Tuesday, 20 June 2017

My complicated relationship with social media: why I quit, and why I continue to return

Following an aimless day of scrolling at the end of August last year, I stared at the artificial light emancipated by my phone screen and decided to quit social media.

I composed a chaotic message to my friends and then proceeded to deactivate Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Messenger, and Snapchat. On the surface, an irrational, unprecedented moment, I agree. However, digital-binging guilt had been brewing under my skin for a while, and quite frankly, I was fed up. 

The reactions I received were assorted. Most people (unsurprisingly) questioned my rationality, others turned cold on me, most adults were stunned, and some even temporarily did the same. I usually cited academia as the cause, saving them the following convoluted diatribe.

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I have a type A personality: I am painstakingly driven by my goals, I am highly ambitious, self-critical, time-conscious and I find it very difficult to relax. This has predominantly shaped my relationship with the digital world. Downtime feels unproductive to me, and consequently, I feel a pervading sense of guilt when using social media. Yet, having such an intense mindset means that I easily become addicted to things - work; people; concepts. Thus, paradoxically, as much as I loathed myself for it, compulsive social media checking was a very bad habit of mine. I would flick between Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Messenger and Instagram in the hope that by the time I began a fresh loop, a new point of interest would have emerged. Usually, it hadn't. I could easily sit on my bed and let hours pass, absorbed in the tweets of a mutual friend's 2012 thoughts.

This intense, driven personality incites both my best and worst qualities. I can be extremely focused, motivating myself into achieving every single challenge devised for me. However, often to the detriment of others, it means that I become over-worked and abruptly retreat into myself. This too is largely a representation of my relationship with the digital world; I over-invest my energies and then go nuclear, self-inflicting a period of isolation and introspection.

Like many others, I find the Pavlovian thrill of being 'rewarded' by a like, a comment or a retweet addictive. I started to crave such bitty, superficial attention, and my tunnel-vision ambition found an outlet. All of my social media channels were perfectly curated to depict a certain 'interesting' image, with every post meticulously edited. In effect, I started to internalise the "no pics or it didn't happen" mindset. I still use Instagram, and little has changed. My feed, whilst offering me a wonderful platform to share my photography, is like all social media - engineered to provoke engagement. Ironically, technology fosters this need for attention, despite the fact that it forces us to isolate our peers in the physical world. We are all just trying to technologically shout the loudest, often to little avail. This is because technology creates an unprecedented need to be interesting. Yet, the harsh reality is that not everything is interesting. Life is much more mundane than it is instagrammable, but online we seem to forget that.

In November, I attended a debate which questioned, "Have we lost the art of conversation?", which you can listen to here: https://soundcloud.com/institute-of-ideas/art-of-conversationI looked around the room as I waited for it to begin, and noticed that all four people in the seats surrounding me were on their phones; two were texting, one was on Facebook, and the other was on Twitter. I couldn't help but smile to myself at the irony. Ultimately, the debate argued that we haven't lost the art of conversation, but its methodology has simply evolved to fit a new, technologically-driven medium. It is the art of listening which we are losing.

I am a big advocate of this, and it is the reason why I also generally dislike texting. Through our perfectly drafted 'instant' messages, our digital conversations become short, disjointed and false, losing the spontaneous intimacy which comes with conversing in real life. I'm a fervent believer in such real-life conversations - those that are unplanned, intense, delving and driven by the moment. I'll take an hour of deep conversation sitting in a park or an hour on Facetime over a whole evening of messages any day. I think it's impossible to truly get to know a person simply through a series of virtual messages, or equally, to know how they truly feel. I need to hear your voice, register your facial expressions and come to understand your physical quirks. A laughing emoji popping up on my phone screen will never replicate the sound of a a friend's raw laughter, nor will a sad face ever strike me in the gut quite like a somebody tearing up in front of me. A good friend recently remarked how she feels that the cartoon quality of emojis devalues the real sentiment behind a message, causing it to lose any original sincerity. I have to say, I agree. Social media may allow us to feel unified with a person in the moment we're messaging them, but it's rare that we have each other's full attention through a Snapchat message.

Similarly, 'scrolling' only embodies a surface-deep appreciation of ideas. Half-heartedly glimpsing over a thread of unrelated concepts, simply to fill a few spare minutes, creates a fragmented form of engagement with our peers. When we scroll, so much information is being thrown at us, to the point that individual content is lost within the continual onslaught of everyone else vying for their little snippet of digital attention. Simply put, we've fallen captive to a period of mass tech-consumerism.

