You Don’t Have to Stay Logged In, Really!

On November 29th, Benjamin Fong wrote an article in Jacobin entitled “Log Off.” It was a response to another article (which I haven’t read) which expressed a common premise among left-wing and online people: that social media isn’t a problem, but the “commodification” of it is. Fong’s piece starts with the premise that social media isn’t all bad, but that if we constantly pour lots of our time into it while complaining about it being terrible, maybe it’s worth looking into that. He looks into that and concludes (in many words that are worth reading on their own) that our impulse to say “social media is bad” is mostly correct.

This article apparently drew a lot of negative attention on Twitter, and one of Jacobin’s staff writers, Meagan Day, wrote a follow-up piece a week later, to essentially say, “Yes, Fong is correct, but also social media is a good way to promote good ideas.” Day mentions that she was introduced to many good ideas online that she may not have been introduced to otherwise.

I re-read Fong’s article after reading Day’s and realized that, while Fong’s article, with its heavy research and understanding of political economy, is a lot more convincing to me, it still doesn’t directly address or disprove the argument that Day makes: that without social media, people wouldn’t be exposed to good ideas, so we shouldn’t log off. This is not a knock on Fong — I think he was interested in doing a much broader analysis of social media’s design and effect on the human brain. I’d just like to make a more basic, un-nuanced version of his argument that logging off is kind of good.

There’s something disturbingly powerful about reading an essay that says “nobody is talking about this” or “everybody agrees on this.” A notable example is Katie Herzog’s recent quasi-transphobic article in The Stranger which argues that non-binary activism is indirectly harmful to women. Herzog refers to the fact that Instagram allows non-binary models to appear topless on Instagram, and points out that women with the same types of bodies still aren’t allowed to post their nipples. Herzog subtly implies that non-binary nude models only care about themselves and don’t want women to have the same freedom. If anything, her implication is stronger than if she’d actually argued that — the way Herzog writes, it feels as if everybody already knows that non-binary people don’t care about women. I found myself falling for it for a minute. But then I clicked through the links in Herzog’s article and saw that, unsurprisingly, these non-binary models are completely invested in changing the Instagram policy for women as well. It appears that’s actually their point — in saying “I’m not a woman, I’m non-binary, so I should be allowed to take my shirt off in these pictures,” they are actually trying to make a point about censorious attitudes towards women’s bodies. But from Herzog’s article, you wouldn’t get that — Herzog writes as if the non-binary movement is trying to overtake women, and everybody knows it.

Day’s article isn’t politically problematic like Herzog’s is, but Day is similarly convinced of an unsettled premise. In Day’s case, the premise is that social media does successfully spread good ideas, and that this translates to good things, such as political organizing and voting. Social media is an effective way to spread political ideas, and everybody knows it.

But here’s the thing:

  1. There isn’t any evidence that people who discover good ideas via social media wouldn’t also discover them by other means. I’m not in the camp that says “anecdotes are bad, only evidence is good,” and am not trying to dismiss Day’s anecdote, but this is significant because:
  2. Anecdotally speaking, I didn’t need social media to be exposed to good ideas, and I doubt that Day needed it either.

Fong, in his “Log Off” article, compares social media to cars: in a better world, cars wouldn’t be somehow “de-commodified” and distributed to everyone. In a better world, we’d actually have less cars because we’d have more public transit, more sidewalks, and so on. Here’s another way that you can compare social media to cars: just because a car got you somewhere good doesn’t mean that cars are good or that it’s impossible to get somewhere without one. Just because all of our memories of going to good places involve cars doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have walked or ridden bikes or taken a bus to get there. Just because all of our memories of discovering good ideas involve Twitter doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have stumbled on to that idea otherwise, perhaps at a different time and via different channels.

When it comes to cars, America is actively designed to encourage them. But when it comes to the media landscape, I have to say, there are fewer obstacles. I can indeed recall a time when I had Twitter, but used it less. Then, I would read articles, and with the space I had in my brain due to the absence of Twitter, I’d research subjects that the article brought up in order to read more. I’d look up other publications where the author had written. I’d do a google search to see if anyone had criticized the article I’d just read. I’d do another search to see what criticisms of the author, or the publication, were out there.

