On March 1st, I made a spur of the moment decision in a fit of … what was it? Anger? Frustration? Clarity? I announced to my family, friends and anyone else who happened to be shown the message by the various algorithms at play that I would give up social media for a month.
By Shane Breslin
I had a big month ahead of me, I said, a month where deep productivity and headspace was required. I deleted the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn apps from my phone.
(I don’t classify YouTube as social media so that stayed — The Nerdwriter and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are just about my only recurring “television” appointments these days. Day-to-day I make my living by helping individuals, businesses and nonprofits navigate the confusion of the online world to achieve their goals, but I’ve always been confused by Snapchat, so that wasn’t there to delete.)
While the primary driver, as I told myself and my friends, was the need to find a new level of personal productivity and that the time-suck of social media was swallowing hours of my day when I didn’t have hours to waste, a motivating factor that was just as powerful was more subconscious: the feeling that social media in all its many guises, and for all its incredible, era-defining benefits, was causing some seriously negative tremors deep within my psyche.
Depression, social media and the happiness matrix
I’ve spoken and written at some length about dealing with regular bouts of fairly debilitating depression for more. That situation was ongoing for than 20 years, perhaps longer, before I took some firm steps to address it, but I had a feeling was that the combination of particular personality traits that made me susceptible to depression with the feverishness and 24/7 world of social media was not helping.
Over the past 18 months or so I’ve committed to a journey of self-exploration. One of the exercises I regularly take, and encourage others to take, is what I loosely call a “happiness matrix”: an A4 sheet of paper with four boxes each to represent everything that’s in my control, everything I’m choosing to do.
- A: Is this pleasurable and good for my soul?
- B: Is this not pleasurable but good for my soul?
- C: Is this pleasurable but not good for my soul?
- D: Is this not pleasurable and not good for my soul?
I’ve found that every choice I make about everything — what time I get up, how I spend the first two hours of my day, who I spend time with, where I live, what I put in my body, and everything else — fits snugly into one of those four categories.
My aim is simple: to do more things from A and B categories, and fewer from C and D.
When I asked myself the question about social media, the answer was a hard one, however. It didn’t fit snugly in any category. There were times when it was definitely in A. I’ve made some friendships that I hope and expect will last a lifetime, and those friendships would just not have been possible without Facebook (Facebook is, unsurprisingly, the primary influence among all the different platforms.)
Very occasionally it was B. Speaking on Twitter about my experiences with the service offered by the Samaritans was definitely not pleasurable, but I got something deeply valuable out of it, and hope that my messages gave some value and meaning to others.
But I couldn’t deny that on many occasions there was a hollowness about much of social media that saw much of my time there enter into categories C and D.
What sort of things?
On Instagram, I joined a pod. I thought I was joining some likeminded people who might support each other in helping to learn better the techniques of that particular platform. Instead it quickly became clear that several people in the group were obsessed. I hesitated to say demented, but that’s what it felt like. The “rules” were that everyone in the pod must commit to turning on notifications for everyone else’s Instagram posts, and then liking and commenting on them within minutes of each post being published. In this way, it might game the Instagram algorithm into thinking that these posts were gaining good traction early, and thus give it a better chance of appearing to more people and even making its way — O Holy Grail! — to the Discover tab. What happened there? Well, clearly, great treasures awaited. In the form, I guess, of higher reach, more followers, more hearts, more comments.
On Twitter, I found that my own stream, built haphazardly over eight years, was filled with the loud hum of incessant and irrelevant retweeting, incessant and self-serving tweets sent by various automated schedulers and incessant angry noise. (Twitter, for all its intrinsic and undeniable in-the-moment value, often feels like a million pissed off people shouting in a lift.) Added to that, every second or third notification was a new follow from a clearly fake bot. (The New York Times “The Follower Factory” exposé in January was clearly an influencing factor in my growing awareness of how shoddy so much of Twitter especially had become.)
