A few months ago, I decided to take a break from social media, and it was one of the better decisions I made last year.
Twitter and Facebook are, for the most part, aggravating and infuriating and only a little bit entertaining—at least, they were the way I was using them. I followed and friended anyone and everyone, which meant I saw some funny stuff, some relevant industry stuff, some news about far-away friends, and a whole bunch of bad news and generally awful reactions to it. This was not doing me any good.
Furthermore, I knew that taking a break from Twitter was the right thing to do because for weeks after cutting myself off, I caught myself articulating every thought as succinctly and cleverly as I could, mentally editing my observations so they could fit into 140 characters. Other times, I would compulsively pull out my phone and then just stare at it, like “…what was I doing with this again?” As I said in my post back in October, Twitter had become something of an addiction, and I was discovering how true that was.
From Deleting the iPad DJ:
I am part of a peer group referred to as Generation Z, but it may be more fitting to name us Generation Me Me Me. We obsess over sharing and oversharing ourselves. We feel obligated to constantly connect. The dopamine fires in our brains, and we’re hooked. Every time we update our status and text our friends, we feed a very real chemical addiction to social media.
From Reboot or Die Trying:
Those early days of screenlessness were bewildering. My mind, wound up like a top for years, continued spinning. I experienced sporadic surges of angst and adrenaline, sure I was supposed to be doing… something. I’d pull my phone out every few minutes, even though no one was e-mailing me and I’d uninstalled all social-media apps. The habits and mental agitations of digital work life persisted like phantom limbs.
My symptoms were testament to the power of what psychologists call variable intermittent reinforcement. Famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner discovered long ago that if you really want to ingrain a habit, you encourage it with rewards that arrive at variable times, in variable sizes. The lab rat knows that it will periodically be given food for pressing the lever, but not exactly when or how much. The result: a compulsive rat.
It’s the same with humans. Variable intermittent reinforcement explains why slot machines are so enthralling, why video games contain hidden caches of coins or weapons, and why we’re all helpless before our e-mail accounts. One time you check your inbox and there’s a single new message, from LinkedIn, which reminds you that you can’t figure out how to delete your LinkedIn account. Sad face. The next time you check, you have five new messages, including one from an old friend and another from a potential employer. Happy face! So you check, check, check.
We online denizens come to need these regular low-level jolts and get antsy without them. That’s why I was tweeting in the bathroom. That’s why your friends around the table at the bar are all staring at their phones. Ordinary life has come to seem torpid and drab relative to the cascade of affirmations we find in contingent online communication.
Because social groups coalesce and plan online, even brief screenless periods breed FOMO, the fear of missing out.
Yep. At first, I didn’t feel like I was missing much: as it turns out, it wasn’t the updates from friends that were addicting, it was the gratification of posting something funny and racking up the faves and likes (which is, frankly, an incredibly depressing metric for self-worth).
90% of posts I see on social media are depressing, and that even after unfollowing nearly everyone on Twitter and Facebook.— Brock Boland (@Brock) December 10, 2014
Yes, some of it is funny jokes and pictures of my friends' new kids and new job announcements, but by and large: depressing horseshit.— Brock Boland (@Brock) December 10, 2014
I've been meaning to write more about this, but Twitter has obliterated my ability to read or write anything more than a few sentences.— Brock Boland (@Brock) December 10, 2014
The short version is that I've realized that I wasted a shitload of time chasing likes and faves.— Brock Boland (@Brock) December 10, 2014
The jokes and pictures of kids and racist rantes were just the filling between those little dopamine hits when someone said I did OK.— Brock Boland (@Brock) December 10, 2014
So in summary: everything is depressing and the internet may have been a terrible mistake from the beginning and society can't handle it.— Brock Boland (@Brock) December 10, 2014
The FOMO only came later: I started peeking into Facebook a little more regularly, mostly to check for event invitations and the like, but even then, I’d catch myself skimming my timeline and getting aggravated about things all over again.
At some point, I realized that I just needed to be more judicious about what I saw. Staying away from Twitter and Facebook altogether just wasn’t working: I was a lot more relaxed than I had been when I felt like I needed to keep up on everything, but I’d moved to the other end of the spectrum and was keeping up on nothing. I felt like I was missing out on everything.
So, at the end of October, I unfollowed just about everyone. I’m not sure when they did it, but Facebook added an option to unfollow someone so that you don’t see their posts, but remain friends. This seemed like a nice middle ground for me, since I still like to check in on people now and then, and don’t want to block them from seeing what I post. I also un-friended a bunch of people (mostly those I had met once at a party in college or something like that), and marked some more as an “acquaintance,” so they don’t see most of my stuff.
On both Facebook and Twitter, the list of people I now follow is almost exclusively people I know here in Chicago. This is a stark contrast to what I once used Facebook for, and how I think many people still do: for keeping in touch with friends who no longer live close by. Now, I mostly follow the people that I see regularly anyway, so I don’t need social media to hear what’s going on in their lives…but I still like to hear what they’re up to, to catch the jokes in the office, to hear about events going on around here. It helps, too, that the folks I still follow are not the people who I would have been arguing with before, nor the ones who post much about the news.
The downside, of course, is that I’m barely keeping up with distant friends now, but I think that’s OK. Really, there’s only a handful of old friends that I actively keep up with, who I chat with over IM or email every once in a while or see semi-regularly because they happen to travel a lot or whatever. For almost everyone else, I’m just out of the loop until they happen to find themselves in Chicago, or I in their town, and we get together for a drink and catch up on the past several years. I’m OK with this. I don’t think any of us needs to be fully up-to-date on the daily lives of everyone we’ve ever been friends with, and it’s kind of nice to see someone for the first time in a while and really mean it when you say, “Fill me in, what have you been up to?”
I’ve been posting now and then to both Twitter and Facebook, and will continue to do so, but I’m going to be mindful of how much I’m posting and why. For a long time, Twitter was just a running output of my thoughts, all the time, and no one needs that (nor did they at the time). I also know I need to just avoid politics, because it never ends well (he wrote, moments after sharing a snarky image on his timeline [sigh]).
I’m working on it.