Fiqh of Social Media

The Social Media Rebound Effect (My Answer to the Contrarian Question)

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The contrarian question asks, "What important truth do few people agree with you on?" This is my attempt at answering this question. The short answer is that I do not believe social media is progressing in a straight line as most people expect. Instead, it's going to 'rebound' such that mastering pre-social media norms will be vital in the future.

In other words, i don't think that video killed the radio star. It did for a while, but radio will make a comeback (shout out to podcasts and audiobooks).

I'm going to break down my response in three key areas: Building a following, always-on messaging, and online Islamic Iearning.

Building a Following

The follower count is the ultimate vanity metric. As tools like Facebook and Twitter rose in prominence, the goal was to develop as large of a platform as possible. That meant doing whatever you could to increase your number of followers on each channel. Til today, this is the goal for most people. A person's, or organization's, influence is quickly judged by the number of followers they have. 25k followers on Facebook? Must be the real deal.

This brought its own set of unintended consequences. People grew up leaving public breadcrumbs of their lives online. Troublesome privacy concerns were raised (and appear to be getting worse). A large platform brought with it unprecedented expectations and influence in a short time-frame, making it difficult to adjust.

We are now observing a rebound effect. The public Twitter conversations amongst friends have more or less vanished. Public Facebook accounts are associated with "influencers" (and 'micro-influencers') more than the average person. The conversation has rebounded to more private mediums. Snapchat became instantly popular (until Rihanna and Kylie Jenner killed it) due to its private conversations and disappearing videos. Kids could be kids again.

Discussions that happened on Facebook and Twitter shifted to group chats such as WhatsApp and Telegram. They went from public for everyone's consumption to private within a smaller group. This also seems to indicate that our social media will become more of a complement to our "in-person" friends as opposed to a means of cultivating predominantly online friendships.

Algorithm changes with Facebook and Instagram have forced organizations to rethink what social media marketing means. Platforms were built on rented real estate. A page with 1 million followers would post something only to have it seen by less than 2% of their supposed audience. The most reliable means of building a platform through today remains the aptly titled email newsletter.

The vanity of the follower count is too difficult to overcome. This is why I believe most people will still focus on that as a metric of success. In my view however, the focus should be spent cultivating a smaller but more dedicated following (the idea of 1,000 true fans).

Always-On Messaging

Needing to be accessible has been a status symbol. When I was growing up, it was the pager. You had to be really important (usually a physician or a drug dealer) to carry a pager with you. Then there was the car-phone. It was extremely expensive, but the cost was justifiable if you were important enough that your phone calls couldn't wait until you got home.

The beep, vibrate, and red badge give us this undue feeling of importance hundreds of times a day. There is virtue in being the person that replies to every email, text message, tweet, DM, comment, and snap within 30 minutes. That virtue is slowly disappearing as people become more and more overwhelmed. As someone who has always prided myself on being 'that guy' who replied to emails immediately and maintained an inbox zero, I simply can't anymore. Most emails are responded to in 1-2 weeks, if at all.

The constant barrage of messages makes it difficult to focus or accomplish much else other than being engaged with others back and forth. This is especially the case as we shift more and more toward wearable technologies such as smart watches. Apple, interestingly enough, positioned the Apple Watch as an alternative to having to use your phone all the time. This is an intriguing concept, but there is still a long way to go.

The mobile phone has gone from a luxury item to a digital leash within the span of a few short years. It's not that I can choose to respond to my emails from my phone at my own leisure and convenience - rather, I'm expected to respond immediately precisely because I have access at all times.

Although technology is pushing us in the direction of being always on, I believe we will see a rebound effect where the opposite happens. More and more people will turn off notifications and delete social media apps from their mobile devices. Always-on accessibility will be carefully customized for family and close friends only.

Online Islamic Learning

Everything is going virtual. Classroom learning is now online. The weekly halaqahs and Friday khutbahs are now live-streamed. It makes sense then to put everything online, right? Most people would say so, and their actions definitely show as much.

