Essays on Technology and Culture

Social Media Sabbatical – A Two Week Update

It’s been two weeks since I uninstalled Twitter from my phone, deactivated my Facebook account, and turned off almost all the social media feeds I spend far too much time on. In just this short amount of time, it’s already been far more effective than my previous attempt. I’ve finished reading several books, in print and on my Kindle, done plenty of writing, and settling into the domestic routine of life in a new apartment with my partner. Not having the streams to distract me has helped me focus. I can think more in long-form, instead of 140-character chunks. After dropping a huge Tweetstorm, it’s harder to re-channel those thoughts into a longer piece.

Before typing this up, I finished reading Dave Eggers’s latest novel, The Circle. It’s a science-fiction satire about a technology company that’s Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon all rolled into one, The main character, Mae, works at the titular company as a Customer Experience agent, and as part of her job, starts to live in the omnipresent hyper-streams of the future network. As one character describes what happens to Mae:

“…[A]ll this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.”

Again, this is satire, and the character who drops that quote is pretty much a Captain Obvious Aesop, but there’s a kernel of truth to the quote. It’s one thing to keep in touch, it’s another thing to just spew your brainfarts into the stream with no sense of why. Why do we do it? We want to be liked, fav’d, retweeted… we want to be loved. And it’s done in the form of, as said Aesop describes as “snack food.” I’m sure you all read Mat Honan’s excellent essay about what happened when he liked everything he saw on Facebook for two days. You should also read Elan Morgan’s piece about what happened when he stopped liking things on Facebook, and Anil Dash’s essay on “The Semiotics of Like”. This isn’t even a new thing: Fish: A Tap Essay asked similar questions, over two years ago.

Reading The Circle and those above linked essays has me thinking a lot about what I’m going to do when my sabbatical ends, as it must, and I go back into the streams. I have to think about my relationship with the people on these services, as well as my relationship with the service itself. What data I surrender, where I choose to view and post into my streams, what I post, and what I allow to bug me. I’ll have more detailed thoughts closer to the end of my sabbatical, largely around Facebook, which is the worst offender in abusing my data, and the biggest of my social timesinks according to RescueTime. The only thing that’s allowed me to take action, however, stepping back and cutting everything off, allowing everything to come to a balance, and adjusting accordingly.

When you live in the streams and get lost in other people’s moments, it’s easy to lose perspective of who you are—your dreams, your ideas, your relationships. They all get subsumed in the long stream of data that washes over you every time you launch an app. Regaining perspective has been the greatest benefit of this sabbatical. I don’t want to lose it all when I go back. If I can’t go back with a sense of mindfulness, awareness, and perspective about the role these services play in my life, I may as well just cut them out together. I don’t want to be the anti-social media extremist, nor do I want to drown in the stream. There’s a middle ground to find.