Will We Ever Evolve Out Of Social Media?

Illustrated by Kristine Romano.
There is a growing sentiment that social media is not a play place anymore. Instead it has become a burden we cannot shake. 
Twitter users constantly refer to the platform as a "hellsite", a knowing nod to how they keep returning despite its weight on their soul. The same is true on Instagram, albeit filtered through a more sincere, far less sardonic lens. People are posting publicly about taking breaks, posting less or pausing their accounts with the hashtag #digitaldetox, which has been used over 207,000 times. There is even a rising tide of people going further, in what The Observer recently called a show of "self-cancel culture", with fashion brands like Bottega Veneta and public figures like Harry and Meghan as well as your old friend from uni and the writer of this piece all quietly and without ceremony deactivating or abandoning their accounts.
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It would be an exaggeration to call this retreat a mass exodus but the shift is significant. Since its inception in the early '00s, social media has evolved with us, becoming an increasingly integral part of how we stay connected, work, understand the world around us and, more recently, shop. But after the year we’ve been through, is it any wonder that the ambivalence many people have towards these platforms is spreading further than ever?
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Instagram is currently one of the most popular social media platforms in the world, ranking sixth globally with an estimated 1 billion active users as of 2018, over two thirds of whom are aged 34 and younger. Despite what it might feel like to users, Twitter appears to be on the decline: according to third party data, the platform had an estimated 330 million monthly active users in 2019, down from a record high of 336 million in 2018.
While Facebook, Bebo, Myspace and LiveJournal were the formative social media platforms for millennials – the generation at the forefront of social media adoption – it was Twitter and Instagram that became the de facto places for interacting with strangers. Thanks to their relative longevity in the digital era (Twitter was founded in 2006, Instagram in 2010), users have been able to build on the small corners of the internet they carved out for themselves in those initial years, with the history of one's interests, whims and choices from 2012 easily searchable for those with a will to do so.
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This longevity, together with our old friend capitalism, led to the idea of a "personal brand" being integral to existing in these spaces, while one-sided or parasocial relationships came to define a large part of the way we communicate. Our online personas became increasingly curated, with the choices you make about what you post and how often all forming a picture of who "you" are. It was a way to pitch yourself, either figuratively as someone of interest or literally as you sell your work or your influence. While there is a general awareness that a social media persona is not the person it represents, that doesn’t stop us subconsciously forming expectations of the people we follow. This has created an environment where if a person deviates from your expectation of them, you can feel entitled to some form of justification or response. This can take the form of subtweets, digging into someone’s internet posting history or demanding a swift apology from that person.
The social media landscape of today feels far less comfortable and more anxiety-inducing than the one that brought many of us to the platforms in the first place. Aminatou Sow said recently on Haley Nahman’s podcast, "The terms on which you show up are not the terms in which you are currently living." What brought people to these platforms can still be found but access has been clouded and corroded by an understanding that you are being watched, always.

I have had moments where I'm able to be off it for months on end but only during periods of burnout, which is a self-preservation thing rather than evolving out of it. However, the minute I get back on there and start engaging and getting those sweet, sweet likes, I feel my distance from it all quickly shrink.

Fiona O'Grady
Much of the ambivalence about the role social media plays in people’s lives seems to be a particularly millennial experience. We have memories of life pre-internet but they are only accessible through the haze of childhood nostalgia: much of our teens and early 20s were spent growing up on social media with no concept of how big it would become. Visiting and scrolling the sites was a habit that we formed carelessly and with delight, without the examples of older generations. Whereas Gen Z has learned swiftly from millennials’ mistakes, operating on social media – from meeting new people to dealing with customer service – was a path millennials had to forge.
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Fiona O’Grady, 33, is an Irish creative strategy consultant living in Copenhagen. She describes her relationship with social media as "addicted, disgusted, obsessed, delighted, inspired by it all in one big hot mess". It began to tilt more definitively into the negative category in 2019, when a combination of job loss and burnout delivered a huge knock to her self-esteem.
"I have had moments where I’m able to be off it for months on end but only during periods of burnout, which is a self-preservation thing rather than evolving out of it. However, the minute I get back on there and start engaging and getting those sweet, sweet likes, I feel my distance from it all quickly shrink."
The serotonin hit generated by a like or notification is certainly a key factor in why platforms like Instagram and Twitter are so addictive but there is also the pull of nostalgia for the way things were.
"Growing up online has shaped how I see social media so much – I romanticise the community and wholesome nature of it all that I had way back as what I’d call a 'recovering fashion blogger'," says Fiona. "It was so much easier to just goof around as I wasn’t thinking about it in a granular way in the same way as I do now. It was an outlet for making friends and creativity when I didn’t have that elsewhere."
Social media still provides the opportunity to stay in touch with people, make fun things and form genuine friendships but this has been marred by monetisation, comparison and performativity. Yet there is an underlying sense that to leave completely would mean you’d miss out. You never know what moments of joy and hysteria might emerge from the muck of daily scrolling, like the day we found out about David Cameron and "Piggate" on Twitter, or when Coleen Rooney revealed herself to be a detective extraordinaire on Instagram. All of this makes it harder to let go.
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For Fiona, the problematic elements of social media became unignorable last year.
"Social media became exponentially more performative in 2020 as a response to the pandemic, social justice movements and generally the world falling apart. It already felt like you were either on the right or wrong side and on social media you can’t be as complex as you are IRL. This got bigger and more critical in 2020 as we’re all just sitting at home, looking at our phones."
There is now a significant part of her that wants to leave Twitter and Instagram altogether but because it pays her rent, she can’t. "I started working with social media years ago when it was still evolving organically and top management didn’t obsess over it so much. Now as it becomes one of the first ways of interacting with someone or something, the pressure is on and I feel like I need to be 'always on' to know what is happening."
Regular engagement with these platforms is so tied up in so many people’s working lives that it makes the choice to delete your accounts far more complicated. Even if it isn’t directly applicable to your job, social media can play a role in networking or informing you of new perspectives. If nothing else, you want to make sure you a) exist online and b) look good to prospective employers.
Niamh, 32, is a civil servant living in Belfast who would describe herself as "very online". She started her social media life at uni with Facebook, crafting albums with titles like "Sexxxy Saturdays!!!!" and "Jenny's Bday shenanigans xx", "each with 143 pictures of varying quality uploaded from a low-grade digital camera," she laughs. Always very political, she began using Twitter as her site of choice in 2013. "I valued the way Twitter educated me about other experiences and gave me perspective on world events. While I learned about class/race/gender/intersectionality at an academic level, it wasn't until I started using Twitter regularly, hearing other voices, that I got an insight into how those concepts affected people's actual lives."
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Niamh left Twitter completely in 2017 as public shaming and humiliation of people who make mistakes became default. "I'm not taking an anti-cancelling stance at all: I think if someone says something ignorant or discriminatory or offensive, it's fair to point that out and tell them to do better. But for people who make a first mistake, it started to feel like there was no tolerance." She says it felt less like it was about learning and accountability, and more like a game of rushing to be the first one to call something out. "It just stopped being fun and started to feel like blood sport."