Twitter is still the social network I love the most, but I fear, from a business perspective, that it will never work, and it may well be doomed to fail. One analyst suggested recently that it has dipped to sixth most popular social platform in the US (behind Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat) in terms of time spent. This is despite the PR perfection of having a President who uses the service as his personal global loudspeaker.
Facebook: A 21st Century Pandora’s Box
And then there was Facebook.
The big daddy of them all.
The Pandora’s Box of the 21st century, unleashing its combination of hope and the seven deadly sins on the world every minute of every day.
There were already whispers about the growing Facebook data storm at the time I started my social media break. For anyone paying attention, Facebook’s access to and use of data has been well known for the longest time. Max Schrems, a bright Austrian lawyer and activist, has been taking legal actions against Facebook for years. The General Data Protection Regulation, the new EU law which could change the world as we know it when it comes into force in May, is prompted in large part by EU legislators who have been closely scrutinising the way Facebook has been amassing terabyte upon terabyte of personally identifiable data on billions of people around the world.
Still, the revelations when they came, through a Channel 4 News secret camera exposé to the offices of Cambridge Analytica and an admission by Facebook that 87 million accounts were mined by third parties with distinctly ulterior motives, were damning, and didn’t do much to dissuade me from my decision to give this whole thing a break.
So what happened when I decided to give up social media?
Firstly, it became clear that using social media had become a deep-rooted habit.
I might be reading a book or newspaper article, come across a paragraph I liked and before I knew it my phone would be in my hand in readiness for the pic to share.
Same thing with an early morning sunrise, a blossoming daffodil or a smoothie. I found myself composing the first words of the post or tweet in my head before waking up to the fact that no, I wasn’t allowing myself to do this for a while.
Such moments were both liberating and very fucking frightening for me.
It was good to be able to resist, but it was scary to think how deep a grip these services, powered as they are by multi-billion-euro, profit driven companies, had taken on my senses.
It struck me that this could actually be classified as a form of madness. This hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute compulsion has set in with vast swathes of people in the space of just ten years.
The external and internal dangers of social media
Where do we go from here?
There are benefits. Massive benefits. If you have a message that would benefit the world, and it’s compelling enough, the world can hear about it
For all the benefits, though, there are massive dangers.
Those dangers are external:
- trusting massive companies, all of whom are compelled to report continued growth in their quarterly profit announcements;
- the erosion of personal privacy, and all the dangers, known and unknown, that go with that
- the ease of one-to-one communication that sees Facebook cited in one in every three divorce cases (and those figures are from as long ago as 2015)
Those dangers are also internal, and this is the part that is, I think, the thing we most need to do something about.
I’m drawn to psychology — how people behave the way they do, and why — and I fear that the combination of social media with the smartphone is a perfect storm that arrived in around 2008, and in the decade that followed has had a lasting negative impact on human psychology that will not be fully understood for another generation or so.
Back to social
I’ve been easing my way back in.
Slowly, steadily, with a new understanding of the pros and the multitude of cons.
I unfollowed everyone on Twitter and started anew in a bid to bring only people who add value into my headspace.
I have made a decision to stop posting video content to my habits of happiness Facebook page and I don’t have any real desire to, for the time being at least.
I acknowledge that buried within the noise and restlessness and threat of social media there is still a massive opportunity for deep and meaningful human connection, connection that can positively impact on the world without any negative undertones.
I understand now, more fully, the benefits and both the external and more importantly the internal dangers of all social networks.
Throughout my self-exploration journey, I’ve committed to controlling the controllables.
My habits and use of social media is controllable.
The fact of social media is not.
This is the world.
Like the real world off the Internet, it offers the best and the worst of everything, and each of us can only do what we can.
Like to get more from Shane?
I send one short email on the theme of happiness, and a longer monthly email every first Friday. (Hint: This piece first appeared in the monthly email, so those subscribers received it before anyone else!)