To me, 2016 was the year when social media as we knew it died. About ten years after the rise of the Web 2.0, the emergence of mass-market social networking (which started in my definition with Facebook, not with MySpace) and Facebook’s introduction of the news feed, 2016 marked for me the end of an era. During the last quarter, I dramatically reduced the time spent with the leading feed-based (and story-based) social media services. I stopped tweeting and paying attention to my Twitter timeline, only using the app for direct messaging and as a push channel for this blog. I don’t post a lot individual stuff anymore on Facebook, and when accessing facebook.com, a browser extension hides the news feed. I also spend only a tiny amount of time with Snapchat (where I wasn’t really active anyway) and Instagram. And I feel great, experiencing no fear of missing out (FOMO) at all.
These steps are the result of a plain and simple personal cost-benefit-analysis. For about ten years, I perceived social media to deliver large amounts of value to my life and society with comparatively little costs. That changed in 2016. I started to see one-to-many social networking rather as a burden than as a source of pleasure and useful interaction. After a few months of introspection I decided that it was time to close the chapter; to stop permanently consuming and filling social feeds and to abandon constantly thinking aloud in 140 characters.
Let me explain what the costs are that led me onto this path.
Groupthink and mob mentality
I neither can nor want to cope anymore with the groupthink and mob mentality that can be witnessed in social media feeds day in, day out. It does not matter a lot whether underlying intentions are “good” or whether the motivation is simply willful trolling and harassment of people with different ideas or worldviews. The effects are generally problematic, since they block any attempts to develop and promote balanced views, instead painting every topic as a black-or-white question. Even though the reasons for this dynamic are found in the structure of the human thinking, it’s the social networks’ information design that amplifies these effects (and subsequently capitalizes on them). When a new medium lures people into impulsive “us vs them” tribalism, it is a huge warning sign.
Waste of time & procrastination
Once you stop constantly directing your attention towards Facebook and Twitter and to thereby fragment your day into dozens of small chunks, you realize how much time you regain. It is also much easier to focus if you don’t constantly feel the temptation to briefly check your feed.
Addiction & compulsion
That many people find social media to be addictive is not a conincidence. It’s by deliberate design. Those who build the apps that we spend so many time with employ various psychological hacks to get users hooked, triggering chemical processes in the brain that evolution hasn’t had the time to erase, and that easily can be exploited. Whenever you spend time in public places with a lot of people, you can observe smartphone users repeatedly opening apps, scrolling around a bit, closing them, and opening them again shortly after, without any deliberate thought. The human as a temporary mindless click machine. Not a very attractive state of being, isn’t it? At least that’s what I think every time I catch myself doing it. The good news: Like with any compulsion, once you abstain for a while, related destructive habits vanish.
Narcissism & “like” obsession
The list of studies and research pointing to unhappiness and depression caused by intense activity on social networks keeps growing. Many people don’t handle it very well to see their contacts promoting their seemingly perfect lives, entering into a competition for the best vacation selfie, the most magnificent dinner party photo or the most likes. It’s part of the human condition to compare oneself with others, to get dissatisfied when others appear to have a better time, and to crave to be liked. On one-to-many social networks, these mechanisms quickly manifest itself in highly destructive habits. For individuals as well as for the society at large.
Echo chambers & disinformation
The whole debate about fake news is a consequence of the design of social networks. With their massive reach and in-built mechanisms to encourage competition for attention and the utilization of confirmation bias tendencies among users, ideologically or financially motivated actors are being presented with an extremely attractive and effective tool to spread clickbait content, misinformation and to make up “facts” as they please. As Buzzfeed just has detailed, you don’t even need powerful government actors or some kind of formal organization to use social media to cause havoc and to manipulate the public. A loose, diverse group of people with one common obsession is totally sufficient.
For me, messaging apps largely have replaced one-to-many social networks. These allow for exchanges with people I care about in a more pleasant and constructive environment. It is telling that what keeps me from uninstalling the Twitter app from my phone and desktop is the direct messaging feature. Will I ever return to tweeting, as long as Twitter looks the way it does right now? I would not rule it out, but probably only to promote some project of mine. Not as my main venue of digital self expression.
A few weeks ago I explained how my information consumption works in a post-social feed era. To satisfy my needs of expression and sharing of information, I mainly use a few messaging groups with friends, this blog, a couple of dedicated niche sites, and occasionally LinkedIn (which managed to escape most of the issues described above). Often I also simply try to resist the temptation to share something immediately with the world, giving myself some time to let it sink in first. It’s hard in the beginning if you had the habit of instantly putting out any thought, but gets easier over time.
I look back on the past 10 years of my often enthusiastic usage of mass market social media as an entertaining, educational period. Some new technologies manage to deliver a proof of their long-term durability. Others provide massive value initially, but lose appeal over time, or later reveal a chain of negative side effects. In that case, questioning the whole phenomenon can be necessary.
The core characteristics of today’s social media remind me of the talk shows that dominated day-time TV in the 90s. When they were new they had some appeal. But at one point, after the novelty had worn off and the cases presented became increasingly extreme and absurd, I just had to turn the TV off.
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