The decision to quit social media came about slowly and then all at once. By the night that I deleted my Twitter and Instagram accounts, I had already been downgrading my social media use for a long time.
When I joined Facebook in 2007, it was already open to all users, but it was still mostly confined to university students and it was largely a place to stalk old school mates and post pictures from drunken nights out. Then my mum joined. I resisted friending her for a while, then friended her, and then unfriended her again. This resulted in a phone call in which she told me she was very hurt because she liked to be able to see what I was doing. Imagine, Facebook was still a relatively new phenomenon at that point, but my mum already felt that she had a need to see what I was doing. There was no going back.
I friended her again and continued to post status updates and photos, mostly innocuous stuff. More family members joined, and though I liked seeing photos of my nieces and nephews, I found the content less engaging than I had in the days when it was just my friends posting funny, drunken photos. So I joined Twitter. It immediately felt like a more exciting and happening place to be. The newsfeed updated more regularly and rapidly, which made Facebook feel like a graveyard with tumbleweed rolling through it.
Although I wasn’t using it much anymore, I justified keeping my Facebook account because I needed it to manage work pages, because it was still a great way to stay in touch with family, and because, once Facebook introduced it’s Messenger app, it became my primary texting channel. I now also use Messenger for weekly video calls with my mum (she calls it FaceTime and I can totally understand her confusion).
Around 2012 I started to grow tired of Twitter. It had become too overwhelming as I followed more and more accounts and new features were introduced that increased the amount of content in my news feed. Instead, I started using Instagram more. I found the edited snapshots of people’s lives offered by Instagram much more manageable. It felt like a calm space and I enjoyed sharing snapshots of my own life there too. But inevitably that feeling was eroded away over the years as I followed more accounts, more family members started following me, and features such as sponsored ads, timeline algorithms, and stories were introduced. For the most part, it felt like a lot of noise, and every other post seemed to be trying to sell me something.
So has something else now replaced Instagram? Well, in a manner of speaking. A year ago I had a baby. She didn’t initially replace Instagram. In fact, in the early weeks and months, I think I spent more time on Instagram than I ever had before. I didn’t post much, but I liked scrolling through my news feed at 3am while I fed the baby. I also took to watching Instagram cooking videos to stay awake (not always successfully, sometimes I would wonder the next day if I had dreamt that bizarre pineapple-flavoured, Christmas tree-shaped dessert or not).
As she got bigger and more aware of her surroundings, my daughter became more aware of what I was doing. Around seven months, she started trying to grab my phone from me while I was feeding her. Soon, she saw my phone as a high-value item and she would cry if I denied her it. Every now and then I would acquiesce and at first she mostly just wanted to chew on it. But then she realised that the screen turned on, so she would complain if the screen was off and try to get me to turn it on. Then she realised that if the screen was on and unlocked, she could use her pudgy little thumbs to move things around on the screen. I could see where this trend was going… Next she’ll realise that those icons are apps she can open, then she’ll realise there are apps with games on them…
I started trying to keep my phone hidden from her. I knew I should just keep it in my bedroom while I was home and I tried that. But at some point I would grab it and the temptation to check Instagram was just too much. By the time she was one I couldn’t really get away with checking my phone while feeding her, she was just too easily distracted. But I found myself checking while we ate lunch or while she was momentarily distracted by a toy. Understandably, my daughter doesn’t like it when she doesn’t have my full attention and she would let me know about it by vocally complaining and / or throwing her cup / spoon / bowl on the floor.
I tried deleting the Instagram app from my phone a few times this year, once for a month, around the time that my grandmother died and we were moving house. I was also finishing up my final assignments for an editing course, so I didn’t have time for the fifteen minutes I would end up spending on Instagram whenever I sat down to do something productive. But most of all, I just didn’t have the mental capacity for all those other lives and their problems. I deleted the app again a few times, for a week here and there, and every time, it would confirm that not having Instagram in my life was good for me. I checked my phone less often, I felt less beholden to it, and my head felt clearer.
