How the Pandemic Finally Liberated Me from Social Media

A brief history of how social media inhibited my life and career and how the rush to reconnect ended in the ultimate delete.

Hilary Coles
Sep 10, 2020 · 9 min read

I’m not religious, by any stretch of the imagination, but Sundays are a sacred day of the week — the day when I tune out from the world and spend two glorious hours watching Formula 1, followed by even more time diving deep into stats, strategy, and speculation regarding any aspect of the world’s most elite racing. If I’ve ever ghosted you on a Sunday, this is the reason why.

The morning of every Grand Prix starts out as a struggle, though, as I brace myself to avoid Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit for fear of spoilers. The problem with being an American F1 fan is that the timing is never in our favor. When a race is happening halfway across the globe, it’s probably streaming live at 9 am on the east coast — a time on the clock that I rarely witness willingly. From the moment I wake up until the afternoon, I am constantly battling myself on the social media front — mindlessly opening Instagram or Twitter with no real intention only to immediately exit the app when I catch a glimpse of Lewis Hamilton or the Red Bull racing livery. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I probably do this at least 50 times before I actually sit down to watch the race.

This mindless doom scrolling (as it’s come to be known in the pandemic) feels like the behavior of an addict and prompted me to reflect on exactly why and how I use social media.

A close-up of Facebook’s home page on a desktop computer.
A close-up of Facebook’s home page on a desktop computer.
Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Perfect Little Echo Chambers

As COVID-19 began to spread within the States, there was a sudden rush to reconnect. Friends and family I hadn’t talked to in years were suddenly part of my social set again — at least online. I created a Zoom account for my mom’s massive Irish Catholic family. Someone was always scheduling online game nights weekly. There were watch parties with friends and the weird virtual birthday party I had back in April. After a lull in use over the years, the pandemic had me resurrecting my Facebook and Instagram profiles, using them with the same verve as I had in 2011.

And then the video of Ahmaud Arbery came out, followed by news of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. As the Black Lives Matter movement reached a fever pitch, I joined the chorus and used my platforms as a way to have those uncomfortable conversations with my reacquainted friends and followers (and yes, a few of them were knock-down-drag-out fights between me and a few racists I didn’t realize I was still connected to). I had been an active participant in past protests but this time it felt different.

These social platforms have constructed perfect little echo chambers where we can exist in a world that is rarely based in reality.

I had reconnected with many of my old friends and family members and, as it turns out, there was a reason why I had gone months and years without talking with them. It felt especially apparent in the Irish Catholic contingent of the family where the mantra has always been: no religion, no politics. I’ll be honest, it’s that philosophy (and copious amounts of booze) that allow us to gather at family reunions without the likelihood of fistfights.

As the conversations and confrontations continued, it became apparent to me that a lot of people want to live in their own little comfortable bubbles. These social platforms have constructed perfect little echo chambers where we can exist in a world that is rarely based in reality. From the veteran who idolizes WWII ranting about how ANTIFA is a terrorist organization, to my neighbor’s daily chemtrail forecast — even people I used to respect seem to be succumbing to misinformation and fake news.

A Tale of Two Friend Groups

I came of age before smartphones and while I consider myself a digital native, I still thank the gods that social media didn’t exist when I was a teenager. My past already haunts me enough without it existing permanently on the Internet. Yet, at the dawn of social media, I joined the ranks of users excited to explore these new digital platforms. I recognized the importance it would play in advertising and felt optimistic about the connection it could provide. I would remain completely unaware of its effects on me in the years to come.

A few years ago I moved to New Hampshire from Atlanta, leaving behind a city I had grown tired of. I was also saying goodbye to an amazing group of friends — friends who had known me before the first iPhone debuted, friends who helped me dig the gravel out of my elbows after a night of skateboarding, friends who threw house parties and went to concerts and drove out to the middle of nowhere to stargaze until 3 am. The most we ever did on the Internet was chatting into the early hours of the morning on AOL Instant Messenger and that was only because we couldn’t actually get together in person.

In my new town, I wanted to build relationships like the ones I had cultivated in Atlanta. In no time, I found myself hanging out with a group of people who seemed to be kindred spirits. We spent time drinking whiskey around a fire pit or taking turns playing Mario Kart after a long day of work. For a brief moment, it felt like everything I had left behind was still with me. Until I realized they were more engaged online than they were in real life.

I thought about the days when friends would hang out sans smartphones and pined for it like unrequited love.

My aha! moment happened many months after I started hanging out with them. The theme of our get-togethers never really deviated from meeting up at the house where they all lived or the bar down the street. The adventures I had thought we’d take, like the ones I’d shared with my friends in Atlanta, never really happened. Then, one night as I sat on the couch, I looked around at a room full of people, faces glowing from the blue light on their smartphones.

Woman sitting with her legs crossed next to a lake in the mountains stares at her phone.
Woman sitting with her legs crossed next to a lake in the mountains stares at her phone.
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Their social content always painted a picture of friends having exciting adventures, but my experiences with them were just that — posting and scrolling even when they were gathered together in real life. I thought about the days when friends would hang out sans smartphones and pined for it like unrequited love.

