I don’t think social media is good for me.
I know the “I’m leaving social media” post (typically as left on one’s social media account) is a pretty dull affair. But this is my blog. You actively clicked your way here, and if you want to you can click your way away without reading what follows. No worries, either way. I also totally get it that my continuing to post links to blog entries on my twitter account could be seen as contradictory or hypocritical, but if you don’t see a difference between posting links to long-form pieces on a digital billboard, and how most of the world uses twitter, then we’ll be at a bit of a loggerhead.
At some point, you realize things are a problem for you. Modern social media is a problem for me. I’ve been poking around the edges of this issue for a while now, but I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’m going to stop participating. It’s not good for me.
I’m very aware that “social media” is a broad thing, and could be defined as “any participatory network of people that expresses itself in any common medium.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a very specific and currently very dominant version of the concept: The digital social media networks that rely on what Jaron Lanier calls BUMMER-technology. What are those platforms for me? Twitter and Facebook/Instagram (two sides of the same company, even though my students generally think that Facebook is for olds, and Instagram is somehow different /more suitable for them). I’m also going to keep myself off of reddit, which isn’t really a BUMMER machine in the same way but still encourages me toward usage patterns that are time-suck, dopamine-reward pathways that don't do anything constructive.
I don’t think Lanier’s book on the topic is what really moved me to finally pull the plug. I read it nine months ago, and it didn’t cause me to run right home and deactivate my facebook account. I thought it was well written and very clearly thought-out, but that doesn’t really separate it from anything else that I have read by Lanier. And besides, with an imminent move halfway around the world, it seemed…hostile to friends and family to turn off the main spout that they used to check out what was happening at that specific moment in my life. In retrospect, that was entirely my own elevated sense of importance at work. Which is, of course, something that social media is very good at inflating. I’m not so important that my thoughts on anything really need to be broadcast as widely as I can muster with minimum effort.
If it was just making me feel connected and special, I wouldn’t be shutting these things down. Connected and special are nice things to feel, and the ease with which social media lets me feel them is the thing that I’ll miss the most about my usage. But I can keep the people who really matter to me informed about my life without needing to participate in systems that have negative impacts on me. And there are a large and increasing number of negative impacts from my use of social media.
Here’s an easy one: I don’t believe that the current president of the United States would be the president were it not for facebook and twitter. Maybe you feel differently (spoiler alert- I don’t really care), but to me, the current US regime is the most pressing geopolitical, ecological, and moral crisis of my life so far. It is a criminal enterprise unparalleled in the history of the US presidency, doing irreparable damage to the planetary system every day that it is allowed to continue. And as much as anything else, social media allowed it to happen. More than allowing it, BUMMER-networks may have been actively complicit in the election. By allowing bots and other information-warfare accounts to continue to flourish (and allowing the president to continue to use his preferred BUMMER platform of choice to attack the free press, private citizens, and global alliances), it has certainly been complicit ever since. Things have not gotten better since 2016. They seem plainly worse. I no longer feel like my participation in BUMMER networks can be accomplished while absolving me of personal responsibility for the same.
If it was just about the fact that Trump is a terrible human being doing irreparable harm to the world, I’d probably still be on the platforms. He's an easy first example to point to, but he's not that significant. The issues that I have with these platforms are much broader. I don’t think BUMMER-technology is beneficial for society writ large. It’s hard for me to write this, given that I have a long history of an outright mockery of anyone who has ever sounded similarly alarmist about a novel technology. But something is different for me here, in this technology. I don’t know what it is in any holistic way, but I can point to aspects of it when it shows up: When it’s shown that Facebook is being used to further genocide, or when the company is shown to be actively lobbying to make it harder for people to protect their own data. When Jack Dorsey continues to navel-gaze while twitter is used to debase discourse on virtually every topic of any significance or substance. When reddit gets partially bought by an abnormally opaque foreign media conglomerate that I really don't know anything about. It’s in the fact that each of these products has been deliberately designed to make it as hard as possible for users to know what data they are giving over, or how to leave if they really want to. It’s in profound concerns about how these platforms will interact with the tide of deep fakes that will soon be coming our way. All of these things and many more make me profoundly concerned about continuing to use these platforms in the way that the people who own them want me to.
But it’s not just about externalities. Internally, I no longer believe that my use of social media is good for my health. Here are things that I have noticed myself repeatedly doing:
- Checking social media feeds while ostensibly engaged in some other cognitive task: Working, consuming creative media, or (worst of all) when engaged in conversation and time together with other people (including my wife and children).
- Being unkind, and uncharitable when dealing with other human beings on social media.
- Wanting to purchase/consume stuff that is advertised to me through social media networks that I would not want to purchase/consume otherwise.
- Reflexively checking social media feeds first thing in the morning, and last thing at night, habitually bypassing hit screen time limits that I have set for social media on my devices.
- Spending large, unaccounted-for, tracts of time browsing social media feeds.
None of the above are part of what I consider to be “good” digital health. Looking at that list, it reads a lot more like an addiction than I’m comfortable with. At the very least, they are deeply ingrained habits, to the point that since I deactivated Facebook, and removed/blocked all of the sites identified above last week, I have occasionally had the unconscious urge to recheck them, only stopping once I realize they are gone. And while it's an ugly list, I’d also guess that most people reading this can identify similarities with their own usage patterns. If you feel differently, I’m freely admit that my feelings here are no better than yours, but they are mine. So, I’ve chosen to act on them.
And while we’re on the subject, let me explicitly suggest that I am not suggesting that you are wrong for feeling differently from me if you do. I don’t particularly care what you do with your own time, and your own attention. And I don’t think that your choice to continue to connect that time and attention to BUMMER networks is a bad one. Your time is your own, spend it however you wish. I have no complaint with “wasting” time, per se. I spend lots of time consuming media, playing video games, and doing many other things that can be logically argued are time “wasted.” I’m a fan of wasting time, I’m just personally choosing to do it in other ways, and in other spaces. And of course, there are clear positives for people that come from the use of social networks, chief among them connection to other people. Connection is an incredibly important part of my life, and it’s not something I’m about to stop doing. Even online, there are still plenty of places where I interact with other people every day. If the social media networks I’m talking about here are that for you, that’s awesome.
They were that for me, too, for a very long time. But they aren’t anymore. Maybe they will be again someday, but I'm not holding my breath.