This weekend I realized that I’m kind of burned out: agitated, stressed about nothing in particular, and peculiarly sleepless. It took a little introspection to figure out what was really going on.
Here’s what I finally decided: I really need to pull back from using social media in particular as much as I do.
A few things brought me here:
- The sheer volume of social media sites is intense
- Our relationship with social media has been redefined
- I want to re-focus on my actual goals
I’d like to talk about them in turn. Some of you might be feeling something similar.
The sheer volume of social media sites is intense
It used to be that I posted and read on Twitter. That’s where my community was; that’s where I kept up to date with what was happening.
Well, we all know what happened there.
In its place, I find myself spending more time on:
- LinkedIn (really!)
- Facebook (I know)
The backchannel that Twitter offered has become rather more diffuse. Mastodon, Threads, and Bluesky offer pretty much the same thing as each other, with a different set of people. LinkedIn is more professional; I’m unlikely to post anything political there, and I’m a bit more mindful of polluting the feed. My Facebook community is mostly people I miss hanging out with, so I’ll usually post sillier or less professionally relevant stuff there. And Instagram, until recently, was mostly photos of our toddler.
I haven’t been spending a ton of time interacting on any of them; it’s common for almost a full day to go between posts. Regardless, there’s something about moving from app to app to app that feels exhausting. I realized I was experiencing a kind of FOMO — am I missing something important?! — that became an addiction.
Each dopamine hit, each context switch, each draw on my attention pushes me further to the right on the stress curve. Everyone’s different, but this kind of intense data-flood — of the information equivalent of empty calories, no less — makes me feel awful.
Ugh. First step: remove every app from my phone. Second step: drastically restrict how I can access them on the web.
Our relationship with social media has been redefined
At this point we’re all familiar with the adage that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.
It never quite captured the true dynamic, but it was a pithy way to emphasize that we were being profiled in order to optimize ad sales in our direction. Of course, there was never anything to say that we weren’t being profiled or that our data wasn’t being traded even if we were the ostensible customer, but it seemed obvious that data mining for ad sales was more likely to happen on an ad-supported site.
With the advent of generative AI, or more precisely the generative AI bubble, this dynamic can be drawn more starkly. Everything we post can be ingested by a social media platform as training data for its AI engines. Prediction engines are trained on our words, our actions, our images, our audio, and then re-sold. We really are the product now.
I can accept that for posts where I share links to other resources, or a rapid-fire, off-the-cuff remark. Where I absolutely draw the line is allowing an engine to be trained on my child. Just as I’m not inclined to allow him to be fingerprinted or added to a DNA database, I’m not interested in having him be tracked or modeled. I know that this is likely an inevitability, but if it happens, it will happen despite me. I will not be the person who willingly uploads him as training data.
So, when I’m uploading images, you might see a picture of a snowy day, or a funny sign somewhere. You won’t see anything important, or anything representative of what life actually looks like. It’s time to establish an arms-length distance.
There’s something else here, too: while the platforms are certainly profiling and learning from us, they’re still giving us more of what we pause and spend our attention on. In an election year, with two major, ongoing wars, I’m finding that to be particularly stressful.
It’s not that I don’t want to know what’s going on. I read the news; I follow in-depth journalism; I read blogs and opinion pieces on these subjects. Those things aren’t harmful. What is harmful is the endless push for us to align into propaganda broadcasters ourselves, and to accept broad strokes over nuanced discussion and real reflection. This was a problem with Twitter, and it’s a problem with all of today’s platforms.
The short form of microblogging encourages us to be reductive about impossibly important topics that real people are losing their lives over right now. It’s like sports fans yelling about who their preferred team is. In contrast, long-form content — blogging, newsletters, platforms like Medium — leaves space to explore and truly debate. Whereas short-form is too low-resolution to capture the fidelity of the truth, long-form at least has the potential to be more representative of reality.
It’s great for jokes. Less so for war.
I want to re-focus on my actual goals
What do I actually want to achieve?
Well, I’ve got a family that I would like to support and show up for well.
I’ve got a demanding job doing something really important, that I want to make sure I show up well for.
I’ve also got a first draft of a majority of a novel printed out and sitting on my coffee table with pen edits all over it. I’d really like to finish it. It’s taken far longer than I intended or hoped for.
And I want to spend time organizing my thoughts for both my job and my creative work, which also means writing in this space and getting feedback from all of you.
Social media has the weird effect of making you feel like you’ve achieved something — made a post, perhaps received some feedback — without actually having done anything at all. It sits somewhere between marketing and procrastination: a way to lose time into a black hole without anything to really show for it.
So I want to move my center of gravity all the way back to writing for myself. I’ll write here; I’ll continue to write my longer work on paper; I’ll share it when it’s appropriate.
Posting in a space I control isn’t just about the principle anymore. It’s a kind of self-preservation. I want to preserve my attention and my autonomy. I accept that I’m addicted, and I would like to curb that addiction. We all only have so much time to spend; we only have one face to maintain ownership of. Independence is the most productive, least invasive way forward.