Social Media is the Refined Sugar of Communication

Social media is the refined sugar of communication.  

What does that mean?

The Tl;dr version is that social media can be thought of as refined communications like table sugar is a refined food.  

A refined food has stripped out a lot of nutrients present in its whole source.  Social media likewise strips out parts of – let’s coin it – “whole human communication”, like being face to face, physically co-located, identifiable, rich with multiple kinds of signals from body language to vocal tone to speed of utterance.

Whole food both provides more nutrients than refined food – and it is often more complex for our bodies to process/digest.  Similarly, whole human communication is often both more meaningful and more challenging.

artichokes – whole foods – in the market

Social media’s stripped down comms makes incredibly easy some parts of communication. The refinement removes certain complexities that are part of whole human communication. While that removal can be seen as a plus in certain circumstances, a diet high in that kind of communication has consequences for our health and wellbeing – physically, emotionally socially.


A diet high in refined food alone leaves us malnourished; that malnourishment has knock on effects in terms of limiting our capacity for healthy physical growth, resistance to disease, and developing intelligence – both social and intellectual.

Similarly, a diet high in refined comms has knock on effects in our wellbeing. We see signs from increased anxiety and depression as just one example of negative side effects. Broader consequences are also around decision making when based on these refined information sources, and other concerns have included negative impacts on discernment in evaluating information; practicing reflection before reaction.

Our internal Wiring:

It’s important to note, too, that just as we are wired to require whole foods to best meet our nutritional needs, it seems we are also wired – including neurologically, physically – to engage in whole human communication.

And just as we need skills to learn how to find and prepare foods to make sure we get sufficient quality nutrients, we need to learn skills to be able to engage with each other – to get our social nutrients – in whole human communication.


When we choose refined food/fast food, we are both outsourcing those food skills to a third party, and letting them present us – often – with poorer nutrient quality alternatives.

Similarly, when we use social media as our main type of communication, we are likewise outsourcing to that platform, what we say and how we can say it; how we can convey it. Those limitations overemphasize some types of communications while stripping out others.  There are consequences to relying on outsourcing our comms, to reducing practice of whole human communication.

Please note: this is not to say that social media/fast food or table sugar is bad. It’s as in all things about our health and wellbeing, about ratios. If our diet is in the main fast food, the side effects because of poor nutrient quality can include malnourishment and obesity simultaneously.

In communication diet high in social media we spend less time learning how to cope with the challenge of in person communication, managing multiple points of view civilly, and giving ourselves time to reflect – to name a few. Its delightful ease and immediacy make too much of a good thing an imbalance. Such imbalances are not healthy, physically, socially, emotionally.

Pizza – strategically – is not evil

Again, social media – like table sugar – is not evil. Like a slice of birthday cake at the end of a meal on a special occasion it is a delight, a treat and a rush. But when it is our dominant form of communication, like only cake all the time, it weakens us.


TL;dr –

A quick overview on Sugar as a refined food – and why high ratios of it are problematic for health.

Table Sugar  is an highly refined food, where food is defined as the substances that provide nutritional support for living things. We talk about these substances as macro nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, fats – and micro nutrients like vitamins minerals – and phytonutrients – and likely other components we haven’t yet fully identified.

Tomatoes: sugar wrapped in multiple other nutrients

Sugar has been refined from its source plant to the point that it contains only one macro nutrient: a very simple carbohydrate made up of sucrose, a disaccharide composed of two simple sugars glucose and fructose – the bottom line is that these components mean that this carbohydrate digests quickly, which further means it can provide the body a very fast source of energy.

That’s the potentially positive side. Another is sugar is used to add sweetness to foods we create to make them more tasty, more palatable.  A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, as the song goes.

Sugar is added to a lot of our food – even savory foods like French fries often have sugar added. Toothpaste frequently has sugar added.  We crave sugar. We speak of getting a sugar hit. It’s an easy energy and mood high. It has these effects in no small part because sugar is so easy for our bodies to process, to get the energy and the palate rush.

And therein lies the problem: it’s too easy to digest, and get that rush.

Sugar exists in lots of food sources like plants naturally – fruits have sugar; many vegetables have considerable amounts of sugar too – like tomoatoes, carots, peas. But what else these plants – as whole foods – have are other nutrients that our bodies need to function. Fruits for instance have other carbohydrates than sugar – including more complex starches in their skins that slow digestion, and support the gut as prebiotics. Plants that have higher protein components like mushrooms and legumes – as well as sugars – are also more complex to digest, as well as having increased nutrient value.

The digestion slowing of having more complex types of nutrients hitting the gut is important for health. Here’s one reason why:

Because refined sugar in food digests so quickly – which means it gets into the blood stream quickly –  our bodies get access to a whole lot of resource for energy production – a whole lot of calories.

As soon as that release into the bloodstream happens, the body needs to find somewhere to store all this energy resource. This is where we hear about insulin:  the hormone signaling the body that there’s glucose ( a type of sugar) in the blood that needs to get put away. When we have more glucose available than we need for immediate replenishment or use, it has to get stored. Fat is where we keep excess fuel for later use.

