Thinking About Giving Up Social Media? Think Again.

I explore the pros and cons of social media – at least for my use of it. Note: if your job requires that you use social media, this post likely won’t be that helpful.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I should take a break from social media.

I’ve just started working on a book (tentatively called “Field Girl,” and focusing on my scientific fieldwork experiences). I do some writing and editing on the side. I have limited hours in the day (this is a well-established fact, and is borne out by yesterday’s experience of spending the entire morning asleep). I enjoy reading, and quilting, and getting outside, whether that’s by cycling, walking, gardening, or kayaking.

All of this suggests I don’t really have time for social media.

As Christine Farr writes in an article for CNBC, she felt mentally better after quitting Facebook and Instagram. She had discovered that she was on Instagram for 5 hours a week! Wow! I think I’m probably on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Slack for 5 hours a week all combined.

Thanks to a conversation with my friend Kim Moynahan, I realized that the key point of Farr’s article is her realization that “my social media usage was anything but intentional.”

This is the downside to social media. It can suck you in for hours at a time if you’re just bored and scrolling through different peoples’ feeds. It can make you feel as though you’re not keeping up with the Jones’s, as though you don’t have the right lifestyle or clothing or house.

But those are the negatives. We forget that social media has its positives, and that if we use it more mindfully we can actually see some benefit from it.

Promote writing and other art that people might not be aware of.

I write book reviews, and am always on the lookout for new books coming out. I’ve found a few neat books via people posting that they’re sending galleys to interested reviewers, and have really enjoyed writing reviews of them. It also works well for the author, because their book reaches a broader audience.

I’ve also come across photographers and science artists whom I might not have found otherwise, and whose work I can share with my own audience. People like Jill Pelto, or Jen at Isoline Studies.

Share your expertise and experience with others.

I recently read an article in Brick by Kyo Maclear, in which she details a nature walk she took with writer Hiromi Goto through Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park. Maclear writes that, “for several years, [Goto] has been using Instagram and Twitter to chronicle her encounters with the less visible species of animals and plants she finds around Vancouver.”

It’s not just Goto who does this. Dr. David Steen (@alongsidewild) uses Twitter to help people identify snakes. Grad student Catherine Scott (@Cataranea) uses Twitter to share her love of spiders – and has been hugely successful at it. 

I write this blog weekly and use social media to spread the word about it. I haven’t had an overwhelming number of visitors, but people do find their way here from Twitter.

Find personal support.

I’ve found a great support network on Twitter who send me good vibes when I have a bad mental health day. It’s been eye-opening to see how many people empathize with what I’m going through.

I’ve connected with a woman on Twitter who also finds the winter season difficult mentally, and we’ll be checking in on each other every Monday. I have a writing buddy that I connected with via Slack, and we did an everyday check in for NaNoWriMo, but are going back to weekly book checkins now that NaNoWriMo is done.

I have other colleagues on Twitter who message me to make sure things are OK – and don’t expect a message back.

Start a movement and share it globally.

Most of us learned of the riots in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown via Twitter, where everything was happening in real time. The Idle No More movement “created an online community of Indigenous thinkers, artists and academics,” says Chelsea Vowel. The Arab Spring was amplified by protestors using Twitter. Social media allowed people to organize international protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL).

The drawback, however, is “slacktivism” or armchair activism, where people think sending an email or a tweet counts as activism.

Slacktivism and social media being a time sink are good reasons to use social media mindfully. But what does “mindfully” really mean, other than being a buzzword used by meditation gurus and yoga studios to fill their workshops and classes?

To me, it means interrogating our use of these tools, and figuring out whether they are working for us or if we’re working for them, to determine whether they’re helping or hindering us.

Why do you use social media?

This is a basic question but the answer is important.

I use social media to stay in touch with people I don’t see regularly and to connect with new people, to learn from others (this is largely related to the Facebook groups I’m in, but also happens on Twitter), and to find a range of topics/articles that generate new ideas and ways in which I can think about and share my writing.

But my social media use isn’t all positive. I use it to procrastinate, or to see what other people have been up to. I enjoy getting likes on a post because that means people are seeing what I’m posting. I use it because the word in book publishing is that you should have some kind of a platform for a publisher to pick you up.

What do you want to get out of social media?

Do you want likes, follows, brand recognition…? I want interesting conversations, neat ideas and articles, and serendipitous encounters. I want to build a community. I don’t post things merely to get likes or retweets, but I won’t lie that it’s gratifying to get them. That’s how social media is set up, after all – to give you a dopamine hit every time you get a ‘like.’

I want social media to be a place that I can share things I find interesting. To that end, I share articles on topics around the environment, feminism and women in science, nature/outdoors, and books. I’m a serious bibliophile.

