I deactivated my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts a few weeks back and it has been nothing short of liberating. Big statements are required for big feelings.
On reflection, much of my discomfort with social media of late has boiled down to one feeling – exposed. The exposure and consequent being watched. Twitter doesn’t have exactly the same effect because I use it in different ways. Yes, there’s personal information, but there are also more professional connections, academic connections, educational and activist resources – all formatted to springboard me to websites and read longform articles in a far more intuitive way than Instagram, and said articles appear on Twitter for me far more frequently than they did on my Facebook timeline.
If you have ever posted a photo that only got 3 likes and wondered why that could be when the rest of your posts consistently get 50+, only to become accustomed to posting at certain times of the day in the hope of getting more likes, you have met the invisible monster called the Algorithm. Toiling away in the background, this set of code brews anxiety in social media managers and regular users alike. Rather than update your newsfeed or timeline from Newest Post to oldest, the developers of social networking sites have developed algorithms that use your app/website activity to determine which types of content are more likely to interest you, and therefore keep you onsite.
Not only are they using your behavioural data to feed your brain’s dopamine addiction through cat videos and the meme accounts you interact with the most, the developers have created collateral damage in our ability to navigate social relations. That sounds a bit arsey and heavy, but bear with me.
Have you ever caught yourself wondering why so-and-so hasn’t liked your latest pic? Or gotten frustrated that the same handful of accounts always appear first on your feed? You can thank the algorithm for that. The only way to change is to engage differently – commenting and bookmarking and sharing posts from other accounts more frequently. But this then forces your hand; twisting your arm and pushing you to engage with content in ways you otherwise wouldn’t. While nice for the poster, it’s not fair to manipulate behaviours (more than the algorithm already does, given its proclivity for liking video content – i.e. long-form content designed to keep you watching, scrolling, clicking for longer and increasing the likelihood you’ll see an ad and interact with it).
And we haven’t even begun to get into the inherent biases built into these algorithms. Biases passed on from human to computer, with oppressive results. Black bodies are censored, go unrecognised, are categorised incorrectly. It’s wrong and it’s gross and it’s unavoidable while those with the power refuse to pay more than lip service to right these painful wrongs.
So, yeah. The algorithm manipulates, is manipulative. It pre-determines your experience, uses your behavioural data against you to show you more of what it thinks you want to see, boosts ads and paid content ahead of the accounts you actually follow and is biased against communities of minorities because it amplifies existing biases in out society into codified digital commands.
The pressure to perform
This mostly relates to Instagram, but I know Facebook can be a toxic cesspool of one-upmanship and preening.
Instagram has become (or, more accurately, always has been) a space to highlight. To show off. To share the prettiest, most perfect snapshots of oneself. Which is just so false – life is anything but. Life is gritty, messy, unpredictable, unphotogenic, weird, wonderful, bold and muted and mellow and loud and quiet and joy and hurt and everything at once and none of those things at all. Life is so much bigger than a photo and while photos are sometimes worth a thousand words, there are other times where those thousand words are more meaningful. Or even 5 would do.
Our online personas or avatars are versions of ourselves. They can’t be our full selves because we are never all of ourselves at once – the selfs we perform online are just some of the things that we are. Maybe we’re funny or artsy or hot or dumb or confrontational or some combination of parts of ourselves that we translate online. But that means sometimes we’re performing. Posting landscapes from the loo or throwbacks to decadent dinners while eating cheerios for tea. And I’m sick of the mismatch, the disconnect and the bald faced lies. I’m not going to post photos of me smiling with brushed hair and a pretty necklace when I’ve spent the day sobbing. Desperate for validation through numeric associations with acceptability and posting at The Right Time. I was doing that. It was making me more miserable. It’s not what I want to do anymore.
I won’t perform and I won’t share the smiliest, shiniest, sharpest parts of myself, filtered or not. It’s just not how I want to be thought of. When people think of me, I want them to think of our last interactions, not the dinner I posted on my Insta Story last night. So I’ve quit my Instagram bad habits cold turkey. No more smoke and mirrors hiding how I really am or what I’m really doing. No more putting on a face or showing the Insta-worthy aspects of my life. Because they’re all capturable, but I don’t want to live my life through a lens for other people’s screens.
Power down the spotlight, I don’t want it on me on there any more.
What does a Like mean? How much social or emotional weight can we realistically attribute to the press of a button? Can we build relationships from swipes, views, reactions and replies?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but at the heart of them lies the niggling feeling that my relationships online cannot be cultivated with the same authenticity or mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations as those developed offline with digital tools as a supplementary avenue for brief contact.
Yes, I believe meaningful relationships can start and grow online. Much of my contact with my boyfriend in the early stages was through social media as I navigated the end of my degree and start of my internship. But I think somewhere along the way I, and a lot of people around me, forgot that online life and AFK existence are linked, not separate – but they’re not a replacement for one another either.
