By Lisa Brunette and Anthony Valterra
In September 2019, we made the choice to ditch social media, and after a year without it, neither of us plans to go back. Here's why.
First, some background. We closed all social media accounts we held both individually and for this blog across all platforms late last summer, and we haven't been back even so much as to peep at a notification once. This includes Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the three platforms we used. There's only one small exception: Out of business necessity, we kept our individual and company pages for Brunette Games active on LinkedIn.
To illustrate our decision to forgo social media, we'll break this down according to the prevailing reasons people give for participating in the first place.
To Stay in Touch with Family and Friends
Over the past year, we've returned to our pre-social media modes of keeping in touch with our people, which is to say in a much more meaningful, concentrated manner. We both find that one-on-one conversations in person or on the phone, or chats during family gatherings, are much higher quality engagements than anything that transpires online. Without Facebook to give you the illusion that you're really "in touch," you're apt to make more authentic gestures toward fostering those relationships.
These conversations are also done with the express purpose of talking with the friend or family member rather than on display for a public audience. When Anthony talks to his pal Doug on the phone or Lisa's hiking in the woods with her brother, those dialogues feel more genuine; we're talking to the other person, and the conversation is just that, not something filtered and curated for public consumption.
About half-way through our yearlong social media hiatus, the pandemic hit, making in-person gatherings much more difficult, if not outright impossible. But we weren't tempted at all to return to the social media fray. We had more phone conversations than social engagements and didn't see that Facebook or any of the other platforms had anything to offer that would somehow make that better. Lisa even took the opportunity to strike up a handwritten letter penpal exchange with an old friend from high school, and that alone has been a much more powerful reconnection than her previous 11 years of social media participation, all total.
For Anthony, these phone conversations are broader, richer, and deeper than social media activity, as he gets the full story from beginning to end, not some snippet crafted for a general audience. For Lisa, sharing is much more satisfying one-on-one because she gets to share her news herself instead of guessing or hoping at who's going to see it in their Facebook feed, or feeling oddly caught-off-guard when someone mentions something they saw on Facebook.
Social media wasn't really built to keep people in touch, and it massively fails at it. It's a thousand times more satisfying for Lisa to connect with her nieces in person than to simply look at pictures of them online. The former is intimate, specific, and based on a human give and take; the latter is a catalogue stream meant for "everyone," yet satisfying few.
To those who say, "But I have to keep track of all 567 friends, and I can't have phone calls with all of them," we counter with this: Do you really need to keep track of that many people? Folks used to lose touch with each other naturally, and for good reason: You drift apart, find different interests, grow and change. And that's OK.
To Connect with Likeminded Strangers
This is one we often hear, that you can't leave social media because of your essential involvement in XYZ group dedicated to rare lichens or commiserating on what it's like to be the only knitter in your family. Our observation on this point is twofold. First, good luck making that into a real connection. Facebook, for example, will thwart your attempts, driving you toward what monetizes best for Facebook, which leads us to point two. In our experience, that tends to be the lowest common denominator post or comment thread, the one everyone's jumping on because someone was offended. We've seen even the best-moderated groups, such as one devoted to native plant gardening, devolve into toxicity.
The caveat here is that if you're like Lisa's sister, who spends her days wrangling other people's children as a child care provider, you might welcome the time to connect quietly online, to other adults talking about adult things. We get that. But if you're a desk jockey like us, your life is already full of online interaction, so the last thing you need is more of it.
COVID-19 has definitely made it more difficult to meet people in real life, but we've persevered with affiliations such as our local Chamber of Commerce or small groups who gather outdoors, social distancing, to discuss a particular topic (for us, life after Peak Oil). Lisa recently instituted "walk and talks" with our employees at Brunette Games to get face time with a little fresh air and exercise.
To Network or Advertise
In our experience, outside of LinkedIn, social media actually has low value as a networking tool. It's mainly used for rather covert investigations prior to a job search/hire, or in Anthony's case, to learn all he could about a person in a decision-making capacity on a grant. As far as networking goes, there's no substitute for in-person experience working on a team, or remote collaborative work made possible through shared documents, video calls, and chats, done over a length of time. None of this occurs via social media.
Social media advertising is fraught with difficulty as you might amass thousands of followers only to find that none of them will see your post unless you pay to "boost" it. Outlinks from the platforms to your blog or website are aggressively punished by the alogrithms. Studies show people are more likely to act on something they read on a blog than via social media anyway, so increasingly, smart people are asking, "Why bother?"
Now for Some of the 'Real' Reasons People Can't Leave Social Media
Besides the evil evilness of the platforms themselves, there are unstated but very real reasons people (including ourselves at various times in the past) participate: validation, reward, and the ability to act out.
It's been shown that human beings get a dopamine hit whenever we see a 'like' or comment on our posts. Taking that a step further, social media fosters a false sense of validation, teaching us to seek reinforcement of our thoughts and beliefs, the algorithm built to cater to them rather than challenge them. Social media platforms are a steady stream of virtue signaling and armchair activism, rewarding users for these rather empty activities. But the fact is that changing your profile photo is not the same thing as getting yourself into a position to hire a diverse team of workers and then doing it, or reducing the amount of fossil fuels you consume on an annual basis, or taking a refugee into your own home, just to give a few examples of real social change.
Possibly the darkest aspect to social media is the way it encourages acting out. We've both witnessed friends of ours say things to each other in comments that they would never utter in person. The veil of online 'unrealness' provides tacit permission for bad behavior.
A Side of Evil Sauce to Go with Your Evil Evilness
Social media provides an escape, true - you can focus on other people's lives if you want, voyeuristically going along as they eat, sleep, and play. But what you're experiencing is often an idealized version of their lives, and who can compete with that? You see only your very real, messy life, not any of their very real, messy lives. It's a comparathon that's destined to end badly. Some of us tend to over-identify with those other lives on the screen, and this is more common than you think; Anthony and Lisa have both either been guilty of this or the target of this at different points in our social media lives. It's a negative feedback loop that monetizes for the platforms: We feel lonely, so we log on, we see other people living fantastic lives, and we feel bad about ourselves, and Facebook is collecting tons of information about us, so they know exactly what to try to sell us on the promise that we will feel better. That vicious cycle then repeats endlessly.
'[Insert Platform] Doesn't Take That Much Time'
This is something we both assumed prior to leaving social media, and it's deceptively easy to think it's true, as you tell yourself you're checking in only short bursts throughout the day. However, those short bits add up significantly. In the five months after exiting social media, in the time she recovered by not checking Facebook and Instagram every day, Lisa read not one Jane Austen novel, not two, but the classic British author's entire oeuvre. And this was before the pandemic. Anthony estimates he's tripled the number of books that he would normally read over a year's time.
The two of us never tell anyone they should get off social media or judge others for staying on or even say a word about it, yet when people hear we've left it, they immediately get defensive. Kind of like a junkie about his need for a fix. "It's totally fine as long as you moderate it," people say, apropos to nothing we've said. This makes us think it's really, really hard for many people to even contemplate a life without it, and that's... not... good. So for that reason, we're putting social media in the same category as cigarettes. Sure, smoking a cigarette feels good and cool and fun and all those things, and it used to be true that "everyone" was doing it. But now we all know it can kill you. And not just you, but the people around you, inhaling your fumes.