Science & Technology

Social Campfires and Covid

Written by Ollie Monk

Today, more than ever, we are well and truly dependant on our phones. It’s not hard to see why—social media has been our dominant form of social interaction years before we had heard of a support bubble, and smartphones are the logical conclusion to this.

Yet, as we make ever greater use of these tools, we, in turn, become more susceptible to having them be used against us. The endless scroll does not promote the interconnectivity we were promised by social media; recent changes to some of the most popular platforms should make this clear (Instagram’s Shop Tab comes to mind). For every group chat or society page we are a part of, we are shown a dozen pieces of content that we most likely haven’t chosen to seek out.

Devoid of any connections to friends and family, we told ourselves we would join these apps to keep in touch yet find ourselves in a social wilderness. So, what could be more comforting in such a wilderness than the welcome glow of a social campfire?

What is a Social Campfire?

Broadly speaking, a social campfire is exactly what the metaphor sounds like: a cosy, more intimate environment where you can have conversations with individuals, as opposed to the anonymising content and very public forums most social media defaults to. These can vary in size, from a large Discord community dedicated to a well-loved franchise, to your group chat, and do not suit the traditional advertisement business-model of regular social media.

Our phones are becoming even more prevalent in our pandemic lives. Via SAGE Journals.

If this sounds appealing to you, you aren’t alone—38% of 16-30 year olds use Facebook just for the messaging app, while 57% of the same group “reveal that smaller communities make them feel like they are surrounded by people that care about the same thing as them”. Social campfires, it seems, are a pushback against the personalised-yet-deeply-impersonal ‘algorithm’ and are closer to enjoyable social interactions so many of us have craved during these isolating and often lonely times.

Why you should care

When was the last time you looked at your phone? Maybe it was to read this article, or perhaps it was halfway through the last paragraph. Second question—why did you look at your phone? Did you get a notification? Did you have a plan of what you were going to use your phone for when you picked it up? Did a person get your attention, or did an app get your attention?

This line of questioning should help us start to reflect on how much communicating we do on these devices, especially when you get a message from someone on an app, they have taken an action to get your attention—there is another human on the other side of that notification. Akin to a tap on the shoulder from someone getting your attention, these promote the closer, more personal communication we need during these lonely times. However, I can almost guarantee that that innocent notification led to a quick check of Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, and all of a sudden you are back out in the wilderness—lost in all the content. Timesink doesn’t come close to describe the detriment a refreshed feed can have on our productivity, and yet this temptation is right next to the kind of communication we supposedly want these apps for.

It is no accident that no social media app opens onto your message inbox. The intimacy of social campfires is hard to monetise when an ad can be comparatively so well-integrated into your feed. The quantity of the content of my feed regularly trumps the quality of my DMs, and the app’s designers know it. So how can we circumvent these issues with social media without becoming isolated while we isolate?

How to use Social Campfires

When I decided I wanted to change my social media consumption, some fairly drastic options came to mind:

  • Deleting the app
  • Deleting your account
  • Using a dumb phone

While all of these fix the problem of getting sucked into a Twitter binge on the surface, they aren’t without some serious drawbacks:

  • Can be circumvented with a browser
  • You can’t use social media for its benefits: it’s hard to sit at a campfire you can’t find
  • Everyday tools like Uber, Google Maps, payment apps, music streaming and so on are made inaccessible

Benefitting from social media without falling victim to it is difficult. We need to be a part of these systems, especially when it is our primary form of communication, making cold turkey a hard sell. Luckily, there are some tools that can help us control social media, rather than vice-versa:

  • Download messaging apps — Instagram’s Threads and Facebook’s Messenger do not require the base app to be installed, allowing you to see whatever is sent to you directly.
  • Change your launcher — an option for Android users, there are a vast array of apps out there than changing your phone’s appearance and behaviour to help curb social media addiction, such as notification bundling and restricted app use. Siempo is my current go-to, but the brutally minimalist LessPhone can curb even the most habitual user.
  • Clean-up your notifications — if it doesn’t need to be addressed within an hour, turn it off. If it doesn’t come directly from a person, turn it off. Cull any notifications that aren’t directly useful to you or use scheduled do-not-disturb periods.
  • Get a not-so-dumb phone — KaiOS, an alternative to iOS and Android, is like your first phone but… better. Similar to feature phones, KaiOS devices come with WhatsApp, Google Maps, Google Assistant, and even a Facebook client. However, that is mostly where the social media ends, making these devices useful without being distracted. Plus, they can cost as low as £30—if you can resist the more nostalgic models.
No one can convince me this isn’t the coolest phone out right now. Via KaiOSTech.

This article is not trying to condemn social media, nor the use of it: in fact, I am going to plug my Instagram and Twitter right here (@olliegmonk for those adverse to links). No matter what I do, these sites are crucial to both my professional and personal life. I am not opposed to social media. However, like most people, I use them far more than I would like—and if you think you are too, give these tips a try!

You might just free up enough of the day to start your own campfire.


Ollie Monk is an aspiring photojournalist, and Leicester Student Magazine’s Science and Technology Editor. He is currently in his 2nd year of BSc Computer Science at University of Leicester.