When I joined Facebook in about 2007, I didn’t really see any point in it. I joined only because an ex-girlfriend wanted me to sign up. I hardly used it for the first year or so. I accepted friend requests, but I posted almost nothing. Social media basically didn’t exist in my world.
By about 2009, I was using it more heavily. I’d connected with people of similar political views and I posted a lot about politics. Then I slowly posted more about my own life. By the next year, I had launched this website and that’s when the friend requests really started coming.
I soon hit 5,000 friends — which is Facebook’s limit — and my page was an active cauldron of discussion and argument. For awhile, it was exhilarating, because I was “popular” in my political circle and people were looking at my page as an entertaining place to come.
At some point, all the activity and the contact left me feeling more isolated, though, not more connected.
I started feeling that something was wrong. I had trouble putting my finger on it, but I started feeling more like an addict than someone who was enjoying something. I started feeling as though the platform was using me.
The shallow interaction with others left me feeling more isolated. It made me feel more alone. Somehow, it made me feel more misunderstood than ever.
Over a period of several years, I made two huge changes. I backed far, far away from politics, at least compared with my previous level of involvement. I moved away from discussing so much about news and politics, because they seemed pointless and depressing.
The other change I made was to start slashing my list of Facebook friends. It’s hard to do that without alienating too many people, but I felt as though I had to get rid of some angry and ignorant voices. I blocked a lot of people. I simply deleted many more. I went from 5,000 “friends” all the way down to just a bit more than 700 today. (My goal was to get down to 500, so I’m still not there.)
I can’t get past the feeling that Facebook and other social media are destructive to us. I have strongly come to the suspicion that social media are making us less social, not more. I suspect that our shallow interaction is taking the place of in-depth real-life interaction. And for many people, that’s welcome — because their lives don’t bear close examination, so it’s easier to hide behind false social media facades.
I can recognize good things in social media. There are some people who I care about who I’d have never met without Facebook. I’ve become friends with people — even meeting a few of them in the flesh — who were friends of friends, but who I’d have never met otherwise.
Facebook gave me a promotional platform for my website when I started, so I don’t know that I would have ever found my original political audience without social media.
Probably most importantly, Facebook allowed me to reconnect with someone I’d known in the past. It allowed me to first watch her from a distance and remember why I’d been attracted to her in the past, but it eventually helped facilitate falling in love with her. That was one of the most important things in my life — and it would have never happened without social media.
So I recognize there’s a lot of good in social media — mostly Facebook and Instagram for me — but I’m increasingly questioning whether the tradeoffs are worth it going forward.
I’m a writer and (more broadly) a communicator, but I’ve realized that what I want from media is the same thing I wanted when I first started working in newspapers. I want to do work that’s good enough to earn a position of trust in your life. I want you to choose to listen to me because I’m saying something you believe is worth listening to.
Media as I understand it is something of a meritocracy. Those who are good enough — and who have a message that resonates with an audience — are heard. Those who have nothing to say worth listening to go about their lives without pretending their thoughts are worth hearing.
Social media destroy any sense that you’re being heard because of merit. Social media give everyone an equal voice — and it’s a cacophony of useless noise, with a lot of angry squawking and egotistical preening. Is there a difference between that and what traditional journalists and writers did? I think so, but others might not see it.
I’ve come to find social media depressing. Even though they help me to form shallow connections with people I would have never met, I find that this shallow connection gets in the way of forming deeper and more lasting relationships with fewer people.
I feel as though social media have become mostly a lot of people shouting — and very few listening.
I read last week about a new study at the University of Pennsylvania which suggests that social media cause depression and loneliness. You can read the details of the study here, but I believed it before I saw the details, because I already know in my gut that it’s true.
It’s not a new thing to suggest this is true, but more evidence is starting to turn up to prove it in the academic sense. The question is whether we’re going to do anything about it.
I thought that if I cut my friend list way down — and got rid of the people who couldn’t be civil to one another on my page — that maybe things would be different. It’s certainly helped, but the core problem remains for me. And I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.
For now, you can find me on Facebook here. (I’m not accepting friend requests from people I don’t already know, but my posts are mostly public.) On Instagram, you can follow my main account here or my animal account here. It tells you quite a bit about the pressure to attract an audience that I happen to know my main account has only about 400 followers, but my cat and dog account has close to 2,200 followers. (Why should I know that, unless I feel that I’m putting on a show and need to attract more for the audience?)
I have a need to perform, but social media doesn’t feel like the place to do it. And the truth is that until I have the love in my life that I want, my efforts to speak to the world are all distracted. Despite my best efforts to change this, I still do everything in my life for an audience of one — someone who isn’t there to see it or hear it — which means much of my life feels like a play staged in an empty auditorium for an audience who isn’t there for it.
Even in the broader sense, social media have played to something that has always been a weakness of mine. I’ve always created the things I’ve done with one eye on my audience — waiting for applause to tell me they approve of what I’m doing — but I’ve come to the realization that an artist shouldn’t really care what his audience thinks, as long as he knows he’s telling truth as he understands it at the moment. In this way, I’m not sure a real artist can use social media as a platform for his work, because it’s a platform with strong feedback mechanisms which push someone to do shallow and popular work.
There’s a certain arrogance to declaring yourself an artist of any kind. It’s a claim that you have something to say that’s worth reading or viewing or hearing or somehow understanding. For me, making such a statement has always created intense fear and intense shame, because there’s a voice in my head saying, “Who do you think you are? You’re just a fraud who has no talent and nothing to say.”
It’s been hard for me to get past that — to accept that it’s my role to express truth as I understand it, without worrying about audience approval or understanding.
Social media is all about audience approval and envy and competition, not about deeper understanding. It’s about the lowest common denominator. It’s about being reminded that you’re not what you want to be. It’s about being told that other people are what you wish you could be, even if you wonder whether what they’re projecting is a lie.
I wonder whether I should cut social media out of my life entirely. I know there would be a price to be paid in the short run, but I suspect I’d be better off in the long run. I have a feeling I’d be healthier and I’d do more work which can find a more serious audience.
But maybe I’m too addicted to the thrill of having an approving audience to let it go. That possibility scares me — and I don’t like admitting it to you.