Unlike and unfollow

The writer and new father finds social media increasingly inimical to the quiet he craves in day-to-day life

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 9 November, 2018

Some months ago, I decided to delete most social media apps from my phone. I had found myself reflexively pulling my phone out of my pocket to check Twitter and Facebook notifications, or scroll through images on Instagram. That impulse had become almost involuntary, the muscle memory of tapping and swiping embedded in my thumbs. The briefest inactive moment in my day was an occasion to plug in to the social media churn.

And so I have tried to wrest back control of my attention. I’m not the only one doing this. Analysts in Western countries suggest social media use has reached “peak saturation” levels and will plateau from now on. There are even signs of decline. Numbers of users have dropped for several major platforms, with Facebook itself losing three million of them just in Europe. The amount of time Americans spend on Facebook has shrunk since 2016, from about an hour per day to 41 minutes according to some estimates.

There are lots of reasons to be wary of our social media habit. Various scandals have revealed the far-reaching way social media networks gather and share personal data, how users have surrendered their privacy. Social media has also allowed the spread of political misinformation (think, for example, of the negative effects of WhatsApp forwards in India and Brazil) and, perhaps more perniciously, built echo chambers that shelter people from news and opinions that would challenge their convictions. Studies also link social media usage with increased depression, especially among young people.

One study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Epidemiology argued that activity on Facebook was injurious to overall well-being in terms of “mental health,” “life satisfaction,” and even “body mass index.” Clicking “like” and posting status updates correlated with being unhappy.

My own disquiet is more personal. I find social media increasingly inimical to building the kind of quiet in my day-to-day life that I crave. I say this in part as a writer, whose Twitter newsfeed can be a terrible distraction, but more as a new father with a fresh appreciation of the value of my time. I now choose not to give my time away.

Your time and your attention are commodities in the social media economy. At a recent public event, Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, explained the motivations at the heart of social media apps. “The thought process that went into building these applications was all about ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said. The tech giants devised new ways to keep users hooked to their applications, with “likes”, “pokes”, “mentions” and notifications of successful social interaction that would trigger the pleasurable brain chemical dopamine. We come back again and again to get that hit of dopamine, and the tech giants bundle the time and the attention we gift them to advertisers and data-hoarders. In Parker’s words, Facebook and other social media platforms are in the business of “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.

As much as I don’t want to be subject to this manipulation, I haven’t pulled the plug entirely. I haven’t left social media so much as staged a quiet withdrawal. I check Twitter once in a while — it is unfortunately useful for writers — and I occasionally dip into Facebook before being scared off by its profusion of lengthy, highly charged and often rather self-serious political posts. I have altogether stopped looking at Instagram — a social media platform oriented around sharing images — and now receive slightly panicked, automated emails from the app asking whether I’m having trouble logging on.

The effect of this distancing from social media has been mixed. I do feel a bit further adrift from friends, particularly those far away in other countries and continents, when I could once follow the vagaries of their days one picture after another. But I don’t miss any of their posts either (sorry, friends). The truth is I never needed them in the first place. I have faith that when I need to know about their lives, I will. My immediate physical world of family, work and neighbourhood seems more resolved and definite to me. I fill the mental space that I’ve reclaimed by chasing my own curiosities, spending time in my own mind without the intrusion of others.

I write this knowing that it’s fashionable to be a grump about social media, to play the role of tech-curmudgeon. I don’t discount the good that comes out of these platforms, how they allow connections across all sorts of borders, how they build real communities, and how they offer the serendipity of discovery (I have learned so much in my stumbles around Twitter). They also have great practical uses for writers and journalists. With more than a hint of irony, I will be posting a link to this piece on Twitter and Facebook. If I didn’t do that, it would feel to me a bit like I had dropped this article down a bottomless, soundless well.

But disengagement grows even more seductive and the “real world”— the work deadline, the scampering baby, the drink with a friend, the book on my bedside table, the leaves changing colour in the tree outside our living room window — all the more pressing. Humbly and affectionately, I look forward to not seeing your tweets, posts and pics. If you want to get in touch, don’t send me a message on Facebook or a DM on Twitter. Just email.

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