“Yet another public resolution to leave Facebook or Twitter,” you say with a laugh. “Only soon to be given up like so many others, no doubt.” That’s a reasonable reaction. But go ahead, check up on me: here are my Twitter account and my Facebook account. My last posts were Sept. 11 and Sept. 12. I promise to leave this blog post up forever–that’ll shame me if I get back to it.
I’ve critiqued social media philosophically and even threatened to abandon it before, and I’ve advised people not to use it during work time (I admit I’ve later completely ignored this advice myself). But I’ve never really quit social media for any length of time.
Until now. As of earlier today, I’ve quit cold turkey. I’ve made my last posts on Twitter and Facebook, period. I’m not even going to say goodbye or explain or link to this blog post on social media, which I’ll let others link to (or not). Friends and family will have to either call or email me or make their way here to get an explanation. I’ll be happy to explain further and maybe engage in some debate in the comment section below.
I thought I’d explain what has led to this decision. You’ll probably think it’s my sniffy political stance against social media’s threats to free speech and privacy, but you’d be wrong–although I’m glad I’ll no longer be supporting these arrogant, vicious companies.
This resolution didn’t really start as a reaction to social media at all. It began as a realization about my failings and about some important principles of ethics and psychology.
1. Socrates was right: we’re not weak, we just undervalue rationality.
We are a remarkably irrational species.
Recently I began giving thought to the fact that we so rarely think long-term. If we were driven by the balance of long-term consequences, there are so many things we would do differently. If you think about this long enough, you can get quite depressed about your life and society. Perhaps I should only speak for myself–this is true of me, for sure–but I think it is a common human failing. Not exercising, overeating, wasting time in various ways, indulging in harmful addictions, allowing ourselves to believe all sorts of absurd things without thinking, following an obviously irrational crowd–man might be the rational animal, as Aristotle thought, but that doesn’t stop him from also being a profoundly irrational animal.
I’m not going to share my admittedly half-baked thoughts on rationality in too much detail. You might expect me to, since I’m a Ph.D. philosopher who was once a specialist in epistemology, who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the ethical requirements of practical rationality, and who has done some training and reading in psychology. I’m not going to pretend that my thoughts on these things are more sophisticated than yours; I know they’re probably not. I’m not an expert.
I will say this, just to explain where my head is at these days. I have always taken Socrates’ theory of weakness of will (akrasia) very seriously. He thought that if we do something that we believe we shouldn’t–have an extra cookie or a third glass of wine, say–then the problem is not precisely that our will is weak. No, he said, the problem is that we are actually ignorant of what is good, at least in this situation.
This sounds ridiculously wrong to most philosophers and students who encounter this view for the first time (and, for most of us, on repeated encounters). Of course there is such a thing as weakness of will. Of course we sometimes do things that we know are wrong. That’s the human condition, after all.
But I can think of a sense in which Socrates was right. Let’s suppose you have a rule that says, “No more than one cookie after dinner,” and you end up eating two. Even as you bite into the second, you think, “I really shouldn’t be eating this. I’m so weak!” How, we ask Socrates, do you lack knowledge that you shouldn’t eat the second cookie? But there is a straightforward answer: you don’t believe you shouldn’t, and belief is necessary for knowledge. We can concede that you have some information or insight–but it is quite questionable whether, on a certain level, you actually believe that you shouldn’t eat the cookie. I maintain that you don’t believe it. You might say you believe it; but you’re not being honest with yourself. You’re not being sincere. The fact is that your rule just isn’t important to you, not as important as that tasty second cookie. You don’t really believe you shouldn’t have it. In a certain sense, you actually think you should have it. You value the taste more than your principle.
From long experience–see if you agree with me here–I have believed that our desires carry with them certain assumptions, certain premises. New information can make our desires turn on a dime. I think there are a number false premises that generally underpin weakness of will. I’m not saying that, if we persuade ourselves that these premises are false, we will thereafter be wonderfully self-disciplined. I am saying, however, that certain false beliefs do make it much easier for us to discount sober, rational principles, naturally tuned to our long-term advantage, in favor of irrational indulgence that will hurt us in the long run.
Here, then, are two very general premises that underpin weakness of will.
(a) Sometimes, it’s too strict and unreasonable to be guided by what are only apparently rational, long-term considerations.
There are many variations on this: being too persnickety about your principles means you’re being a hard-ass, or uncool, or abnormal, or unsociable, or positively neurotic (surely the opposite of rational!). And that might be true–depending on your principles. But it is not true when it comes to eating healthy and exercising daily, for example: in the moment, it might seem too strict to stick by a reasonable diet, so it might seem unreasonable. But it really isn’t unreasonable. It is merely difficult. It is absolutely reasonable because you’ll benefit and be happier in the long run if you stick to your guns. It will get easier to do so with time, besides.
(b) Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are, sometimes, simply better than being guided by rational, long-term considerations.
