An unorthodox way to cut ties with social media.
I’ve spent most of the last year glued to social media, particularly a private subreddit where a small and carefully selected community talked about stocks, the economy, gardening, travel, cooking, and lots of other wholesome topics. There were about 700 of us, and it was fun while it lasted.
I’d had a bit of a premonition that it wouldn’t last forever. Personally, I believe every community (be it a private subreddit or a department you work in) has two extremes: the golden age and the age of shit. (It’s very scientific, I know.) Sometimes, you get lucky: you get a great new manager, or transfer into a happy little department, or end up in a nice little community on social media. Eventually, though, it falls apart: your manager quits, or there’s a massive re-org, or your little online community splinters.
That sets off a long descent into the age of shit: it usually takes a while to hit that rock bottom, and once you do, things will slowly and gradually get better. It’s worth noting, though, that one age can last just as long as the other: there are no rules, only two opposite polarities. And so it was with my wholesome little community when one of its members blew up, started harassing me on each and every post I’d made, and then leveled up to become a stalker, across multiple communities, over several consecutive days.
It’s been a week now, and I’m still not quite sure what set him off. I’d had no special interactions or chats with that person – nothing beyond exchanging simple online chatter. Perhaps he was jealous of my freedom to do whatever I wanted with the overabundant free time in my early retirement: my attempt to watch every Werner Herzog movie ever made, my spontaneous trips, and so on. Perhaps he finally blew up when we all (unwisely, in retrospect) shared our investment returns in 2021, and mine was objectively bigger. Perhaps he thought it was acceptable to call me a narcissist (my rich history of community service notwithstanding) after I shared all the times I was being interviewed by journalists – on Amazon, investing, and everything in between.
Perhaps he was a right-wing nationalist xenophobe who finally blew up when I corrected him about his perceptions of Russia. (There’s virtually no private firearm ownership in Russia, so no, the fact that Putin hasn’t had any assassination attempts does not mean that he’s incredibly popular among his people.) He did not take that correction well, and fired back with “you shouldn’t be allowed to talk about America since you don’t even live here.” (Smooooth…) His mental implosion happened the following day, but it’s clear that the person I’d considered a pal had had some mighty ugly preconceived notions, and that was merely the spark that set him off.
Suffice to say, I’m no longer in that community. It’s a strange feeling, since I’d been with them for about nine months. I’ve also left Reddit: it’s easier to abandon a 10-year-old account than to deal with a crazy person following your breadcrumbs all over that platform. In a way, this is a blessing: I’d been spending far, far too much time on that app, in that community, trying to read every comment, trying to absorb as much ersatz socialization as I could from the people I’d never meet, never embrace, never share a meal with. Without getting into the cold and ugly numbers, let’s just say that a significant percentage of my waking hours was dedicated to that small community.
Every once in a while, I’d meet real-world people who said they weren’t on social media at all. My reaction to that was usually “What is right with you?!” What did those mysterious enlightened strangers even do with their time? Well, now I have a fine reason to find out for myself. Over the past few days, I’ve finally finished reading a particularly dry book on writing. I’ve started following Ray Bradbury’s creativity routine that consists of reading a poem, an essay, and a short story each night, just before bed. (As opposed to, say, falling asleep while chatting with internet strangers.) I’ve come up with new edits for a sci-fi short story I’m working on. It’s strange, feeling this internal emptiness where I’d once had almost instantaneous gratification of social media notifications. It’s strange, but not unwelcome.
Initially, my big plan had been to use the upcoming Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike as an opportunity to cut all ties with social media. After all, there’d be no time (or cellphone signal) to keep up with the internet while hoofing it through deserts, mountains, and forests. In a way, the fact that everything fell apart so fast, so suddenly, is helpful. By going cold turkey here and now, 24 days before my one-way flight to San Diego, I’ll have one less thing bugging me when I deliberately leave civilization and all its comforts behind me. This will make for a simpler withdrawal.