I also use Twitter as an archive – I often go back through my feed to find articles I’ve quoted so I can use them in my writing.

What role do you want social media to play in your life?

Do you want to be continually connected – always posting, always thinking regardless of what you’re doing that you should take a photo to share online? Do you want to see every notification and “like” in real time, as it appears on your feeds?

For me that’s not doable. I’ve found, for example, that being on Twitter on and off all day is too stimulating for me and makes my mind too busy. I’d prefer that social media be just another part of my everyday life. Something that fits in between reading and crafts and gardening and being outdoors.

We all have positive and negative reasons for using social media. It’s important to sort out both sides for yourself, then focus on the positive actions and try to minimize the negative ones.

Thinking through these questions requires mindfulness: basically, we have to stop and think about things. It requires us to stop letting our social media platforms use us. They are tools that serve a particular need, though they’ve become so embedded into the warp and weave of society that it can be hard to remember this fact.

Instead we need to consider how we want to use our social media platforms. Goto uses it to share worlds of moss and mushrooms with Vancouverites and other followers. Rob Macfarlane, a UK nature writer, uses Twitter to disseminate words used to describe nature – some of which have long fallen out of use.

Putting controls in place

Once we know how we want to use social media platforms instead of letting them use us, we can put in place the controls required to keep things on track. Some people, like Farr, start by deleting social media apps from their phone. Then they can only check them on their computer.

I don’t have a phone, so that’s not an option for me. But I am home a lot and can access my tablet whenever I like, and I do get caught up in social media more than I should.

I need to start by figuring out how to get Twitter notifications only once or twice a day. I don’t need Twitter to tell me what’s happening in the world, as I have subscriptions to The NY Times and Washington Post. I don’t have to follow certain people whose newsletters I’ve signed up for (like Austin Kleon and Kelly J. Baker). I also follow a number of blogs that I can access on my own schedule instead of finding them in my Twitter feed.

I’m less certain of what to do about Facebook. Right now I use it mainly for the writing groups I’m in, and I find them really helpful. I rarely post on my personal page unless it has to do with my dogs, haha. Like Twitter, I think I have to limit my checking of Facebook to once or twice a day.

Of course I won’t capture all the information I get right now, but maybe that’s part of the point. To get back to the “unpolluted mind” and think for myself instead of via the words of others (not that that’s always a bad thing).

Ultimately, how you use social media is up to you. It’s not an issue of being a ‘good’ person for giving up social media or a ‘bad’ person for using it regularly. Just as long as it’s a choice you’ve made, and not one that social media has made for you.

Note: this week’s featured image has CC-0 permissions. The original is here.

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4 thoughts on “Thinking About Giving Up Social Media? Think Again.

  1. That’s a good overview, Sarah. I agree on the many positive uses of social media that you mention. The challenge (for me – as you say, this is very personal) is that I get hooked in by the online world’s prompts and algorithms. I recently read a good book on the subject, How to Break Up With Your Phone. You note that you don’t have a phone – – still, the book notes research that shows that even the presence of hyperlinks changes the reading experience – versus a print book, where there is no mental energy expended on whether to click links or not. I have tried to reduce my online presence (not just social media but news sites and general ‘look it up online’ activity) in recent months. It generally feels good, but the online world definitely has its pull. Case in point – I read your blog email and clicked over to here 😉
    Best wishes in continuing to manage this. And I look forward to reading more of your writing in analog form…

    • Thanks for your note, Lorne. I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, having hyperlinks in text can keep us from focusing on the article at hand and send us down an interweb rabbithole. I tend to ignore links in news stories unless I really, really want to dig deeper. But that’s not a foolproof strategy. I’m still working through how to manage the web in general, and social media is just one component of that. It all requires conscious decision-making…

      • My main concern is that I have seen my attention span shortening over the years; it got to the point where I rarely sat with a book and read it through without jumping to some online stimulus in the guise of ‘research’ or ‘commentary’ or ‘sharing.’ When I read research summaries about brains being ‘rewired’ by digital media, it really sounded like they were describing me. Also, I generally found that Twitter especially was often a downer – it left me despairing, in a non-productive way. It’s interesting to watch how we early-Internet generations adapt (or not) to digital influence. Young adults, of course, have never known a pre-web world, nor will future generations. Such a sea change… and we know not where it will lead.

  2. I know what you mean about attention span/concentration. Interestingly, because I’ve been reading a lot for book reviews etc lately, I feel like my attention span has improved. But I am spending less time on social media. Twitter can definitely be a downer – I find that the news in general is a downer but I still want to be aware of what’s going on. Hence my newspaper subscriptions. I am considering a social media break in the new year.

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