Social media is great for lots of things, and the thing it seems to be best at is eating up my life. So once or twice a year, I take some time off to remember what the rest of life is like.
In the lead up to last year’s hiatus, I was asking myself (and my friends/connections/followers) what social media is for. Most people said “connection”, “keeping in touch”, and “sharing” with their personal and professional relationships. A few humorously commented things like “puppy pics”, “babies”, “food porn”, and “getting people out to my gigs” (yeah, I have a lot of musician friends).
I used to agree. As someone from the San Francisco Bay Area who formerly traveled all over the world all the time, The Socials were great for keeping me connected to people I care about. Those friends & family are sprinkled all over the world, and now that I live in a tiny rural town in the middle of Utah and don’t get out quite as much, it’s easy to think that all the shares and likes and comments are even more important for my keeping connected.
But how great are these social platforms at connecting us these days, really? Turns out, “great” is a bit of an overstatement.
Sure, I get to see everyone else’s highlight reel of life, and they maybe see a bit of mine. That’s not connection though. It’s a curated view that isn’t quite true in either direction. So while it feels kinda connection-ish, it’s only our facades that are available for the connecting.
I’ve tried using social media for the real kinds of connections, I have. And…it just doesn’t seem to work very well.
Why? Because we don’t take the time to use it that way, and therefore it’s not designed to function that way, and therefore we don’t take the time to use it that way. Here’s my conclusion:
We use social media to react, not to connect.
While we may intend to connect when we go to the app, it doesn’t really turn out that way. For one thing, the options for actually connecting in realtime are not nearly as conveniently placed as the reaction options. We can text in the inbuilt messaging app, but the medium makes for small commentary and emojis are a poor substitute for tone.
Plus, it’s not quite realtime, is it? And that’s not our expectation of such apps. It would be little odd to do that, right? Facebook offers in-app voice and video calls, but I’m guessing you don’t use them so much? And why not launch a call in WhatsApp? As a vertically integrated service, that could easily happen, technologically. I’m guessing the reason is that you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that call, and Facebook knows it.
The truth is, we’re just as distracted from social media as by it. We’re in line somewhere. Or watching something else. Or in meeting. Or (worst yet) next to another real human being that we actually care a great deal about and is available for real-time connections of the best kind.
My partner loves it when I go on my social media fasts. With Valentine’s Day tomorrow, why not try taking the day off and directing that same attention to someone you love instead?
Other communities that I participate in also love it when I go off social media, whether they realize it or not. Last August, I went all in on Seth Godin’s altMBA program and timed my social media outage to coincide. The cohorts are highly collaborative, so I got plenty of the kinds of interactions with new and inspiring people that I would typically get from The Socials. But better, way better!
In this closed community with a strong emphasis on giving and growing, people actually read what I wrote! Then they actually commented with, like, meaning and substance and thought! Yes, there were still playful emojis, but there were also online meetings face to face. Sometimes one-on-one, sometimes small groups, sometimes hundreds of people. In every context, I was constantly challenged to show up with vulnerability, and for me that means bringing more of my whole self to the game. I feel I can’t really do that on any social platform because of a variety of reasons, most of which boil down to being persistently misunderstood and painfully unseen within that media.
Character-limited social soundbites and single image expressions just don’t allow for much in the way of meaning and substance. Even within the word count, post too many words and few will read. Though they’ll often scan and react as if they think they have.
Which brings me to another important thing that was missing in my month off: Trolls.
And I say “trolls” as a kind of cultural shorthand for people who seem to exist just to use their supremely defensible and mostly invisible placement on the internet to basically snipe at others with less than constructive — and often downright mean — commentary.
But there are plenty of others who don’t fit that description that end up eating a bunch of my time, and likely yours too. People who consider themselves “devil’s advocates” (as if the Devil really needs more advocates these days) and serve to introduce contradictory opinions often for the sake of being contradictory. They see themselves as being helpful with this service.
Truth is, I kinda used to be that guy.
