6 reasons I probably won’t be back on social media
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Back in May, I published a piece here called “I Took a Break from Social Media, and It Turns Out I Don’t Want to Go Back.” It was the sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness essay that, in my experience, doesn’t typically do well on the internet—fun to write, but I figured no one other than my mom would read it. Between that and the fact that I was off social media, it sort of felt like career suicide.
If it was a suicide attempt, though, I did a lousy job, because somehow that piece became the most-read thing on this blog, by a wide margin. I guess I must have tapped into something.
Since publishing it, I’ve deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and replaced them with the Kindle app, making “read a book” my go-to time-waster instead of “scroll Twitter.” I’ve also discovered a lot of great blogs and made some new connections here on Substack, and I’ve spent some time reconnecting with the actual world, which mostly isn’t the exploding dumpster fire that social media thinks it is.
I do still occasionally load up Facebook and Twitter in the browser on my computer or tablet, just to make sure no one’s trying to use them to relay vital information to me. And I’m not saying I’ll never be back. But every time I log in, it’s a reminder I don’t really want to be there.
6. Every time I log in, I immediately see someone I like(d) or respect(ed) posting something massively dumbassed.
…or “liking,” “sharing,” or “retweeting” it.
When I say “massively dumbassed,” I don’t necessarily mean something I disagree with—often it’ll be a point I’ve got some sympathy for, just stated in a way I find thoughtless, smug, condescending, or incurious. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter whether I agree with it or not; the problem is that seeing it leads me to thinking that everyone around me is a dumbass. And the thing is, I sincerely want to treat the people around me with kindness, dignity, and respect, and it gets a lot harder to do that when I’m constantly injecting the worst of humanity directly into my eyeballs.
Do I think everyone is actually a dumbass? Probably not, but there’s a reason we all act like idiots online…
5. It’s all just letters to the editor.
The worst job I ever worked was as a telemarketer selling local newspaper subscriptions for various clients around the country (a “newspaper,” by the way, was like the internet, except that it got ink all over your hands). I didn’t know anything about the various papers I was selling, but every once in a while the potential customer would start complaining about its political bias—and, according to my script, the correct response to this was to invite him or her to write a letter to the editor.
“Let me tell you something about letters to the editor,” one old man once responded.
“…okay?” I said.
“There are three kinds of people in the world,” he told me. “There are the idiots who yell on street corners; there are the imbeciles who write on restroom walls; and then there are the truly worthless morons who write letters to the editor.”
“…okay?” I said.
He apparently thought he had said something profound, and I guess maybe he had, since I spent the next two decades thinking about it, and I think I’ve finally figured it out. The point isn’t that everyone who writes a letter is a permanent idiot; it’s just that the sort of people most likely to have both the time and inclination to write letters to the editor are bored, unhappy people—no jobs, no families, no friends, no responsibilities. Just a lot of time to kill and a desperate need for attention. So the “letters” page of a newspaper tends to be a pit of low-quality opinions.
Social media is that, but on steroids.
4. Now imagine letters to the editor, but with constant applause.
I’ve written letters to the editor. I’ve also posted dumbassed stuff on social media. And the times when I was most likely to do either tended to be the times I was the most unhappy, the most frustrated with my life, or the most desperate for attention.
The difference with a letter to the editor, though, is that you fire it off, you see it in print (maybe), and then it’s over and you have to go back to living in the real world. With social media, though, you post your dumbassed opinion—and then people start applauding. The internet’s big enough that everyone can find a little cadre of likeminded friends who are always eager to tell them how awesome their dumbassed opinions are, and each “like” or “share” is a little dopamine hit, so you keep doubling and tripling down on your dumbassed opinions, until you and your friends addle each other’s brains into dopamine oblivion.
We’ve all seen this happen. We’ve all got friends who a decade ago were milquetoast Bush supporters but in the years since have been inching ever closer to decreasingly-ironic white nationalism, all the while egged on by likes and retweets from a tiny, tense cadre of internet bros. Or the friends who were pretty normal Obama fans, but have spent the last ten years collecting “oppressed” “identities” for themselves like Funko Pops, and now mainly post about how sending them money is a revolutionary act—again, to endless rounds of applause from their increasingly narrow, but increasingly appreciative, circle of fans.
Someone’s going to accuse me of “both-sidesing” this—“How DARE you imply those two things are EQUALLY BAD!?” etc. And I’m not sure how you quantify badness, but sure, fine, they’re not equally bad. But aren’t they both…sufficiently bad? Aren’t they both examples of behavior that’s both personally and socially toxic—the sort of thing that you can’t do in meatspace without getting deservedly punched in the face?
