And Other Reasons I’ve Left Social Media
Back when I was a kid at school I used to feel a strong affinity with Edward Scissorhands. I felt like a strange, damaged creature, unable to connect with other people and fundamentally alone. All I really felt I had was my imagination and ability to create things. So I wrote and I painted and I lived in a fantasy world. But eventually I discovered I didn’t have to be alone, I could bond with others through my creativity, share my whimsical imaginings, and feel I was contributing something. When I first started using the internet I felt that even more. I felt like there were actually a fair few people in this world with whom I could find understanding and appreciation. I started to find a crowd: socially awkward, over-intellectualising creatives, and people who enjoy people like that. Social media has pretty much ruined that for me over the last decade.
Social media seems to be attempting to turn us all into the kind of attention seeking shitheads I hated at school, if not trying to get us to idolise them; it seems to be attempting to push us all into pretending everything is wonderful/outrageous/awful when it really isn’t, and to feel so crap about ourselves that we take it out on each other pretty much constantly. And buy stuff we don’t need. I think that’s the main aim. In the case of creatives though, it appears to be turning us into performing monkeys churning out brilliance for crumbs of fake approval, rather than real actual money. Instead, we are to pay various social media platforms, in the form of work and money, if we are to be “seen” or “liked” much at all.
For me personally the social media journey has been exasperating. Here are my top reasons for finally leaving:
The Price of Being Seen
“In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”
— Seth Godin
If you are a creative of any kind you will have been told you must be on social media to market your work, stand out and be seen. I officially call bullshit on this premise.
When I began showing my work online over a decade ago I had a crowd of around 800 people interacting with it. My work is a thousand times better than it was back then and about that much less seen now. Social media pretty much killed off the platforms I had been using to showcase my work, because everyone left and headed to Facebook. But I rebuilt my crowd on Facebook and all was going well, until Facebook put a paywall and censorship between me and them. When I started to build my crowd on Twitter, Twitter implemented a system of payment for visibility. I haven’t bothered with Instagram much because, frankly, I have trust issues at this point, and their algorithm changes and planned updates – giving them even more power to choose what is seen, rather allowing us to choose – make it seem that I was justified. Unless you are already famous, to succeed on the big three social media platforms will require you pour a large portion of your time and a large marketing budget into it, if not hire a marketing team, and showcase work that won’t offend anyone ever. Good luck with that last one, especially if you’re a visual artist. I gather other platforms are much the same.
I know there are people out there who enjoy my work, I am very grateful for the many emails, messages, comments and face-to-face conversations in which they tell me so. But far from making my work more visible, my presence on social media has diminished my capacity to engage with my crowd, because it is actively suppressed by each platforms algorithms in an attempt to get me to pay to be seen and play by their very restrictive rules. I would literally have been better off if I had got my fan base of ten years ago to sign up to a mailing list, and I’m honestly kicking myself that I didn’t.
But this is just the tip of an iceberg of mindfuckery.
It’s Driving People Crazy
Studies are increasingly showing that use of social media has direct links to a huge rise in mental health issues. After I saw a documentary detailing the psychological and social effects of social media use, I took a break from it for the summer. I was honestly surprised at how good I felt for this. Upon returning, but only for minimal use, I noticed quite starkly just how infantile, fake, status obsessed, envy-hate-and-shame-fuelled social media seems. People are increasingly unable to connect with each other in a meaningful, authentic way, and not just online. This has long since spilled over into the real world. People are becoming ever more juvenile, narcissistic, anxiety ridden and at each other’s throats, through exposure to emotionally toxic environments online becoming their everyday reality.
For creatives, we can add to this already rather hellish scenario that social media appears to reduce our attention span and potentially destroy our creativity. Some sources suggest that that the average human attention span has dropped overall, while others show that selective and alternating attention are being prioritised over sustained attention. In either case, that’s focus required for creative tasks that using social media trains our brains out of. Further, reaching for our phones, looking at news feeds and constantly fatiguing our minds with endless trivial social media related decisions, rather than relaxing our minds and allowing ourselves to bask in boredom – the mother of day-dreams – effectively kills off creative capacity. If we can’t be alone with our own thoughts for an hour, let alone focus on a task for a sustained period, one that isn’t going to give us an easy load of dopamine hits in the form of likes and hearts, we’re considerably less likely to be capable of creating anything worthwhile in the long run. But we’ll get a lot of likes and hearts so… go us!