I believe the glut of online information and content will create a rebound effect such that in-person learning will become more valuable. Whatever you want to learn is available online for free already. The only thing missing is the experience.

There might be 10 different weekly tafseer classes in my community, but I'm probably going to go to the one that my friends attend. This is because I'm considering variables beyond just learning. Many seminars have started incorporating larger amounts of workshop style and interactive activities. The Muslim community is a step behind right now in the sense that the experience of watching an online video, listening to a podcast, or sitting in a classroom are nearly indistinguishable. The next big success story will be the one who figures out a way to reinvent the in-person experience in such a way that less than 20% of it is replicable online.

 

 

Are You Unknowingly Wagging the Dog?

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Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail.

If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.

Three days after admitting to an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, President Bill Clinton commenced Operation Infinite Reach, bombing Khost, Afghanistan and a chemical weapons factory pharmacy in Sudan.

The official narrative will always be that there was actionable intelligence justifying the attack. The timing of it, however, will always generate suspicion. Is it possible that a bombing was carried out with the ulterior motive of distracting the public?

Coincidentally, a movie by the name of 'Wag the Dog' was released right at the same time. The movie is about a Hollywood film director who helps produce a fake war to distract from a president's sex scandal.

The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term panem et circenses, 'bread and circuses', to describe the phenomenon of a public too distracted by entertainment to be civically engaged.

I recently finished reading Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday. It chronicles the story of how billionaire Peter Thiel plotted for years to bring down Gawker after it published an article outing him as gay. He hired a secret operative to scour complaints against Gawker until they could find a potential lawsuit they could push through. They eventually found one with Hulk Hogan suing Gawker for releasing a private tape without consent. Gawker fought back by trying to bury Hogan with legal fees and delays. The conspiracy on the part of Thiel succeeded because Gawker never knew that a billionaire had been collecting dirt on them for years and was privately funding the lawsuit (millions of dollars) against them. Gawker was never even fighting the right battle.

To wag the dog is to let something of secondary importance become the primary one. It is to distract and preoccupy.

The difficultly is in identifying where we are distracted and missing the bigger picture without even realizing it.

It could be something big and complex - things traditionally termed conspiracy theories. More likely though, in our day to day lives the distractions are more innocuous. It's the passive aggressive shame grenade. It's the Facebook post that starts out about one topic, but quickly turns into a debate over an unrelated topic by the 3rd comment. What about major community issues that can never get discussed because a tertiary debate always seems to sideline the actual discussion?

Professionally, we wag the dog by shifting responsibility to others instead of taking ownership ourselves (as John Miller explains in his classic book QBQ: Question Behind the Question).

Spiritually, it can be as deep as the entire life of this world. Every soul will taste death, and you will only be given your [full] compensation on the Day of Resurrection. So he who is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has attained [his desire]. And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion (3:185).

Our daily grind is overwhelmed with all that we keep up with online. Without taking a break, we'll never be able to rise up and see the big picture to reflect:

What am I doing that I think is important, but might actually be a distraction?

 

The Involuntary Manslaughter of Islamic Scholarship

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This video covers the following:

How has anti-intellectualism affected the Muslim community?

Why do we accept someone's expertise in one discipline (like a mechanic), but we refuse to accept an Islamic scholar?

Are all voices really equal?

How our ego tricks us into being aggressively wrong

What we can learn from Chris Rock and Ross Gellar

The acquisition of knowledge has become the endgame instead of the first step

Why we feel confidence and conviction when sharing our opinions on halal meat and Islamic mortgages

How relative expertise is a more difficult problem to solve than ignorance

What happens when the student turns into a customer instead

Breakdown of spiritual leadership at the community level and the rise of the celebrity scholar culture

Action items for mitigating these issues

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How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization

3 Leadership Lessons from the Book 'Ego is the Enemy'

Running a Masjid is a Lot Like Bikeshedding

Established Knowledge and the American Muslim Campaign Against It

Public Intellectuals and The Confidence of The Ignorant Man In The Information Age

Recommended Reading:

Death of Expertiseby Tom Nichols

Enjoy the Memes

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What's the ROI of a WhatsApp Debate? #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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Starting this post gave me a trip down memory lane as far as online Islamic discussions go. There were the late night chats on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), back and forth debates on Islamic message boards like Islamicaweb (and multiple others), the private-not-so-private email listservs, PalTalk rooms, comments sections on blog posts, subreddits, and now - Facebook comments and WhatsApp groups.

