This Lent, I have been off social media. Granted, I’ve kept tracking books on GoodReads, and cycles on Strava, but the big ones – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit – those I haven’t touched.
Some of you may have noticed my absence, but, I suspect, many of you will not have. And that fact alone, speaks volumes to the problems of “social media”.
My use of social media offers appealing illusions of connection or insight, but the reality, I have realised during Lent, is rather different. So, it’s time for a change.
The problem with… …Facebook
Facebook is a particular problem for me.
As an introvert, actively reaching out to people is always hard. Facebook gives me an alternative, with a much lower threshold for engagement. I can see updates and photos, and feel like I know what’s going on in my friends lives.
But rather than really making contact, all I’m doing is watching from the side-lines. I scroll unendingly, for fear of missing something crucial. I “like” prolifically, but rarely have a real conversation, all of which feeds my perennial fear that people don’t like me as much as I like them.
Because of Facebook, I haven’t noticed when good friendships are slipping away, which rather defeats the point.
I joined Twitter when I was starting out in the policy world, to learn what other organisations and people were thinking. Since then, I’ve used it as a general interest and political space, especially for Lib Dem and Climate activism.
But I’m not convinced it fulfils any of these purposes very well.
Twitter is built for speed and brevity; 280 characters do not lend themselves to nuance and complexity. Instead, the platform encourages a type first, think later attitude, which rarely brings out the best in people. While I don’t think I’ve tweeted anything dreadful, I probably have said things I would not look back on proudly.
Twitter is also the embodiment of content overload (exacerbated by my tendency to follow without discretion), which makes it all but impossible to find the signal in the noise. And the compulsion to scroll ever onwards, to avoid missing something, means that when I do find something worthwhile or meaningful, my engagement is often fleeting and superficial.
Equally, the noise of Twitter means the chances of anyone else being influenced by a tweet of mine is slim to none, so it’s an ineffective channel for activism (unless you already have an audience).
I turned to Reddit as a nicer, more curated alternative to Twitter. And it is that.
Rather than people, you follow themed “subreddits” (anything from “animals being bros” to “data art”), so you only see relevant content. And rather than an anonymous algorithm, content is voted up or down by members. This means Reddit can be a really positive online space, as well as a useful place to answer questions like “how do I fix this issue on my bike”.
If I’m going to scroll, it’s a nice place to do it, but that doesn’t change the fundamental problems of overwhelming content, and superficial engagement.
In short, my problems with social media can be boiled down to one fundamental issue – there’s simply too much content to engage with in a meaningful way.
So what’s a boy to do?
My first steps in a new relationship with social media have already been taken. Thanks to the pandemic, I’m getting a bit better at actually texting or even calling people. Still not as much as I should, but I’m working on it. (If you want to chat, drop me a line. I’d genuinely love to hear from you.)
But that alone won’t make me scroll less. So the next step is cut out some of the noise. I’ve already left several subreddits, and reduced the number of accounts I follow on Twitter by some 1,000, and plan to go further. I also want to bring some order to the chaos, by reviving my use of TweetDeck, and creating groups of accounts (e.g. Lib Dem people or foreign policy think tanks). I am continuing to toy with deleting my Twitter account altogether.
As for Facebook, I’m not going to delete my account (although I probably should), because it does provide useful tools like messenger and events, and I like having somewhere to share photos. But I think I buy Robin Dunbar’s theory that you can only really maintain 15 or so close friendships, somewhere round 150 meaningful friendships, and around 500 acquaintanceships. I want my use of Facebook to reflect this, and to complement other means of communication.
And as for the endless scroll? I want less time on news feeds, and more time reading real content. So I’ve uninstalled the Twitter and Reddit apps, and I’m going to change my computer bookmarks to reflect my priorities.
Finally, I want to consciously make an effort not to scroll, and perhaps implement screen-free time. That’s where I’ve got to for now. Let’s if I can make it stick.