Manipulative by design
Ignoring the pure manipulation of the algorithms that rank content for our timelines, I take major issue with the guilt and shame built into these apps’ design.
The infinite scroll design is problematic – its creator publicly apologises for designing it and recognises the problems with it and our understanding of consumption/overindulgence. Infinite scroll makes it hard to find the information you want because it’s not as easily searchable. It means you can’t just hit the Back button too if you want to return to a post you were looking at previously (on Instagram, anyway). And we don’t need any more
Another aspect of manipulative design is the language used on these apps and how they distort our framing of their purpose. Facebook Friends are not your close pals. Followers don’t require preaching to or proof as to why they should stay. Comments don’t necessarily denote positive engagement and Bookmarking for later doesn’t really hold the same promise you’ll return to the page like it does in a physical book. When Facebook asks “What’s on your mind?”, it suggests that the hundreds of people who follow you are the right audience to divulge personal matters or your inner-most thoughts. The reaction buttons can be misconstrued like any emoji (although I noticed on Messenger you can now react with any emoji, that’s a new update and it’s a slight improvement), but how much meaning can a few pixels denote? They aren’t meaningful out of context – they cannot replace communication. A laughing face doesn’t tell someone you miss them, a heart is no long-term replacement for saying I Love You. And yet, we are using them instead of saying what we mean. Exactly what we mean. To the people we mean to say it too.
There’s a strand of attention-seekers on Facebook who follow a formulaic pattern along the lines of a Facebook status or photo upload about being scorned
That’s the last time I trust someone with the personal stuff, every time I try I just get burned. And you can post your nastiness all you want, but you’re the one no one wants to spend time withrandom Facebook person, probably
Now, when you check the Comments section, it’ll be filled with people asking “Are you okay?“, or declaring “You don’t need them” and promising “I’m here if you need me“. Rarely will people outright ask “What’s going on“, but invariably the response will look something like “I’ll PM you“. Interest is piqued by the onlookers who are outside the realms of this skirmish – because the secrecy adds to drama and drama is delicious. And so, the Original Poster (OP) gets exactly what they want – attention from those who will engage, and a secondary audience of mildly (or wildly) intrigued acquaintances who will at least be tempted to do a deep dive to uncover the source of all this. Making these things public not only brings strangers into your business, but it robs us of the opportunity to strengthen relationships by reaching out and explicitly asking for support.
Asking for support is hard. It’s vulnerable, it’s scary, it can be emotionally exhausting and it’s not always rewarding. But it’s such a vital cornerstone of relationships and social media is offering us ways around it. And in doing so, social media robs us of an important vulnerability. Changing our experience of vulnerability from intimate conversations and soul-bearing to public displays of frustration, anger, despair makes a show, a circus of our hurt and steals much-needed empathy from those who are in pain. It’s so easy to roll your eyes at the kinds of post I’m describing when it’s on your timeline sandwiched between holiday pics and calls to action around community politics. It’s much harder to scoff at the disappointment and upset when it’s in your DMs or on the other side of the table in the coffee shop.
I believe this is just one more way in which the design of these apps and websites is developed to change our behaviours, siloing our experiences in a cacophony of digital echo chambers filled with shouting and showing off. And it’s having a catastrophic impact on how we relate to one another.
The personal data thing
I highlighted it at the start, but it’s worth reiterating. I wasn’t comfortable with the quantity of data these organisations were collecting about me. Nor was I comfortable knowing that they use, sell and manipulate that data to meet capitalist ideals I fundamentally disagree with. I don’t trust Facebook or the upper management who run it. I don’t want them owning my photos or knowing I watch certain videos. Data and privacy are issues so much more important than we ever give the time for because they’re big and conceptual and messy, but they’re also not. And I was tired of compromising myself and my values.
This isn’t without its problems for my professional life. My research focuses on social media. My work requires I stay up to date on the latest developments and exist there in some capacity. I’ve drawn more concrete boundaries – using work accounts, soon I’ll have a work phone, eventually I’ll stop using my laptop for anything that isn’t personal stuff altogether. These steps are as much for my sanity as they are for separating the personal data from professional stuff. Mixing the two is sometimes unavoidable, but it’s easier to avoid the temptation of scrolling or making myself miserable seeing shinier lives when the accounts I’m connected to don’t share those kinds of content.
Leaving technology behind
I’m not going off the grid. It’s impossible, for one thing, but I don’t want to either. I still have my Twitter account. I still have my blog. In some ways I’m less choosy about who sees my posts and in others I’m more particular about who I share my innermost thoughts with. This is a constant learning journey – as the tech evolves, as I grow, as the world changes – the goalposts will keep moving. Addressing my social media use has left me feeling less exposed, less vulnerable, more in control. I’m sure that will change.
For now, though, I’m enjoying the lack of feeling weighed down by the implications of two small icons, one pink and one blue.