“I’m quitting social media.”
The other day, I stumbled upon the article Going Postal — A psychoanalytic reading of social media and the death drive.
In the article, the writer Max Read tells us the story about his personal relationship with social media in light of reading The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour.
And yes, Read tells us that he’s quitting social media.
Why Read is quitting social media
Read’s article is well-written, both poignant and entertaining. And he does a tremendous job of conveying his thinking on the subject. The trope “I’ve had enough and here’s why I’m quitting social media” has been an internet staple for years, of course, but Read’s take is a classy blend of wit and cool.
Despite disagreeing with Read’s conclusion, I enjoyed the style of the article wholeheartedly:
“I quit Twitter and Instagram in May, in the same manner I leave parties: abruptly, silently, and much later than would have been healthy. This was several weeks into New York City’s lockdown, and for those of us not employed by institutions deemed essential—hospitals, prisons, meatpacking plants—sociality was now entirely mediated by a handful of tech giants, with no meatspace escape route, and the platforms felt particularly, grimly pathetic.
Instagram, cut off from a steady supply of vacations and parties and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly unkempt and wild-eyed, each one like the sole surviving astronaut from a doomed space-colonization mission, broadcasting deranged missives about yoga and cooking projects into an uncaring void. Twitter, on the other hand, felt more like a doomed space-colonization mission where everyone had survived but we had to decide who to eat.”
Although I agree with Read’s observations on a case-by-case basis, there are a few missing perspectives that should be taken into account before we dismiss social media — and carry on with our lives blissfully.
My question is this: Aren’t the negatives just as bothersome for all sorts of media consumption?
The reversal of the argument
For the sake of such an argument, imagine replacing social media with television in Read’s text:
“I quit watching television in May, in the same manner I leave parties: abruptly, silently, and much later than would have been healthy. This was several weeks into New York City’s lockdown, and for those of us not employed by institutions deemed essential—hospitals, prisons, meatpacking plants—reality was now entirely mediated by a handful of broadcast companies, with no meatspace escape route, and the shows felt particularly, grimly pathetic.
Day-time television, cut off from a steady supply of reality celebrities and cued studio audiences and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly unkempt and wild-eyed, each one like the sole surviving astronaut from a doomed space-colonization mission, broadcasting deranged missives about yoga and cooking projects into an uncaring void. Late-night television, on the other hand, felt more like a doomed space-colonization mission where everyone had survived but we had to decide who to eat.”
This type of media critique stems from a long and proud tradition going back a long time, at least to Neil Postman and Pierre Bourdieu. Such an observation doesn’t take anything away from the critique explicitly, but it does point to the fact that we might as well be blaming media logic overall.
After all, the medium is the message, right?
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons for cutting back on television. My gosh, the amount of crap on television is often staggering.
However, context does matter; if you think that binge-watching daytime television instead of going to work and getting a healthy amount of exercise makes you worse-off, then you’re probably right.
But if your diet consists of BBC documentaries in moderation … well, you should be just fine.
There’s no information overload
It’s not too complicated.
If you’re not happy with what you’re reading and seeing on Instagram and Twitter, you’re simply using them wrong. The same goes for YouTube, Twitch, Quora, Pinterest, and TikTok, too.
Even Google’s search engine has a social component; just stop searching for (and clicking on) crap and the social media algorithm will better understand that you’re a serious person who wants serious search results.
“There is no information overload, only filter failure.”
— Clay Shirky
Tweaking your social media exposure isn’t all that different from switching channels on your television set — or even turning it off once in a while.
Quitting social media (or television) cold turkey isn’t necessary the obvious solution to your problems.
Yes, I fully agree that the ecosystem with interconnected devices, behavioral big data, and dopamine-triggering notifications is more addictive and more accessible than television ever was. Just like television was so much harder to resist than radio.
I’m not actively trying to be an asshole here. There’s a case to be made that many people are ill-equipped to manage their social media feeds. Many of us just don’t have the sensibilities to manage these “new” technologies — at least not yet.
Back in 1998, when I was playing around with my Nokia 1611 during class, my history teacher gently reminded me that the biggest disadvantage of being a slave is that they were always accessible.
Maybe this is a key point?
You’re not supposed to react to everything
It might be that some generations have yet to understand that you’re not supposed to reply to all emails, comments, phone calls, text messages, and DMs. The mindset, ”The phone is ringing, someone should pick it up, it might be important,” will pull anyone into digital enslavement.
If you try to contact someone who isn’t paid to answer and you’re unable to pass through their filters, it’s not on the recipient for “not picking up”. It’s on you — the sender. If not, your inbox and your feeds, too, will become everyone else’s agenda for your time — if you let it.
In this wired world of ours, when anyone can so easily contact anyone anywhere and at scale, it’s just different now. I even have a personal phone policy to that effect.
If you’re a Fortnite streamer using the Twitch social platform, there are built-in functions to allow the audience to pay for a chance of getting the streamer to notice your messages. And other social platforms (even Facebook) are following suit by implementing new ways for influencers to get paid.
We’ve gone from, “Thanks for calling” to, “Thanks for replying.”
It would be like placing a collect call, but your payment would befall the person picking up and not the phone company.
Pretty weird, right?
Who’s the bigger fool?
This reversal might seem absurd to some, but the underlying logic is rather obvious to most internet-savvy demographics.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t an “older-people-just-don’t-get-it” rant. That would be unfair. Those of us who grew up without social media have no playbook and, more importantly, no older generations to learn from.
Max Read goes on to write:
“These people, with their just-asking questions and vapid open letters, are dullards and bores, pettifoggers and casuists, cowards and dissemblers, time-wasters of the worst sort.”
If this is true, and it might well be, then what do we call all those people who are allowing these time-wasters into their social feeds? I don’t have any big words on this, but fools come to mind.
In summary: We need to manage the algorithms, not let them push us over the sidelines.