Extinguish the Flaming Social Media Trashpile!

Dec 31, 2021 | Op-Ed, Technical & How-To

The “Fire Tetrahedron” of Social Media

Most of us learned about the Fire Triangle back in grade school. To burn, a fire needs three things: fuel, a heat source, and oxygen. Take away one of those things, and you can extinguish the fire. But there is also something called the Fire Tetrahedron: Add a chemical chain reaction to the fire, once ignited, and it feeds itself. It becomes significantly harder to extinguish.

Social media runs on things commonly called “social proof” and “engagement.”

Social proof is a lot like a middle-school popularity contest.

Engagement requires slightly more than passive eye-rolling from observers. The trick is to get your “followers” to do something. Basic engagement could be as simple as clicking the thumbs-up icon on Facebook. “Yay, you,” thinks the user. “Whatever.” If you can get them to spend a little more effort – to change the thumbs-up to a heart emoji, for example – you actually got something like a “reaction” out of them. But the holy grail of engagement – getting a thing to “go viral” or “spread like wildfire” online – requires the equivalent of fuel, a heat source, and oxygen. Add in a chain reaction – getting others to share and build on it – and “the algorithm” (a mythical, poorly-understood, often reverentially referenced or cursed) will “reward” you with its attentions.

Will it reward you with sales? Will it reward you with paying jobs as an internet “influencer”?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the ROI is on this largely thoughtless, mechanical attention. Some businesses see it as a matter of economic life or death, while others wisely ignore the whole thing. I think it depends on how much customers need, or more importantly, want, to interact with their favorite brands online and how good the social media teams behind those brands are at making their customers feel special.

That said, when individuals get caught up in playing “Burn, Baby, Burn!” on social media, it can come across as desperately pathetic. My theory is that it is killing genuine conversation and relationships online, spoiling everyone’s fun, and will eventually lead to burn-out and the (possibly overdue) death of social media altogether. Unfortunately, it will drag things like “community” with it, because by the time it’s all said and done, we’ll be so tired of each other we’ll wish we were hermits.


Advertisers have long known that there are three things that reliably sell product: sex, fear, and death. You don’t need all three, but a combination of any of these three elements is best. Thus, “fear of sex” is good; “fear of dying in the middle of sex” is even better. Buy condoms and life insurance.

The fuel for engagement is a good story, a controversial opinion, a funny meme, or a cute cat. Throw in fear, sex, or death, and you’ve got a winning formula, for sure! “Fear of dying without ever getting laid” is another good one, and it’s not an unreasonable fear for those obsessed with promoting their “personal brand” and “going viral” on social media. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your “personal brand” or “going viral” with a good post, but when it requires the equivalent of an over-smoothing filter and animated sparklies on your entire life – when you start talking about “curating” your Instagram or “optimizing” your LinkedIn profile, consider the possibility that, as a living, breathing, flawed and ordinary human, you may be taking the whole thing too far.

Speaking of taking the whole thing too far, if your goal is to appear trustworthy and employable, don’t steal others’ good stories from somewhere else on the internet, then try to pass them off on LinkedIn as your own.

Heat Source

To get a “Like” requires very little effort beyond your followers’ desire to make sure you feel “seen” and validated. I could click “Like” all day, just to make you feel good about yourself. This is where a little pot-stirring can come in handy. In today’s powder-keg of social media, you probably don’t want to ask “Why isn’t cannibalism a good idea for population control?” Asking whether it’s okay to put pineapples or anchovies on pizza is about the right amount of heat. If you want to stand out from the crowd, don’t be an ordinary troll.


In all seriousness, the unethical social media “influencers” and wannabe “influencers” out there rival the number of zombies it would take to equal an “apocalypse.” Avoid giving them oxygen – also known as “attention.” It’s harder than you think. For years, we’ve been told “don’t feed the trolls.” We are still feeding the trolls. But next time you’re really tempted to share something from someone you don’t know, personally, stop and think, “Do I really want to do this? What are they gaining from it? Do I want to give them that?”

I’m not going to share the original links that prompted me to write the following posts on LinkedIn, but with very little effort, you could find them. And there are countless more examples – these are but two drops in a sea of superficiality and nonsense.

Nobody wants to end up as a bad example posted to Reddit’s r/LinkedInLunatics. And if someone asks you if you used ShlinkedIn, maybe you should scrub all your social media and rethink your life.

