Why I do not use social media

I used to maintain a social media presence in the early 2010s. At the time, I was under the impression that those platforms enhance existing social relations while providing the impetus to the formation of new ones. I was wrong!

Let me start with an example that illustrates what was, in my experience, the typical behaviour of a user on those platforms. I used to write articles about the politics of the European Union and the then-unfolding financial crisis in the Euro Area. One day I published a long and nuanced essay, which I then blithely posted on all my profiles for my network to read. Not to accumulate Internet points, mind you, but for them to be informed about what I had written and, hopefully, to elicit some valuable response (I dislike clickbait and low effort entries). Within a few seconds I got “likes” and positive comments, such as the generic “good read!”, as well as a repost with the caption “essential reading”.

This was the norm and I was becoming unhappy. Can anyone read a long essay in a matter of seconds? No. Can they form an opinion about it in such a brief period, let alone have the confidence to recommend it to others? No.

What those people were doing on a regular basis was to signal to their friends/followers how knowledgeable and sophisticated they are or, rather, purport to be. They were basically bragging about having discovered an analysis and/or possessing the requisite intellectuality to show interest in that sort of material.

I never had a meaningful exchange on social media. Not once did I receive insightful commentary. Opinions would oscillate between the extremes of unrealistic praise and unfair dismissal. For matters that are more subtle, such a binary is untenable. Those users may have been real people, yet their behaviour was indistinguishable from that of a bot that responds to basic triggers with formulaic remarks.

I do not blame the person, but the medium. Those platforms are designed in such a way as to keep the user scrolling through their feed. The more one scrolls, the higher the number of advertisements they are exposed to. Every other point of entry or interaction is designed accordingly. Notifications invite the user back to the app, while engagement in short bursts reinforces the addiction to the provider of the stimulus.

My friends’ avatarised self on those platforms was being robotified. However, the effect was not contained to the digital space as it was spilling over to quotidian life. There was a time when I would meet people, sit at a table with them, and they would constantly check on their phone. While we were all collocated, each of us was actually alone. Sad!

What is the point? Why go out with you if I am not with you in terms of a joint presence? Perhaps because I am a philosopher or just sensitive and a romantic fool, I found this state of affairs disturbing. I was being alienated from a human world that was becoming decisively less human. Social media are not amplifying our sociability. These platforms are commodifying the superficial aspect of being friendly, ultimately to usurp interpersonal relations and unscrupulously monetise their new role as mediators to—and enablers of—our exchanges.

Which brings me to the point of federated media, of the sort we find in the GNU, Linux, Emacs milieux. While there is no platformarch (platform ruler) to abuse their power on a colossal scale or, generally, a central authority to enforce conditions, the medium remains inherently alienating. Social media, federated or centralised, condition the user to make low effort posts in order to stay in that short-term loop of seeking validation and responding to momentary stimuli. The type of “good read” comment I alluded to above is not engendered by the ruthless for-profit nature of the mainstream platforms: humans do this all the time to show off and/or gain attention (and platformarchs exploit it with impunity). The medium simply lowers the barrier, bringing the worst in us. Hence the toxicity or tempests in teapots.

It is not simply a matter of the quality of posts we find while using the application. Inconsiderate posting patterns have a cumulative effect, which manifests in the externality of constant notifications. To be active on social media is to invite all those low effort pings throughout the day. The more invested one becomes, the greater the exposure. As I seek the human element, blocking the notifications runs counter to the very sociability I want. Yet being distracted the whole time is not helpful either.

In face-to-face exchanges we have the natural barrier of distance. When we are close, we communicate in earnest and when we are apart we do not interfere with each other’s life. Using a medium that comes with the expectation of real-time feedback dismantles this barrier. It is considered offensive or otherwise unsettling to read one’s message and not reply, leaving its visible status to “read”. While I understand the reason, I find this unfortunate as it forces us to muster the energy to be sociable on demand. From whence comes the inevitable hypocrisy, for no-one is available at all times. This is why I prefer email: there is mutual recognition that communications are asynchronous.

Social media can lead to new friendships, though only as an exception to the rule. I cannot feel any attachment at the outset to some M-xEmacsNerd or be flattered when I get the equivalent of the “good read” comment. If we do establish a modicum of sociability, it will be via a prolonged exchange of substantive messages where the person reveals at least part of their personality. This exchange must preferably culminate in approximations of face-to-face contact, such as voice and video messages. Otherwise we remain Internet strangers to varying degrees, which is fine, provided we acknowledge it as such and do not pretend that we are friends.

Having to deal with a barrage of notifications, the high noise-to-signal ratio, and the overall superficiality of each exchange, seems like a disproportionate cost to pay for the potential of making a friend on those platforms. My point is that sociability is not the first thing we get there.

Considered holistically, I am content with my decision to withdraw from social media. I remain in control of my attention span and the kind of information I expose myself to. Besides, I have a personal website, so anyone can check my “profile” to discover at least some of the things I care about. As for establishing friendships, my hope is that email is enough as a first step. We have the technology for remote communications, including by means of audio and video. We can still have rewarding interactions and be social. Just skip the intermediary who is a bad influence on all of us.