The Best Ass Wins
“Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, ‘Make me feel important.’ Never forget this message when working with people.”
— Mary Kay Ash
Apparently all those likes and hearts and numbers next to our names are actually quite symbolically meaningful to us on an unconscious level. They make us feel “seen” and therefore important somehow, giving us a feel for where we stand in some imaginary hierarchy. But rather than trying to find our place in the hierarchy of a group, a town, a country or even a continent, our sense of hierarchy can now encompass the entire world. We have collectively lost all sense of proportion, viewing countless others more seen and more liked and those numbers becoming constantly shifting points in a psychological competition we cannot possibly win, literally playing our own brain chemistry and psychology against us. Some people respond to this by becoming willing to do just about anything for attention.
The price you pay for not participating in this ever escalating war to be noticed? Being sidelined, ignored, and unseen. Psychologically speaking that is a fairly high price, because we unconsciously associate being unseen with being abandoned, and being abandoned by the tribe meant death for our ancestors. We are wired to fear this quite acutely. If the majority of your social life is online or through a phone screen, then you are particularly vulnerable to feeling this. On social media, unless you’re already famous, being an ass or showing your ass are ways to be seen and promote yourself. The people who do this are simply responding to an environment that signals to them that these are behaviours that can gain them big rewards. The bigger an ass you are, or the hotter an ass you have, the more you may be seen.
As a woman on social media, particularly Instagram, it seems to be an unspoken rule that if I wish to be “seen” and outcompete my competition for attention, I should throw my dignity aside and let myself be utterly sexually objectified. Tastefully and photoshopped to fuck obviously (but no nipples, that would be pure pornography – unless they were male). No one can force me to do this, of course, but there is plenty of social signalling implying I would be rewarded. Many modern celebrities and influencers have had their careers made and sustained by sexy photos, sex tapes and relationship scandals, rather than say, talent, craftsmanship or hard work. One of the top accounts on Instagram that doesn’t belong to the already famous, features nothing but a girl with her ass in a thong posing with a banana.
Oh internet, with this wokeness you truly are spoiling us.
Now, I have nothing against anyone who wants to take their clothes off and do whatever for us all. Do what makes you feel good, boys and girls. But that’s the thing about all this, I have my doubts a lot of people actually do feel good about it. Studies show this to be the case, showing correlations between social media use and increase in negative body image, along with the development of eating disorders. When we see ourselves and others online, in an environment that consistently signals competition, we end up feeling like we’re not good enough, and we are inclined to respond to this feeling. I bet even banana girl thinks there’s something wrong with her. I also bet there are plenty of people willing to tell her so.
And why be rude or troll someone on social media? To be seen, of course, and, as far as I can tell, out of resentment for being unseen (how dare banana girl have so many likes and followers?!). I think a lot of the abuse and trolling we get online is just another symptom of all this, along with people filming themselves jumping off buildings and generally doing the most crass, odd and insane things, just so others will acknowledge their existence. Given the environment, this is all completely predictable. Along with the rise in teen suicide.
But Janice, social media companies care about us and want us to connect and have fun! They never meant for this to happen! Then why are they running systems based entirely on inducing status anxiety through relative positioning that they knew would drive people nuts? They still know and they’re still doing it. They don’t care about us, they care about money, and they’re not going to let kids’ lives stand between them and that. Or the overall mental health and dignity of the general population.
Time and again I’ve seen people go on social media to connect with friends or promote themselves and their work and I’ve ended up seeing their ass, or them being an ass, in order for them to be seen at all. I’ve also seen them have melt downs and become extremely depressed or suicidal. It’s a trick, people; get an axe. Better still, get some real attention from real people in real life. I have few close friends, but I wouldn’t exchange their friendship for the entire internet knowing who I am. Those few friends are a significant part of what stands between me and my potential to feel so isolated I might start really giving a shit what the internet thinks. Given that large parts of it are toxic cesspools of narcissism and competitiveness, giving a shit what the internet thinks could probably cause even the most emotionally resilient among us to start to buckle without some genuine intimate support from real life. And there’s the rub.
Anti-Social Addict Really Isn’t A Good Look
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth…This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
— Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth
The term “Social Media” is an oxymoron. To be social is to rely on companionship, to relate to others in a more or less meaningful way, to be communal and participate in and maintain a consensus reality with your fellow beings; to be social is to contribute, value and feel valued by others. The Media wants none of this. The Media is a story manufacturing machine, with the goal of making us swallow narratives, profiting from harvesting and selling our time and attention. If you are being social, if you have companionship and meaningful relations with others in which there are feelings of value and contribution, why would you waste your time and attention on trends, propaganda, tribalism and status signalling?