Chain Reaction

You are the chemical chain reaction. Each time you share, you fuel the fire and fan the flames. Before you do that, here are a few things to think about:

  • Does the headline match the content or is it just “click bait” that will set a reader up for disappointment?
  • If the thing you’re sharing is a news article, is it grounded in fact? Is it written by an ethical journalist or published by a reputable, reasonably-unbiased media outlet? Are sources cited, so that you can verify for yourself that the original information says what the article claims it says? Have you ever done that – checked the original sources to see if they say what it’s claimed they say?

    In 2008, a friend forwarded the email (shown on a blue background, dated Jan 6, 2008, though there were earlier versions of it as well) to me and asked me if it could be true. The original email contained a live link to snopes.com – where snopes is mentioned. Click the blue text – sure enough, there’s an article on snopes debunking the email itself. It was at this point I started paying closer attention to politics and political parties, and realized just how much seething hostility and lies lurked under the surface. None of this serves us, the people of this nation – or the world. None of it.

  • If what you’re sharing is an opinion piece, is it clearly presented as such, and is the bias clearly understood by all? Do you agree with the content of the opinion piece you’re sharing, or do you just think it’s a funny, catchy headline that sums up a thought you had – until you thought more deeply on the subject? Read A Pillow Full of Feathers before sharing.

Good things to share include:

  • A story about yourself, that’s true. Be sure to include details and avoid all temptation to exaggerate the heroic bits, unless someone else is the hero and you are thanking them.
  • A story about someone you know personally, provided you were involved in the action or have their permission to tell the story where you intend to share it.
  • Artwork posted by an artist-friend, which they shared online and which has sharing buttons you can use – to promote them and their art. (In other words, share – don’t download, then upload a copy of their art to your post!)
  • Stories, poems, and blog posts written by your friends, which they shared online and which have sharing buttons you can use – to promote them and their writing. (In other words, share – don’t copy and paste their words into a new post of your own.)
  • Links to books friends have had published, so that people can find out more and buy them.
  • A funny meme found on a site full of funny memes, or a photo found on a free stock photo site – shared in accordance with their Terms of Service.
  • A thought-provoking question and discussion of a topic that interests you.
  • A poll you made.
  • A compliment or expression of thanks to someone.
  • A funny cat video (again, of your own cat – or use the proper sharing buttons!)

This is just the tip of the iceberg of social media awfulness and how to avoid igniting the trashpile and feeding the flames. Let’s all resolve to do better in 2022, lest we contribute to the downfall of civilization.

Any more tips you’d like to share? Please, add them in the comments!

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Mitchell Allen

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, yet I have no tips. I wish I could assert that I am a responsible chemical reagent. LOL

    The only point upon which I disagree is the extent to which “Burn, baby, burn!” is harmful to discourse on targeted platforms. Acceding to the rules of an abusive platform for the sole purpose of having the ability to keep in touch with people is a bit Machiavellian. Why must Facebook “rule” over those of us with no agenda other than to share vacation pictures with Aunt Betsy?

    To make my point, consider how nearly impossible it is to delete your Facebook account.

    Anyway, Happy New Year and keep telling it like it is.


    Mitchell Allen recently posted…Bombs Away!My Profile

  2. Holly Jahangiri

    Thanks, Mitch!

    The folks who ONLY use Facebook to share photos and keep in touch with the fam aren’t the problem, are they? My “Burn, baby, burn!” comment refers to the ones who have become convinced they have to be popular – like in middle school. There are just so many people selling the idea (along with courses and blog posts and apps, oh my!) that people don’t stop to think “what is this hamster wheel going to get me, really?”

    There’s just no real ROI to it, for most of us. I don’t know many authors who are selling lots of books or recouping advertising costs on Facebook, and I recently reviewed and commented on a silicone and filter mask I bought after seeing it on Facebook – told the company they almost LOST me as a customer because everything I’ve bought from a Facebook or Instagram ad was a scam. Know what they said? “You have no idea how hard we have to fight that perception every day.” I told them I was pretty sure I did, and that’s why I felt compelled to help.

    It’s really a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” People now feel they HAVE to play the game, and it’s even making great Aunt Bertha antsy.
    Holly Jahangiri recently posted…Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive VoiceMy Profile


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