let the app direct you when you need a direction, otherwise try to remove all the noise. If you can’t find alternative frontends to the web applications you use, you can consider using Browser extensions that help you to minify the content you see.

Practice mindfulness. You can set reminders for yourself to check in periodically (I use Bell of Mindfulness). Make it a habit to take a breath in and out while asking yourself specific questions such as, “Am I consciously doing what I’m doing right now, or am I just being controlled by the algorithms?” This self-reflection can provide clarity and intentionality to your actions.

And finally, remind yourself that the best thing we can do in order to be less disturbed and distracted is actually to not use those apps which distract us at the first place.


2024-05-24 : I’ve been using a Chrome extension called Stylus that lets you customize the CSS styles of websites. One problem I had with both the mobile and web versions of WhatsApp was that archived chats were still easily accessible at the top, even showing a notification icon. I just hid that section from the UI using this app.