This is reflected, at least somewhat, in the enduring popularity of hedonism, ethical and otherwise. The aesthete who takes the third glass of wine doesn’t want narrow principles to stand in the way of pleasure (it’s such good wine! I don’t want to be a buzzkill to my awesome friends!); instead, he will also congratulate himself on his nuance and openness to experience. The same sort of thinking is used to justify infidelity.
Such considerations are why I think it is plausible to say that, no, indeed, in our moments of weakness, we have actually abandoned our decent principles for cynical ones. You might object, “But surely not. I’m merely rationalizing. I don’t really take such stuff seriously; I take my principles seriously. I know I’m doing wrong. I’m just being weak.”
Well, maybe that’s right. But it’s also quite reasonable to think that, at least in that moment, you actually are quite deliberately and sincerely choosing the path of the cool, of the sociable friend, of the aesthete; you are shrugging with a self-deprecating smile as you admit to yourself that, yes, your more decent principles are not all that. You might even congratulate yourself on being a complex, subtle mensch, and not an unyielding, unemotional robot. This is why, frankly, it strikes me as more plausible that you’re not merely rationalizing: you are, at least temporarily, embracing different (less rational, more cynical) principles.
But as it turns out, there are good reasons to reject (a) and (b). Recently, I was talking myself out of them, or trying to, anyway. I told myself this:
Consider (a) again, that sometimes, rationality is too strict. When we avoid strict rationality, the things we allow ourselves are frequently insipid and spoiled by the fact that they are, after all, the wrong things to do. Take staying up late: it’s so greatly overrated. Overindulgence in general is a great example. Playing a game and watching another episode of a television program are simply not very rewarding; just think of the more gainful ways you could be spending your time instead. Having one cookie too many is hardly an orgasmic experience, and it is absolutely foolish, considering that the consequences of breaking a necessary diet can be so unpleasant.
Indeed, most Americans need to be on a diet (or to exercise a lot more), and that is an excellent example of our inability to think long term. It is hard to imagine the advantages of being healthy and thin. But those advantages are very real. They can spell the difference of years of a longer life, and considerably greater activity and, indeed, comfort in life. That is only one example of the advantages of rationality. The simple but profoundly beneficial activity of going to bed early enough and getting up early enough can make you much more alert, active, happy, and healthy. Why do so many people not do that every night? I think the reason is, at least in part, that we literally cannot imagine—not without help or creative effort—what that better life would be like. We are stuck in our own moment, and it seems all right to us.
In short, the requirements of a rational human life seem unreasonably “strict” only because we lack the imagination to consider a better sort of life.
Consider (b) now. Pain, and especially discomfort, are not all that awful. They are an important part of life, and if you attempt to avoid all pain, you ultimately invite even more. There is nothing particularly degrading about discomfort. Especially if it is unavoidable, and if working or fighting or playing through it results in some great achievement, then doing so can even be heroic. I’m not meaning to suggest that pain for its own sake is somehow desirable. It isn’t, of course. But being able to put up with discomfort in order to achieve something worthwhile is part of the virtue of courage.
2. It is irrational to use social media.
I want to be fair. So if I’m going to examine whether indulgence in social media is rational or not, I’ll begin with some purported advantages and see how solid they are.
Social media seems to benefit the careers of a few people. This seems true of people with a lot of followers; but my guess is that most people with a lot of followers already have successful careers, which is why they have a lot of followers. (Models on Instagram and popular video makers on YouTube might be an exception, in that they can make their career via the platform itself.) People with fewer than, say, 10,000 Twitter followers don’t really reach enough people to have a very interesting platform. I have about 3,000 Twitter followers, and I’ve deliberately kept my Facebook numbers smaller just because I use Facebook in a more personal way. Frankly, my career doesn’t seem to be helped all that much by my presence on social media. Besides, that’s not why I do it.
My Everipedia colleagues might be a little upset with me that I won’t be sharing Everipedia stuff on Twitter and Facebook anymore (which I won’t–because I know that even that little bit would pull me back in). But I can assure them that I’ll get more substantive and impactful work done as a result of all the time freed up from social media. I will continue to use communication platforms like Telegram and Messenger, by the way, and Reddit, in the Everipedia group, will also be OK. I’ll also keep using LinkedIn to connect to people for work purposes. But Quora and Medium are out. Those are too much like blogging anyway. My time is better spent writing here on this blog, or for publication, if I’m going to do long-form writing.
Social media also seems to be a way for us to make a political impact. We can talk back against our political opponents. We can share propaganda for our side. Now this, I was surprised to learn, does seem to have some effect in my case. I’ve heard from one person that she actually became a libertarian mostly because of my posts on Facebook. (I could hardly believe it.) Others say they love my posts, and I think I do probably move the needle some miniscule distance in the direction of Truth and Goodness. But I’m only writing to a few hundred people on Facebook, at most. My reach on Twitter is larger, but I almost certainly do not persuade anyone 280 characters at a time.
