A funny thing happened on my way to quitting social media for a month

Social Medialess October isn’t a thing. But perhaps it should be.

I finally quit Facebook a handful of months back after long intending to ditch it for good. It was more problems with the company’s unethical practices than anything. (What those specific items are aren’t particularly important; suffice to say, if you do even a cursory online search for such issues, you’ll find plenty that may very well make you question your own continuing support of the company by use of the site.)

That felt odd at first, cutting myself off from such a convenient method of connecting with family and friends that I’d used for… I’m not even certain how long. Over a decade, for sure. Fifteen years, give or take? As one can imagine for something that had been around for about a third of my life and was gone between one day and the next, I missed it.

But I soon discovered that the missing it was perhaps more from being so used to having it for so long and now it was gone, rather than it being something that was super useful in my life, let alone necessary.

Before I left Facebook, I made sure to announce a couple of times loudly and clearly where and how I could still be contacted. I have a phone people can call or text me on, for starters. I have email, I have my own website (as you’ve noticed), and I’m on other social media.

I am still on Twitter, for instance, though in trying to divest myself of ethically questionable social media operated by one individual who determines its rules and regulations and has made some bullshit calls on that front, even being on there is iffy.

And I’m still on Mastodon, which is a Twitter-like social medium but is better in some very important ways. More on that later.

I’m also reminded by occasional push notifications I get from Tumblr that I have an account there, as well. Given I had totally forgotten about it, I obviously don’t use it much, so it isn’t exactly being missed…

In any case, I had recently realized (ok, re-realized) that I spend entirely too much time on Twitter. It’s indisputably useful in many ways, and particularly since I was skewing my timeline to more humour and light-hearted fare, such as comedians and cute animals–you want a picture of a bunny every hour? There’s an account for that, and you can bet your ass I follow it–I was getting a diet of less rehashed bad news and less depressing or irate feedback about that bad news, although there was still plenty of that, which I’ll look at remedying if I stay there.

Ah! And there it is: If I stay there.

Because along with this re-realization of Too Much Twitter, I came across this post (on Twitter, ironically, forwarded from Reddit, another social media site).

Now, that’s just one person’s take on it, of course, and one who’s on way more social media sites than I ever was. So his experience without it was likely more clear than it would be from being on, then without, the scant few sites I am. But it was one of a growing number of people I’d heard and read about who were turning away from social media and were feeling better for it.

Adding to that Let’s Quit Social Media For Our Benefit wave in a big way was the voice of Jaron Lanier.

Lanier is a tech guru/visionary/philosophy writer who helped invent and push the boundaries of VR–he in fact coined the term “virtual reality”, and his was the first company to use wired gloves and the now ubiquitous goggles for immersive VR–and who has been involved in the tech industry for decades. He’s published a number of books about technology and what he thinks its place should be in society, and what it has unfortunately become instead (but with some hope about how it may yet be improved upon). Most recently, he published a book called Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

While I haven’t read the book yet, I’ve read and seen interviews with him about the topic–most recently here and here and here–and he makes some excellent points about what the internet as a global utility had originally been envisioned as versus what it has become. In particular, he focuses on how tech giants like Google and Facebook (and to a lesser but still notable degree, Twitter) are making it easy for people to communicate, but in doing so are watching everything the users do, and are learning from that what everyone likes or dislikes and use algorithms to feed them more of that.

Wait, you rudely interrupt. It feeds them more of what they dislike?


As Lanier points out, on the whole, life is pretty balanced in terms of what rewards and punishments you get; the positive and the negative. But these big companies aren’t looking at a person’s whole life, just what they’re doing while online. Their systems are looking at very frequent data points for what a person is doing when. And on that much smaller scale–because positive things (like trust or love) take longer to create than negative things (like losing trust or love)–negative input is responded to by users more quickly than positive input. Which feeds that data into their systems, which then begin to dictate that since people are responding to what they dislike faster, more of that will get more attention, and so it feeds people more of that content.

Meaning, by the design of these gargantuan social media sites, what people dislike informs more of what they’ll see, and keep seeing, than what they like.

Dumb, right?
And counterintuitive.
And of course not healthy.