Obviously, arguing about religion is nothing new. Discussions getting heated or devolving into personal attacks is nothing new. Unwillingness to compromise is nothing new. Neither is emotional investment in your own opinion or an inflated sense of self.

Social media is a magnifying lens that takes all these elements, and then adds volume, velocity, and permanence to these discussions.

We take part in these discussions with good intentions. If I see an injustice, I can speak up against it. If I see a falsehood, I can correct it. The hope is that the 3 minutes I spend finding a hadith to copy/paste along with my hastily written comment, will somehow change the hearts and minds of hundreds or thousands of others. I can blast something out on the internet and, voilà, I've left behind beneficial knowledge that will earn me good deeds for generations to come.

Does this actually happen though?

Take your own self as a case study. Think about opinions you've held strongly. What caused you to change them?

Was it ever from a WhatsApp debate?

It might be true for some issues. A spirited debate online may cause you to reassess opinions and research further. More often than not, however, the debates will actually further entrench you into the viewpoint you held whether it was correct or not.

Normally, what changes our mind is something a little less in your face. It's a class, seminar, book, or a deep discussion with someone you trust and know.

The Prophet (saw) said, "I guarantee a house in Paradise for one who gives up arguing, even if he is correct. And I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lying even when joking. And I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who has good manners."

An easy way to implement all 3 aspects of this hadith is to literally stop commenting on things you disagree with.

But we won't do it.

Social media seduces our ego and makes us think that what we have to say is far too important to simply stay quiet.

This doesn't mean you never speak up. It does mean that you speak up in the appropriate settings. Facebook and WhatsApp are where people come to gain self-validation out of some sense of being proven right, instead of seeking what is actually right. There is no reasoning in that setting. And even if your message reaches thousands of people, most of them will not be swayed by anything you say in the least.

Developing a point of view, and articulating your thoughts in an appropriate medium - a blog post(¯\_(ツ)_/¯), a video, a class, or simply an in-person discussion with an actual friend have the potential to leave a much more meaningful impact.

Quarreling and disputing with regard to knowledge causes the light of knowledge to go away – Imam Malik

 

 

Your Time Management Problem is the Opposite of What You Think It Is

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The challenge with time management used to be figuring out how to be productive with your time. Traditionally, advice would be simplistic little gotchas like - read a book instead of watching a movie, or turning your daily commute into a university by listening to audiobooks. As knowledge work has increased, and access to information has multiplied, that advice evolved into one of optimization. Listen to an audiobook while driving to work, but change the playback setting to 2x, so now you can consume twice as much content.

Want to be productive while watching sports? Read an article on your phone during the commercial break. Stuck sitting at a wedding next to someone you don't know? Take out your phone and start deleting emails so you can inch ever so closer to that elusive goal of inbox-zero.

Now our lives are filled with queues waiting to eat up our time. 3 Seasons of Game of Thrones to catch up on (30 hours). Then there's the video series on YouTube you started last Ramadan that you only caught 13 episodes of so now it's saved in your watch later playlist (9 hours). There's the 20 Kindle books you bought, but haven't read. The app is there on your phone, optimized for productive reading as soon as you get around to it though. The 20 articles saved to 'read later' that you'll end up deleting, including the viral article on lifehacking [this one in paritcular is a must read] that's supposed to give you more time to watch those lifehacking videos.... you get the idea.

