I checked Twitter and Tumblr before I started writing this piece, and I’ll probably check them again as soon as I’ve finished. I keep telling myself that I should stop automatically turning to social media, and I’ve taken steps to reduce the amount of time I spend on the sites — I regularly cull my feeds, for example, and I’ve removed all push notifications from my phone — but the urge to take a break from my own thoughts and see what other people are thinking about is too strong. (Are my friends posting Google Arts & Culture selfies? Is everyone discussing a specific article? Did Lin-Manuel Miranda tweet something inspiring that’ll make me feel a little better about the world?)
Plus I like to keep up with the news.
But I don’t necessarily enjoy the time I spend on social media, and I doubt you do either. I used to compare it to hanging out in a library with friends — the sort of thing where you’d look up from whatever you were studying and say “hey, check this out!” — and now it feels like stepping into a room where everyone is shouting at each other. Even when the arguments are important, they still feel unproductive and unhealthy. To quote M. C. Mah, at LitHub: “Good-faith argument on social media is probably impractical, and definitely unclickable.”
So I want to spend less time on social media in 2018 — and I’m not alone.
“The one thing everyone on the internet seems to agree on for the moment is that the internet kind of sucks,” John Green says, one hand pulling anxiously at his hair. His YouTube video Your Attention is both an explanation of why social media works the way it does — “Twitter is not structured to make us better informed or happier. It is structured to keep us on Twitter” — as well as a plea, to both himself and his audience, to choose where they give their attention this year.
Twitter, as Green notes, promotes outrage and division over nuance, a sentiment that is echoed by Meghan Daum at the Los Angeles Times: “Had enough of the visceral response to the Trump era? Try a little nuance instead:”
Bit by bit, it’s starting to happen. The #MeToo movement is infused with obtuse rhetoric like “zero tolerance,” but it has also led to a handful of more nuanced analyses about the slippery nature of sexual consent and the dangers of failing (or refusing) to distinguish male clumsiness from dangerous aggression. Sure, some of the woke-iscenti dismissed these articles out of hand. I even saw someone refer to “nuance” as though it were a form of conservative trolling or rape apology. But I also noted rumblings of relief.
(While we’re on the subject: if you’re looking for a nuanced essay about #MeToo, you can’t do much better than Laurie Penny’s latest Longreads column, “We’re Not Done Here.”)
Mah writes that “‘Online’ is what happens when opinions of all kinds become shorthand for both virtue and moral failure,” adding that “we end up hearing less from people of color who feel over-essentialized.” Tavi Gevinson opens the January 2018 issue of Rookie with a six-page letter from the editor that explores the ways in which the internet and social media turned moral purity into social capital:
Could there be any link between the obsession with moral purity (having done no harm), the obsession with a pure origin story (having no harm done to you), and a utopia so elusive that it becomes less possible with every passing second: eternal youth?
The demand to perform and prove one’s moral purity doesn’t leave much room for nuance, much less the messy process of considering multiple viewpoints as you work out what you actually think and believe, and Gevinson ends with a request to her readers:
Whatever you need to do to create that space [where you don’t feel like you have to perform moral purity] for yourself, do it this year. Do it now. Fight the new pace of thinking designed to keep us in Facebook fights and make Facebook more money. Resist getting so wound up by every story that you accelerate off a cliff into apathy. Lengthen the circuit between a candid thought and your anticipation of how it will be received, a circuit constantly shrinking in fear. Try your ideas out with people you are not desperate to impress, so there’s less ego clouding your discussion.
What might that space look like? At Real Life, Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes about the benefits of disconnection:
Since dumping my iPhone I have, according to some people close to me, been “out of touch.” Perhaps they also mean “out of sight.” By slacking on social media upkeep — a consequence of switching phones — the edges of my life seem blurred to friends and acquaintances. Staying in touch with friends online often just means staying in each other’s sight. Still, I am often confused by the haptic invocation of this metaphor — “out of touch.” The corporeal experience of being up to date or updated with “the news” these days is, for me, hardly one of a sensation, of touch’s warm buzz, but rather one of glazed insensitivity. I suspect that I am most “out of touch” when my attention scrolls down the feed in numbed perpetuity.
Being “out of touch” doesn’t necessarily mean being uninformed; Paul Constant, at the Seattle Review of Books, urges readers to stop getting their news (and opinions) from social media feeds and instead populate an RSS reader with the blogs and news sites they value and trust: “When we allow someone else to control our media intake, we’re giving up a tremendous amount of power. We’ve got to take that power back.”
You don’t need me to tell you how it feels to check Twitter and suddenly feel anxious because our president has tweeted something incendiary or untrue; to have the next hour of your day derailed because somebody is angry with someone else and you decide to follow the thread. As fun as it is to read other people’s thoughts, it’s much less fun to absorb hundreds of people’s emotions — especially on sites designed to compel us to absorb as much as possible.
Maybe instead of checking Twitter as soon as we finish this paragraph, we should start building our RSS readers instead — and if you want to share this post with someone, send it via text or email. (I didn’t share the Laurie Penny essay on social media, but I did send it to everyone who follows my TinyLetter.) See how it feels to choose where your attention goes, and what you do with the space that you used to give to social media.
- Already Late (Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Real Life, Jan. 8, 2018)
- Bad Faith Backlash: Arguing Online With Everyone and No One (M. C. Mah, LitHub, Jan. 22, 2018)
- Had enough of the visceral response to the Trump era? Try a little nuance instead (Meghan Daum, Los Angeles Times, Jan 7, 2018)
- Utopia (Tavi Gevinson, Rookie, Jan. 1, 2018)
- We’re Not Done Here (Laurie Penny, Longreads, Jan. 18, 2018)
- You have to stop letting Facebook tell you what to read (Paul Constant, Seattle Review of Books, Jan. 17, 2018)
- Your Attention (John Green, Vlogbrothers, Jan. 9, 2018)