Starting Lugnasadh, 1 August 2021, I’ll no longer be using Facebook or Twitter.
This has been a gradual process for me. Starting late last year, I decided to put hard time limits on my use in either place. I began by using a timer and setting it to a maximum of 90 minutes for each per week, then reduced that to 60 minutes, and then to a half hour per week.
At first, this was shockingly difficult. You don’t really realize how much you use those things until you try to limit it. Looking through previous months before I started the limits, there were weeks where I spent two hours of my day on social media, usually when there was some political event or some argument about something I had written.1
Two hours is a lot. In two hours, I can write and edit a 2000 word essay. In two hours, I can bike to Germany from where I live. In that same amount of time, I can bike to the gym, work out, pick up groceries at a store nearby, and leisurely ride home through one of the many forests between here and there. In two hours, I can read half the length of an average book, or a quarter if it’s particularly philosophical or esoteric.
In that same amount of time, I can prepare a rather creative dinner for my partner and guests. Two hours is half the time it takes me to take a train into the city and back, meaning I can also go meet a friend for coffee or a beer there as well.
Unfortunately, two hours is how long I would spend staring at a screen arguing with or looking at the pictures of people I’ve never met in person, “killing time” as if time were somehow something I needed to murder.
When I finally put these limits in place, I started to feel pretty isolated. We use social media for a sense of connection to other people, and if you happen to be isolated already (I’m an immigrant to the land I live in, and that comes with some pretty intense isolation), social media can make you feel less so.
Of course, it isn't actually changing your isolation, just numbing the feeling like a drug. There is nothing in the world that can replace in-human contact. Though speaking to someone over a long distance can feel like you are “in touch,” there is no actual “touch” involved.
There are of course degrees of abstraction here. Talking to someone on the phone or a video call is still better than typing to them on a screen. Reading a letter from them, while missing their voice, still maintains some sort of connection to the physical. Staring at their avatar or profile picture and replying to a tweet or a comment, however, is really as far from the physical you can get.
So, when I went from sometimes 2 hours a day to a total of 90 minutes a week, there was suddenly a strange sense of disconnection. The first few weeks were quite difficult: I hit my weekly limit usually by Wednesday, meaning that I had four more days of the week and no more time allotment.
It took me about a month to learn to space that time out over a week, and it felt really a weird thing to need to do. I’m usually a pretty disciplined person, so it felt really bizarre that I was struggling so much just to stop using something I had already begun to dislike. It definitely felt like an addiction.
Two months after I started these limits, though, I noticed something really bizarre about the way I was thinking. I found myself questioning certain things that I had just sort of assumed were true, things I’d never really given much thought to. These were mostly political statements, the kind of “dogma” that has come to define much of American political talk for the last 8 years or so.
This was a really weird feeling for me. I’d never noticed before that I’d just accepted some ideas without giving them much thought, and couldn’t understand why suddenly now I was questioning them. This was a bit of a crisis for me, until one day I broke my hard limit and spent two hours on Facebook and suddenly I was confused why I was questioning those ideas.
That’s when I understood that social media was shaping what I believed. Of course, we all “know” this happens, in the same way we “know” that climate change is occurring. It’s something we accept as a truth but don’t let it change how we act.
Being a “leftist” writer meant I’d become connected through social media to a lot of people with similar ideas, and we were all constantly sharing posts and memes that resonated with and reflected our beliefs and way of seeing the world. And then we would interact with each other, ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ each other’s stuff.
But if you look at this from a slightly different perspective, what is also happening is that for several hours a day, we are reinforcing our beliefs and worldview. This is kinda insane when you think about how a devout religious person will only go to church for 2 hours a week, rather than 2 hours a day. So they’re only getting 1/7th of the kind of belief-reinforcement that social media offers.
As I kept reducing my social media use, I kept looking more and more at how my ideas had been shaped by it. Of course, other people are shaped by other ideas, because of who they are connected to. For me, it was a kind of “leftism” that was increasingly more “woke,” but for others those ideas might be conservatism, or vaccine skepticism, or anti-communism, or whatever.
Regardless of the ideas, we’re all experiencing this constant reinforcement. This also means we’re less likely to encounter other ideas, and also more likely to see other people as strange or even hostile. Much of the “us vs. them” stuff you see in the United States particularly is being exacerbated by this, especially with the idea that those on “the other side” want to harm you.
By the time I went down to 30 minutes a week (early this year), something else changed. I started writing a lot more.
That’s not precisely true, because I was already writing a lot. But most of that writing was being done on social media. I’d write long posts that would get shared hundreds and sometimes thousands of times, but it wouldn’t really result in anything permanent or useful for people (others or myself).
I’m sure other writers reading this know this problem. When you write something on social media, you get a kind of instant gratification for your words. When you write an essay, it’s not so instant. The difference between a social media post and an essay though is significant: one requires nothing more than a brief glance, while the other requires full attention and engaged thought. So the kinds of reactions you get to each are going to be very different, and I can assure you that the social media reactions can be often really shallow.
Social media gives us the sense that everything must be immediately reacted to, rather than thought about. That’s also why you see so much crusading on social media but very little in the actual physical world. When you are out in a public place talking to people, you’re a lot less likely to suddenly enlist everyone around you to tell someone they’re a bad person because of something they just said. If you did, everyone would see you as a bully.
On social media, on the other hand, doing the same thing makes you look like an ‘activist.’ There’s a lot of performance involved in those instant reactions, a lot of posturing, and a lot of attempts to look good in front of others, often in defense of that limited worldview being fed to us for a worldwide daily average of over two hours on social media.
I’ve been on both sides of this, more often on the ‘being attacked’ side but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t engage in this same kind of stuff too, especially at the beginning of my writing career.
Social media has changed all of us, and especially now that I’ve finally made the decision to leave it I’ve begun to see how much I had been changed. I don’t like those changes. I don’t like how my thinking was shaped by an algorithm that “feeds” ideas back to you in a way to keep you looking.
I don’t like how I used it to numb the necessary and important feeling of isolation that came with moving to another continent and being in a new culture. That feeling should have led me to become more physically present to my new surroundings and engage the people around me in a new way; by numbing it, I instead withdrew further into the world of a screen and missed countless opportunities to make new friends.
And most of all, I don’t like how much time it has stolen from me. Even my below average use of 2 hours a day in previous years translates to an entire month (30 days) per year. Even an hour a day is just over 2 weeks (fifteen days), and a lot of life can happen in that amount of time.
So, starting 1 August, I’m done. I won’t log on to Facebook or Twitter. There will still be profiles there bearing my name, and automated updates when I have published a new essay here, but I’ll no longer see any of it myself.
Of course there’s some risk to this as a writer. Most people still use social media as their primary way of getting updates from others, and mediums like Substack require a little more active engagement. Those of you still on social media (no judgment, seriously) can definitely help out by sharing these dispatches there.
I’m deeply looking forward to this, though. Already the amount of writing I’ve done since limiting my social media use is incredible, as are all the other things I’ve found myself able to accomplish and work I’ve been able to complete.
So—thanks for following my writing here instead of on social media. Thanks for understanding my need to get out of that nightmare we’ve all been pulled into. And thanks for your support of my work.
And PS, I’ve a new book coming out. All the information for that is here.