This felt a lot slower than checking my twitter timeline to see what people were mad at and what people were retweeting enthusiastically. Once I discovered that it was possible to follow enough similar people on Twitter that your timeline added up to a coherent narrative about what deserves your attention, I stopped doing things the old, more mindful way. Twitter was faster and, as Roger Bellin has said very memorably on his blog, it was a satisfying escape from freedom. Twitter means you never have to do the work of deciding what topic you want to think or write about. Twitter means that, at any given moment, you can dive directly into a sea of reactions. But in terms of being introduced to good ideas, I don’t think Twitter actually did much more for me than my old practice of looking through publications’ archives and writing down topics and people to google in the future.

I am not trying to say “I can do it so you should, too.” But I am trying to say, for the specific function of social media that Day highlights — ie introducing yourself to progressive and unconventional ideas — you actually don’t need Twitter. Many people were introduced to that on Twitter, but that is only because they were on Twitter. Being on Twitter, because we chose to immerse ourselves in constant reactions to things, meant that we were introduced to good ideas on that website rather than being introduced to them anywhere else.

I am not trying to say “Listen to me, I have the key,” but if you are interested, message me and I will send you my list of websites that I check, and authors whom I periodically google, to get my hot takes instead of logging on to Twitter and injecting content and counter-content straight into my veins. Do you want to constantly relive the online arguments that were started by politically-connected social media addicts in 2015? Do you want to wake up every day with no memory of what you saw online the day before, log on, and then relive those arguments as if they are new? Or do you want to be exposed to new ideas, without all that? It’s harder, but it’s possible.

There is another factor in the “is social media nothing but toxic capitalist mining of our time” debate that neither Day nor Fong address, although it is present in both of their articles. That factor is that social media is very different if you are a public figure versus if you are not.

If your goal is to use social media for what was once just called “publicity,” social media probably doesn’t seem that daunting. Even if you can’t hire a publicist to do it for you, publicity is a role with boundaries. You are one self privately, and publicly, you are a different self. Journalists can look to your social media profile to see your public statements. They can interview you if they want to hear your semi-public and less planned public statements. They have to bug your house or harass your friends if they want to hear your private statements. There are boundaries.

Most of us do not have famous public profiles and we do not have these boundaries. We log on to social media to get updates on more-famous people who interest us, and do our best to get attention from those people. We feel satisfied when we get attention from them and less satisfied when we don’t. Our public account is our private account, in many cases.

This way of using social media as a non-famous entity, without any type of institutional support, is usually what people are talking about when they call it a toxic place. Meagan Day talks about the complex contradictions of using social media, but fails to mention something that I imagine she is very experienced with: that doing social media as Meagan Day is different from doing social media as Jacobin Magazine. As a private individual who is not particularly famous, such as Meagan Day, social media can be more trouble that it is worth. It means that you get a disproportionate amount of upset and impulsive reactions in comparison to pleased and impulsive reactions from people who you want to impress. (Disclosure: I too have used Twitter to express disappointment with Day, as I often am frustrated with the anti-conclusions she draws about important subjects. I don’t think that being logged on to see those criticisms has ever benefited Day professionally or personally.)

But if your social media account is not you, but a brand, you can better use social media to just put good ideas out there, in case one of the people out there who engages with the world primarily through social media is interested in a new and good idea. In other words, if you log off from your personal account and log on as an impersonal brand, then and only then can social media accomplish what Day says it can accomplish without destroying your brain in the process.

If the people behind impersonal brand accounts keep it up, maybe the frustrated folks who never log out of their personal accounts will indeed be exposed to good and progressive ideas. Then, perhaps, they too will trade an addiction to reactivity and constant feedback for a more consistent and down-to-earth interest in politics. Logging on is an intro but it’s not the endgame, and those of us without a publicist or an impersonal brand to hide behind should never forget that. Just because we were introduced to new and good ideas on a particular platform doesn’t mean that we should stay logged into it after it stops feeling good.