The magnetic attraction of social media

Last night I watched “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, which didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know though it was well presented. I’ve read the books of some of the people interviewed on the show, and I’m all too aware of how behavior reinforcement works in addiction (why I don’t drink or smoke any more). But the show reinforced something that I’ve been worrying about. First, that social media acts to polarize, not unite. And second, that for my mental well-being I need to back off once again.

I’ve been online and social since the late nineties. In the beginning, I had great hopes for the potential of the World Wide Web to unite human beings. Some of my enduring friends were made online before I ever met them, and that continues to this day. CompuServe and Usenet allowed me to connect with people who had the same interests I did, often people I never would have met otherwise. Google, with its empty search box and its lack of advertisements, was a transformative miracle, uniting all the scattered disparate particles of the Internet into a searchable treasure. I joined Facebook as soon as it was available to people other than college students, and it put me in touch with family members I rarely saw, fellow fencers, and fellow writers. I taught my students how to create wikis and how to make blog posts. I had a LiveJournal blog and friends who read it.

The last couple of years I have been wrangling with how to use these wonderful resources without having them use me, and I tried several approaches. I downloaded all my blog posts on various platforms and got rid of those accounts. I cut down on Facebook use, unfriended anyone I wouldn’t actually talk to in real life, and began to delete all my old posts and photos. Eventually, I quit Facebook entirely and deleted my account, though I stayed on Twitter because I used lists to help me follow good journalism and stay on top of politics, and because it was supposed to be good for selling my writing. I dove into social media marketing with the idea of making my Facebook and Twitter feeds more purposeful. For a while, something like two years, I posted several “story starters” a day, thinking that I could turn Twitter into a creative discipline. I even toyed with posting a drawing a day while I was teaching myself to use painting software.

I thought I had a handle on things, and since I was re-publishing my novels on Kindle I opened a Facebook account again, using a different email.

in my new account, I followed a couple of writing groups, a fountain pen group or two (I collect fountain pens), a bullet journaling group, and the Facebook page of my political party in my state.

The first thing I found disturbing was that Facebook started suggesting “friends” to me who were not members of those groups I was following. No, some were people I had been friends with before, and some were people I am friends with in real life who have no connection whatsoever to my online life.

No connection. They are people I spend time with, but I have most deliberately never friended them, because in the community they belong to, I wanted to keep my boundaries well-defined.

Somehow, though, Facebook’s algorithms happily tried to connect us on the platform.

The second thing that bothered me was that in the groups I was following, the discourse was improbably feverish. I don’t mean the politics page. The bullet journaling people seemed to veer toward the intensely crafty and compulsive end of the practice. I keep a small notebook with a bullet list for each day’s tasks, but I don’t use washi tape, elaborate grids, or multiple-page layouts like some of the ones I saw online. Although I do live by lists because I find it important to focus on one thing at a time, I prefer getting things done to perfecting my lists. I finally left the bullet journal lists.

The fountain pen pages were populated by people who posted compulsively about acquiring fountain pens. Not a surprise. I have been to fountain pen shows and I own far too many fountain pens, and the community definitely tends to be a little obsessive, but I felt uneasy about the way I was convincing myself to need a pen that was outside my price range when I’m watching my money.

I noticed the same thing with Twitter, though I happily ignore Twitter’s suggestions of people to follow and it has a less pernicious algorithm for suggestions. I have a carefully curated list for political news, made only of journalists, attorneys, and verified officials and former officials. Anyone who posted in ALL CAPS too often, or used highly emotional language all the time, or obviously believed they were on the side of the angels, I deleted from the list. But even when I did that, I realized that the people on my list who were posting, even if they began as detached observers of the scene, tended to either fall into the pit of vehemence or else they stopped posting. The same went for my Twitter list of quirky and interesting people, though less intensely.

I got in the habit last year of deleting my old Twitter posts. There are a couple of apps that will do it for you, but I’ve got it down to a regular habit so I rarely have very many to remove. People don’t understand that because we’ve all gotten in the habit of thinking of social media as a record of our lives, but I’m here to tell you (a) no one is going to write my biography based on my old blog posts and social media feed (b) I have photo albums and my own records of my life and (c) I prefer to live in the present.

Yeah, I know, big surprise: Yes, social media does tend to polarize. But more importantly for me, it tends to feed addictive behavior and it doesn’t make me feel better. So I deleted Twitter once again from my phone, and haven’t read Facebook in weeks.

It would be nice to stay in touch with my family, I agree. But even in my extended family, the people who post the most often were more likely than not to be the ones who make me angry and remind me of why my childhood was difficult (or make me sad about the times I thought were good).

All this is to say that I’m getting closer to the end of the semester and if I get off social media entirely I may get more writing done once I stop being anxious about teaching.

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