I wrote this essay by accident. I just wanted to share my friends’ books. I've been off social media for nine months. Here's how I imagine my life would be if I were still on it.
A thought fluttered across my mind one day: I wish I could tweet this.
The Twitter-worthy topic at hand? I had just glanced at my reading pile, and realised that it’s full of books my friends wrote! I’m so proud of them! I would tag Kerrin and Siobhan and Kayla with delight!
I started a fresh note on my phone, titled If I Were On Social Media. The idea was to jot down more ‘things to tweet’. When I had a fair few, I’d send them out as a newsletter. Instead, this note became a writing prompt, inviting reflection on how my life would be different today, if I were still on social media.
If I were on social media…
I would read more headlines and fewer articles.
I would have more loose ties, and this would exhaust me. I would feel frantic, attempting to keep up with everyone and every comment.
I would be bombarded with opinions and topics that take me away from myself, my priorities, and my focus.
Like a modern day Emma Woodhouse attempting to better herself, I would spend hours curating a diverse feed of people to follow. I would feel good about for being SO inclusive. I would spend hours following, and have no time left to read or learn. Oops!
I would have prioritised responding to the Atlanta attacks over processing this news personally. It would have hurt more and for longer. I would probably regret how I reacted, and would feel worse about my reaction than the events themselves. This makes me shudder.
My ego would be so pleased, so proud to still get comments like “I like how YOU use social media. It’s so refreshing!” Every now and then I would boil over, because why should I have to be working so hard to make this space my own, when I have my own spaces to make my own? Why should I be exerting so much effort here, uphill, while still not undoing or stopping the harm inflicted by those creating these hills in the first place?
I would feel more productive. With every post published, story shared, and likes received, I would feel the satisfaction the app is designed to make me feel. I would also produce so much less of what matters to me.
Maybe I would tag @katespadeny every day, asking them to take the words they stole from me out of their bio. I would link my Empty Words essay. Or I wouldn’t. But I would feel badly if I didn’t. Every day. But honestly? If I were on Instagram, I don’t think I would have had the space or freedom to finish writing that essay.
Because I’m not on social media…
I have more energy, especially social energy.
I have more energy to be kinder to everyone I encounter.
I spend more time with fewer people, more often. I go on long phone calls and long walks with my best friends, regularly. I used to burn out at an hour, and crawl back under my introverted covers.
I still take cute photos, when inspiration strikes, and I’m way less stressed about the images looking a certain way. I send them – unedited – to a friend or two directly, instead of EVERYTHING being for EVERYONE (and therefore, for no one).
I still have favourite accounts and favourite people who are on social media. I navigate directly to their profiles when I’m most excited to. This is much better than opening my main feed hoping to see one thing, and being jolted by something else.
I read print newspapers.
When I meet people online, I feel momentary tension, desperate to collect them, to stay in touch. I have a choice: make an effort now, or let them go. With no passive option to ‘follow’ until we get bored of each other and feel guilty for unfollowing, I feel more clear and free. If it’s someone I’m really happy to meet, I tell them so right away, instead of waiting for a better time and probably never bothering. I have made new friends this way!
Because I’m not on social media, I notice when I reach for distractions. Before, I was swimming in distractions always.
Like being immersed in water, I couldn’t feel it because I was in it. Now I feel every splash that brings me out of myself.
Compared to Instagram, my emails used to seem so pure and harmless. Now I notice myself navigating to my emails or text messages for a boost. Because I’m feeling unwell or bored. I go there, hoping for a message from someone else to bring me out of where I am in the present. It’s not even negative. The messages I receive are usually wonderful. But when there are no messages, my body droops in disappointment. I keep reaching for external sources to shake up my energy and I keep finding them on my phone, for better or for worse.
Growing up, I had to walk to ‘the computer room’ and dial up the internet for the level of distraction now at my fingertips.
Not all distraction is digital, of course, and even analog can be designed to manipulate. Smartphone distraction is just especially good at it.
There’s a fantastic moment in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Midge realises that the purpose of shoe ads in the newspaper might be to distract women from being informed: “If women don’t realize what’s going on in the world, they can’t step in and fix it. Because they WILL fix it. And accessorize it!” I just want to dress up and save the world. The further I am from my phone, the more capable of this I feel.
I used to rely on external experiences to get me through my day.
I wrote in a different coffeeshop every morning. I traveled to a new country every year. I went out for art every week.
I have honed the skill of feeling inspired at the same table every day. I learned tricks like moving my chair around, or playing other people’s playlists to feel like I’m in a cafe. I carved out a yoga corner, so I have room to move my body whenever I want. I change what’s on the walls, crack the window open. Most of all, I developed the belief that these subtle shifts are effective, and enough. Most of all, I can focus because I believe I can.
When lockdown began, I had the luxury of quality time with myself. Time I so desperately needed and didn’t realise; I’d grown so accustomed to being around other people’s energy, opinions, and definitions of normal. I can now hear myself think. I am interrupted less by other people’s voices while my thoughts are still malleable and forming.
Lockdown exposed to me how loudly social media was interfering with every moment of my day. Leaving social media exposed to me how distracting digital media is on its own, even without the endless scroll.
I am coming back to myself, to my feelings, to my awareness. It is empty sometimes, painful sometimes, blissful sometimes. I feel it all, because I am no longer numb. I continue to grow stronger and more aware.
I fight for my attention. I stay grounded in what I believe, and what I feel. I practice listening deeply to others, and to myself. I can now hear when the noise of too many thoughts and topic-switches is too loud.
I miss being in an audience, in a room, feeling people’s reactions in a collective.
At home we have far more curated, tailored audiences. We are shown trending topics on Twitter, or comments on a movie review from a publication we chose. It’s not the same. It’s not as random. I miss Fringe audiences especially, full of people from around the world who are united in their willingness to try something different.
Online, people respond in words because it’s their only way to respond, but they may not have formed the words yet, and it comes out wrong. I do that, and I’m a writer.
I miss feeling non-verbal audience reactions around me. Feeling the heavy silence of that opening day Infinity War crowd. Hearing the kids squirming in their seats because Kristoff’s 80s ballad in Frozen II went over their heads. Worrying about how white the audience was in a talkback for a show about race, and leave hopeful and humbled, when my judgements were wrong: the people who spoke were committed to learning, and had done more anti-racism work than I had.
I get excited about the community aspect of social media. I am proud to share my friends’ work, to boost my favourite accounts, and therein lies the power of the platform.
It promises us connectivity, and it gives us connectivity. For a fee — it also takes our attention. It ramps up our anxiety. The good mixes with the bad and we must each make a choice: what is right for me? For some people, it is an unprecedented platform for making global change. For some people, it provides healing, or a livelihood, or both. Maybe you are one of these people.
I wrote this essay by accident. I just wanted to share my friends’ books. Along the way it occurred to me that all three of my authors friends are not on social media either. I couldn’t have tagged them if I wanted to. This makes me feel less left out.
Until the Next Chapter,
P.S. I’m so busy reading books my friends wrote!
P.P.S. I bookmarked/memorised the following profiles:
- @_LorrieKim_ on Twitter (and @lkdresses on Instagram) for clever literary and art musings. She responds to The Art Life every week on social media, and even types out all 19 letters of my name in lieu of a tag. 🥰
- @KneadAndSeed on Instagram for astrology transits and jaw-dropping beauty
- @NeuroDifferent on Instagram for hashtag actually autistic anti-ableist writing on autism and neurodiversity
- @lokistagram on Instagram for happy dogs, and to pretend that my samoyed and my sister’s havanese are friends
- @taylorswift and @oliviarodrigo who make excellent music; did you know?