So again, we optimize. How do we squeeze more out of less. How do we get more done? Maybe we need to wake up at 4am. How are all these other people accomplishing so much? Then we start to study those people doing more than we are to reverse engineer a solution - solutions that worked for people whose life context is drastically different from our own.

This causes even more problems because we start to see the things that "eat up" our time as limitations. I'll be productive if I can quit my job... so let me spend our family's emergency fund on the latest online thingamajig promising to let me make 6 figures of passive income every year. I can't be productive if my kids are always bothering me... so let me sacrifice some time with them now because I'll definitely have more time later.

Our problem is one of learning how to deal with the overwhelm of everything we want/should/need to accomplish while also balancing the responsibilities we have. All within the same 24 hours everyone gets in a day.

Solving this is a two-step problem.

Step 1. What's the Big Picture?

By time, man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness. [103]

The big picture is understanding your priorities in life. Spiritual and family needs are at the top of that list.

The question then becomes not one of, for example, "how do I read 75 books this year instead of 50"? It becomes a deeper question: "Does this book serve my larger purpose in life?"

This requires a huge shift in perspective. Someone might feel stressed that they have a lot of goals they want to accomplish (starting a business, writing a book, going back to grad school, homeschooling their kids, etc.), but don't have time because the daily grind is simply too difficult.

Wake up. Pray. Eat breakfast. Rush the kids out the door to school. Fight traffic to work. Get stressed out at work all day where they're pushing me to constantly "do more with less". Get home. Relax for 5 minutes. Help the kids with homework. Do other after school activities. Try to eat dinner as a family. Spend another hour getting the kids to bed. Maybe go to the masjid. Maybe watch TV. Maybe watch really stupid videos people forwarded me on WhatsApp. Spend a few minutes with your wife/husband. Go to sleep exhausted. Wake up and start all over again.

Here's the issue with that. We have to stop looking at this as a GRIND. Spending time with your kids is an investment, and those daily interactions add up, multiply, and compound over time. It's a blessing even if it seems every morning escalates into a shouting match trying to get everyone out the door on time. You may not have your dream job, but your time spent at work still enables you to fulfill a large responsibility. So take advantage of it, and do it to the best of your ability.

Reframe the roles, responsibilities, and activities that may consume your time. Stop looking at them as things holding you back from something 'more productive' and realize that for this season of life, these are the activities that serve your greater purpose.

How many people have gone on to famed business success, fame, and millions, but lost their families in the process (see also: my video on How Will You Measure Your Life)? Is it worth it?

That is the macro level. The micro level is step two.

Step 2: What Is The Best Use of Your Time At A Given Moment?

This is a constant assessment that needs to take place. Is your best use of time on a Sunday spent watching football? Maybe. Perhaps this is your way to unwind, relax, and get some entertainment. It could also be the 2nd day in a row where you did nothing but sit in front of a screen and ignored other commitments you had. It all requires context.

Would it be more productive to take a book to your kid's soccer game and read? Probably. But is it the best use of your time? Probably not. Your attention and focus needs to be on the game.

If you're stuck in a boring work meeting, should you check Facebook? Or maybe be super productive and read an Islamic article on your phone? It might seem like a good idea, but at that moment in time, your attention needs to be at work.

What about working out? Should you listen to Quran, music, a podcast, audiobook, or something else? It depends on your personal context. It might also be better to simply work out in silence and give your mind a break.

If you're stuck in the waiting room at the doctor's office, it could be a great time to catch up on emails and check Snapchat. If you're at the masjid 5 minutes early for Isha though, it's not a great time to check Snapchat.  That specific moment in time is one where supplications are answered.

Replying to text messages while eating lunch alone at work? Might be fine. Replying to text messages while eating with family? Maybe not.

Understand the demands on your time at any given moment, prioritize what is most important in that moment, and then focus relentlessly on that.

This is the example that the Prophet (s) laid out for us with his life. Aisha (r) was asked what he used to do in his house, and she said, "He used to keep himself busy serving his family and when it was the time for prayer, he would go for it. [Bukhari]"