Indefinite social media hiatus

I decided late last night to move forward with something I probably should have done long ago: an indefinite social media hiatus.

I recently deleted Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and Flipboard from my phone, and have been very happy with the result. Today, I am deactivating my Facebook and Twitter accounts. This is not a decision motivated by Lent, and I have no idea at this moment when or if I will reactivate them. It’s not even primarily motivated by my pressing need to complete my PhD.

My purpose in writing this post is not to say that anyone else should do the same, but I do want to share my reasons in case there is a concern below that you have not considered.

Time and attention

Time and attention are scarce resources. You only have 24 hours in the day. And each hour only counts if you have the attention to be present (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically) during it.

It’s obvious that the time aspect of social media can be a problem, but that’s not my major issue—I don’t spend much time checking social media websites. It’s the attention angle that haunts me.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume I have 10 “units” of attention every day to invest in hard thinking (reading, solving hard problems, etc). Once I use these up, I start losing the ability to concentrate, feel mentally drained, and need to recoup.

If I spend 2 of these 10 units filtering signal from noise in rapid-fire social media updates, mining them for good content and engaging in interesting follow-up reading, I now only have 8 units remaining for: my work, probing conversations, reading challenging books, writing, or studying the Bible.

I already operate in a deficit regarding these higher priority activities—I don’t have any bandwidth to spare.

On a related note, the nature of content delivery in social media may be generally altering our capacity for prolonged concentration. We simply don’t know if our current habits will reap disastrous changes in our cognitive abilities and collective intelligence. On this topic, I point you to Nicolas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Do you use Facebook or does Facebook use you?

Uncritical use of social media is dangerous and irresponsible. Its acceptance is growing at an unprecedented rate. Who is thinking about the implications of these tools? If you have not critically considered their implications in your life, you are not using the tools—the tools are using you.

Just one example for now: Facebook, Twitter, Google, and every other web company is exactly that: a company trying to monetize your use and relationships. You can’t be ambivalent towards this bias.

I really can’t go into this fully but I would point you to Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.

Addiction

It’s difficult to assess how benign or malignant the impact of various technologies are while you are a user and these sites are open in a tab of your browser. You need distance to discern these things. What I can say is I’m uncomfortable with the draw I feel to check what’s new.

Paul Graham’s excellent essay The Acceleration of Addictiveness is instructive here:

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And […] the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40. […] More things we like will mean more things we have to be careful about.

Most people won’t, unfortunately. Which means that as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

Unless the rate at which social antibodies evolve can increase to match the accelerating rate at which technological progress throws off new addictions, we’ll be increasingly unable to rely on customs to protect us. Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction—the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations—we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how.

This is part of the reason Christians fast. We voluntarily abstain from food, forms of entertainment, or other activities to assess their prominence in our life and to re-focus our attention on what matters most.

Fear of missing out

Part of what fuels our addiction to social media is the desire to not miss out on anything. We want to see everything interesting. If you didn’t post it on Facebook, it didn’t happen!

I will counter that much of the delight of life is in fleeting moments that can’t be perfectly recalled or automatically captured. We should find comfort in crafting a life so interesting, beautiful and personal to be only experienced by you and close relationships.

The same goes for choosing what content to consume (status updates, photos, articles, books, movies, concerts, etc). Here, I will point you to a wonderful piece by Linda Holmes in NPR about being well-read called The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything:

Surrender is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read.

Surrender [is] your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures.

It’s a depressing thought to weigh the value social media updates against the world’s cultural treasures we’ll never experience.

Impact on real-world relationships

I am concerned that Facebook (in particular) may be negatively impacting my real-world relationships. Thinking through these points will be a major feature of the hiatus. Some possible examples:

Image crafting. Social media gives us the unprecedented ability to amplify our good aspects and censor the things we’d rather downplay. I have met numerous people in real life after first interacting with them online (over long periods of time) to find them markedly different in person than their online persona suggests.