By eating more complex or whole foods, we have a higher nutrient to fuel balance; thus, we get more nutrients and less excess material for storage. Also, that resource goes into the blood stream far more slowly, so there is a higher likelihood that we will have done something to deplete our stores (burn calories) and require replenishment, rather than need to store excess resource.

Movement creates a demand for nutrition – that supports resources – including fuel for energy – our bods need – but not *just* energy. And sport is a great place to learn/pratice whole human communication


I’m trying to frame an analogy here: a naïve one would suggest we need some logs for a fire and then we have way more logs than we can use for our needs – like a cooking fire – so we need to store the logs. There’s a cost to that storage – especially if we have to be on the move – and thus we have to take that resource with us everywhere. It’s more efficient when on the move to be able to blend some resource carried, along with gathering up what’s needed for just-in-time use. Optimal is to be able to get the minimal amount of a type of fuel that can keep the system operating as efficiently as possible.

 And that’s the thing about whole food: unlike refined food like sugar that is predominantly one nutrient – carbohydrate, and so largely only valuable as an energy source – whole food provides us with more of the resources we need to keep running well – to maintain our whole bodies – which a single nutrient is insufficient to afford – and it provides better time release of those nutrients so we can use them effectively over time, too.

  • m.c. schraefel, oct 8, 2019

Implications for design

For the Human Computer Interaction folks in the house, we might ask, what might more “whole communications” look like, when mediated by interactive technology.

Off the top we might say that video calling and voice calls both bring more “wholeness” to the communication. Of necessity, we are more present; more there than in text blurbs.

The literature is long around the limitations of video-based interaction in terms of constraining movement, lack of capture of whole context etc. Intriguingly, the questions raised from 30 years ago are still with us. We have likely all experienced when voice communication – perhaps enabled by wireless audio of headsets or good mics that enable us to move around while speaking – affords us more freedom to be ourselves in some ways than having to focus with a camera. Thus mechanistically, when looking to support more verisimilitude, the issues are well studied, and there’s ongoing work in that respect.

There may be ways to ask questions here that are less about improving presence, and more about the assumptions that facilitate the kinds on non-present communication that we have. Plainly, culture has a huge role to play in this space – that social media is not just a driver of change in practice, but has aligned with norms – such as convenience, speed, safety, anonymity, immediacy.

If we were to design new comms technologies, a question i would have is: what values are we designing to support? We may want to support more the kind of exchange we would have if we were in person and not in a crowd, while still being “open” to others to observe, share, comment upon. How do that? We may want to support slowing ourselves down from our own rapid reply or posting – but in order to do what?

SKILLS From my area of work in inbodied interaction, i would be asking about what are the physiological processes are at play in things like our getting triggered and our urge to rush in and correct another, or yell, or applaud, or display. I would also be look at, just as we do in other areas of health, like food, look at what is important to support.

Not Just Sugar-Free. The goal may not be to re-design the sugar, but to look at helping the person get more whole food. In the case of communication, the goal for design may be to build tools to help people become more comfortable with being physically present with others. In that case, the intervention may be: how to help people learn skills to communicate better in person? That’s currently where work in the WellthLab is focused, along with tools to help evaluate progress and feedback.

One more time: not trying to say that social media is evil; only that like sugar or other highly processed foods – social media is a refined form of human communication: it takes out the stuff that can make it challenging, time consuming, and potentially richer. And we, in our old old wiring, still need that – need to build those skills and strengths – to be fully wholly human.

What do you think?

[added oct 11]

Exploring Cold Showers – discomfort challenge 1

Welcome – the following is an invitation to:

  • explore how you respond to cold
  • use that experience to inform design to embrace the cold

Why? This is Challenge One in preparation for our Uncomfortable Design Workshop, Ubicomp 2019 in London, Sept 10. Anyone can register for this workshop – it’s open – Join US!

Yes. Ice bathes actually help to burn more fat because your body works harder to keep itself warm. Than when your hot and you body cools itself.  actually that’s not the reason at all…ice baths constrict your blood vessels so that circulation is temporarily cut off. When you get out, blood rushes back into your muscles and “cleanses” out all of the knots and build up of lactic acid..etc. It has nothing to do with fat loss.

Ok why else cold shower for the sake of design? The premise of the workshop is that we’re wired to be a little uncomfortable – it’s how we adapt and get better. A little colder, a little hungrier, a little more load from time to time.  REad more at the workshop main page.

Cold Shower for 5 days: know thyself

This week’s Discomfort Design challenge is simple: explore how, over the course of 5 days (and let’s say 5 showers) your response to turning off the hot water changes.

Guaranteed, if you haven’t tried this kind of cold-shower exploration before, you may surprise yourself.

Image result for cold showers

– 30sec to 3 mins in a “use the cold tap only” shower – can be at the end of the shower, or that’s the whole thing (you’ll see below an option for shampooing that starts warm and then turns cold)

  • -approaches: the masochist – just step into it;
  • the rest of us – put arms in; rub; move up to shoulders, front, then turn around and do the rest with your back in – big skin area. Rubbing yourself to acclimitise is fine. Before starting into the cold, mentally focus and remain calm. That first gasp will pass.