The not healthy part can’t be overstated. Studies have shown that there are links between overuse of social media by teens and their feelings of depression, loneliness, more anxiety, less self-confidence, and more.

None of which should be surprising. In 2017, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker said that Facebook was designed to use as much of peoples’ time as possible. Lanier explains that such time is an addicting, gambling-like cycle of negative (getting disliked content) mixed with occasional hits of positive (getting likes or retweets). We endure the negative because we know we’ll get to the positive hit again soon. And so the cycle continues, all the while small tweaks in what we’re fed from those sites affect what we’re thinking about, how we act, what we believe, what we feel…

Lanier’s proposed solution is to rethink how these big companies operate as a whole. But since Mark Zuckerberg continues to broadly defend Facebook’s practices and only offers to make changes that don’t particularly change what the site is and does, and since Google operates fundamentally on gleaning data from its users and is thus unlikely to change its methods (or even be able to, as the foundation of the company, its very raison d’ĂȘtre, relies on such data), Lanier’s proposed overhauls seem unlikely to happen in such cases.

In lieu of that, for the sake of our mental health and social well-being–Lanier believes society cannot survive as it is going, with such volumes of people hooked into these types of social media–he says the least we can do is to not join into it where possible, or to delete our accounts if we’re already there; to avoid or rid ourselves of behaviour-changing algorithms dictating so much of our brains’ digital input.

Well… for me, Facebook is already gone, and not soon enough.

Google is… harder. I recently left Gmail for this kind of data collection/lack of privacy concern. But I have an Android phone, which is itself a Google product. I could perhaps look at getting a Windows phone, but they’re rare. BlackBerry was an option until fairly recently, but sadly lost the mobile battle efforts with their own OS and now make hardware for Android systems.
I may switch to an iPhone at some point, but Apple certainly isn’t without its own ethical issues, such as getting caught at “updating” older phones that actually slowed them down in order to make the newer phone models look/seem/be even faster by comparison. (That’s no tinfoil hat theory, by the way. It happened. Look it up if you’re interested.)

And then there’s Twitter.

I do get a lot of enjoyment out of Twitter, and use beyond just mindless content consuming. I find more and more companies and services reply to questions and issues on Twitter faster than they do via other methods, as just one example. But it’s undeniably got ethical problems of its own, and is yet another example of an algorithm determining what we see and, to some degree, how we act.

Lanier says that anyone who can quit social media and doesn’t is only continuing to support these unethical methods of manipulating what users see and experience and feel (to the users’ detriment), and in so doing are avoiding helping those who aren’t strong enough to quit.

That’s pretty heavy stuff, and farther than I’d go, at least yet. I guess he’s saying if enough people quit social media then they could throw a lifeline of sorts to help others get out of it, who would then find it easier to quit with fewer people in that social media anyway? Or they could leave it behind, taking steps toward being healthier with the encouragement and support of friends and family, a bit like a social media intervention? That’s not an entirely clear point to me, but given the chords he strikes with so many other aspects about this subject, that assertion is owed some consideration.

An important aspect to all of this: As I heard Lanier explain himself, it’s clear that despite the titles to his interviews and talks (which must understandably be snappy to get our attention), he isn’t at all anti-tech sector (he loves it and still works in it and has many friends in many tech companies), nor is he anti-all social media. He’s just anti-what tech has been bent to accomplish for the current big examples of social media, the ones who tweak our behaviours to keep us in a feedback loop and keep us online and keep us consuming more negative/disagreeable content than anything.

Which brings us back to Mastodon.

In brief, Mastodon is a Twitter-like social medium, but which is de-centralized. That means aspects of it are run by individuals in varying places, rather than the whole being run by one person in one place/company. These people operate servers for users to connect to each other. Users choose what “instance” (server) they want to use as a type of home base, but most instances–of the thousands that exist–operate together in a “federation”, which allows any user from any instance to see, follow, and connect with any (public) user from any other instance.

Mastodon is exactly the kind of social medium Lanier is talking about as an ideal example of how such a thing should ethically work: Your feed isn’t driven by algorithms or advertising, because it isn’t trying to make money by selling you anything. It exists via funds kicked in by its users to cover operator costs. It’s an example of a social medium that exists purely so people can connect and talk and there isn’t a third party scraping data from it for their own use or trying to manipulate what we see and hear and feel.

