A Social Media Experiment and Observations

For the past several years, I have resolved – with little success – to wean myself off of both social media and watching cable news. The resolution coincided with my 2016 resolution to travel more. It was part of a larger effort to spend less time in the virtual world and more time living in the real world. I also wanted to decrease the aggravation I felt from the constant stream of negative news, political and religious posts, and other emotionally-charged nonsense.

But habits are difficult to break, and I’ve only had minimal success in weaning myself off of the news and social media. As far as the news goes, I don’t want to go about my life completely uninformed. I want to know the moment our Cheeto-flavored president drops dead from a heart attack so I can pay proper tribute. Also, I don’t want to be the last person to be aware that we’re experiencing an apocalyptic event. I’ve tried switching to dry, neutral news channels like the Reuters, AP, BBC, and Agence-France. But their delivery is too dry and devoid of humanity.

Quitting social media has been equally frustrating, since Facebook has somehow become the default communications platform between me and my friends. But I have been able to take breaks from Facebook for weeks at a time, and had successfully filtered out a lot of the noise for a time.

Carefully-Curated Friends

I don’t have many friends on Facebook. Only 82 at the moment. This probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone, as I am well-known as a misanthrope. In fact, you might think 82 seems high for someone like me. But it’s not my misanthropy that keeps my friend count low. At one time or another, I’ve been connected to co-workers, teammates from Ultimate Frisbee and hockey, haunted house attractions, and more.

I just don’t keep them. If I drift apart from someone over the years, I eventually remove them from my friends list. It’s nothing personal. But I keep a carefully-curated list. I also don’t accept every single friend request I get. If I meet someone new, I’ll accept their request initially. But if we don’t bond shortly thereafter – off they go.

None of my friends have fewer Facebook friends than I do. Many of them have friends lists well over 1,000 people. One person I know has over 2,300. I honestly don’t understand this practice. Even the most social, friendly, well-liked person cannot maintain that many real friendships. Now… regardless of why someone chooses to accept that many friend requests – the fact remains that the majority of those people are de facto strangers. Your profile might as well be public. Personally, I post too much – shall we say “questionable”? – content to my Facebook feed. And all of it is restricted to my friends. That way I control – and know – who has seen what.

Tumbleweeds in My News Feed

But even with only 82 friends, my news feed was still cluttered with shit I don’t need to see. So gradually – over time – I unfollowed friends (and pages) who didn’t post things I was interested in. It got to the point where I was only following about 3 or 4 people.

To me, unfollowing a friend wasn’t necessarily judging the friend. (Judging a friend means unfriending them.) I was just judging the quality of their posts. And it’s not like I’m unaware that there are people who don’t like the shit I post. I’m sure the vast majority of my friends have unfollowed me as well, which is why I only ever hear from a handful of them. And that’s fine – I’m not insulted by it.

One day, very recently, I noticed that the proliferation of advertisements on my news feed had grown in a noticeable way. An ad had taken a spot in every third or fifth item in my news feed. I thought I might finally have the excuse I needed to quit Facebook for good. Advertisements are like Kryptonite to anti-consumerism geeks like myself.

A Social Media “Experiment”

But I didn’t quit Facebook (yet, anyway). Instead, I decided to test a theory, first. I thought perhaps the explosion of ads in my news feed was due to a lack of content from my friends. So I went into my friends list and re-followed all of my friends. Figured I’d see what they were up to, do a fresh-eyed re-evaluation of their posting habits, and give everyone a second chance. And see if it reduced the frequency of ads in my news feed. (Spoiler alert: it did not.)

Boy howdy. What resulted was an explosion of… utter garbage.

It’s really difficult to describe what my news feed suddenly looked like. I’ve got friends who are into thug and gangsta posts. Others are head over heels into Pokemon. Some post pictures of cats, others post pictures of their supper. Some of my more liberal friends lecture about safe spaces and trigger warnings. Passive-aggressive whining about relationships, memes with atrocious spelling and grammar (beyond anything you can imagine), and Candy Crush achievements are just some of the garbage I’m sifting through now.

Yet Another Cranky Old Man Rant

I do not want to sit in judgment of other people’s posts. For one thing, it’s so cliché for the older generation to not like what the younger generation is into – be it music, clothes, or taste in Internet memes. For another thing – like I said before – I know that a lot of people don’t like the shit that I post. This is not a “my shit doesn’t stink” speech.

HOWEVER… There is a difference between what I post and a lot of what I now see in my news feed. For one thing, I don’t contribute to the dumbing down and illiteracy of America. I run a fairly tight ship as far as grammar and spelling go. And while I do, yes, sometimes post silly things about my dumb dog or necrophilia, and often rant about how stupid some people are, most of my posts are a little more high-minded and philosophical. A lot of what I write in this blog about travel and minimalism and freedom originated as random thoughts first posted on Facebook.

This is in stark contrast to the banalities, irrelevancies, and general brain rot found in 95% of Internet memes. This hit me like a ton of bricks when I suddenly re-followed all of my friends all at once. Before this, I had been living a sheltered (and filtered) existence online.

An Inherent Conflict

The world is a big and complex place, and I would never try – as many people do – to place blame on one thing for all the world’s problems.

But I noticed something very interesting in the course of this little social media experiment of mine that strikes at the heart of interpersonal human relationships.

Penny Dreadful

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. Your attention. Please!! You must pay attention to me!”

Social Media platforms are uniquely designed to foster a very particular conflict. Social media is specifically designed to make people crave attention and validation from other people. At the same time, social media fosters an environment where people are self-centered, self-absorbed, oblivious to the world around them, and unwilling or unable to give meaningful attention to others.

It is too easy to amass hundreds or even thousands of “friends” that you cannot possibly have meaningful relationships with for want of time and energy. It is too easy to filter out what you don’t want to hear – whether it’s objectionable political views or someone whining about their coworkers – and to lose yourself in a bubble where only your own self interest is given any attention. And it is far too easy to become lost in a black hole where time and space have lost all meaning, and to be fed a constant diet of junk memes that are useless at best, deceptive and harmful at worst.

Awareness

I’m not judging you or your social media practices. I’m not saying anything about myself or my own social media practices. Despite this sounding like a very preachy article, I don’t intend judgment in what I am saying.

I want to wean myself off of social media because I find it to be a largely negative experience and because spending too much time on it interferes with what I want to do with my life. Technology and social media are not all bad – they have provided us with wonderful advancements, benefits, conveniences, and connections. But it is important to recognize the bad that comes along with the good. I do not require a steady IV-drip of news about the ass-clown in the White House, nor do I want to spend hours with my face glued to my cell phone. I would rather live my life out in the real world. For me, that is going to mean weaning myself off of social media, hard as that may be. And to do that, it’s important for me (and for all of us) to take a step back and evaluate what our social media practices are doing to us.

Objectivity, critical thinking, introspection, and self-criticism are all important.

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