Fighting Social Media Compulsion

“You know,” Natasha told me last week, “you’ve been getting sucked into Facebook and Twitter the last few days…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I said, not looking up from my phone where there was this great Star Wars a-capella theme playing. Of course I hit share; that’s what being a good digital citizen is all about, isn’t it?

Joking aside, she was right; I’ve had a very relaxing and home-based December, and along with re-arranging everything from pictures to closets to our entire living room and watching lots of great series on Netflix, both of us have been in our phones more than ever.

I do believe that you can have meaningful connection via mediums like Twitter and Facebook. I’ve had them, and really the only reason I have Facebook at all is because that’s where my kids are (and all the marketing books say you have to have it if you want your site to succeed). Twitter, on the other hand, is the water cooler for the self-employed; that’s where I hang out with my friends, where I say “Hey, anybody remember the right way to spell elegiac?” and hear jokes and share joys and pain.

But…here’s what Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, said in her TED Talk:

Stephen Colbert asked me a profound question, a profound question. He said, “Don’t all those little tweets, don’t all those little sips of online communication, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?” My answer was no, they don’t add up. Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, “I’m thinking about you,” or even for saying, “I love you,” … but they don’t really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other.

And that’s the illusion; that by scrolling through the feed (or, as I’ve called it, the Gravy Hose) I am having a meaningful interaction with all of those people. I know that the people who I texted “Happy Holidays!” to were glad to get it – but my message was just a little shot of dopamine to their cortex. Contrast that with my colleague who recently apologized for a missed deadline due to “NRE” – New Relationship Energy. I suspect that the time she spent not working on our project and instead with her new beau led to not just dopamine but probably a healthy dose of oxytocin, bonding, relaxing, balanced serotonin levels – in short, her deeper functions told her what was important, and managed to convince even her demanding forebrain that especially during the holidays connection in real space with physically embodied people took priority over abstract work on a computer.

I don’t think she would have gotten those benefits in a Google Hangout chatting with me and the others on the project. I am sure she wouldn’t have gotten it via Facebook or Twitter.

Pick Your Poison

I’m not going to be alarmist and say that you shouldn’t use social media. That would be like saying you should stick to letters, because these newfangled telephones are just ruining the deeper connection provided by putting pen to paper.

What I’m saying is that this is a new thing, and as humans we haven’t figured out yet how to balance it with the rest of life. Like any enjoyable activity – alcohol, sex, religion, gaming, collecting, watching Star Wars – it’s good until it interferes with the other things you want to do. I have alcohol and cigars in my house because they are infrequent pleasures; I have researched the risk of harm from them and weighed it against the pleasure, and found the latter justifies it.

Twitter and Facebook? Not so much. I lose hours to it, pressing the little scroll button, refreshing, getting little jolts of dopamine. I am like a rat pressing an intermittent-reward lever, hoping desperately for a pellet of connection. Those things on my phone are like a bag of potato chips or a pint of ice cream: once I open them, I’m voracious.

So I’ve deleted them. Yep, that’s right. I tried fooling myself for a while thinking I could just “have them accessible”, but that’s about when Natasha made her comment. What I do have (because yes, some of my work does require social media) is an app that I find clunky, unpleasant, and very unsatisfying. It will, however, do the things I need to do – but I tend to do them and then put away the app as soon as I can.

Now, I still have a few gravy hoses on my phone – Flipboard, for example – but it is something that at least has entire articles, and usually a great deal of positive news. That’s what I mean by picking things out. I also enjoy the Behance and DeviantArt apps, for image inspiration.

In other words, it’s not that I want to stop enjoying the richness of the web – it’s that I want to get out of the cycle of social media compulsion. For me, that takes the strong step of cutting myself off from the “easy” means of consumption and providing myself with more constructive inputs. It’s no different than getting rid of all the cookies in the house and replacing them with carrots.

And yes, it’s about as annoying. The FOMO is strong, lemme tellya.

But worth it. How about your social media consumption? Is it bad? Or can you quit anytime you want? Let me know how you manage it!

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