This isn’t to say that, in the aggregate, social media doesn’t have a great deal of impact on society. It clearly does. But I think its total impact is negative, not positive. Perhaps the way I use it is positive, although I doubt it. I am more given to long-form comments than most people on Facebook and Twitter. I like to think that my comments model good reasoning and other intellectual virtues. But are they my best? Hell no. Does my influence matter, on the whole? Of course not. I am participating in a system that does, on my account and on most people’s, lower the level of discourse.
On balance, I’m not proud of the political impact of my social media participation. I don’t think many of us, if any, have the right to be proud of theirs.
Social media is kind of fun. Sure, it’s fun to butt heads with clueless adversaries and get an endorphin boost from likes and other evidence of public visibility. But political debate is more frustrating than interesting, and the endorphin boosts are meaningless artifacts of how the system is designed. Nobody really thinks otherwise, and yet we do it anyway. It’s pathetically, absurdly irrational.
Facebook keeps me in touch with my friends and family. Admittedly, there is very little downside to this one. I frankly love hearing from old high school friends that otherwise I might not hear from for years. Facebook keeps me a little closer to my extended family. That’s a great thing. A common response to this is that the quality of our interactions is much worse than it would have been otherwise. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I just don’t see this. I mean, Facebook lets me see remarks from my funny and nice old friends from high school, and I probably wouldn’t talk to them at all if it weren’t for Facebook (sorry, friends, but I think you understand! There isn’t enough time in the day to keep up with all the friends I’ve ever made in my life!). There’s no downside there. And no, I don’t think it makes my relationship with my family any worse. I think it makes it a little better.
So what about the disadvantages of social media?
We are driven by algorithms. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest carefully design algorithms that highlight the posts our friends make to fit their purposes, which are not ours. The whole system has been designed by psychologists to hook us to participate as much as we can, which it frequently does.
Social media companies spy on us. And they make it easier for other companies, organizations, and (most concerning to me) potentially repressive governments to do so. And by participating, we endorse that behavior. That seems extremely irrational.
Social media companies have started to openly censor their political opponents. And again, if you participate, you’re endorsing that behavior. Continuing to participate under those circumstances is irrational for conservatives and libertarians.
I sometimes get kind of addicted. I go through phases where I use social media a lot, and that can be a pretty awful waste of time, at least when I have many other things I should be doing. This is the main reason I think the right strategies are “cold turkey” and “you won’t see me again”–like it or not. In short, I want to minimize temptation.
We indulge in petty debates that are beneath us. This bothers me. I don’t like dignifying disgusting propaganda with a response, but I seem not to be able to restrain myself when I come across it in my feeds. Often, a proper response would require an essay; but I’d be writing an essay in response to an idiotic meme (say), which is kind of pathetic. I’d much rather have long-form debates on my blog (or between blogs that reply to each other, as we used to do).
It takes time away from more serious writing. I can write for publication. So why should I waste my time writing long Facebook posts that only a few people see? For things not quite worthy of publication, at least if I focus on my blog, I can write at a longer length and develop an argument more completely. Did you used to have a blog on which you had longer, better things to say?
So it’s a waste of time, on balance. The opportunity cost is too high. I can and should be spending my time in better ways–work, programming study, helping to homeschool my boys, and doing more serious writing. That’s the bottom line. Apart from keeping me in touch with family and friends on Facebook, the advantages of social media are pretty minimal, while the disadvantages are huge and growing.
Why don’t I just limit my social media use to personal interactions with family and friends on Facebook, you ask? Because I don’t want to take the risk of falling back into bad old habits. My friends can visit my blog and interact with me here, if they want. My family I’ll call and visit every so often.
So I’m turning the page. I don’t expect this to be big news for anybody. But it’s going to change the way I interact online. If you want to keep seeing me online, start following my blog.
3. Can I really do this?
I suppose I’ve given a reasonably good analysis of why using social media is irrational. I’ve said similar things before, and many others have as well. And yet we keep using social media. Obviously, human beings are often not guided by rationality; much would be different in our crazy old world if we always were.
It is remarkable, though, just how much we acknowledge all the irrationalities about social media, and yet we indulge in it anyway. There’s something deeply cynical about this. It can’t be good for the soul.
The big question in my own mind is whether I will really be able to stay away from social media as I say I will. My use of social media is irrational, sure. But I don’t pretend that the mere fact that is, all by itself, enough to motivate me; indeed, I’m not sure who it’s rational for, apart from the very few people who make a career out of it.
But I want to try. And as I said at the start of this post, it’s not just about social media. It’s about making my life more rational. So at the same time, I want to start eating more healthily and exercising more regularly, going to bed earlier, etc. Doing all that at once seems very ambitious. It might even seem silly and naive for me to say all this. But the insights I’ve reported on in part 1 above have really stuck in my mind, and they don’t seem to be going away. So we’ll see.