On Quitting Social Media
When I started seriously considering leaving academia for a different career, everyone told me that I needed a social media presence: I had to “build my brand.” But the landscape of social media isn’t completely foreign to me. Sadly, there’s a Myspace page languishing in cyber-purgatory with my senior prom photo forever-pasted below a cheery optimistic handle. (Yes, I’ve tried taking it down.) And I had Facebook my freshman year of college, which I primarily used for cyber-stalking my roommates-to-be and posting recycled versions of Bob Dylan lyrics.
At the time, I thought the moody selfie I chose for my profile made me seem complicated. (It did not.) Meanwhile, I was learning that how you present yourself in-person and how you present yourself online were two completely different things. A few years after making my Facebook profile, I deactivated it. Apart from 2016, when my account mysteriously became live, I never went back. And I haven’t missed it for these three reasons:
The feeling of inadequacy
Social media is a public forum of a different kind. It rewards us in hearts and likes for curating our lives around a perceived sense of perfection. But there is a fundamental mismatch between the way our brains are wired and this way of interacting with one another.
We naturally look at people and make assumptions about what they are feeling on the inside based on how they appear on the outside. So is it really that surprising that we feel inadequate using glamorous and sterilized portrayals of life as a reference point for how to look, or be, or live? We’re comparing ourselves to something that doesn’t exist. Imagine how powerful this effect is when triggered by friends, extended family, or (horror of all horrors) old high school classmates.
What’s more, the way these companies make money seems unethical. Any other business gets paid by their customers for providing a service or a product — but for social media it’s upside-down. We don’t use their services as a customer. We are the product. It’s the users who generate the money: exchanging likes for bytes, which are then sold to advertisers and delivered back to us in the form of targeted ads.
The longer we are there, the more data we produce. And more data means more profits. When attention is currency, companies have a vested interest keeping us logged on.
The black hole
To do this, these companies hijack the way our minds work. The ideal use-case scenario involves co-opting our attention in bits and pieces throughout the day.
Standing in line? Quickly check Instagram. Stopped at a red light? Somebody just retweeted your post. These tools are engineered to be addictive. Just like pulling the lever of a slot machine. High-yield rewards delivered unpredictably are the best at encouraging behavior over time. Stanford researcher, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, calls this effect “the magic of maybe.” Anticipation is where we biologically derive our pleasure. It’s the act of pulling out your phone to check if maybe there is a message. Literally, it is the pursuit of happiness that is rewarding. And a never-ending black hole of what-ifs is what social media sells. Losing all your money at a Vegas casino is one thing, but what if you took the slot machine with you and carried it around in your pocket?
People aren’t built for this and I think we feel it. More than ever, our attention is fragmented, our respect for scientific expertise is suffering, and we’re overrun with anxiety. I don’t have a good solution. Right now, mine is not to use these tools. However, the potential of the technology is an amazing thing – and I hope it is new enough where the handful of companies driving this digital economy can join us in changing our relationship with it.
Recommendations for further reading/listening:
- “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
- “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
- “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” by Robert M. Sapolsky
- “How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day” Ted Talk by Tristan Harris