I do not have any social media.
At one time or another, I was active on all of the popular platforms.
Ultimately, this was a personal choice.
I think partly a factor of becoming more introverted, a little more private and a lot less sure about things. It is partly that life is more full and more complicated. Therefore I worry less about keeping myself in other peoples periphery (and them in mine) at all times.
However, there were also a combination of ideas that influenced getting rid of these accounts.
There is freedom to do things, and freedom from things. I first heard this idea discussed here. ‘Freedom to’ represents external freedom: the freedom to do anything one wants. ‘Freedom from’ represents internal freedom: to be free from reactions, negative emotions, anxiety, anger etc.
Within contemporary debates on technology we have also become very familiar with the trope that if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. That ‘free’ doesn’t really mean ‘free’. There is a cost - exposing yourself to technologies of manipulation, persuasion and suggestion is the exchange for access to a product or service. Therefore perhaps what we think is ‘free’ is actually an exchange in different types of freedom - exchanging freedom from for freedom to.
This is not a new line of thought. Seneca actually wrote about this behavior in this Epistles essay on values where he writes:
’Our Stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves(…) But we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, of lost honor, personal freedom and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing cheaper than himself (…) Very often things that cost nothing cost us most heavily’
Freedom from distraction and expectation is perhaps more valuable to me than the freedom of expression and connection.
Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ — is about focus and distraction. It makes a case for eliminating busy and distracting low value work, for concentrated, focused deep work. Removing or reducing social media is one strategy to reduce this constant shift in focus.
Not only are the tools distracting and addictive, reducing the time you have to accomplish things you value more. I think there is a strange duality — where you are simultaneously thinking about the thing you are doing, whilst also thinking about how you might share it and how other people might interpret it. I believe this leads to complicated and confusing blurring of impulses and reasoning.
Greater focus of attention is something I want in as much of what I do as possible — not just work. In conversations, in my hobbies, in my leisure. I want to be more engaged in those moments.
Jaron Lanier’s book ‘You are not a Gadget’ (expanded on in ‘Feel Free’ by Zadie Smith) explores the way modern information systems interact with the rest of the world.
Information systems, in their efficient nature, ‘underrepresent reality’. Social medias pre-defined formats simplify, sterilize and reduce presentations of people. As Smith puts it ‘Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility’ as people reduce themselves to make ‘a computers description of them more accurate’.
Perversely, perhaps the incentives that are built into the platforms shift peoples behavior in such as way that these reduced, clean, packaged versions of a person ultimately become their life. Maybe, thinking about the representation of your life shifts your actual life, changes your pre occupations, affects who and how you spend your time. In becoming your personal brand perhaps you lose some sense of what you care about, enjoy and want out of life.
Robert Keegan’s book called ‘Immunity to Change’ presents a model for adult intellectual development. Keegan suggests that (post-adolescence) adult development has three notable phases:
1. Socialized Mind
Look for external reinforcement to define meaning and a point of view.
2. Self Authoring Mind
Through your experiences you develop a point of view of the world and filter everything through that perspective.
3. Self Transitioning Mind
Begin to see and understand other perspectives and can also step outside of your self and see how your own affects your thinking.
The way social media platforms are designed, I believe, can keep people in a perpetual loop. People are flung back and forth between socialized and self authoring mindsets — always trying to assert a point of view and perspective, but also endlessly looking for social validation and reinforcement. It becomes incredibly hard to unpick your motivations and intentions - do you think what you think, or do you think that because you know others will think that?
There is an alternative point of view one could take - where social media can facilitate exposure to a wider range of perspectives than you might encounter day to day — therefore supporting the development of a self transitioning mindset. However, the current challenges around reaction, outrage and filter bubbles makes me skeptical.