So, this week I deleted my Instagram and Twitter accounts, for good (actually, I “deactivated” my Twitter account, which suggests it could be reactivated again at some future point, but whatever). I did it late one evening. I’d already deleted the apps from my phone, but I’d increasingly found myself sitting down to do something on my laptop, and then ending up on the web version of Instagram. So I took the plunge.
I’d also just finished reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Newport himself doesn’t use social media, but in the book he offers tips on how to use social media and smartphones in a more intentional way. His method begins with a 30 day digital declutter, in which you sign off from as many social media channels and digital distractions as you feasibly and practically can (i.e. nothing that will jeopardize your job). This declutter, he argues, will help you to see which of these apps actually benefit you, and which don’t. You can then start to figure out how you can use the apps that really benefit you in an intentional way. For example, you might set aside a fifteen minute slot each week to check a particular social media channel, or use a tool like TweetDeck to drill down to the more meaningful content on a topic. Newport also offers tips such as waiting until after a news story has fully broken before reading up on it, to avoid getting sucked into social media speculation, and not liking or commenting on posts, in order to avoid the feeling that you have made a meaningful connection with someone simply because you “liked” their photo.
In Digital Minimalism Newport is trying to offer a very practical guide and he makes it clear that he doesn’t think telling people to ditch all social media or news sites or gaming apps is very useful advice. Instead, he thinks that we should find ways to “hack” these apps and websites, to use them in ways that benefit us, and not vice versa—after all, social media companies want you to spend as much time as possible using their services, to generate as much ad revenue as possible for them. I get where Newport is coming from, but honestly, his approach sounded exhausting. I knew I didn’t need a 30 day declutter (I’d basically already done one) and I knew that any attempt to curtail my social media use through willpower alone would fail (I’m a big believer that willpower is overrated and that it’s better to make changes in your environment i.e. don’t want to eat cookies everyday? Don’t buy cookies).
Instead, I hit delete. Initially I felt a little sickened by my decision. What have I done? Will this affect my career? Will I miss out on networking opportunities? What if I miss out on a really great article? I also worried that it would make me look weird. Would other people be suspicious of me, like, what does she have to hide? Newport addresses this phenomenon in his book. He points out that this is part of the big social media company’s strategies. They want people to feel that they are somehow a social outcast if they don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account.
As time has passed, the sickening feeling has dissipated. I don’t know if this decision will affect my career. After all, it’s not a complete good bye to social media. I’ll still be using it for my literary magazine Stonecrop Review, and for now, I’ve kept Facebook and LinkedIn because I’ve found Facebook groups, such as the Editors Canada one, to be great places for networking in a targeted way (and as a bonus, there are no ads!). I also don’t know what great content and articles I’m missing out on, but because I don’t know, it doesn’t really bother me. Besides, more often than not I would open links to articles only for them to languish as one of the dozens of opened tabs in my browser for weeks to come, before I would finally decide to just close to tab without reading the article.
That’s one thing that I hope will actually change as a result of deleting my social media accounts. It’s not that I want to look away from the world and ignore its problems. I certainly have the privilege to be able to do that. But I don’t want to. I want to engage more deeply with the world. Instead of relying on tweets and scans of headlines to stay informed, I want to make the time to read books and long articles that engage with the nuances of the world. Instead of following authors in Instagram and liking their photos, I want to read their blogs and newsletters and books. Instead of “supporting” small businesses by clicking like, I want to put my money where my mouth is. And instead of scrolling through #VancouverIsland, I want to physically explore this beautiful place that I live.
I know this drastic approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but I feel certain that this has been a good decision for me. I plan to write again about the topic of media and digital distraction (I have a lot more to say about smartphones and television, for example), but for now I’m going to turn off my laptop and watch my daughter practice her waddling walk.