One morning, before starting my work day, I sat down on the comfy recliner in the nursery and opened up Instagram.
I navigated to my profile and it turns out that my last post was back in January. A few minutes after that, I saw a post by a UX Designer who I follow that recommends posting every day and then proceeds to give an example about a fictional follower and the Instagram algorithm.
I leaned the recliner back and took some time to think about this.
For years, I was extremely active on Social Media. I used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin. I was an unrelenting early adopter of new social media platforms. I probably would’ve loved TikTok and Snapchat back then. For years, I was a passionate consumer of new information about social media, and I was a passionate advocate for the power of social media.
Part of what I do for a living is still, as it has been since 2008, to help companies design, launch, and implement effective Social Media strategies. While I still keep up with how each network is evolving, and critically watch new sites emerge and develop (hello, TikTok), I’m personally far less active now than ever before.
At the most basic level, I just haven’t felt like posting anything. I no longer feel compelled to share all of my thoughts, ideas, and breakfast photos. I try to be more discerning and thoughtful about what, when, and why I post something.
If I think more deeply on why I stopped feeling like sharing, there is little doubt in my mind, that it stems from a host of different frustrations, challenges to my values, and consistent assaults—directly and indirectly—on my mental health.
It all started about 6 years ago…
Sometime between 2014-2016, Social Media changed for me. I can’t really place when, exactly.
The negative impact that it started having on my mood and mental health started to far outweigh the benefits of keeping up with and maintaining engagement with—primarily—an extended network.
The emergence of concerning trends, coupled with the ever-increasing erosion of our privacy and data rights, left me feeling conflicted about Social Media.
I battled the feeling that I had an ethical responsibility to pull away from some of the more morally ambiguous services, most notably Facebook and its owned properties. Every 6-9 months back then, and even now, I would have a privacy concern flare-up and consider deleting my accounts in a stand of moral righteousness…but then I would think about the communities I’d lose and reluctantly keep feeding the beast.
Because of my work, I recognize, probably more so than most, the incredible opportunity these networks can present to create vibrant, engaging and safe communities for people, and both learning and revenue opportunities for companies. However, I’m also constantly on watch for how these networks encroach into our private lives typically without adequately communicating it to us or giving us the opportunity to explicitly grant them permission. I see how they foster a safe environment or allow for abuse.
So I see both the good and, the comparatively more substantial, bad.
This dichotomy is the source of my contentious relationship.
Nowadays, most social media I see, seems to fall into two basic categories.
1. Toxic political or issue-based discussions including:
- warring factions of right vs left, center vs left, center vs right, left vs left, etc
- complete destruction of the distinctions between fact and opinion
- an existential battle between delusional conspiracy and harsh reality
2. Constant self-promotion including:
- traditional sales people trying to adapt online and typically failing miserably
- burgening narcissists trying to become famous through dance, sexuality, memes or trends so they can parlay that “fame” into an influencer contract with an energy drink company
- modern day snake oil salesmen/get-rich-quick schemes replete with shots of jets, cars, boats, mansions, and stacks of cash built on a promise about a drop shipping, Amazon storefronts, or social media systems and funnels.
The writing was on the wall long before these two categories of behavior emerged as the most common.
Here are a few things that I’d begun noticing very early on that may have brought us to where we are today…
From the beginning I have been bothered by the artificial influence of algorithms. Each site began coming up with their own unique way to sort what you see. Along with these changes came an implied requirement that I, as a social media professional, would need to tirelessly track it.
Often, instead of giving people the control over what is allowed into their feeds, these networks tried to predict it instead. All the while, the culture of harassment grew worse.
OK, but SEOs have to deal with algorithms too, right? So, I probably would’ve been able to convince myself to keep up with those changes if I wasn’t also constantly force fed the buffet of ethical dilemmas served up by each social media site’s leadership decisions. This primarily included issues of privacy, security, permission, inclusion, and safety.
I saw how social media was beginning to cause harm in society equal to, or in excess of, the good it was doing.
Maybe I would’ve been able to give these sites the benefit of the doubt and keep pushing them to improve if there wasn’t this giant, glaring issue with what social media has become.
Every social network is now dealing with the persistent and unyielding presence and participation by trolls and bots.
These bad actors, both domestic and abroad, dominate threads and manipulate the conversation with high volume, high cadence misinformation in the name of spreading chaos and, often, advancing the goals of white nationalists and the far right. If someone tells you they want to debate online, they are lying to you. They really want to waste your time and get you angry.
It’s important to remind yourself that you are not obligated to respond to any asshole with an anime profile photo who’s following 2000 people, followed by 11, and whose entire social presence seems to be trying to make others angry.
The bots and trolls could mostly be stopped tomorrow if these platforms really wanted it to. Instead they have decided to abdicate the responsibility for what flows through their newsfeeds under the questionable guise of 1st amendment protections (which has nothing to do with private companies) and the desire not to be regulated and held accountable as a media channel.
Consequently, Social Media channels became the primary means by which we consume (and often reshare) propaganda and lies.
Democratizing the web apparently meant that we implicitly accepted a new normal where legitimate news and information mixed with memes, and sites dedicating to fake news and conspiracy theories. All of this has allowed our social networks to assault, deconstruct, and finally destroy the concepts of truth and fact. The consequences of this are very real from climate (in)action to pandemic response to extreme political polarization.
We changed the world
The result of all this moving fast and breaking things has created an open and connected marketplace for toxic ideas and behavior where our privacy is obliterated in the name of someone elses’ profits.
We did change the world, just not how I thought we would.
So, I’ve mostly moved to text messaging with my close friends. I occasionally dabble on Social Media, mostly to share my content, participate in a few groups, or trying to raise awareness about important issues. But, for the most part, it feels like the end of my years as a cigarette smoker.
I now open my Facebook app with the same disgust that I would look on those last few cigarettes in the pack…asking myself why I don’t just throw the pack away.
Looking back on the years of sharing, I can’t say for certain that it’s been entirely worth it. The longer I continue using Social Media, the more difficult it becomes to justify that time spent.
Where do we go from here?
I believe in giving everyone a voice…in principle.
I believe we are better off being connected than being isolated…in principle.
But, in practice, the impact of social media on our society has been resoundingly negative. I don’t know if we can save it (social media or society–though I remain hopeful).
- The wisdom of the crowd ceases to be useful when the scales are tipped by astroturfing and bots.
- Deeper connections through vulnerability become dangerous in a world of trolls and fake accounts, especially when there’s very little recourse.
- And when you combine those fake accounts, trolls and bots with the reality that outrage drives clicks and engagement, are we really surprised that Nazis, conspiracy theories, and unabashed bigotry run rampant?
What should you do?
That’s on you.
As for me, I’m over this. I gave 12 years of my life to Social Media, and most of what it gave me in return for my time and attention was rage, depression, and hopelessness.
I, for one, am choosing to end my contentious relationship with social media and pull back from and change how I interface with these channels.
- I’m no longer going to social media for my news.
- I’m no longer going there for public conversation.
- I’m no longer giving it the benefit of the doubt.
I will be using these sites to promote (broadcast) my work. I may respond to comments. I may not.
I will continue to help my clients utilize social media for their businesses but I will emphasize others aspects of my work and gradually phase my way out of social media work entirely.
I’m going to spend my time writing more, creating more videos, and interviewing people on podcasts.
We can do better than this and we should demand better than this.