A foreword to this article: I began an experiment several months ago restricting my access to social media in an effort to be more present in my life and the world around me. During that time, I have written bits and pieces of this article as I continue to adjust to a life with less social media. Nearly a year into this experiment, I remain conflicted on just how much is too much. I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading the article.
Social media has had an enormous impact on the way we interact. Our world has been made much smaller by bringing into contact peoples previously disconnected by geographical, economic, political and language barriers. With the prevalence of cell phones, and expanding access to the internet, this new form of interaction has made possible a new forum for discussion.
It can also unlock the past and reunite people separated by time and distance; Childhood friends, high school buddies and old college roommates can now reconnect without having to go to the 1o-year reunion. There are even stories of old flames re-igniting over Facebook that result in the breakup of marriages (seriously, that almost happened in my second marriage when lurid messages from a girl I was sweet on in junior high were intercepted by the woman I was married to at the time).
In another case, I started a friendship through Facebook with a former classmate. We attended the same middle and high schools, traveled in the same circles, shared the same friends but neither of us had any specific recollection of each other. Once connected through Facebook, we have actually started a friendship that has included physically meeting up in the real world (read the full article here).
These platforms are a stage from which to perform for anyone who has: 1) Something to say, 2) A smart phone and, 3) A connection to the internet. And unlike more traditional media outlets, content is shared asymmetrically; If your content is good enough to be shared, it will be (no matter who you are or who is funding you).
Bite-sized morsels of information are passed around more quickly and to a more expansive audience than ever before. And while this more democratic method of sharing everything gives everyone a chance to participate in the discussion, it has the effect of making great voices difficult to hear over the deafening white noise.
A drawback to this unprecedented access to the world through social media is its insistence on making your point in less than 140 characters or a 15 second video. The virtue of brevity is undeniable in certain circumstances (as in such cases as having to explain you accidentally ran over someone’s cat or in response to your wife asking “do you think my sister is prettier than me?”). But some stories are worth exploring a little deeper.
Social media is quickly replacing traditional media as the primary source for information. Our phones have granted uninterrupted access to the entirety of the internet. Videos, music, movies, TV shows, news, porn, click-bait, tabloids, etc.: It is ever-present and nearly all free.
Many aspects of our lives are migrating to the internet: Online banking, book your travel, pay for parking, buy movie tickets, shop for everything (literally, everything), find a job, find a mate, get divorced, register to vote, etc. And it’s made even easier to access these services by logging in via Facebook.
As our phones now function as the primary portals through which we conduct our personal business, consume content and interact with each other, we have become addicted to them. As if by instinct, we need to check the phone for new email, status updates or notifications every few moments. Watch the panic set in when someone loses their phone or the battery gets close to dying.
This has led to an obsessive, compulsive need to stay connected. But connected to what?
My twitter feed is a morass of strangers telling inside jokes (for which I seem always to be on the outside), shameless self-promotion (no lie, that was me at one point, too) and obvious attempts by trolls to create the impression that they are living kick-ass lives when they really are not.
My Facebook feed, at times, can be a non-stop campaign ad for Bernie Sanders (this should give you an idea of when I originally wrote this post), a barrage of people adding me to porn pages without my permission and that whole kick-ass-life highlight reel thing again. Facebook’s algorithm rarely deems it newsworthy for me to see my actual friends’ or relatives’ updates as often as I see the rest of this crap.
My Instagram thing (I dunno, is it called a feed?) is an endless stream of duckface selfies and 14-year old girls acting like UofA Girls Gone Wild interspersed between pictures of lunch and picture quotes.
My Snapchat, well, I am not really sure how to get around in Snapchat. Anyone making any videos really worth watching are putting them on Facebook or YouTube. The impermanent, disposable nature of the exchanges in this medium confirms for me the lack of any lasting value in it.
My LinkedIn combines all of the worst aspects of Twitter and Instagram in a format that Facebook might argue infringes on their copyright. The articles that come up in your feed are force-fed, paid content and don’t get delivered democratically as they are shared/liked by the crowd. Contributing any content to this medium is akin to writing your Opus on toilet paper only to flush it down the toilet.
There is no denying the power of social media; I do not mean for this article to suggest that there isn’t massive value in having such platforms (in fact, if you are reading this, we both have social media to thank for it!). I am suggesting that the over consumption of social media can have dangerous side effects.
Having instant access to these morsels of information on-demand-at all times– is like carrying a bag of mental junk-food with you everywhere you go…The temptation is too great to resist. Studies (such as the one described in this article) performed on teens using an fMRI scanner while they accessed social media reveals how the brain’s reward center becomes activated. Just as the brain rewards the junky with a rush of dopamine when they anticipate getting their next fix, unlocking your phone and jumping into your Instagram feed has a similar effect. Over time, the chemical reward diminishes. Chronic users must use more, and do so more frequently, to get the same reward.
I can see how comparing the bio-chemical responses of heroine addicts tying off for a fix with that of the duckfaced teen checking in to see how many likes she got for her selfie might be overdramatic…but its worth further discussion as the science continues to come in.
Moreover, the quality of the content is often specious at best. Click-bait articles written under the guise of “news” and shared in the echo-chamber of pseudo-friends supplant what was an already biased news media. Unless you are willing and able to do research to vet the “facts” purported in some of the news stories, you will very easily be hoodwinked by politically motivated trolls pushing an agenda or hackers hijacking your clicks to generate ad revenue.
More concerning to me than any of this is the constant distraction; truly great works are the result of focus and contemplation. You cannot rush the creation of something that will endure. Uninterrupted practice and a sustained effort are the foundation of mastery. To truly pierce through the outer layers of any subject, you must be able to focus your attention for extended periods of time. For me, I cannot fully engage in a project that will have any lasting value if my attention is constantly diverted with the dinging and buzzing of my phone.
Before you dismiss me as an old codger hollering at the kids to get off my digital lawn, I am writing this as much as a reminder to myself as it is a recrimination of over consumption; As with anything, moderation serves well all who employ it.
Writing this (indeed, writing anything) allows me to quiet the noise in the world around me as I dive more deeply into something that inspires me to improve myself and add value to the world. Facebook will still be there waiting for me when I need a respite from my own mind…but it is nice to not need it.