I recently made the decision to get off all social media. I made a quiet announcement without much explanation on Facebook, hoping to get the contact info of those who’d like to stay in touch. In the process, I got so many questions about why I’m getting off that I decided to write them down and share them on my website. I hope this will be helpful to you in some way.
I remember the first time I joined a social media platform: it was 2008. I was watching a television special to fight cancer, and the organizers offered special content on Facebook only. I decided to join.
I remember the first time I thought Wow, social media is really catching on, when I heard a television news segment interviewing some otherwise unknown guy because he’d gotten over a thousand (or maybe it was 10,000 or 50,000) new followers on Twitter in one evening.
I remember the early days of using Facebook when we were all outraged because our photos were showing up in our friends ads, or because, a little later, we’d search for something on Amazon and then see an ad on Facebook or because we’d have an in-person conversation in our house then see related ads on Facebook because the Messenger app was listening to us.
Over the years, I’ve become more and more frustrated and confused by social media. Like you, I’ve felt that Twitter and Facebook contain a lot of negativity and anger. The algorithms that show me content that the platforms think I want to see is bothersome at best and probably should worry me even more than it does. I’ve been disgusted at the way Facebook has been careless with privacy and data, and then I’ve been disgusted at myself as I just keep feeding the machine with my personal information, stories, photos, and preferences.
I’ve also grown tired of constantly being sold to with ads and boosted posts and friends whose books and artwork and products I’m really proud of, but when you add it all up, it makes you feel like more of a consumer than a person. But then, as a writer, I hear regularly that my success is contingent upon my use of social media. I need more followers, more friends, more engagement, more likes, more comments, more views, more live videos, and ultimately, it’s also about more selling. I’m selling something too!
None of this is new, of course, and for years, I’ve remained on social media because the positives out-weighed the negatives. I stayed in touch with people. I was in the know. I shone my light in dark places. I redeemed social media with my presence. But what was social media doing to me?
In the last few years, several studies have been conducted to determine the effects of frequent social media use, particularly on smartphones, and our overall use of technology and screen use in general. More and more, researchers are attributing distraction, decreased attention, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and even sluggish frontal lobe activity to our use of technology. But honestly, I don’t need the studies to tell me what I’ve experienced in my own life. After a few minutes on Facebook, I’m agitated, discouraged, sometimes jealous, often feeling inadequate. My brain begins to speed up, move from topic to topic. I began frantic searches, scrolling faster, pulse rising. When I post an update or a photo, something similar happens. I return to the app again and again, looking for feedback, wondering why Friend A or Family Member B hasn’t responded. And this frenzy that’s been stirred up by social media carries over into my conversations, my work day, my family life, and more. As a writer, sustained sessions of reading and writing are critical to my success. As I see it, my decreasing ability to focus is a much greater risk to my career than waning social media followers.
Also, I value quiet reflection, slow responses, in depth conversations … all things social media is designed against. In fact, social media is not a neutral platform. Using game theory and neuroscience, social media engineers have designed these platforms specifically to keep people moving quickly from post to post while remaining on the apps themselves as long as possible. Add to that the baked-in business model of ads and boosted posts (which make it difficult to detect what’s organic and what’s paid), it behooves apps like Facebook and Twitter to keep me scrolling and scrolling and scrolling for as many hours each day as possible so that they can charge advertisers more for each impression, each image of an ad that whisks by me as I scan through the content.
The way I relate to others and act like a friend also has changed. I used to reach out to people more, follow up on events I knew were going on, ask to see photos from vacations and weddings. Often, a person would come to mind, and I’d call or send a card just to check in. Once most of my friends turned to social media, I started relying on my social feeds to give me the information I needed. Now, instead of checking in on someone, I’d check their latest updates. Or I wouldn’t even think of them at all because any number of my other 1,500 Facebook friends, or one of the 852 people I follow on Instagram, many I don’t even know, would come flashing before me, garnering all the concern and interest I might normally have passed on to those closest to me. Or worse, I might have stumbled on some Facebook kerfuffle about politics or social issues and left with no energy to reach out to anyone at all.
All these issues and more created a strong need for me to begin regulating how and how much I used social media. I started by removing apps from my phone and using them only from my laptop. I’d try checking social media only at certain times of the day or remaining on only for a set amount of time. I’d schedule posts, using third party apps so I never had to log on directly. Or I’d download other apps that would block me from certain sites and set limits for my use.
After about a year of that nonsense, I started to really think about social media, why I’m on it, how it feels more and more like a negative but had become too big to fail for me personally and professionally. I felt like I was being held hostage by these apps who needed my content (and others) to survive but were offering me less and less in return. In fact, the tables had almost turned. It wasn’t just about how I was using social media but how it was using me.
Social media, with its data collection and algorithms, gives us a front row seat into how technology is changing. As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more and more ubiquitous, machines need access to human activity to monitor in order to learn efficiencies and become useful in business, security, financial, medical, and other environments. While many unbelievable advances are coming our way, so is the need for more and more consideration about our use of and engagement with technology. (I promise I’m not trying to sound a doomsday alarm here–but you try watching a few seasons of Person of Interest and not get a little creeped out by AI.)
Here’s the bottom line, and the point of all this rambling about social media: the effort I’ve taken to protect myself from the negative effects of social media now outweigh the benefits of it, both personally and professionally. For this reason, I’m extricating myself from all platforms that are primarily social media. I’m not trying to be anti-social. I’m not trying to be anti-technology. I understand that there are many apps and platforms that have social elements to them, which I’ll likely continue using. I know this means I could be denied professional opportunities. I know it will make it harder to keep in touch with people, including professional groups I belong to. But if I know all of these things and am still doing it, I hope that tells you that I made this big decision only after a lot of thought.
In general, social media (not all users but social media as its designed) thrives on qualities I think are most contrary to living a deep, spiritual life in relationship with God and others. I want to be attentive to the Spirit and others; social media wants me to be attentive to it. I believe being bored and unoccupied leads to epiphany, meditation, even creativity; social media wants to keep me constantly preoccupied. I think comparison, excessive sharing about oneself, and studying the details of others lives leads to envy and dissatisfaction; social media encourages people to share and look more and more and more. I want to be reflective and contemplative in my approach to social issues, spiritual matters, difficult subjects, and suffering; social media pushes me toward quick responses and knee-jerk reactions. I think sometimes the quiet, unpopular, or even unnoticed thoughts and advice provide the greatest wisdom; social media shows me only what the crowd thinks is good. I like sustained dialogue and not settling for easy answers; social media pushes me to surface-level treatment of life’s greatest issues. And I want to be a good listener, to offer care and compassion to others, to be led by the Spirit to reach out and pray; social media presents posts to me based on who’s most popular, who paid for ads, or who are saying what the app thinks I want to hear. I can’t attend to so many concerns at once, and also attend to my family, my community, and my God; social media wants me to have as many friends and followers as possible, then to like, comment, and move on.
I’m not trying to start a revolution, other than a quiet one to take back the space in my soul I used to make available to the things I value most. If you’re on social media, I hope you’ll use it well. If you’re not, I’d love to hear why. And either way, I hope we can stay in touch.
UPDATE: In case you’re reading this post in 2020 or later, you may notice that I am not back on Instagram. Here is a post explaining that partial reentry into the world of social media: Thinking Again: Yes, That’s Me on Instagram Again. You may also be interested in another post I wrote about my relationship to digital technology from 2019 called Elephant Culture, Giving Up Social Media, and What’s over the Horizon. This is an ongoing topic of thought for me, so watch for future posts as well.