Mastodon has many benefits over the likes of Facebook and Twitter, not the least of which being that operators of instances get to pick and choose their own rules and regulations for what is acceptable for their users to do and say and show (don’t like what one instance allows? Register with another one instead), and that with so relatively few users per instance, each operator is much better able to quickly handle complaints of users breaking those rules.

It isn’t perfect, to be clear: Its option for DIY instances allows for more freedom of expression and breadth of interest than Twitter, which is good in many ways but bad in others. There are of course instances focusing on writers, and art, and photography, and coding, and furries, and probably any other hobby or interest you have, including into the lewd and openly sexual.
But that freedom for operators to make their instances what they want them to be (provided it’s legal) also allows for, say, alt-right/neo-Nazi voices to find a home and join in the federated timeline. Users can engage or ignore or block them as readily as they can with any other users, but that something like nazism can exist in this otherwise communal, cohesive medium is definitely an issue. In the greater scheme, however, Mastodon is still in a whole other ethical league than Facebook or Twitter.

Because of all of that, Twitter is now on a bubble for me. Mastodon, I’ll likely stick with, at least for now.

But I digress.

To get back to the broader topic of how my outlooks and opinions have changed in the last couple of weeks of being off social media…

I haven’t been tracking anything in detail, let alone as many data points as the user who posted that graph I linked to above, but I have noticed that since staying off of Twitter and Mastodon (in the spirit of simply staying off all social media for the month), I’m definitely more present and more engaged with what’s going on around me. Not just because I’m on my phone less (although that’s happened), but I believe it’s as much because I’m thinking less about posts on those sites, as well. There’s less background noise in my head, with less distraction and/or being irate that our premier is making more cuts to social programs, or that, say, a particularly stupid president said a particularly stupid thing.
For instance.
Those types of bad things are all still going on, of course, I’m just not miring myself in it by reading dozens of takes on the same information these days. So a clear win on that front.

I had thought that being off social media may let me get more writing done, but that hasn’t happened, that I’ve noticed. I think that’s in large part because the bulk of my looking at Twitter and Mastodon posts is often in between doing other things: When waiting for someone, or heading to a break at work, or between stirs of something for dinner, etc. That sometimes seconds-long between time wouldn’t lend itself to writing anyway, so that’s made no particular impact on progress there. I do sometimes sit and just scroll through the likes of Twitter for stretches, which could perhaps be used for writing or reading or something productive, but those times are rare.

I’m probably getting somewhat more reading done, as reading is easier with quicker hits than I can deal with when writing. But it hasn’t been a huge change.

More particular to the specific categories in the linked graph, as for my overall mood, political anxiety, COVID anxiety, economic anxiety? Probably improved over the last couple of weeks, if only somewhat. With less rehashed negativity bouncing around in my head, I’m sure I’m in at least a somewhat better mood. But with a very important election coming up in the States in a couple of weeks and with a ten-year-old who’s asking sometimes multiple times a day about whether or not Halloween is happening and with life in general still being life in general, any decrease on what anxiety I have hasn’t been huge.

Viewing things as black and white has probably changed. I’m certainly reading less of such stuff, of course. So let’s call it at least a bit more positive there.

My body image hasn’t changed. I’m still overweight and still need to work on it. I don’t know that I ever looked at Twitter and was disappointed in my body image as a result, so no improvement on that score.

Sleep quality hasn’t changed noticeably. I’m assuming that the idea there is that there’s so much pent-up anxiety from social media about all of the above issues that it actually could affect how well a person sleeps. Such has never been the case for me, that I’ve noticed, so it’s about the same.

But even without any huge differences in those aspects (at least so far), it was more surprising to me than anything that in just two weeks I went from “I should maybe stay off Twitter and Mastodon for a month as a bit of a brain palate cleanser” and noticing I was missing the familiarity and immediacy and usefulness of Twitter, to realizing that I could–and arguably should–just stop supporting Twitter as a whole.

I’m not making a snap decision on that, I’m giving myself time to mull it over and sleep on it (maybe for a week or two), but right now I’m definitely leaning that way.

So who knows? October may go from being a month of staying off social media to the month I got rid of the most used of it.

I’ll write more as I know it.