4 Things I Learned Being Anti-Social Media
Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out
Usually, August is a quiet month.
So, when I signed on to participate in the 4th annual Social Media Sabbatical after reading this post by Jessi Hempel at Backchannel, the sentiment that shot through my mind was so short and sweet it could have been a tweet: “How hard could it be?” Despite being a power user of social apps, jumping in and out of news feeds and social streams with the dexterity of an Olympic diver who isn’t afraid of a little green water, I always considered my use of them to be completely voluntary. These sites and apps occupied a good deal of my day to be sure, but it was I who was in control.
So, on August 1st, after years of expounding the essential value of social media to anyone who would listen, I promptly turned off, logged out of, or otherwise banned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest. Sliding the notification switches off for all those apps, I briefly wondered if the silence itself would drive me to crack. Nevertheless, I bid farewell to social for the rest of the summer.
What I Hope to Get From A Social Media Sabbatical
Taking a month off could be nothing, but it could change everything…medium.com
The blackout now lifted with the September sun, I realize that actually changing my routine and workflows was the easiest part. Here are the observations I had about myself and the world around me after spending four weeks being anti-social.
1. Logging Out is Easy
Going cold turkey is supposed to be hard. After relying on a certain kind of stimulation day-in-day-out for so long, getting a tiny rush with each hit, the idea of stopping completely seems painful. The brain demands more, not less. Just look at cigarettes or caffeine or Coke.
The same can be said for all the shares and hearts and outstretched thumbs we trade back and forth online. Like for Like. #TeamFollowback. The science is in. Social networks are built to be modern day IVs, feeding us a day dose of affection from friends and strangers alike, designed and refined to keep users hooked. When I decided to quit for the month, I figured it would bring tremendous discomfort with it, a major reset not just to my schedule but to my mindset.
That pain never came. Instead, I quickly realized the drips of news and info, updates and photos I had spent years tailoring my social feeds to generate still exist elsewhere, out there, on the wider web (world?). There are extra steps involved to get there, extra effort needed to find them, but that was a benefit not a bug. In having to go get the thing I was looking for rather than having it delivered to me, I found myself only getting the things I really cared about. My hate–reading dropped to zero. More than that, I was better able to absorb whatever I was reading without the ancillary social commentary that would typically accompany those same stories on Facebook or Twitter. My FOMO turned out to be overblown.
2. Social Networks are Broadcast Networks
I have no doubt that getting through the last month was aided by the fact that I didn’t include direct messaging apps like iMessage or Messenger or Slack in the ban. Keeping these alive allowed me to still be social, chatting directly with friends in more personal conversations, stripped away of hearts and Like buttons.
On the flip side, a social media blackout also meant no promoting any of my latest endeavours, like new episodes of the podcast I co-host with Chris Domico. Especially at a time when so many updates came out that made broadcasting so much easier on these networks, including but not limited to:
- The launch of Instagram Stories
- Facebook’s Olympics-themed photo filters
- Messenger hitting 1 billion users
- Updates to Facebook Live
- Twitter’s overhaul of reporting
- Snapchat’s caption update
The drop in traffic speaks volumes.
It shouldn’t be surprising that advertising-based platforms are tailored for promoted content, but seeing it in action is a stark reminder of what really drives these networks. This must be how publishers feel.
3. I Still Think in Glib Tweets
Somehow, that people managed to survive without reading my witty puns and biting social commentary is a small but comforting reminder. The world will spin without me, and that’s okay.
Though, if we’re being honest, I still jotted down a few gems in a Notes document. My comedic brilliance cannot go unnoticed. Seriously, I’ve got a few tweets teed up that are really going to shake up #Election2016 heading into debate season, you’ll see.
4. It’s Okay to Not Perform
Though halting my daily use of social apps may not have been as difficult as I expected it to be, as the month wore on I found myself growing more aware of other people’s usage and habits, and recognized myself in them. The long pauses in conversations, the silences while people would check for updates. Without having my own phone to lean on, the creeping influence of the digital world into physical space became much more apparent. All my friends had other people to tend to, other conversations to cultivate. That they weren’t in the room didn’t make them any less demanding.
Of course, this is a tack I’ve taken in the past as well, and certainly don’t fault anyone for it. After all, it could be that there are just more interesting things to find in those brief gaps in the conversation. Still though, during this challenge the requisite to perform, to always be “on,” was removed. It was refreshing.
I’m reminded of that Louis CK bit from 2011’s Hilarious,
“People say ‘my phone sucks.’ No it doesn’t! The shittiest cellphone in the world is a miracle. Your life sucks. Around the phone.”
After spending the last month not being so dependent on apps, it’s heartening to know I don’t need them to be productive or informed. Opting out, though, comes with its own set of trade-offs. Professionally, it can be difficult to gain exposure or promote projects to a wider audience that exists out there. And personally, it can be difficult to keep up with friends who do participate in the shared culture and sense of belonging that comes with being online. Does my life suck, around my phone? Sometimes. But not checking in doesn’t mean colours are brighter and candy tastes sweeter. Sometimes pulling up something enjoyable on Facebook is needed.
Following this time off, I’m confident that my habits have inexorably changed for the better. Though I’ll start using social media again, it won’t be in the same way, with the same regard. Maybe I don’t need to get every notification from every service. Maybe Twitter doesn’t need to be running on my Mac when it’s not open on my phone. Maybe I can be a little more present and a little less performative.
My social media sabbatical showed me how to balance my social life with the demands of maintaining social media accounts. All it took was a 31-day hiatus.