In retrospect, and being cut off from it all, diving so deep into social media was a mistake, for it’s a digital facsimile of quicksand that will swallow you whole. (We’ve all seen seemingly normal adults devolve into poo-slinging primates on Facebook and elsewhere.) The story I tell myself to justify my digital addiction is that there was little choice: at the time, I was on the cusp of leaving one city for another. It was too late to make real-life friends in Toronto, and then not enough time to make new ones in Quebec City as it closed down yet again for covid. (Due to its heavy Catholic background and history, Quebec used to have gigantic families of 10+ children until the Quiet Revolution of 1960. As a result, it has more elderly per capita than any other place in Canada, ergo the many lockdowns, and curfews, and safety measures.)
Social media is a substitute community, a fake new world, a taker that does not give back. It has the possibility to make new friends, the probability of encountering trolls and stalkers. At the end of the day, even if you do forge long-term friendships, they won’t be quite as good as those you could make in the real world, with real-time hangouts, and parties, and hikes, and experiences with each of your five senses, not merely your vision.
Social media is a time sink, a whirlpool that draws you closer and deeper, gladly devouring everything you sacrifice to it. The amount of time I’d spent in that community was quite significant… I did learn a lot of new and interesting things (did you know that dock hands in Florida make up to $1,500 USD per week?), got some good advice for my upcoming hike (please don’t cook in aluminum pots made in China), and had a lot of good laughs. And yet that time could’ve been used to learn more French, to work through the backlog of books on my shelf, to try – and probably fail, but try nevertheless – to make new local friends in the time of plague.
There are some good use cases for social media, I’m sure. It’s a medium for disabled folks to find one another and share their experiences. It’s a way for activists to find one another and combine their efforts. But beyond that, in the other 95% of cases, I think it’s a net negative for our civilization as a whole. I spent 11.5 years working at Amazon, and I’ll let you in on a secret. Whenever a giant company (say, Facebook or Reddit) says they use some cutting-age AI technology to enforce the rules and get rid of the bad apples, that’s typically a lie. At the end of the day, it all comes down to a ticket queue that’s processed by a sad guy in a windowless office. (If the company feels generous, maybe that guy will get a buddy to work alongside with. Most likely not.)
There’s simply no way for such gigantic platforms, with their billions of users, to deal with all that message traffic efficiently and in real time, and there’s certainly no futuristic AI that deals with all that human context. There are some horror stories about Facebook’s low-level employees tasked with watching videos that got flagged as objectionable. Sometimes it’s just a recording of a boxing match, other times it’s something that should never be watched by any sane human being. With all our technological progress and prowess, we’ve created something much bigger than ourselves, and that is not a good thing in this instance.
Social media is a time sink, taking up billions of hours of precious human consciousness each day. I’m well aware that we probably wouldn’t get any world-shattering discoveries like cold fusion if people suddenly got all that time back, and yet who knows? If you have a couple of billion hairless apes arguing with each other online, you won’t exactly get a new Shakespeare, but if you take away that platform, will that result in more time spent with one another? More self-improvement? More people taking more walks outside?
Time is money, and life is precious, and the few decades when you have independence, and health, and free time are even more precious, and yet this is how we choose to spend our days… Or perhaps the choice had been made for us, ages ago. It is no secret that social media companies employ behavioral analysts who help make those apps more addictive. More likes, more comments, more notifications with smiley faces, more virtual awards – more, more, more. That dopamine addiction is gradual but relentless.
And as for what happens now? I’ll probably sell my old Reddit account on the black market: if it’s old enough and has high enough karma score, you can make well over $500 from it. (There are always promoters and influencers looking to boost their reputation with an established account, rather than a brand new one.) I’ve made a new backup account with a quirky name, solely to ask questions on certain subreddits when I need some information. I’m spending all this newly freed-up time working on myself, and learning, and preparing for my grand PCT adventure.
And all of that is thanks to one mad stalker. It’s funny how things work out: an unhinged individual leads to quitting cold turkey, which leads to more time to enjoy the little things in life.
I don’t recommend the stress of being stalked and insulted, but if you find some other, simpler way to make that radical change, to take even a week or a month away from those time-sucking apps and platforms, perhaps you’ll like it too. Your time is precious, dear reader: I thank you for giving me these past few minutes, and I hope this helps you free up even more of your time. There’s a whole huge world out there: I hope you’ll join me in it.