After embarking on a month-long digital detox earlier this year, I reflected on how stepping back from social media made me see the world in a different way, for the first time in my life. After returning to the digital sphere and simultaneously reading-up on the negative effects of our growing need to share, I am going to be taking my dedication to all things analogue one step further and deleting the last of my personal accounts today.
For almost a decade I worked in digital communications for arts organisations, eventually specialising as a social media consultant. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the like are constantly expanding and changing, and for small businesses, they can seem like necessary but difficult tools to master. Recently, these tools have altered the way in which they work – the introduction of algorithms means that they have begun to control us more than we control them. I’ve worked with brands all over the world to ‘maximise their social media reach’, trained staff on how to place the most effective advertising, and how those less digitally-minded can even begin to comprehend how algorithms work, how they affect social posts and therefore the information seen and absorbed by target audiences.
Last year, at the peak of working full-time as a social media consultant for various clients, simultaneously running my own award-winning blog and managing my own channels and feeds, I noticed myself slowly slipping away from the real world. I was spending a scary amount of time each day staring at devices, using platforms developed to be addictive frequently and therefore struggling to switch off from them in my free time. Designed to keep you hooked, after ten years of usage, these apps and websites had successfully done their job on me. I couldn’t put my phone down.
On my 30th birthday I made a pledge to myself to go forward into my thirties with a zero tolerance attitude towards anxiety, something I’d noticed present in my life throughout my twenties. Simultaneously, after struggling to manage my expanding blog in my spare time, I closed it. Just deleting three social media accounts and one website had an immediate positive effect on my mood. I was less busy, less stressed, more relaxed and more care-free. As various freelance social media jobs came to a natural end at the same, I decided to take a couple of months off work, and experiment further, giving myself thirty days away from any social media sites.
In this month, I re-found myself.
I was no longer scrambling along a treadmill of work hard, play hard, and was instead living slowly and mindfully. I wasn’t relentlessly snapping photos of every special occasion, wasn’t ‘checking-in’ with the virtual world every ten minutes and wasn’t living with an electronic device constantly wedged into my right palm. I re-discovered hobbies I’d forgotten, found new ways to be creative and experimental, devoted real time to my partner, managed to find time to do all of the things that made me the happiest – walking, running, yoga, seeing friends. Sure, I was a bit more skint than before (I had to cancel some tattoo appointments and say no to some concerts) but I put this to the back of my mind, decided to immerse myself in just one month of enjoying my life. I wrote about this experience on the Oh Comely blog and came away with two very solid conclusions.
- We do not live to work
- We do not live to check and update our social media accounts
Since that digital detox, I’ve found ways to address number 1. I’ve reduced (and want to continue to reduce further) my personal spending, and plan to work part-time, ensuring that I carve time out for myself. Following the teachings of The Minimalists over the last couple of years is almost single-handedly responsible for my understanding how I can do this. If you’re not happy with your work-life-balance, I strongly recommend you listen to what they have to say – watch their movie, download their podcasts, read their books, utilise their budgeting plans and just familiarise yourself with the concept that life does not have to be an endless cycle of work, buy, work, buy.
In the meantime, in the last few months I’ve been thinking about how to address number 2 – how can I reduce my social media and technology use, and more importantly, why should I?
Earlier this month, I was recommended a book by my good friend Mr Smith, which has been the catalyst for my decided to go completely social media-free, forever. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier is a relatively quick read that will take you through just that – a handful of reasons why we must get out, now.
In April, following my social media detox, I deleted all of my social profiles except Instagram, which I have used sparingly since and will remove later today. Rather than recycling Lanier’s own wisdom on this blog, I’m instead going to take you through the reasons why I decided to detach myself from this virtual place, why it has been such a positive move for me, and therefore why I recommend you test the waters yourself.
1. As a social media user, I was doing nothing more than providing advertisers with my data so that they could target me with their marketing campaigns. Without social media accounts, I can go back to a life where I don’t spend a huge portion of my time inputting my own data into a phone, for the benefit of hugely profitable corporations.
As Lanier explains, using social media accounts means that it is impossible to “remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behaviour.”