OPTIONS: if you have a timer, set an alarm to go off every 30 secs to three minutes just to see what you notice. When do you get to the “this is ok” place? Does it happen sooner every day?

GEEK: what is your cold water shower temperature? In San Diego of late it only got to 17C. In the UK right now, it’s 12.

FOR YOU: what do you notice about yourself before, during and after the shower? What do you notice is the same/different each day?

you can check out this inventory the Rand36 – pre and post– used in one of the shower studies too

why bother to test this? In terms of the workshop goals, we’re focusing on where discomfort for us is good for us and the environment, so:

Relation to Sustainability goals for Workshop:
If we can work in environments that let us set thermostats down then we are conserving energy. That’s one of the biggies.

To this end, If we can become friends with slightly colder scenarios, we may find this shift in temperature an easy win, new normal.
We may also find ourselves willing to explore more physical means of transportation for longer in a year and in less ideal weather. Whether this is walking or biking more of the year. This kind of active transport is both good for our health and again reduces energy.

That’s also a potential benefit too around the built environment.

Relation to Personal Health – including Mental Health.
In sports science there’s considerable interest in cold showers to assist with recovery after a big fat bout of athletic prowess – latest work seems to show that “active recovery” is just as good – or possibly better – for that recovery than cold water immersion

But let’s set that aside for a sec since if we shower, let’s say, when we get up in the morning, we may not need an ice bath to do recovery from an active sleep – so why have a cold shower? It’s certainly bracing – so if you’re trying to kick caffeine there ya go. But what about other aspects of health?

Not all Cold Water is Equal
There’s a lot of open questions about what showers vs ice baths vs cold water swimming (outdoor pools or sea) do for a person, and what the most effective temperatures are, but here are some of the explored parts.

Image result for winter swimming

1) breathing – moving from initial shock shallow breathing to deeper breathing to relax into the experience – this is a big part of how we get over that feeling of panic when hit with cold.

2) antioxidant levels? – in ice swimmer, it seems that antioxidant levels go up. Thats great for longevity and sickness prevention.

3) less tension/fatigue? And then there’s cold water pool outdoors swimmers – less tension/fatigue.

4) hormone responses – gender – here’s a fun observation from one of the rare studies looking at gender effects of cold stress (being cooled to a point where core temperature drops – in a process taking at most 2h). Men and women cool down and recover pretty much in the same way – but what happens inside us seems to be different in 4 ways. 1) men shiver more than women 2) men have a big stress response (women don’t) 3) men have a bigger metabolic response (producing heat) to cope with the cold than women. 4) one inflammatory marker – TNF-alpha – goes down in men but not in women. That said – inflammatory markers didn’t go up in men or women.

Bottom line: men have a bigger metabolic response to cold stress; women, insulative. This may have to do with body fat to muscle ratios. Women may use more what’s called non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) to cope with cold stress (you’ve heard of brown fat or BAT?). Open questions: what does cold stress do to our immune response?

5) immune response – there is one recent cold shower study that may suggest at least a correlation of better immune function with cold showering for as little as 30seconds at the end of an any-temperature shower for 30 days. And that winter swimmer study really seemed to lean into that way back in 2000.

, folks actually did report both better wellbeing after a month of cold showers, and also that their reported days of illness intensity went down.

6) depression be gone? Only one study – but oft referenced in the popular press – showed there *may* be an effect mitigating depression.

7) Benefits to Hair – why else are we in the shower besides our spiritual and homeostatic wellbeing? You have an excuse to use a two phased approach – do your warm water shower to be kind to yourself and shampoo; hit the cold for the rinse and soaping the rest of yourself – also you’ll find that rubbing yourself when adapting to the cold can help shift through the shivering.

There are a multitude of other claims/studies from fixing circulatory systems to upping testosterone, relaxing, upping fertility and increasing weight loss – and the big one in hot weather – cold showers give you better night’s sleep. Right because all the reasons that they cause you to wake up in the AM suddenly invert at night. No. I mean go ahead and experiment with a cold shower vs a warm one at night – see what happens in what context.

(i’ll plug in the refs over the week for y’all)

ROLE of Cold for DISCOMFORT DESIGN – here’s at least one research question. The role of cold on cognitions has been studied very little. One thing does seem clear: cold is distracting. If we are focussing on it, we are distracted, and thus not focussing on the task at hand. Not great in a work environment especially if trying to solve a problem, or be present to one’s family. Cold adaptation seems to suggest that that improves task focus. (Duh?) but that adaptation might also have other creative benefits to be explored.

SUSTAINABILITY AND HEALTH – This workshop is about how to put together opportunities to leverage our physiology of discomfort for positive benefit to help create sustainability benefits.

So the focus on exploring cold adaptation potential via cold showering is a way to see

  1.  how might cold showering help a person, personally, to be healthier happier and sustainabler?
  2.  how might the experiences of the shower be translated to the workplace or home?
  3. what else?
  4. And BIG 4 for the workshop: how translate these ideas into Interactive Discomfort Design.