Recently I closed all my personal social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I still have LinkedIn and a soulless Facebook account for work purposes.
I’ve done this a few times before, meaning whatever lessons I am supposed to learn from the process I am not learning.
So I thought I’d use this post to try to make sense of why I have such a conflicted attitude towards social media. Hopefully these reflections might help others clarify their position towards social media.
It wastes time
I’ve got better over the years at using social media in a productive way. For example, my most recent Twitter account was essentially a collection of links to articles and resources that were related to my work. Previous accounts were a jumble of unrelated and unremarkable observations about life (possibly what this blog could become :))
However, it was still a massive time sink. I’d spend much more time finding interesting links and tweeting them, which masqueraded as work but didn’t do anything to help me get done what I needed to get done.
Tasks that masquerade as work, but without the genuine effort are incredibly tempting. They are far less emotionally and mentally draining than actual work, but without the shame of procrastinating with non-work activities. Hence I found that with my Twitter account that my ‘fake work’ was increasing while my real work was decreasing.
I think that same feeling of ‘busyness’ accompanies trying to manage the ridiculous number of emails we get every day. Spend a whole day responding to and organising emails and you think you’ve actually achieved something. However I doubt that many of us, on our death bed, will report the number of emails we processed as our greatest contribution to the world.
Not only did social media steal work time, it stole personal time. Every single one of my valued activities outside of work had become contaminated by the presence of my mobile phone and my connection to social media: gardening, music, family/friends. And I think I was a relatively light user of social media.
Having practised meditation for the past 6 months, I’m slowly coming to appreciate that our attention is one of our most valuable assets. What you pay attention to, becomes your reality. I don’t want my reality to become social media.
I had a confused identity online
I don’t know who I am supposed to be on social media. Now granted that might represent a bigger issue of self-understanding/identity, but the self-confusion seems amplified on social media.
In my personal life, I have a reasonable grasp on who I am, my strengths and weaknesses, my failures and victories. But on social media I didn’t know what combination of those to put forward. Dial up too much of the professional and you get an account that is kinda cold and lifeless and academic. Dial up too much of the personal and I start to feel vulnerable and exposed in the public eye.
This is exacerbated by the constraints of the formats. Social media demands brevity, but frankly, I’m not interested (or capable) of making my intellectual and emotional journey in such small steps. This blog affords me the freedom to write at length, which may drastically reduce readership, but dramatically increases its value to me.
Furthermore the different platforms required different versions of me. Twitter was about my work. Instagram was about my garden. Facebook was an unholy combination of all the other bits. Rather than finding this diversity of outputs reassuring, I found it mentally draining.
So I didn’t fully connect with the profiles I saw taking shape on my social media accounts. They were gross simplifications of who I am and that didn’t feel right.
It steals the uncomfortable energy I need to write
When you sit down to do a challenging piece of work, it is normal to have a number of uncomfortable feelings arise. In my day job I talk to university students about this as a trigger for procrastination.
For me, when I sit down to write, thoughts of inadequacy dominate my thinking. “You don’t know enough’, ‘Your ideas are shit’, ‘No-one cares’.
Social media is a antidote to those feelings. You can feel like you are working but in a setting where mastery is simply being able to share a link. It takes all that uncomfortable energy and channels it into a simpler task. You aren’t required to have a nuanced view of anything. You can just broadcast gross generalisations, yet feel like you’ve contributed something to the public debate.
The problem is I need that uncomfortable energy to write well. I need those thoughts of inadequacy to drive me to learn more, to clarify my ideas, and to create something that someone might one day care about. I need the long-form to help me try to develop solutions to complex problems.
So social media was stealing energy I need to get done the most important things to me. I was happy to let it though, because it meant a day of lower discomfort. In the days since giving it up, I’ve been considerably more anxious and stressed [Interestingly, time away from social media isn’t associated with better wellbeing, so feeling better is not something I expect]. With time however, I hope to reacquaint myself with those uncomfortable thoughts and harness them for my work.
Likes and shares are a shitty drug
When I started on Twitter and Instagram I made a conscious promise to myself to not use likes or shares or comments to gauge the value of my content.
Of course, that was predicated on the idea that I am somehow immune to the well researched psychological mechanisms that drive engagement and use of these platforms.
I am not.
Just like anyone else, I soon found myself checking regularly to see if my pithy insights had gained any traction. If they had, I got a mini mood boost. If they didn’t I got a mini mood dive. This is a dangerous game to play with my emotions and dopamine system. I may as well have taken up drugs.
Deleting my accounts and honing my focus on this blog, puts me back in touch with my actual goal – to think about and write something of value on the topics of mental fitness and self-improvement. That won’t be achieved in under 280 characters at a time. That will be achieved with a lot of thinking, a lot of writing, and a lot of time alone with those thoughts and words.
All my social media feeds were full of advertisements. As someone who’d like to own less, not more, this is value inconsistent.
And yes, you could say that I just needed to ignore those ads or dismiss them. But they are relentless. The companies behind the platforms need those ads to support the free nature of the platforms. I’m not their customer. The companies paying for ads are their customer.
What I have to say doesn’t need to be said on social media
I’m trying to work out how people build rewarding and satisfying lives.
It is not an easy question. The answer(s) won’t come from my participation in social media. They’ll come from reading high quality thoughtful literature, extracting common drivers of productivity and wellbeing, writing about those drivers and organising them into products that other people can use (e.g. books, articles).
At the point at which I have a product to distribute or sell or promote, then yes, maybe social media will make more sense.
Whilst I build those products however, social media is merely a distraction.
Will I regret the decision to leave?
At some point, yes.
At some point, the time alone with my thoughts and words will become overwhelming and the need to feel part of a bigger picture will return.
Social media lets you feel like you are part of something bigger. But I am not sure that it isn’t mostly smoke and mirrors.
I can have lunch with just one friend and feel part of the bigger picture, feel connected, feel like I am not alone. I don’t need the 100+ friends and their greatest hits to get that feeling.
Social media capitalises on a need we all have to belong.
But guess what?
We were all quite capable of having that need met prior to social media. You can continue to get that need met if you leave social media.
So yes, I will probably regret the decision to leave, but I hope at the point at which that manifests that I am cluey enough to realise that what I seek is connection, and I don’t have to accept the negative side effects of social media to get that need met.
Aren’t you a complete hypocrite discussing social media on your blog?
Yes. In some ways at least.
I certainly hope that someday, someone will read this blog or access my book chapters and find them useful. That is only possible if I put my thoughts out in the public domain.
So then, how is that different from social media?
First, I don’t check this website everyday. I only come here to write and post content.
Second, I come here to write long-form and play with ideas, rather than trying to craft something catchy or unique that I hope gets liked and shared.
Third, I don’t visit my website to learn about what other people are doing. If I want to know that, I’ll contact those people directly, rather than watching a feed of their life from a distance.
On social media, I am trying to fit in. On here, I am just trying to be the best and most authentic version of myself I can – whoever that might be.
Is this one final attempt to gain attention that you didn’t successfully achieve on social media?
If you can’t be special on social media, be special by not being on social media.
If you can successfully read and interpret that sentence, you are a better person than I.
If you’d like to read the work of someone else who shuns social media but who has mastered it to the point of being incredibly productive visit https://www.calnewport.com/