Once you take a step back and realise (and I was well aware of this working as a social media freelancer) that these apps were created and specifically designed to make money off you, you will never view your usage in the same way again. Every single second of your behaviour is being tracked, used to create audience profiles that brands then target with sales messages. We’re not just talking about the information you input into your profile (where you live, your relationship status and age), we’re talking about the things that can be deduced by examining your behaviour and language very specifically and cleverly (your emotional state of mind, how you talk to your friends, who you’re likely to vote for and why, what influences you to change your mind, when you’re most likely to click on links)… finite levels of detail that we can’t completely comprehend easily ourselves as humans because the majority of it is done by machines.
Look at it this way, in the pre-social-media-age of the ’90s (if you were alive then!), if a brand were to have come to you and said: “we really want to know EVERYTHING about what you do and why, so that we can sell it to advertisers and politicians so they can target and manipulate your behaviour, so please can you carry around this machine all day and at regular intervals input that information for us, willingly, so we can best sell stuff to you, but you won’t get paid for it?”
You would have told them to fuck off.
2. Our behaviour is being being manipulated, but we don’t realise it. I noticed my own behaviour change once I removed myself from these apps, so I know I won’t ever go back.
A large portion of Lanier’s book talks about how these channels are designed to control our behaviour so that we a) become more inclined to take action on the adverts that are displayed to us and b) we become addicted to the channels themselves. We’re living in an age in which a huge percentage of us are, quite literally addicted (displaying addict behaviour in response) to these profitable businesses, and no one seems to be addressing it or doing anything about it.
Research is released regularly exploring how these apps are affecting so many areas of our behaviour. To name a quick few off the top of my head: how we now interact with each other in the real world; how our language is being degraded; how we’re inclined to have conversations devoid of context or consequence; how we’re emotionally, spiritually and mentally disconnecting from the physical world; how we’re becoming selfish and increasingly focused on our own worlds (feeds) and less empathetic towards others; how our brains aren’t taking time-out to pause because whenever we have a free second (like in a waiting room or on transport) we’re too addicted to not pick our phones up and make our brains keep working and multi-tasking; how we’re sleeping worse and screen-time before bed has a negative impact on many of the important natural processes that take place while we sleep; how young people are experiencing anxiety and depression at a level higher than ever before; how school children are returning home to a digital world in which they’re unable to escape the problems faced in the classroom; how we’re sacrificing our common sense, individuality and ability to think for ourselves by being influenced by people we don’t even really care about and/or fake profiles and bots; how we’re caring more about social status and how many ‘Likes’ we have, more so than important things taking place outside of our smartphones; how we’re developing insecurities like feeling jealous of others, constantly seeking validation and fearing judgement because of the ways in which the ‘engagement’ on these platforms is designed; how they make us chase perfection; how they make us feel lonely; how they suck away time with the real human beings around us.
Need I go on?
3. I’d rather live in the real world than a game played by robots.
As someone who has studied social media for years, I can spot a bot-user a mile off. They’ll instantly like and/or comment on your post (especially on Instagram) with a generic phrase (“Hey, great photo! [Insert Emoji]”). I feel sorry for the people who don’t identify these snakes, people like my mum who says “this really interesting peer found and liked my photo today”, and I don’t have the heart to tell her that, no, she actually didn’t.
This is what social media has become – a huge arena in which so many of us want to use it for our own profitable gain (for our own small businesses, blogs or influencer personas), that there are millions of us, trying to shout the loudest in a very, very busy room. It’s an arena so competitive that bot activity and fake profiles are becoming more rife. Using a bot, for example, is easy, cheap and, through automatic interactions with other profiles, can ‘fake’ you into looking like a great social media user, thus potentially rocketing your following and brand opportunities overnight.
To me, social media is no longer an authentic, organic, interesting and creative place. I became so emerged in it, so aware of how it worked, that it became bland, and I became bored of it. I see the patterns, the predictability, the trends, the fakes. I see the game-players, and it’s not a game I have the inclination to play any more.
4. I was getting sick of being a smartphone zombie.
You will have done it yourself too. Sat at dinner with friends when you have all been on your phones. Watched films with a partner that you couldn’t get through without checking your profile once or twice. Checked social media accounts sat in traffic. Ignored people. Been ignored. Said: “sorry, I wasn’t listening, could you say that again?” too many times.
