Clayton Smith is an Associate Professor of Instruction in the Business and Entrepreneurship Department at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches courses in digital platform and social media strategy. His new project, Positively Digital, aims to refresh people’s notions of how to interact with their social media spaces. We caught up with Clayton and asked him a few questions about this exciting work!
What is the Positively Digital project?
The short answer is, it’s an attempt to make social media less toxic.
In essence, Positively Digital is a new thought-space that aims to reframe our relationships with digital platforms and give actionable suggestions for changing the way we use the internet in order to make social media and the entire online ecosystem a happier, healthier place. Positively Digital is published via Substack, which is basically a blog-newsletter hybrid. I’ll be writing most of the posts, but I’ll also be joined by other thought leaders in the digital and inter-relational space. The goal will always be to help people revolutionize their digital media experience for the better.
Why do you see a need for something like Positively Digital?
Platforms like Facebook are making the world objectively angrier, even by their own internal measurements, and that anger manifests itself in real ways in our real world with detrimental effect. At the same time, these digital platforms are intimately entwined with our daily lives. For most of us, even if we wanted to end our relationships with Facebook, TikTok,and Google, we simply couldn’t; these digital brands play such an enormous and integral part in our work and personal lives. That’s the frustrating truth about these platforms: we know they’re unhealthy, but we’re not always able to excise them from our day-to-day lives. With Positively Digital, I’m hoping to give people the tools they need to make their digital experiences healthier and more joyful.
How has your work at Columbia informed your ideas about Positively Digital?
I’ve been teaching digital and social media classes at Columbia for over a decade, and one of the trends I’ve seen in that time is that students are increasingly weary when it comes to their online lives. There’s a general societal expectation that they’re just naturally onboard with the digital space, and so we pile on more and more digital expectations. Not only are they expected to take classes online and to socialize online, but they’re pushed to take on the social media responsibilities at their internships and jobs, and to excel at them, just because they’re Gen Z. They’re expected to be digitally adaptable in ways the C-level managers couldn’t even fathom. We’ve given them fewer and fewer of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third places,” the places people spend time between their homes (their “first places”) and work/school (their “second places”). With processors speeding up and digital frontiers becoming more and more expansive, this trend isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. We’re pushing new generations online, and then we’re flabbergasted when they spend so much time on TikTok, so much time playing video games, so much time detached from the face-to-face in the day-to-day. But what our students are saying is, they don’t necessarily want to be that deep into the digital space. They’re being made to be, by all these external forces pushing them into it. And since our entanglement with digital doesn’t show any signs of letting up, the least we can do is shape that forced digital space so that it’s a pleasant virtual world to inhabit.
What do you see for the future of Positively Digital?
Honestly, I’d like to see Positively Digital make a positive impact in as many lives as possible. I’ve already received extraordinary feedback from subscribers who have shared ways in which they’ve altered their social media behavior based on the newsletter’s suggestions and how much happier they are because of it. I’d love to expand that sphere of connection and reach more people who might feel a sense of dread every time they log on to a platform.
I’d also really love for Positively Digital to become more collaborative! I’m on the lookout for other thought leaders of any age, any generation, any background–anyone with thoughtful and encouraging ideas on reframing social media and making the internet a better place. Anyone interested in exploring some possibilities can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And where can folks find Positively Digital?
They can find, read, and subscribe to the newsletter at positivelydigital.substack.com!