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Why I’ve (mostly) quit social media

It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for my brain.

First, let’s acknowledge: You’re reading this on a tech device. You found it via my newsletter, or through something I shared on social media. I realise the irony of that. It’s part of what makes the “should I be on social media?” question so tangled and circular. 

I don't want to be that sad old person giving out about how the internet isn't as good as it used to be, but you know, the internet just isn’t as good as it used to be. To be clear, I’m talking about the narrow slice of the internet where I typically reside. My internet origin story isn’t unique. This sound is etched into my mind. I was allowed one hour of internet access, after 6pm when it was cheaper. I was on MySpace and later Bebo. I built my first blog in 2006. It had an about page called ‘moi’. I thought it was the coolest thing. 

How did we get from that first flurry of possibility to now? 

Before I quit social media, my typical internet experience was of emerging from a stupor after a few hours lost in a bottomless internet hole, blinking into the light like a newborn animal. The world changed around me while I was scrolling. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done, but my retinas felt sunburned and my body was tense.  I almost always regretted the time I spent online. The visceral experience of being there felt so gross. The internet used to be somewhere you visited. Now it’s always there, silently emitting broadband waves from a small box in the living room.

So, I (mostly) quit. It hasn’t been difficult. At first, it was hard to wean myself off the reactive Instagram scroll. It was deeply embedded in my muscle memory, but once I broke the cycle, I didn’t miss it. I thought I’d miss seeing updates from friends, and sometimes I do. But most people I know rarely post anything online. They are social media scanners, not sharers.

The social media industry is built on data and eyeballs - you share your personal, private information with tech giants so that they can build things that keep you on their platforms. Then, they sell your attention to advertisers. This business model is at the root of the problem. Social media companies are selling your attention. Every decision they make is designed to keep you on the platform for as long as possible thereby maximising your exposure to ads. I shouldn’t talk about them as one cohesive unit. Social media companies are as disparate as they are invasive. But, there are a few key principles that undergird them all. Outrage drives more user engagement than joy, which is why negativity is the fuel many platforms run on. There’s a particular kind of recreational indignation that keeps the social media ecosystem churning. They combine modern technology with human shortcomings to create a dystopian cesspool of the worst of who we are. Until recently, they’ve largely ignored the problems of abuse and harassment too.

When Google shut down Google Reader in 2013, it marked an important shift in power dynamics. Rather than empowering the user to curate a feed of information, that power shifted to tech companies with their algorithmic magic wands. Internet giants decided what you consumed and their goal was to capture your attention and retain it for as long as possible. Their decisions shape what we consume and we’ve seen the disastrous consequences of that. (The 2016 US Presidential election and Brexit, to name just two.) Some studies have also found a correlation between heavy social media use and mental health problems too. 

I quit social media because I felt it changing my brain. I noticed my anxiety levels spike when I had something going out online. I can feel it hovering in my psyche, just out of sight. It splits my attention and makes me feel like I’m spreading myself across the internet’s greedy paws. Social media was corroding my concentration too. I felt the mental drag, a kind of post-clicking cognitive residue. I found myself thinking of the Instagram shots that would best capture the experience, rather than just enjoying the moment. Since leaving, I feel like I have my brain space back. The world is much quieter, calmer and simpler without scrolling. We've got a limited amount of time in life, and I don’t want to spend that time online.

My thinking on this was influenced by Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’, which was useful though it has some pretty glaring blind spots too. For a start, it’s much easier for a professional, white man to opt out of social media while people from less privileged groups rely on it to find community and develop their careers. One thing I really appreciate about social media is the ability for people to reshape the narrative. I’ve learned more from listening to people speak about their lived experiences, than I’d ever have gotten from so-called ‘mainstream media’. There are people and brands who use social media consciously, who optimise new platforms to contribute constructively and leverage worthwhile ideas. Knowing that shapes what I read, watch, listen to and consume online. 

Quitting social media has changed how I think as a creator too. I don’t want to create #content that’s built on distraction. I don’t want to break my work or my personality into palatable, social media-sized pieces. It’s not possible to live in the modern world and remove yourself from the internet completely.  I’m still trying to figure out how to make it work for me. But, one thing I know for sure is that I’m a happier, healthier and more productive person without social media. 

P.S. Much as I dislike social media, I adore (& really miss) blogging.