3. All this toxicity is by design.
A catchphrase you see a lot on the progressive side of Twitter is “Mask off.” In context, it means, “Look! Conservative guy saying Nazi-ish thing! We all knew that, deep down, they were Nazis!”
There’s a subtle assumption, there, though, that everyone has a “deep down”—i.e., everyone has a fundamental essence that they sometimes hide and sometimes reveal. I don’t think that’s quite true, though—I think people, with very few exceptions, just do whatever they’re rewarded for doing. If they’re rewarded for acting like Nazis (say, with likes and retweets), they’ll act like Nazis; when the rewards stop, they stop.
In other words, people aren’t Nazis under their masks—“Nazi” is just one more mask. Behind the mask, for most of us, is…very little.
I spent several years interviewing people about things they’d changed their minds about. I don’t want to discount anyone’s journey, and most people were able to articulate their intellectual reasons for evolving, but more often than not, the mind change was, conveniently, something that increased their status in their social group—or, alternatively, allowed them to make headway into an aspirational social group. Very few people are willing to stand alone with deeply-held fringe beliefs; it’s just not how humans work.
I’m not saying anything original here, but it feels good to be applauded by your social group, and it feels good to condemn competing social groups. And because social media has to be addictive to keep people logging in, the algorithm is designed to hammer these dopamine buttons over and over. What’s good for business, if you’re Facebook or Twitter, is increasingly insane factions saying increasingly dumbassed things, and then periodically bumping into each other and getting into public fistfights.
And if that weren’t bad enough…
2. No, I can’t just “curate my feed.”
This one was a common response to my original post—“Hey man, if all you see is dumbass vitriol all day long, that’s on you! Block obnoxious people! Only follow thoughtful people!” And that’s not entirely wrong, except:
If dumbassed insanity is what drives engagement—and it is—Facebook and Twitter will make sure I see the insanity, regardless of what I tell them, and
Even if it worked, I’m not sure what the point would be?
There are several reasons for that second point. In the first place, it feels like the only reason to be on social media is to see what people are saying about things—so if I’m silencing most people’s voices, that’s just staying off social media with extra steps. That brings me to the second problem, which is that curating your feed is a full-time job, and I absolutely don’t need another chore in my life.
The third reason is a bit more esoteric, but here it is: If social media is toxic by design, can I really participate in good conscience? This is the question that’s been bugging me ever since I wrapped my podcast: What do I believe, with so much conviction, that I’d be willing to stand alone on it—even at great cost to myself?
If my mask came off…would there be anything behind it?
1. But…don’t I need to have a social media presence?
I mean…maybe! That’s the whole reason I haven’t deleted my accounts yet. There’s no shortage of stories out there of creators who made their careers on Twitter, Instagram, etc. These stories have one thing in common, though: they’re almost always early adopters of the medium.
I was listening to a podcast the other day where a paleontologist said she realized no one was making dinosaur content on TikTok, so she decided to be the first—and soon found herself with 80,000 followers. That’s great for her, but I doubt the second, third, or seventy-eighth TikTokker to start making dinosaur content will come even close to those numbers, regardless of their content’s quality. Success is mostly about being in the right place at the right time—and while Twitter may have been the right place, the right time was probably a decade ago.
Social media, for the creator, is mostly just a fame pyramid scheme, and I’m sort of tired of falling victim to it. I aspire to be known for my accomplishments, not for endless attention-seeking.
So if you’re looking for me, you know where to find me—right here, on this stack of subs.
Oops! ALL the free books!
Hey, look at this! A big ol’ stack of both my published books. People seem to like it when I give these things away, so here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to start doing a monthly drawing for a signed copy of each!
Here’s how it’ll work:
Enter your email address and click the “Subscribe” button below (as always, this newsletter is free!).
On the first of every month (starting 9/1/22), I’ll enter all the people who signed up this month into a drawing, and I’ll randomly pick two.
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I’ll keep doing that every month, while supplies last!
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Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
Quick, what’s the best piano rock song ever written about a visit to an abortion clinic?
Y’all were about to say “Brick,” and I would have agreed with you…until today.
While I was working on this article and listening to Spotify, I randomly stumbled onto this 2004 song by singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It rocks ten times harder, and tells an 87.3% more interesting story. Give it a listen.