Last semester, I had one of my classes read Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle. It’s about social media, and was recently made into a typically-horrible Hollywood adaptation with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. During one of our class discussions, one of my students asked me if I used social media. I answered with a simple, “No.” Her response:
“What do you do?” (with jaw dropped).
This question was immediately followed by another:
“Do you have friends?”
This was a knee-jerk response based on my students’ unfiltered and unpolished reaction to the fact that I don’t have any social media. For them, the knowledge of me not having Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or SnapChat was shocking. For them, these media platforms are prerequisites for daily life. For them, the following equations are basic truths:
Having social media = Having something to do
Having social media = Having friends
Not having social media = Having nothing to do
Not having social media = Having no friends
This was eye-opening for me because a) I didn’t realize that these technologies had actually reached the point to where they are seen equivocally with actual activities and friends, and b) I didn’t realize my students could so quickly see me as someone that has no friends. It was a sad moment. But this is NOT going to be a post about how much younger generations are glued to their phones, or how millenials care too much about social media. It’s NOT going to be that post because I think that both of those statements are disingenuous. Younger people are no more glued to their phones than any other group of people, nor do they care more about social media that the rest of us. Go to any restaurant or mechanic shop or hospital waiting room and you’ll see that the infatuation with social media isn’t unique to millenials–it’s everyone. So this is NOT going to be that post.
Instead, it’s going to be a post about my own personal experiences and how they lead to my current status of having nothing to do and having no friends, i.e. having no social media. It’s not going to be a long story about some crazy eye-opening moment where I realized some grandiose truth and found the light. Instead, it’s pretty simple. I woke up one morning, scrolled through Instagram, prepared myself to post my own picture, started picking filters and thinking of captions, and then simply realized that all of that time was a total waste. I had simply spent 90 minutes laying in bed, doing absolutely nothing but mindlessly scrolling through pictures that other people had posted, in preparation to post my own, all of which I really didn’t care about at all. I asked myself: Why? Why look at these pictures? Why post my own pictures? Why care so much about which picture I chose? Why spend so much time trying to think of the perfect caption that would emanate the perfect amount of “I’m irreverent but interesting” mixed with “I’m very witty” with a side of “I’m self-aware but also plugged into my social circle”?
Now that I haven’t been on it for a long time, I feel like I have a good answer: I spent all of that time because that was time that I didn’t have to think about my self, my life, or anything really going on inside of my head. For me, social media was just one big distraction. Even better: It was a distraction that came along with free forms of affirmation and self-delusion. 37 people liked my photo? I got 4 comments on that picture from last week? I have 5 new follow requests? Hell yes, I must be doing just fine. For me, it worked like this:
If I ever felt lonely, or if sad thoughts came to mind, or even if I just felt a bit bored, I had a solution: social media. Why sit around and be sad when I can lose myself in my friend’s cappuccino pictures on Instagram? Why think about being alone when I can join my friends in whatever they’re doing by viewing their Snap stories and then sending a response? Why feel bored when I can literally access the NEVER-ENDING scroll of Facebook? With social media, I always had friends at my fingertips, and I always had something to do. How could this have possibly not been a good thing?
Turns out, it was a horrible thing. What started out as a fun way to connect with friends became an hourly obsession, and what started out as a tool of communication became a mechanism of repression. Every time I checked my Instagram feed, I was purposefully ignoring real emotions and feelings. Worse than ignoring: I was repressing them. These virtual, non-material images on a tiny screen were literally functioning as a sort of trash compactor for my subconscious. And if you’ve ever read any of Freud, you know that repression is not a good thing. Because whenever we shove these feelings and emotions aside, they don’t go away–they are still there, waiting for us. But where the trash compactor metaphor breaks down is that where the compactor is essentially a tool to make it easier when the time comes to throw away your trash, repression turns the trash–the subconscious emotions and feelings and fears and desires that we all have every day–into a much smellier, much dirtier, and much-harder-to-deal-with lump of unprocessed emotion. And at some point, you have to take out the trash. It’s not going anywhere; it’s there, waiting for us.
This might sound like a pessimistic view of the human experience. I don’t think it is; I think it’s a realistic view. Life is hard. Human existence is full of struggle and failure and unfulfilled desires. We all deal with things, every single day. But there’s also all sorts of pleasures, and joys, and happinesses. This mix of both is what life really is, and you can’t have one without the other. The good is only defined by the not-good, and thus we need the not-good–it serves a purpose. For me, social media was a mechanism through which I found myself somehow trying to deny the reality of the not-good in my own life. I knew it was there, and I knew it was there for everyone else, but spending my 1-2 hours spread throughout the day on these apps allowed me to somehow live in some sort of dreamland where everything was great and we were all just floating in a sublime cloud of likes and comments and friend requests. A magical world full of nostalgic filters and 10-second videos of pure bliss. My social media life was an unblemished collage of a world without the not-good, and if I simply kept scrolling, eventually I would fall asleep without having to spend a single second thinking about my actual life and my actual thoughts and my actual emotions. That stuff belongs in my dreams anyways, right Freud?
I’m not saying anything new here, and I don’t claim to have anything figured out. I’m not out to convince other people to delete their Instagram or Facebook accounts. I’m not even out to claim that my life is so much better now than it was when I had social media. I guess, really, I’m just trying to articulate my long-stewing response to those two students that were so stunned by my non-involvement in the digital community. If I could go back to that day, I would tell those students the following:
The person that you are, the things that define you, and the essential qualities that are most closely tied to your being–none of these have anything to do with your social media accounts. Yes, you can use social media to communicate your self to others, and these apps can be used in ways that help you understand yourself and be better in touch with the world around you. No doubt. Plenty of people use these things in productive ways every single day. But literally thousands of years of human experience took place without social media, and those lives were just as fun, exciting, frustrating, boring, sad, happy, and mysterious as yours are today. Don’t for a second think that the attention you get on social media in anyway dictates your value as a human being, and don’t let the time you spend on social media distract you from your self. I’m saying “your self” instead of “yourself” for a purpose. Life is a daily lesson in the self, and no app will ever remove us from the limitations of our own subjectivity. So don’t buy into the illusion that you can escape the same things that people have always gone through: the same questions, the same longings, and the same challenges. Don’t put the job of understanding your self as secondary to hours and hours of focusing on the lives of other people, because this will only make it more difficult to be okay with who you are. A friend request doesn’t make up for a lost friend; a like doesn’t correct a failure; and SnapChat views will never mean that someone actually likes you. But losing friends and failing and being disliked serve evolutionary purposes in our lives. We are resilient creatures, and we have built-in systems to help us overcome these things. Give these systems a chance to function, and don’t deny the natural process of how living works. Let yourself be sad sometimes; allow yourself a moment to be bored. Don’t distract yourself with the bright illumination and the world of filler that comes when you press that little round button on your small rectangular piece of metal and glass and plastic. Just be.
I quit social media because it became one big way for me to forget about my self; I can’t imagine anything worse to forget.