If getting us hooked is the best way to maximise profit, by harvesting as much of our time and attention as possible, then social media is motivated to act in very specific and harmful ways: to break social bonds, to isolate, instil fear, hatred and obsession, to addict and condition. If you are lonely, hateful, fearful, insecure and obsessed, you are more likely to spend your time looking at that shiny screen. If sometimes when you look at that screen you get a hit of dopamine, you will spend even more time looking at it, being advertised at and propagandised to. Because you will be an addict.
Social media companies don’t want you out socialising with real friends, falling in love, or enjoying the beauty of nature, unless you’re posting selfies the whole damn time. Intimacy is anathema to social media, because it is direct competition. The more time you’re spending enjoying having an actual life, the less time you’re scrolling down that screen.
We all know someone who has got into serious conflict with family, friends or a significant other because of social media. We’ve all seen the political hatred, extremism and tribalisation inflamed on social media, particularly on Twitter, which forces the use of shorter sentences, a behaviour apparently linked to signalling aggression. And, the fact is, the more time you spend socialising online, the less time you spend socialising offline. “Social” media is anti-social to the point of being socially corrosive. But, as I have said, and much as the companies themselves will wave their hands and disagree, genuine human connection and community is not what these platforms are designed for.
I Am Not A Product, I Am A Human Being
“If the service is free you are the product.”
— Steve Wozniak
When we use social media services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we become simultaneously a product and what I have come to think of as a cyber serf. We become products in that our data, time and attention are all valuable resources to be sold to the highest bidder, and we become cyber serfs in that we labour for free for platforms that profit from our labour attracting the time and attention of others. Like many other creatives, I joined social media because it was supposed to be a tool to promote my work. But it’s never been about helping people like me promote my work, or about getting people to connect with each other, it has always been about those companies extracting profit from our use of their platforms, and this has turned out to be very much at our expense.
Quite apart from the psychological and social effects discussed above, social media has also been implicated in deliberate mass deception and mass manipulation for political purposes. Through manipulation of trends, targeted advertising and manufacture of opinion rather than reflection, it has become the ultimate propaganda tool, with no government or ruling body having oversight or being able to hold anyone to account. In this context my social media activity becomes data to be mined, and my presence a psychological profile to be analysed and manipulated, with no significant limitations or penalties. No thanks.
Privacy Used To Be A Thing
As massive invasions of privacy go, mining our data and leveraging our psychological profiles against us without our permission is probably the biggie. But then there’s also us.
Here’s where I get to sound really old. I remember when the internet was virtually anonymous, because hardly anyone used their real name. There was a clear line between you online and you in the real world, and even if people told you private things, you usually didn’t know who they really were. There was, generally, a reasonable degree of suspicion and mystery in online social interaction. The idea of meeting up with someone you met online to have sex with them was literally laughed at and the basis of many horror stories. Now that’s just a thing, and many people tell everyone everything all the time online, under their real names. The number one tip for social media success I’ve been given time and again is to share more of myself, with that behaviour seeming to exist on a continuum ranging from art tips and personal stories to photos of my ass.
I’m too private for this shit. You could have been following me for the entire time I’ve been online, you could actually be friends with me in real life, and I guarantee you do not know me. For all anyone who knows me online knows, I’m really a fifty-three-year-old guy named Chuck who lives in my mother’s basement.
So, call me old fashioned, but I don’t think it’s healthy to share so much so quickly with strangers. That’s actually pathological behaviour. In other words, if a real person sat down with you and started showing you everything about themselves, in the way people do online now, and you had any sense, you’d think they were a bit nuts, or trying to sell you something, or both. If you were somewhat on the gullible side, you’d be wide open to being conned, because you’d be taking all the information being given to you on faith, then the social context created would encourage you to over-share in return.
It requires very strong boundaries to refrain from responding to strong social signals. Lack of boundaries is encouraged and rewarded on social media. This leaves us very open to being lied to, because if I’m really me and I’m sharing, of course these other people are really them and actually telling me the truth too. Uh huh. This trick is as old as chat rooms, but never has it been more pervasive.