As much as the isolation of lockdown meant we were leaning on social media more than ever to feel connected, Fear Of Being Caught Out took the place of Fear Of Missing Out, and the constant stream of anxiety and misery exerted a significant mental toll.

Now she’s much less active on Instagram, where she continues to share family pictures and keep up with friends, and Facebook, where she posts Insta pics for her less online family members. Despite her reservations, she doesn’t think she will ever entirely log off – and not just because she’s reasonably confident she has "the world's best and most interesting baby, and surely everyone finds her as amazing as me". Her work writing government policy, while seemingly unconnected to social media is influenced by what she learns about other people’s experiences. "Social media can be an amazing way of broadening your horizons if you're willing to listen and learn. I think I'm better at my job for not just relying on academic papers to tell me what it's like to belong to X demographic."
She has also found that reducing the time she spends online has allowed her to devote far more time to community activism.
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"I feel like I used social media activism as an excuse not to do as much of that work in real life. Since being less online I've taken up a position in a community activism group, joined the boards of a couple of charities and taken a volunteering role with a crisis helpline. I can't mask my feelings of guilt with a few good RTs (retweets) anymore, and I think it has helped me take more action in reality."
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The last year has brought into sharp focus the sense of unease and discomfort that social media creates. Posting a picture while lounging in your garden required the caveat that you understood how privileged you were to have access to outdoor space; tweeting about a particularly banging salad against the backdrop of huge political shifts suggested you were mindless and insensitive. As much as the isolation of lockdown meant we were leaning on social media more than ever to feel connected and commiserate on the shitshow of living through a pandemic, Fear Of Being Caught Out took the place of Fear Of Missing Out, and the constant stream of anxiety and misery exerted a significant mental toll.
Despite all this, Haley Nahman tells R29 that it’s important to look at the roots of that unhappiness in a wider context. Things will only really change when there are significant political and policy-based shifts, not just individuals changing their habits.
"There's a reason so many people feel like shit about themselves – powerless to change anything and angry at everyone else – and it has to do with the material conditions of modern life. Of late capitalism and wealth inequality and shitty opportunities." This is why she is so focused on reframing what we mean by "community" in online spaces. Instead of being a way that brands can describe their Instagram followers or commentators can describe a group of individuals who use the same hashtag, a shared fight and sense of mutual support and understanding is a vital tool in pushing back. "I think the benefits of building the genuine sense of community that dovetails with collectivism will ease the burden of social media to solve our profound alienation. Until we address these unwieldy social issues, I think these spaces, which invite us to solve our problems in all the wrong ways, will remain compromised."
How using social media has impacted you and, crucially, how you respond, is entirely personal. There is a privilege in being able to separate from the internet entirely or create clear-cut boundaries. It’s far too puritanical and unrealistic to suggest that a "digital detox" is a long-term solution – unlike other addictive behaviours, social media is too intertwined in how we socialise and connect and work. But as more people question how they use it, they are realising that perhaps they can find ways to incorporate social media into their work and personal lives without allowing it to dominate. Techniques like "mind gardening" are a good example, where you repeatedly and carefully tend to your thoughts and interests – which might include social media – as though you were pruning and growing them. Millennials could look to Gen Z and their technique of "casual posting", where you post whatever you want on a whim with no regard for how you’ll be seen. Both techniques take the pressure off the idea that you have to be on social media in one absolute way. You can use it as much or as little as you want, and how you do so is under your control. And perhaps the time that you once spent aimlessly scrolling can be redirected into things that improve not only your life but the lives of those around you.
The platforms themselves will shift with us – given that what they sell is our attention, they will work to find new ways to corner it. But by holding it at a distance, perhaps we can rediscover the joy we once found by posting or commenting with less of the existential baggage. And we can properly question what it is about social media that is making us feel so bad in the first place and find real-life, community-oriented ways to change it.

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