I am a child of the Internet: I first started using my dad’s Apple IIe when I was about 6, and two years later I was firing up ye olde 2600 baud modem on my mom’s new Packard Bell 386 to try out Prodigy for DOS. It was 1988, before the WWW was even invented, so my Internet usage was initially limited to the aforementioned Prodigy service, BBSes, and other janky services like AOL and Compuserve. I’ve been an online creature ever since. This bout of mild nostalgia is meant to provide some context so you know I’m not a complete Luddite. My beef with social media is more a matter of preserving my mental health than a problem with technology in general.
But I do have kind of a beef with social media, at least when it comes to its effect on my mindstate and productivity. I became heavily engaged in social media in late 2009-early 2010 while my marriage was kind of crumbling. My nascent blogging career was just beginning, and everything I read about being a writer online said building a brand was crucial to success. Did I mention I had also just been laid off? Oh yeah, I just lost my job, so I had a ton of free time. Excessive amounts of free time combined with what amounted to a directive to use social media led to to my being on Twitter and Facebook like, all the time. Was I using them effectively? No, not at all, bruh. But I told myself I was Promoting My Brand and launching a career as a freelance writer. The problem was, I ended up spending my time using social media way more than I spent it actually writing anything, which is, of course, absolutely essential to actually having a career as a writer. At the time, I was going through a lot of deep emotions, so I just kind of ultimately didn’t give a fuck. Being a freelance writer wasn’t as fun and distracting as being a freelance social media user, and although the latter paid exactly $0, the former wasn’t a guaranteed paycheck either (especially when you’re not writing/pitching regularly). So I was really whatever about the productivity hit I took from using social media. My writing career was more of an ill-conceived-and-executed pipe dream at the time anyway (which is another post in and of itself).
I ended up getting a regular job after a couple years of being on unemployment and unsuccessfully trying to support myself via writing. Having less free time definitely curtailed my social media use, but I was still on Twitter every night when I got home. And yeah, I was sometimes a bit extra salty after a night spent frequently checking my feeds, but I didn’t think anything of it. After all, I met my current boo in these tweets, so Twitter can’t be all bad. Later, though, when I started to come off my psych meds and closely monitoring my mindstate became a matter of survival, I began to consider that social media could be affecting my mood significantly.
While I was in the throes of withdrawal, I noticed that when my usage of social media was the heaviest, my mood took a similarly heavy nosedive. Without knowing the exact reasons behind its effect on me, I decided to basically abstain from social media for an extended period of time. My absence allowed me the space to consider why I was on social media in the first place, and whether or not it was really crucial for me to participate in the online milieu on a regular basis. It also spurred me to look at the deeper reasons why social media had such a negative impact on my mood.
DISCLAIMER: These are my reasons for limiting my social media engagement, and are not intended to be a large-scale indictment of social media as a technological tool. I’m not trying to shade any particular platform (except Facebook, which is a total trash fire to me) or its users. I just gotta be honest about my own weaknesses and how social media preys on them. So, here we go.
1. Social media quickly devolves into social comparison for me.
Because social media promotes a kind of interaction that’s based on superficialities, it’s easier for me to see people as abstract entities rather than multifaceted individuals that have good days and bad days. Everyone seems perfect because we’re interacting virtually, so I don’t get to experience the mutual awkwardness that occurs during in-person interactions. I don’t see any humanizing flaws that can reassure me that I’m speaking with an average human being and not some kind of god of self-confidence. I also tend to be easily fooled by curation, and what’s available of people online tends to be either really amazing or really horrible. These extremes kind of encourage my tendency to black-and-white thinking, which is a depression/anxiety trigger. Although I can tell myself that @insertrandomhere doesn’t necessarily have a better life than I do, and that they might not even be truly happy, it’s astonishingly easy for me to fall into the pit of comparing myself to other people. Since I live with myself every minute of every day, I can’t measure up. I’ve seen/experienced myself at all my worst moments, but I probably haven’t seen these people at even 1/256th their worst.
And I’m not innocent of the desire to curate. I know I feel uncomfortable being vulnerable on social media, which leads to my own curation efforts. I would rather not lock all my content, but I am very much conscious of the “public square” aspect of social media and the fact that the Internet is forever.
2. Social media becomes a huge time suck for me when I get too involved in it.
Like I said, social media basically offers the ability to be the best version of yourself at all times, and interact with others from that basis. That makes it super tempting for me to ignore my “real life” in favor of an online life. It’s not that I’m compelled to spend ALL my time online, but when I should be doing things like homework or chores or writing or pretty much anything that’s constructive but requires a bit of effort, social media is a distraction. I don’t have a lot of energy after I’m done with school, homework, and whatever housework I have to do. Any energy I do have would optimally be put towards doing something that actually improves my life. I can’t afford to expend too much of it on something that could potentially lead to a bout of depression or anxiety that then shrinks the pool of energy available for the task of living.
I also easily fall into the outrage cycle online, which saps my energy further. There’s a whole lot of injustice out there, and you will find almost all of it on social media. For some people, this is energizing and inspiring and they do a lot with social media activism. For me, it’s just draining in large doses. I tend to become obsessed with following developments in every horrible event that occurs, so I have to engage with social media in a somewhat removed way in order to maintain my sanity–especially during periods where Black death is being shared incessantly or some political fuckshit is going down. I know the injustice is still there when I put down the phone, but becoming overloaded and depressed isn’t helping me combat it at all.
3. Social media brings out the worst in me.
Because social media adds a layer of abstraction over interpersonal interactions, it tends to bring out the best and the worst in people. Strangers on social media care about other strangers and even help them financially and emotionally during a hard time. The organizing that folks do on various platforms is impressive, and so much of the current agitation around police violence was greatly assisted by connections made on social media. This is the best of humanity, for sure. But for me, social media is more likely to bring out the worst. I hear the siren song of allowing one’s vanity and hypocrisy to run free and it sounds like sweet relief, because I work daily on quarantining those qualities in my own personality. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, both vanity and hypocrisy blossom and are rewarded on social media, and I don’t particularly want to make myself feel like that’s ever okay.
There’s also this mob justice mentality for some on social media that is unappealing to me. Right now I have a pretty low follower count on my platforms of choice (Twitter & Instagram), so that limits the liability associated with engagement. Still, there are always those who just have to try to find something wrong with any tweet that gets some RTs. Although I prefer it to Facebook, the brevity of Twitter unfortunately leads to a lot of people making statements that initially lack nuance but are later clarified after the first tweet gets RTed a million times and their mentions are in shambles. Facebook, of course, with its lack of character limit, is just rife with long-form unchecked ignorance. I guess I picked my poison, and I chose lack of nuance over manifestos of ignorance.
My solution to all this is to engage in a limited way with social media. I don’t use the platforms that I hate–although I have been informed that when I get to UCLA in the fall I’m going to have to start using Facebook because that’s where everyone posts pertinent info, which sucks. But yeah, I don’t use Facebook; I mainly just stick to Twitter, Instagram, and the occasional journey down a Pinterest hole. During school, I rarely check my feeds because I’m so busy, but on breaks I tend to spend more time engaging. I don’t care too much about follower count; although having more followers means more interaction and more people to amplify your work (which may or may not be a good thing), it comes with a set of tradeoffs that I understand can really complicate and degrade your experience, and I’m not sure I’m ready for all that. There’s a lot I love about social media, but for me, it’s kind of like smoking weed: I can’t just do it all day if I hope to get anything productive done. For some folks, using social media is productive in and of itself, but I ain’t reached that level yet. Here’s hoping one day I do.