Anyone that claims social media is “bringing them closer to people”, is lying. In my experience and observance, it does nothing more than drag you mentally and physically away from more intimate and worthwhile forms of communication, such as talking on the telephone or interacting together in real spaces.
Go to any concert or busy point of interest where the majority of people will have the sole aim of taking as many videos and photos as possible, and you will see us for what we have become – robotic zombies, relentlessly checking our phones for the next hit. As Lanier accurately describes, social media is primarily “relentless, robotic, ultimately meaningless behaviour modification in the service of unseen manipulators and uncaring algorithms.”
5. I was getting tired of all the brands I loved just using social media to push sales messages down my throat, and I was guilty of being at the forefront of this for years.
Many businesses see social media as one of their main traffic-drivers when it comes to sales. What this means is that many of the smaller, independent brands who don’t regularly reflect on why and how they are using social media (as they don’t have huge teams and specialist agencies like big companies do), end up trapped in a cycle of using their accounts to push marketing messaging. This is why the social media manager or co-ordinator is quite often structured under the marketing department – this does not make sense to me.
The algorithms frequently get the better of the social media co-ordinator and they (like us individual users) are punished within the platforms for not posting spam-like, viral content. If we aren’t rewarded by constant Likes and Comments from our followers, our algorithm rating plummets, and we have to work even harder to be seen. We push out the sales messages as our traffic has decreased and thus we enter the vicious cycle of alienating our followers whilst desperately trying to still use these platforms to generate business.
As social media co-ordinators, we try to post at the right time of day, with the right kind of language, using the right hashtags and location, the right length of text, appropriate length video, and so on. We lose any sense of authentic self and uniqueness (as an individual or brand) and become slaves to what we think the platforms want us to do. I spent years training companies and independent creatives how to do this and it’s heartbreaking. I want to say to them: “your wonderful work is enough, just continue sharing what you do, as you do it, in your voice. Just be you.” But that’s not how you play the game. Those aren’t the rules if you want to be seen.
Rather than sharing work in a creative way, many brands treat their followers as nothing more than a target audience, and most of their posts use language like ‘shop now’, ‘join today’, ‘click here’, or ‘read now’. You’re being targeted with ads from brands you don’t follow, and brands you do follow. Is seeing this marketing messaging a valuable use of your time each day? Do these posts inspire you? Bring you happiness? Or could you use these minutes looking at something more meaningful?
6. Decreasing my time spent on social media saw a vast improvement in my writing style.
Social media platforms are, unarguably, spaces in which we are constantly judged. That’s really not up for debate. You share things about your life, and if you’re deemed interesting, you’ll receive prizes in return (Likes, Comments, Re-Tweets, Shares). If you’re not interesting or valuable, you’ll receive nothing, and left feeling like you’re shouting statements into a busy room but nobody is turning their heads to look at you. Worse still, you may receive nasty responses from people in the room who don’t know you – reactions that are often aggressive, unnecessary and opinionated.
Managing a blog for three years and many different social media accounts for clients, I have interacted with literally millions of people all over the world. Sometimes these people say nice things, and sometimes they say not very nice things. Sometimes, you don’t even known if they’re real people, if their comment is personal, what the context of their argument is, or how they’re really saying something (e.g. whether it is an angry utterance or juxtaposition of a certain Emoji just implies it so). What this did to me as a writer, and person, over the years, was give me a massive insecurity complex.
When I look back at articles I wrote, just last year, I cringe. I constantly hedge my opinions, utter statements that try to please opposing parties, use fluffy language and write in a manner that tries to avoid anyone saying anything opinionated back to me in return. Since becoming a non-social-media-user, I give less of a shit what other people think. I write more confidently. I have a viewpoint and stick by it. I’m stronger, more aware, more concise and less of a validation-seeker.
7. Reducing my social media use almost completely annihilated my anxiety.
Anxiety is quite a complex thing, and I’m not here to suggest that deleting Twitter is a magic fix-it pill, but for me, social media usage definitely had a negative effect on my mental health.
As touched upon in point 6, I no longer care as much what people think, especially those in my secondary and tertiary circles. Those in my primary (my partner, close family and close friends), of course their opinions matter, as I have a life-long commitment to developing positive relationships with them. But, everyone else, really shouldn’t be sucking my energy on a daily basis. When you interact with hundreds of people online each day, it is very difficult to not become emotionally involved, especially if it is your own business or blog, created from your soul.