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When I quit social media back in August, one thing which I noticed was that it took more time to maintain friendships. Before, there was no point in messaging an old friend to see what they had been up to, because it was all online already, though usually in 140 characters or less. Yet, without the instant mutual link of a comment or like after I quit, I was forced to make direct contact with friends. I made actual plans - a coffee date; a meal out. I've always been known to call people rather than text them, even about the smallest of matters (among friends, it's known as 'the Lauryn call'). Giving up my messenger apps meant that such a phone call became all the more frequent. Weirdly, I felt more engaged in my friends' lives than I ever did before.

I realised that social media, despite its name, actually isn't that social.


That's not to say it was easy. At first, I attempted to replicate 'the' aimless scroll by opening random apps in disorganised folders or scrolling through my camera roll, craving even the simplest digital fulfillment. I would check my phone, only to stare at my home screen, a landscape barren of notifications. On many occasions, I almost succumbed. However, I didn't, and soon I started to adopt new habits: waking up and reading a novel rather than the comments on my Instagram explore page, and falling asleep with a book dropping from my hands rather than my phone falling onto the pillow beside me.

Moreover, despite forcing myself out of the online loop - memes and popular content became a little lost on me in conversation - I felt less like I was out of the social loop than ever before. Not knowing that there was a party on and not spending my Friday evenings passively moping in my FOMO over other people's Snapchat stories was refreshing.

Time also seemed to become available in abundance. Of course, me being me, I threw myself into my schoolwork (this was a time of uni applications, mocks, and interviews), and managed to achieve everything which I had ever aspired towards. Yet, I didn’t gain any more time. Rather, my attention span drastically increased and I was able to focus without repeatedly checking my phone like a mother watching over her newborn. Unexpectedly (though in retrospect, quite obviously), my mind gained a new sense of clarity.

Alas, investing so much time into academia led me into needing some form of escape, and so, a little after a week following my Cambridge interview, I yielded, and redownloaded Instagram. I created a new account and embarked on cultivating a better relationship with social media. To this day, apart from Twitter (which I neither use nor check, but on which Bloglovin automatically shares a link to any new blog posts), Instagram is the only active account I still hold.

However, I deleted the app on a weekly basis between January and April when I felt I was procrastinating too much, before redownloading it for a few days at a time. Then, as exam terror gripped me, I deleted it again for 6 weeks - only to redownload it within an hour of finishing my last exam.

3 weeks later, and I have been more active online than ever before. I've binged, I feel guilty, and so once again, the app has disappeared from my home screen. But I know that within the next few days, once my head has cleared and I start to re-engage with the real world again, it will reappear.

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Hence, there is the question of why I return. For all of the apparent negatives in the above diatribe, I do believe that when harnessed in the right manner, social media is a wonderful and powerful tool. Recently, a boy in my local area went missing. Through the collective power of people sharing information and raising awareness online, he was found. I think that is incredible. Likewise, social media allows us to promote a sense of solidarity in times of crisis – the mass online support following recent tragedies only offers a small insight into this. On a personal level, following museums, photographers and educational institutes exposes me to different cultures, ideas, and movements. I'm able to connect with old (and new) friends easily, and through this, I have enlarged my social spheres. Then again, there is the fact that social media does provide a little (if tame) hedonistic buzz.

Thus, I do return; I invest my energies and ambition, I post twice a day and I get a cheap thrill out of it. It's like going back to gorging on fast food when you’ve been eating clean - it becomes very easy to slip into your old routines, despite the internal nagging sense of displacement. And then when I feel I'm spending more time online than in the real world around me - taking photos for Instagram and spending an hour drafting a witty, engaging caption, I go nuclear and delete the apps once again. Hence, the cycle continues.

Social media itself isn't the issue. It's me - I have an addictive, time-conscious and fast-paced mental self. Deleting the apps will only ever be a quick-fix because I know that at some point, I'll end up returning. The real world, in all of its glorious, authentic self, is nice to escape from once in a while.

Alas, it worries me how easy it is to become a passive recipient to every influential network. It worries me that such a mindless self is just a few clicks away. It worries me that I see everybody else around me drawn into the same, endless vortex. Technology might define our generation, but I think we all need to work a little harder at us controlling that definition, rather than the all-too threatening alternative.


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My own thoughts aside, here is an excellent Youtube video which I feel reinforces my own attitude:





Lastly, you can read more about the type A/B personality distinction here (on wiki of course, the ever-trustworthy point of info): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_A_and_Type_B_personality_theory 

Lauryn

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