Frequency of in-person visits. Do I call or visit people as often as I did before FB? Since I see occasional photos and updates from my brother- and sister-in-law who live across town, a false sense of connectedness may mean that more time passes before I start feeling like I need to see them face to face.

Social injury. There is a natural correlation in healthy relationships between sharing intimate information and trust. There are things my wife and closest friends get to see and know about me that others don’t—this is because I trust them. If someone “overshares” beyond our mutual level of trust, then a type of violation or social voyeurism occurs. I know something I shouldn’t. During the 25 things meme, I learned a lot of things about people that I can’t imagine them saying to me in real life. Related:

Immodesty. Without going out of my way, I often see photos of people in more intimate clothing or settings than would be appropriate if I were physically present. The boundaries of modesty are eroding. People release intimate details of themselves into a medium where those details can easily become available to strangers. I’m amazed by the photos many people will post online.

Redefining friendship. I have “friended” and been “friended” by many people who I honestly have no intention or capacity for maintaining a relationship with. Would it be healthier for my actual friendships for me to not weaken the meaning of that word by acknowledging acquaintances as “friends”?

Intrusion. Sharing lunch with a friend, laying in bed, playing with my daughter, our church gathering… I feel drawn to check my phone. If you’re honest you probably do too. There are worrisome implications from bringing social media into these sacred environments.

Future privacy concerns. Everyone, myself included, posts photos of our kids. I can’t reliably anticipate how my 3 year old will one day feel about her friends being able to review her entire life since I may have documented it entirely online. I am very interested to see what Leta Armstrong has to say on the matter as she grows up.

On Twitter

I have much fewer social concerns about Twitter, probably because the way I use it is more focused on sharing/reading links than on relationships. I hardly interact with any real-life friends on Twitter (must be something to do with my demographic).

Twitter will be the easiest to give up. I joined Twitter with more professional motivations in mind, but it hasn’t panned out the way I hoped. I am connected to a very fascinating bunch of computer scientists, mathematicians, and scientists… as well as exactly three other actively tweeting structural engineers (my profession). Apart from a handful of very meaningful connections, I am quite displeased with the professional return on my investment in this space.

For a content delivery system, I still prefer RSS.

In the future

Rushkoff argues effectively that, like it or not, the technologies I address in this post are already grafted into our society. They are the reality of our day and age, and cannot be easily undone (nor perhaps should they). So to be clear, I am not arguing that everyone should go and delete their social media accounts.

What I am saying is that when I look at my life as it is now, I am no longer comfortable using them the way I have previously used them. Once I am able to distance myself from these tools and gain insight into their implications for my own life, I may critically re-introduce them at a time where I feel like I can better understand what they mean.

Practical next steps

All of this is in the service of moving forward with greater focus and commitment to the things I want to spend my time on: my wife, my daughter, my church community, spiritual disciplines, completing my PhD, building stronger friendships, etc.

I plan to continue posting on my blog. I view the blog in a markedly different light than social media. It is a creative and professional outlet for me. It encourages deep thinking and writing, the exact type of behavior I want to amplify in my life.

I am completely deactivating my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and keeping all remnants off my phone. If you wish to continue receiving blog updates in the future, I will obviously not be posting links to my Facebook or Twitter accounts any longer, so I invite you to subscribe via RSS or via email newsletter.

I plan to cull (not surrender) RSS. I have an experiment underway to prune it down to the highest possible signal to noise ratio, which I may later blog about depending on how it goes.

Contacting me

Those of you who I have real relationships with already know how to contact me, so this section is somewhat pointless. But for the rest of you, my email address and phone number can be easily located on my website. Please don’t hesitate to contact me in the future.

Articles/books linked from this post

Thanks

If you made it this far, I congratulate you and appreciate your time spent reading my thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think about the various issues I raise above, and hope that together we can feel our way toward a future worth living.