In the article, writer Max Read tells us the story about his personal relationship with social media in light of reading The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour. Read tells us that he’s quitting social media.
Despite disagreeing with Read’s conclusion, I enjoyed his article wholeheartedly. It’s incredibly well-written, both poignant and entertaining. And Read does a tremendous job in 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, but Read’s take is a classy blend of wit and cool.
“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 just carry on with our lives. For the sake of such an argument, imagine replacing social media with television.
“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.”
In light of this comparison, I’d suggest that we ponder two additional perspectives:
Firstly, 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. This 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?
Secondly, and as follows, there are definitely many reasons for cutting back on watching television. 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. If your diet consists of BBC documentaries in moderation, you should be fine.
The reversal of Read’s arguments can actually become rather uncomfortable:
“There’s no information overload, only filter failure.”— Clay Shirky
It’s not 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.
Facebook’s a little bit different. Most of us are socially connected to our meatspace circles. Unfriending your mother-in-law could prove problematic. Still, there are plenty of tools to trim what you’re exposed to on Facebook. Even Google’s search engine has a social component; stop searching for (and clicking on) crap and your algorithm will better understand that you’re a serious person who wants serious search results.
Tweaking your social media exposure isn’t really different from switching channels on your television set — or even turning it off once in a while.
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. There’s a case to be made that many people, too many and maybe even the most of us, are ill-equipped to manage our transition into a wired world. Many of us don’t yet have the sensibilities to manage these “new” technologies — and this is a real problem.
As I was playing around with my Nokia 1611 in the classroom back in -98, 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? Maybe older generations have yet to understand that you don’t have to reply to emails, comments, phone calls, text messages, and DMs. But they might be thinking that they do (“The phone is ringing, shouldn’t you pick it up? Might be important!”) and so they are drawn into headspaces where they feel enslaved.
If you try to contact someone and you’re unable to pass through their filters for whatever reason, then it’s on you, the sender. It’s not on the recipient for “not picking up”. In this wired world of ours, when anyone can so easily contact anyone anywhere and at scale, it’s just different now. As the recipient of inbound signals, you don’t have to respond or reply to everything (unless you’re paid to do just that).
Your inbox quickly becomes everyone else’s agenda for your time — if you let it.
If you’re a Fortnite streamer, then you know that Fortnite isn’t just a game — it’s a social platform in its own right. And as a popular streamer, you can’t let the audience decide when to stream or how and when to reply to whoever. In fact, if you’re streaming using the Twitch social platform, there are built-in functions to allow the audience to literally pay the streamer to get some sort of response. And other social platforms (even Facebook) are following suit.
Imagine if those old wall-mounted telephones had a coin-slot where you paid real money to encourage whomever you’re dialling to take your call!
The logic behind a “reversed collect-call” might seem absurd to you and me, but rather obvious to younger demographics and other social media naturals.
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 got to experience the world before social media, we’re the first to explore how to manage our platforms properly at different stages of life. We have no playbook and no older generations to learn from.
Max Read writes:
“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 try better, not stop trying.