Not all the time, but often enough. And not like all the other people, mind you, I alone was different — an advocate for sense and playful caller-out of those less worldly than I. When my logic was offended I did often step in and provide what I hoped was an amusing counter-perspective. And occasionally when I found people (especially those who I felt really should know better) repeating something that was proven to be demonstrably false, or espousing a viewpoint that could only exist in their tiny little privileged worldview but would not hold up to a global or historical perspective, I’d step in and comment. Not hatefully, not to punish or condemn, but to expand and inspire and play. That’s what I was going for anyway. That’s why I’d spend serious time crafting my words, and correcting them upon any misinterpretation. As a straight, white, male of American middle-class privilege myself, I figured there are things I can give voice to that the feared “others” cannot.
Trouble is, pretty much no one cares or cares for this service.
The threads I tried to comment on usually went sideways. And often I drew the attack, typically from the original poster who did not appreciate my attempts at mind-opening humor, but just as often other friends who didn’t seem to want me as their representative. I’m not the overly sensitive sort when it comes to my own beliefs, but tell me that I’ve caused someone else injury or offense and I take that very seriously. And that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do!
So much of any kind of communication is contextual, and try as I might and experiment as I have, I consistently miss the context of the conversation.
Here’s why I think that is:
No one thinks their way of seeing the world is fundamentally wrong.
But we all are, y’know. Wrong, and most of the time. We’re fundamentally wrong about nearly everything, with few signs of improving the situation. I mean, we have been wrong for all of human history up to this point and I see no evidence that this has changed recently.
Even in the so-called professional communities on LinkedIn, we tend to use social media to connect over how we perceive the world to be. But it isn’t that way, not really. Not even for most of us who happen to be on social media to comment about it at any given moment.
We are using The Socials to reinforce our own beliefs.
Of course in doing so, we are often falling prey to others who seek to grab us by the beliefs and manipulate us. See Cambridge Analytica, sleezy marketers, 2016 Election Hackers, et al.
After this most recent month off from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like, I’m coming back differently. More purposeful. Distance gives you a new way of seeing things, like traveling far away and then coming back. I don’t think I ever would have seen the following opportunities the same way if I’d stayed “connected” on The Socials. Only by stepping away could I come back with a more refined and personal perspective.So what is social media for, for me now? Here goes:
- Collegial connections with my professional community. This is what I used LinkedIn for, and for the most part, Twitter. If there is a better platform for this that is not owned by Microsoft and that cannot accidentally lead us to thermonuclear war, please tell me.
- Casual, light-duty updates for friends & family. That’s Facebook/Instagram is for, for better or worse.
Yep, that’s it. For everything else, I’ll just talk to people, either individually or online in smaller communities with a strong sense of purpose & culture.Keep in mind that I’m saying this in part to seal the exits to my escape back to Comment Addiction Land. So perhaps more importantly, what am I no longer indulging in social media for?
- Criticism. Literary, cultural, professional, or otherwise. Doesn’t work, and I don’t like how it makes me feel or who it makes me look like. Nope, not doin’ it anymore.
- Challenges. No more photo a day or top ten albums or most influential TV show chain-challenges for me. While I don’t regret the ones I accepted, I am confident that I can go the rest of my life without accepting another and not really be missing out on anything.
- Action. Not only will I decline challenges or other such silly actions, I won’t be telling you or anyone else to do anything either. So I won’t tell you that you need to do this quick thing to secure your computer, or that you should follow me somewhere else, or that if you care you’ll sign this petition, or that you need to come to my gig or support my cause or anything else that you are unlikely to do anyway. I will still share glimpses of how I see things, what I am doing if it’s something that I believe might bring you joy in seeing it, and what I am doing next that you might be interested in. I offer these only as a point of elective connection for you. If you’re curious about more, you can ask me. Like in a real conversation.
There are plenty of other blogs out there just waiting to tell you why you should do a Social Media Detox or Social Media Fast or Social Media Diet or Social Media Hiatus. Go read them if you want other people to tell you why you should or show you how you can (hint: it’s incredibly simple).
In the spirit of my choices about why & how I’m using Social Media, I’m not going to tell you to go do anything now. I’ll just say why I do Social Media fasts for at least a month every year:
I get a lot out of it. Much more than I believe I missed.
And when combined with an intentional online community, it’s easily 100-times more valuable! This year I’m scheduling April and at least the month before our next election off, and will double down on intentional communities at those times.
What do you think of all this? The comments below work just like on social media, y’know… ;)