By blurring the lines between who we are online and who we are in the real world and between what is public and what is private, we now have no idea where the illusions end and the real people might begin, if they begin at all, and this includes ourselves. We also have much less grasp on what should and shouldn’t be shared, and with whom, and the basis upon which we are to trust any given piece of information. Add manipulative personality types, paid trolls, bots, targeted advertising, and the usual games of the mainstream media to the mix and it’s no wonder people are now generally credulous, paranoid and confused enough to be convinced the Earth is flat, Nazis are very fine people, and the “Deep State” controls the world.
It’s, Like, Totally Mainstream, Man
Social Media was supposed to be an alternative to the mainstream, which was never something I was interested in participating in. I used to love the idea that on social media, as Amanda Palma put it, “we are the media“. But we’re not. We haven’t been for some time. There was a little while there, when social media was young, when we were, and it was an alternative. We could make our own stories the big stories, pit our own narratives against those of the status quo. Now if you go and look on any social media platform you will find the mainstream. Because it is the mainstream. But worse. They took it back. We lost.
Now if you’re one of those rare people that still believes the media, or some part of it, is there to tell you “The Truth”, rather than manufacture stories to get you to buy into an agenda, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. There is no news outlet you can show me that doesn’t have an angle they’re selling, and there is no major social media platform you can show me that isn’t engaged in some kind of mind-war with their users to profit from their use. And with the mainstream increasingly curated to the forefront, you might as well just be watching TV. TV that is psychologically profiling you from your use and targeting you with manipulation from that data as well as selling it. Wonderful.
For someone like me, looking for the alternative, social media has become far worse than useless.
In Conclusion, Fuck This Shit
“There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible – the new normal.”
— Michel Foucault
I’m no Edward Scissorhands now. I did a lot of growing up and healing, so those bladed hands could become fingers holding pens and paintbrushes; I learned to live in the real world and connect with words and images rather than disconnect and live in a fantasy. The internet and social media have so much potential for sharing and creating, and that is there if you’re looking. But it’s the exception rather than the rule now. Self aggrandisement, profit and manipulation are what currently drive most of what we’re doing in cyberspace, with social media at the leading edge. The internet is a fantasy world. Seen or unseen, our social media profiles have become fantasies we’re falling into. But you are not your data. You are not your relationship status, or your preferred pronouns. You are not an opinion you tweeted five years ago, or the likes it got. You are not your selfies or the numbers next to your name. I think you are a mystery, and anyone trying to tell you otherwise wants to control you with comforting illusions and fear.
I personally know a number of people leaving or who have left social media for many of the reasons noted above, particularly expressing mental and emotional health concerns, as well as seeing social media as the cause of family conflicts and conflicts with friends. There are more and more studies empirically proving links between social media use and various negative effects on mental health and human connection. Then there are the rather shocking statements from social media execs themselves, outright stating that their platforms aim to do this. It is not an accidental side effect, it is intentional. They want you looking at screens for as long as possible and will do just about anything to get you to. They are harvesting our time and attention by making our lives seem shit, and it is literally killing people. It appears these effects are worst on the young, whereas for older people our decent into seemingly endless infantile tribal/political conflicts appears ongoing and the effects are yet to be fully played out.
Every upside we can find to the social media game has considerable downsides, but we want to ignore them because dopamine feels good. Much as I want to believe the people saying we don’t need to abandon social media, we just need to moderate use and use it more responsibly, I can’t help but think of someone saying they don’t have to stop using cocaine, they can just moderate their use and use it more responsibly. Yeah, right. And even if the addictive properties were removed there are still so many other issues. If you got this far and still genuinely believe social media to be a goodness, I challenge you to go a month without and then see how you feel. Like me, you may find the results surprising.
The less I spend time on social media, the more I find myself: having fun with my nearest and dearest; enjoying working out more; reading, writing and drawing more; being in nature; and finding time to just stare off into space and bear witness to this transient wonder that is life. It’s a good way to keep perspective, particularly when social media and culture at large has so many of us convinced we should be taking it all so seriously and looking at each other as a reason to put ourselves or others down. Lift yourself up.
My social media accounts have now all been left for dead, though I will be auto-posting to the ones I can from here for now. I’m hoping to encourage some of the lovely people I’ve met on them to come and join me in the blogosphere. I feel a new sense of freedom. It will be interesting to see where I can take my creativity from here.
And my ass is amazing, by the way, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or call me Chuck.