Thoughts on scaling back on social media
No One Seems to Know I'm Gone Why did I quit? You might be aware of those depressing statistics about social media’s negative impact. It’s addictive, it sucks time, it makes you feel bad about yourself, it's divisive, it causes back pain and so forth. The social-media-is-causing-a-rise-in-[insert societal problem here] narrative is certainly a familiar one. I was aware of those reasons and agreed they were valid reasons to consider quitting. Beyond those valid points, though, I also realized there was another good reason to quit. (Or to be more honest, to scale back. I still have a LinkedIn account as well as a Facebook profile existing more or less in a vegetative state). This final reason was arguably the most important reason of all, leading to a benefit I didn’t necessarily anticipate...
By scaling back on social media, I realized you have the opportunity to capture a rare asset on your personal balance sheet: solitude. Solitude means being alone. Not just alone physically, say in your room at night or in a creepy cabin in Maine. But alone digitally, as well: temporarily disconnected from the Internet and its corresponding ideas and neuroses. Why is this kind of solitude valuable? Even if it’s only 30 minutes a day, or a few hours per week, solitude provides time and space so you can think for yourself. Maybe this involves a walk, reading and forming a legitimate, not-regurgitated-from-Reddit opinion about something, or keeping a journal. Whatever form it takes, the key outcome is that you get closer to answering some crucial, not-always-urgent-but-still-important questions on your mind that only you can answer:
Why do I believe what I believe?
Am I happy?
Am I pursuing the right career?
How should I handle this big, important problem?
Should I sign a piece of paper contractually binding me to partnership with this other human being?
Of course, you can try to answer these tough questions accurately at any point throughout the day. But you’re less likely to find the best answer, for two reasons: 1) Research shows humans are poor multi-taskers. By contrast, your best thinking is done when you bring your mind to a single sharp point. Think Einstein at the Swiss patent office. Solitude creates conditions that make it impossible to think about anything else but the key question(s) at hand. 2) By being alone, you are insulated from other people’s ideas and interests, which could cloud your own. The second point above is critical. There are certainly benefits to learning from others and seeing what other people are doing and thinking, and social media may facilitate this (as do newsletters :) ). But after a few hours a week down a very slippery slope, I think the ROI can turn negative. The urgent and immediate often distract from the important and long-term, especially on platforms that reward toxic engagement and shallow thinking. My friend Jen Vermet (author of Letter from a learn-it-all) recently sent me a speech called "Solitude and Leadership" by author William Deresiewicz that captures this idea better than I could put into my own words:
"Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else." (1)
When I first started college, I wanted to work on Wall Street because I wanted to live a lifestyle that other people around me also wanted to live. Seeing other people leverage that career to buy out tables at clubs and feel, in the words of Matty from The 1975, “socially relevant”, activated a kind of mimetic desire that distracted me from my true interests. I wanted what other people wanted, not what I wanted for myself. And this exact kind of mimetic desire is only amplified on social media, with its relentless social peacocking and unblemished realities. Everyone’s life looks appealing except your own, and the apparent obvious choice becomes to live less of your own life, with its forehead pimples and freezer food, and more of someone else’s. In his own essay on the importance of solitude, Michel de Montaigne wrote over 400 years ago:
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself.” (2)
Scaling back on social media isn’t just about finding more time to spend with others, boosting mental health, or eliminating that god awful forward head posture, though these are certainly key benefits. It’s also about finding solitude, and those rare opportunities to think for yourself, in a world so intent on having you think like others do. “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson