How Leaving Social Media Affects Your Mind
Does it make you happier? I don’t know
About four months ago I quit Facebook and Instagram after a big job I was up for didn’t pan out. Two months later, I left Twitter.
The first thing I noticed after I unplugged Twitter was that online ads unplugged from me. It was an overnight change. One day I was seeing Amazon book deals and food festivals near me, the next it was 100% women’s clothing. The more I use Chrome, the more ads close back in on my interests, but they’re nowhere near as accurate as they once were.
The other changes happened more slowly. Only now, sixty days later, am I starting to understand how things have changed. It’s a cognitive shift in the way I experience the world, and it’s more subtle than you might expect.
Is my life better without social media? My immediate instinct is to shout “Yes!!” I’m supposed to say that I’m “so much happier now” that I’m free from the shackles of Instagram. Or that I’m “so much more productive!” But I’m not sure if either of those are actually true.
In some ways, my life is better. The itch to record everything is gone—it disappeared after a couple of weeks—and that has been good for my ability to focus on the moment I’m in. I spend more time staring out into space, which I believe is one of the best things you can do for yourself. I’m relieved that the first thing I do in the morning isn’t flip through feeds.
But in another way, I’m less distracted by a delusion of importance that I think, at times, made me quite happy. Facebook is designed to make you feel like you’re famous. I was stimulated, intensely, by this delusion. I couldn’t wait to offer my unique and important take on the news, and would spend all day arguing in the comments, courageously bursting bubble after bubble, redpilling my sheeple acquaintances like digital Socrates. The delusion energized me. Not being on social media has lowered my cognitive testosterone; reduced the hours I spend gunning for glory.
It has also changed the way I take in, process, and produce information. This has been the most significant change, and it’s also the most subtle.
I should, for example, stuff this piece with statistics and expert opinions proving that social media is bad for your brain. That would grant me the legitimacy I need to be taken seriously as a contributor in today’s digital realm. But part of the problem with social media, I allege, is that it fosters an over-reliance on authority and statistics. People need other people to validate them, to reassure them that their thoughts and feelings are correct. If a statistic or expert confirms one of their pre-existing feelings, they’ll be sure to share that information on social media where it will be eagerly consumed by those who feel the same. Never do they peek behind the curtain to see if those stats or authorities are legitimate. Sometimes the most illegitimate authorities are the most powerful ones—they have become popular solely by validating large segments of the population who all happen to feel the same way.
Over-reliance on authority combined with social media’s tendency to balkanize means arguments are reduced to attacks on your opponent’s authorities; a refusal to believe that their sources are real. Inside your opinion bubble, everyone agrees and amplifies. Outside, it’s easier to deny authorities than to make arguments. Principles go unaddressed as one side refuses to accept the data used by the other. Left-wing opinions are condemned as establishment propaganda, Right-wing ones dismissed as conspiracy. Rarely do people discuss what sexual harassment should mean. We never get around to talking about what the country should do about immigration, or how police should act in black neighborhoods, or whether their should be a global government. It becomes all about why the other side’s stats are wrong.
The absence of these source-denying circlejerks is one of the first things I noticed about not being on social media. Anxiety over whether my felt perceptions were properly backed up by unshakeable authority—usually one of a handful of acceptable news sources—began to dissipate. It used to be that every time I made a post, I scrambled around for whatever I could find that would obliquely support my point—a frantic bibliography born from 2–3 minutes of Googling, Google itself being an acceptable wrangler of acceptable sources. I suspect virtually everyone does this.
Once untethered, you realize it matters very little whether your felt perception is backed up by facts. It is your felt perception, nothing more, equal to 7.6 billion other felt perceptions. It is the closest thing to the truth that you have. Is it possible that you are grievously mistaken about something? It is certain that you are. Is it possible that you are crazy? Sure, but you probably aren’t.
The point of yourself is to be yourself, to believe what you believe based on your life, your experiences, and to forcefully reject others trying to transform your perceptions into theirs. Social media, whether it wants to be or not, is a series of whirlpools pulling us towards scattered pillars of conformity. Leaving it allows your opinions to breathe, to form, to build into maturity before they’re cut down by an avalanche of digital reactions.
For the most part, I receive information from either passive news sources or close friends. I don’t get fed that-girl-I-met-at-the-airport-bar’s hot take on the rise of Boko Haram. I don’t know about the natural disasters occurring all the time all over the world. No longer do individuals I haven’t met or people I haven’t physically seen in many years control the data that enters my brain. It is much more natural way to take in information. For eons, human beings had no way of interacting with the minds of people they didn’t know. We are not built to react to every disaster, every catastrophe, every extreme occurrence in a landscape of billions. We are still local animals.
One of the benefits of the natural information filter provided by my friends is that information is shared in an environment of mutual trust. When they share something, now usually via text message, I know the tone of their voice, I know their method of thinking, the lens through which they see the world. I accept their unique perspectives, which is why we are friends. There is virtually nothing they could share with me, no hot take, article, or meme, that I would be offended by. No word they could say that would cause me to write them off. When we disagree, an invisible contract says that we do not expect to change each other, that any shifts in perspective will be entirely voluntary. We are thus free to speak without fear of reprisal, without being forced into one of the whirlpools.
This affords me a freedom of thought and speech that I lacked on social media. It also brings me closer to fewer people. My relationships are deeper, but there are less of them, which is probably why I feel less famous. There are times when I feel more alone, more isolated, less informed than I did before. But I also feel freer, less anxious, my mind less scattered. More like a physical being, less like a brain on a stick.
Of course, I still read reddit and the news, and I also write things for the internet both for pleasure and for money, and host a podcast. I’m still more connected to the media morass than 99.99999999999999999% of human beings have been throughout history. The difference, then, is the quasi-personal middlemen have been cut out. There are my friends, and there is the news. There are no in-betweens. Those lingering associates—ex girlfriends, kids I went to high school with, networking-event holdovers, photogenic couple-friends, crazy aunts—that used to have the right to inject data into my mind are gone. They have been culled from my mind-trust, as they should be.
What we’re talking about here is a regression to subjective reality, which might also be called cognitive independence. My information intake regime has returned to this more natural state. I have my friends who accept my subjective personhood and feed information to and receive information from me in accordance with that acceptance. Then there are news sources, distant authorities which I can believe or disbelieve per my subjective will. Then there are strangers who consume and react to my work. While their reactions can cause pain and dissonance in a similar way to social media, for the most part they are easily sectioned off.
Social media puts all of them in front of you at once. It becomes a cacophony of voices demanding objectivity, deviations from which are policed via reactive outbursts and buzzing notifications. Whether or not separation from this quagmire is the solution to your problems, or if it was the solution to my problems, I don’t know. That remains to be seen. What I do know is that I spend a lot more time receiving and transmitting information on a one-to-one basis. A lot less time feeling famous. A lot more time staring at walls.