Lanier describes how our “fight or flight responses occur in seconds, whilst it can take hours to relax”. This phrase really stuck with me as it is so true, and brings back such strong memories. I am still haunted today by certain negative comments I read on my Facebook Page once – it can take a lifetime to rid the negative but a second to forget the positive. That’s just how some of us work – we remember the insults more than the compliments because they seem stronger, and it’s in our nature as animals to be defensive quickly.
Feeling this ‘fight or flight’ reaction used to be a daily occurrence for me, and something even more difficult to deal with in the digital realm, as opposed to the physical one (as you can never really tell what the other user is thinking). Cutting these platforms out of my life has rid me of that frame of mind – I focus on myself, my creative output and those nearest to me. At the time I didn’t realise the effect these networks were having on me mentally but in hindsight, and upon reading these words, it’s pretty obvious that they were stinging me in painful ways. I was absorbing those negative comments more than I realised.
My anxiety reduction wasn’t just due to my lessened interactions with (what Lanier calls) “the assholes” – I have no doubt that other side-effects of my digital detox contributed. Spending more time outside, focusing on interactions with those I love, now finding time to meditate everyday, all will have helped. The fact that I’ve reduced ‘the noise’ has been a huge difference – I now talk to clients and peers over email and phone and that’s it, I no longer manage communication in a million different places.
Also, watching your anxious nature deflate is addictive, and you start to become stronger in other areas of your life because of it. Tackling my own interconnection between social media and anxiety, and seeing the positive influence it had on so many areas of my happiness, gave me the confidence to tackle other areas that affected my mental health – the non-social-media things and people in my life that caused me stress or worry. Sometimes just one change can be a catalyst to then challenge things you hadn’t even considered were problems. This is why I advocate experimenting with radical change (like deleting accounts or quitting jobs you hate), because it can open up doors you never knew were there, transform you in ways you could have never even imagined beforehand. It’s not just about quitting social media, it’s about the power that gives you afterwards to conquer other, equally seemingly unconquerable things.
I think there are too many anxiety-inducing elements of social media for me to sit and list them all, but this was the single biggest deciding factor in me knowing I wanted to come off these sites for good. The amazing differences I observed in my detox month, were enough of a message for me to know I had to make a change.
Yesterday, whilst taking a (phone-free) countryside walk, I stopped for a moment and was reduced to tears. I looked across at our local town in the distance and really looked at it. The shape of the church spire, the cloudless sky, the glow of the sun through the trees, the feeling of the summer heat on my skin. As someone who, her entire life, has been so incredibly terrified of the day when this will all slip away (and it will slip away one day from you, too), I had spent almost an entire decade not really taking it in. I can’t really find the words to describe what the world feels like when you don’t look at it through a screen, because none of the adjectives suffice: clearer, fresher, crisper, more alive. You’ll have to try it for yourself (and I mean, really, try it) to know what I mean.
The single most difficult problem with social media is that it seems like there is no way back from where we have ended up. No company is going to delete its accounts and so many people rely on Facebook Messenger, or Marketplace, or other sub-elements of these apps to communicate and do general business. We’re in its grip. We’re are, quite literally, trapped in it.
I can’t tell you what to do, but all I can say is that if any of the negative points in this article resonate with you, if you feel even for a second that your using social media might be having a negative impact on your mood, relationships, concentration, free-time, physical or mental health, then you need to give it a try, whether you feel trapped in it, or not. It really isn’t worth sacrificing those things for.
If you’re worried about digital support networks, trust me, you will find them again in the real world – the ones that existed for six million years before social media brands came along, the real human beings out there waiting for you to find them. If you feel yourself moaning about not having enough free time, yet you spend hours a day on your phone, have a rational think about how you might be able to carve out some more space for the things you really love.
I have sacrificed my last decade of work and hundreds of thousands of pounds of future potential income for this decision, this realisation, this revolt. But it was, actually, a very easy decision. What I feel right now, every day, is exhilarating. I’ve never felt joy like it before – it is the feeling of knowing that I am 100% here. Too many of us are no longer present in this gift of life, and personally I don’t think anything in the entire world is worth trading for that.