Mindless Consumption and FOMO

By the time I moved to New Hampshire, I had established myself in the marketing and advertising industry as a designer and it was this part of my identity that became my rationale for a continued social media presence. After all, if we’re creating social ad campaigns, shouldn’t I be aware of the latest trends and tools? It was also my new job at a particular agency that, combined with the social situations I just described, contributed to my initial decline in posting regular content.

It was an unspoken obligation that you “friend” the whole crew on Facebook — something that I never really approved of as I tend to favor keeping my personal and professional identities separate. But here I was, Facebook friends with my boss and suddenly finding it critical I censor myself on a platform where I had previously been vulnerable with my followers.

I began using a complicated system of restricted lists and friend groups before finally creating a second Facebook account to try and regain my authentic voice without feeling hindered by self-censorship. It was absolutely exhausting. But rather than deactivating, I refrained from posting and instead used the platform as a way to message old friends and lurk on their profiles to see what they were up to.

A cartoon close-up of a person’s face as a scrolling social media feed is reflected in their glasses.
A cartoon close-up of a person’s face as a scrolling social media feed is reflected in their glasses.
GIF by Maximillian Piras via Giphy

That mindless consumption of social content kept me locked in a state of constant FOMO. I no longer enjoyed posting anywhere for fear that I might preemptively ruin my career, piss off my boss, or that my content would be misconstrued (you probably think this Medium article is about you). I felt isolated from friends I had cherished in the past, despite staying “connected,” and yet, like an addict, I continued to rationalize my decision to not delete everything and move on. But then, life wasn’t so strange back then. I found a few friends who liked outdoor adventures and meaningful time together. I felt content in the real world.

A Lonely Social Experience

The pandemic ended so many of the things I enjoy about the real world. The face-to-face interactions I thrive on came to an end, forcing me back into the digital space. After a few months of Zoom gatherings, online game nights, and watch parties, I realized that the digital world could never satisfy me the way the real one does. Meaningful exchanges devolved into depression and anxiety as I caught glimpses of people living in denial about the virus or spreading hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other misinformation. I was reminded of the toxicity I turned my back on when I let relationships die quietly after they came to their inevitable conclusions.

My rapid return to social media was also contributing to the rapid decline of my mental health. Facebook and Instagram offered up split screens of the pandemic — content from those of us who were doing our part in limiting the spread of the virus juxtaposed with content from selfish people on my friends list who were recklessly going to mask-less parties and traveling around the States as if nothing had changed. My anxiety was reaching new levels.

Briefly, I tried to remedy this by coordinating safe social experiences with people I trust. When a relative of mine came for a visit, I decided to hit pause on Facebook so I could be more present with them. It was, after all, a visit I was desperately looking forward to. But the experience left me feeling lonelier than I had been in the weeks before.

Eye contact and deep conversation were scarce as they spent the vast majority of their time glued to their phone. It was honestly triggering for me. Each hour that passed was another I spent wondering what I had done wrong. Why were they choosing to ignore me after having gone to such great efforts to make this trip happen? Was I such a boring and terrible person that I wasn’t worth the conversation? I tried to remind myself that this bizarre social experience wasn’t a reflection of me, but perhaps their own mental state. Nonetheless, I was reminded that the way we interact with social media can have profound effects on the people we love in the real world, reaffirming my personal philosophy of being present with the people I spend time with in real life, sans phone.

A neon sign reads, “Do something great.”
A neon sign reads, “Do something great.”
Do something great and delete your social media accounts. Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Throughout the pandemic, I found much needed time and space to reflect on my career and how social media has shaped my life, personally and professionally, in the last several years. This is just a nice way of saying I experienced a minor existential crisis, coinciding with a layoff from the agency where I had worked for nearly two years. As I came to terms with the fact that I had not been happy in my role as a designer for some time — a role that uses emotional manipulation to persuade consumers to buy things they really don’t need — I realized it was now time to abandon social media.

I deleted roughly 40 apps from my phone, including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and Google (I was never cool enough for TikTok). I skipped the melodramatic farewells and quietly disappeared from the social clubs of the Internet. And you know what? I don’t miss anyone. I know that sounds brutal, but I was superficially connected with so many people with whom relationships had waxed and waned a lifetime ago. I couldn’t think of a single reason why they should have access to my life anymore.

The people I love have my phone number and at least hearing their voices grounds me during this awful pandemic we’re living through. I’m looking forward to resurrecting a life of making memories in the real world — the ones I’ll tell my nieces and nephews about when I’m in my seventies.

At the very least, I can watch Formula 1 in peace, knowing that I can’t spoil this Sunday’s Grand Prix by mindlessly scrolling Instagram when I really don’t want to.

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Hilary Coles

Written by

Designer turned developer based in New England. Obsessed with the natural world, talking with strangers, and motorsports.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +776K followers.

Hilary Coles

Written by

Designer turned developer based in New England. Obsessed with the natural world, talking with strangers, and motorsports.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +776K followers.

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