After more than a decade on Facebook and Twitter, I finally quit. Last December, I deleted my Facebook account and my Instagram account, then a few weeks later I deleted my Twitter account. I started a WordPress blog, just like I had eighteen years ago, turned off the comments, and have since been perfectly content living without social media. I loathe social media.
I realized I hated social media several years ago and accordingly tried several times to give it up. I once told my friends I was “logging off” of Facebook and that I didn’t intend to post anything ever again, but that oath held for all of three months because I didn’t actually delete my account. I tried breaks and fasts from social media. I tried posting less. I tried taking the Facebook and Twitter apps off my phone. It was pointless. It was all or nothing.
It is a strange thing to realize that you are hopelessly addicted to something from which you take no pleasure. My last six months on Facebook were the worst. I found myself up at night, lights out, wife asleep beside me, scrolling endlessly through Facebook posts I had already seen a dozen times that day. I was searching for something that could satisfy the bottomless hunger for something good which Facebook invariably creates but never fulfills. But Facebook had not only reorganized my nights. I had finally come to interpret my entire waking life through the lens of social media. Everything I saw, everything I ate, everything I read, everything I said, everything my children said could be converted into something that other people might approve of. When my posts were liked, I was relieved. When my posts weren’t liked, I was annoyed. Facebook failed to offer any of the pleasure which all the other standard addictions offer. There was no escape. There was nothing pleasant on the tongue. There was no relief from the pressures of the day. Facebook was the pressure of the day: an endless series of advertisements and consumerist provocations occasionally punctuated by the faces of friends. This, apparently, is what “community” now means.
My decision to quit social media was based on two rather plain observations. First, I didn’t like what social media did to me, and second, I did not like what social media did to other people like me.
Over the last several years, I recognized in myself that lamentable, pitiful tendency to be glad when plans with friends fell through. I was one of those people. I liked it when people cancelled on me. I had sadly come to prefer an evening in.
How did this happen? I wondered. I used to love people. I write fiction, for God’s sake.
The short answer is this: social media unabashedly incentivizes a short attention span. Nothing on social media lasts more than a second or two. We rarely return to old posts or old pictures. What do I care what you had for dinner a year ago? What you’re having for dinner tonight is only interesting because it is occurring at this moment. For the same reason, last week’s newspaper isn’t as interesting as today’s newspaper. What do I care what the weather was like last Tuesday? Social media moves at the speed of boredom. The instant boredom occurs within our souls, social media offers an escape. Of course, an evening out with friends means two hours of sustained conversation with the same people. If they become boring, there is no way out. In the old days, people had to figure out how to make other people interesting. If you went to the home of someone dull for dinner, there was incentive to ask more interesting questions of them, to study the faces and gestures and expressions and vocabulary of the people across the table from you in order to make them more compelling, more sympathetic. The more interesting you could make other people, the better time you would have. But social media makes hatred easy.
Sameness is the root of boredom, but boredom is the root of contemplation. Contemplation is a sort of self-preservation technique of the mind. When you’re standing in line at the grocery store, you get bored looking at all the same things. Same people in front of you. Same tabloids. Same candy for sale. Same cashier. All that sameness leads to boredom, but boredom is unpleasant, and when faced with the unpleasantness of boredom, a healthy mind begins to instruct (and entertain) itself by delving below the façade of sameness and finding difference and distinction beneath. Sameness leads the mind to wander.
Social media prevents boredom, though, by offering constant novelty, which means social media also prevents contemplation. Just twenty years ago, when faced with the boredom of a long checkout line, a healthy mind would begin to wander… to thoughts of the day, to prayers, to speculations on the future, to aggravations and lusts, to the hidden meaning behind the words of coworkers and lovers and friends from just hours earlier. Today, when faced with boredom, the average mind undertakes an endless series of seconds-long provocations online. Social media offers shock, outrage, humor, surprise, novelty— all things which are only interesting for a moment or so. Even sex appeal, which really seems like it would sustain a man’s attention for more than one or two seconds, is flattened out into dull, ephemeral amusement when placed in the context of endless scrolling— especially with the possibility of something even sexier just a screen or two away.
Of course, the real world is quite full of sameness, which is why a mind conditioned to avoid boredom on social media is constantly retreating from the challenging, daring sameness of the world into the infinitely varied, shallow world of scrolling.
I would like to make a certain point abundantly clear, then: the fact that I have authored three books in the last five years, published more than half a million words on this column, and read old books a dozen times which most people my age don’t have the patience to read once— none of this saved me from becoming a dullard. Over the last several years, I even found I no longer had the patience to watch feature-length films (which I adored in my youth). What had social media done to me? I found I could handle a forty-minute television show, but the two-hour commitment which a film required was often too much. All the academic, artistic work I did through out the day wasn’t enough to counterbalance the corruption of social media.
Social media might not be equally bad for everyone, but it is uniquely bad for people who think themselves intellectuals, like essayists and lecturers (bloggers and podcasters). Over the last several years, I have seen numerous Christian intellectuals embarrass and degrade themselves on social media through shameless self-promotion and brazen, flattering appeals to their fan bases. What Instagram does to insecure pretty girls, Facebook does to mid-range intellectuals.
Of course, intellectuals are also prone to all the other awful temptations of social media, like turning Facebook into a court for airing out grievances— surprisingly enough, your friends always find you the innocent victim— or subjecting others to your most petty complaints about the world or your most banal reflections on art, music, culture, the grocery store, and human nature. In the months before deleting my Facebook account, I scrolled back through my posts from 2011 and 2012, noting how little of what I had written had been worth saying. In truth, those posts hadn’t become worthless in the 8 or 9 intervening years. Those posts were just as worthless back then, I simply didn’t know it at the time. The worthlessness of what I said was cloaked by its immediacy and novelty.
In the weeks after deleting my social media accounts, I had all the same inclinations to post every little amusing (ephemeral, stupid) thing which came into my head, but without an easy outlet for saying it, I took some satisfaction in not contributing to the ceaseless chatter that has become typical of modern life.
Fifty years ago, adults characterized teenagers by their incessant, mindless chatter. We are all teenagers now, though.
But I didn’t quit social media to make the world a better place. I quit social media so I could work out my salvation with fear and trembling, not prattle and yammer. Having spent more than ten years burrowing the prattle and yammer into my soul, I suspect it will take twice as long to get it out. Best to get started as soon as possible.