Updated January 28, 2019.
It’s no longer a matter of whether—it’s a matter of how.
It’s sad, but for social media addicts, quitting seems to require a strategy. By now, some of us who have tried and failed know that it is simply unrealistic to say, “I’m going to quit social media,” and then just do it. There are reasons we got into it and why it exerts its pull. We must come to grips with those reasons and see what—if anything—we can do to mitigate them.
Why we participate in social media, and why we shouldn’t
We participate in social media because we love it; but we want to quit, because we also hate it.
Why we love social media
- Social visibility. Active users of social media want social visibility. We want to be understood. We want to be connected with others who understand us, respect us, or like us.
- Staying plugged in. So much of social and political life seems to have moved onto social media, we simply won’t know what’s going on if we quit.
- Political influence. Unless we have entirely given up on political participation, we want to “have a voice,” to play the game of politics.
- Ambition and narcissism. Quite apart from 1 and 2, we are drawn to platforms particularly like Twitter and LinkedIn because we think these accounts will advance our careers. We follow and are followed by Important People, we stay in touch with them. This is where valuable connections and deals can be made.
- Staying connected to family and friends. Golly, your family and friends are on Facebook. You really do have fun with them. How could you give it up, even if you wanted to? You don’t want to miss out, of course.
The fear of missing out—that lies at the root of all five reasons. If you leave any of the networks, you just won’t be seen. It’ll be like you’re invisible. If you leave Twitter, you won’t really know what’s going on in the world’s most influential news and opinion network, and you will be leaving the field wide open to your political enemies. If you leave Twitter and LinkedIn, your career might take a blow; how could you possibly justify just giving up all those followers you worked so hard to get? And if you leave Facebook, you might be cutting yourself off from your family and friends—how could you do such a thing?
So, look. We’ve tasted the forbidden fruit. We surely aren’t giving up the clear advantages that social media offer. That ain’t gonna happen.
And yet, and yet. There are reasons we should stop participating in the current configuration of social media. I’ve written at some length in this blog about those reasons, as follows.
Why we hate social media:
- We’re giving up our privacy and autonomy: By leaving the management of our online social presence in the hands of giant, privacy-disrespecting corporations, our information, even our digital lives, becomes theirs to sell, manipulate, and destroy. We must trust them with the security of our data, which is thrown in with that of billions of others. We must endure the indignities of their control, and the various little ways in which we lose our autonomy because we are part of a giant, well-oiled machine that they run. This is dehumanizing.
- We’re irrationally wasting time: Like most mass-produced, mass-marketed entertainment, social media is mostly crap. Too many of us are basically addicted to it; our continued participation, at least the way we have been doing so, is simply irrational.
- We’re complicit in the dumbing-down and radicalization of society (see also 1, 2, 3, 4). Nick Carr famously said in 2008 that Google is making us stupid. Since then, social media systems have blown up and have made us even dumber. Their key features are responsible for things like (especially) artificially shortened statements of opinion and reflection, having to take special actions to write more than one paragraph, all-or-nothing “upvoting” and “downvoting,” and letting posts fall into a hard-to-search memory hole.
What a horrible conundrum. On the one hand, we have terrifically compelling reasons to join and stay connected to social media. On the other hand, doing so shows contempt for our own privacy, autonomy, and rationality, and undermines the intelligence and toleration needed to make democracy work. It is as if the heavy, compelling hand of corporate-driven collectivization is pushing us toward an increasingly totalitarian society.
So what’s the solution? Is there a solution?
Let’s talk about a few things that aren’t solutions.
You can’t just quit cold turkey, not without a plan. If you’ve been hooked and you try, you’ll probably come crawling back, as I have a few times. I’m not saying nobody has ever done so; of course they have. But so many people who say they’re giving up or restricting social media do end up coming back, because the draws are tremendous, and the addicts aren’t getting their fix elsewhere.
You can’t expect “alt-tech” to satisfy you, either. This would include things like Gab.ai instead of Twitter or Facebook, just for example; other examples would include Voat instead of Reddit, BitChute instead of YouTube, Minds instead of Facebook, and the Mastodon network instead of Twitter. For one thing, some (not all) of the alternatives have been flooded by loud, persistent racist/fascist types, or maybe they’re just people paid by the tech giants to play-act such types on those platforms. More to the point, though, such sites don’t scratch the itches that Facebook and Twitter scratch. At best, they can appeal to your narcissism and provide some social visibility; but this isn’t enough for most people. They’re not happenin’ (yet); they almost certainly won’t help your career.
What about blockchain solutions? I, at least, am not satisfied to wait around for awesome crypto solutions, like Steemit, to grow large enough to challenge their main competitors (Medium, in that case). I mean, I probably will join them when more influential and widely-used decentralized platforms show up. The startup I joined a year ago, Everipedia, has plans to develop a platform for hosting a decentralized competitor of Quora. That’s exciting. But I want to quit these damn networks now. I don’t want to wait any longer.
Even if those are non-solutions, we do, at least, have the requirements for a solution: we want to secure the advantages of the first list above (1)‑(5) without falling prey to the disadvantages of second list (a)‑(c).
The advantages of social media—without social media?
Let’s review (1)-(5). I think there may be ways to secure the advantages of privacy-stealing social media. I would really, really appreciate it if you have any other bright ideas about how to secure these advantages, because this is where the rubber meets the road; please share in the comments below.
- Social visibility without social media. Social visibility is probably the easiest thing to secure online. If you just want to connect with others and feel heard, there are lots of ways you can do that. So I’m not going to worry too much about that one; I think it will probably take care of itself, if the other advantages are secured.
- Staying plugged in without social media. Staying plugged in, too, is very easy. You can simply consume more traditional media, for one thing. Another idea is that you could create throw-away accounts on Twitter or Facebook, for example, and follow the people you were following before. As long as you, yourself, don’t actually participate, then you’re still more or less as plugged-in as before. But one big disadvantage of that idea is that you might be tempted to get back in because it’s just so darned easy to interact with friends and family on Facebook, and to call out or refute the benighted on Twitter. But if you don’t use Facebook at all, even to read, you can always stay in touch via email, especially if you use old-fashioned cc email groups or email lists, and you use it, and you manage to get your friends to use it. If you get into the habit, I think they’ll get into the habit, too. It is mainly just a matter of habit.
- Political influence without social media. Twitter plays an almost unique role in our political discourse, and there is no way to make up the influence you’d have over that community, if you leave it. The question, however, is whether your participation on Twitter really does have that much influence. If it does, then you probably have other ways to get the word out. I have 3,000 followers, which despite being a high percentile but not especially influential. I could throw that away without much hand-wringing. After all, I could easily put in the same amount of time on my blog, or on mailing lists (i.e., listservs), or writing for publication (which I might do more of, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass), and I think I might ultimately have more influence, not less. But more on this further down (you can use Twitter in a particular way that I think is OK).
- Ambition and narcissism without social media. I don’t mean to say that narcissism is a good thing, mind you. I hope I don’t much too care about securing the ability to preen more effectively in public. But I have gained a reasonable professional following on Twitter and LinkedIn, and a smaller one on Facebook (mostly because I’ve mostly used it for actual friends and family). When I came back from my September-October 2018 social media break, I told folks it was because of professional obligations. I thought I would Tweet less, and only about career stuff. But I wasn’t serious enough. I was sucked into all the rest of it, too. I can only hope I’d be able to resist the pull. And I can support my “personal brand” (really, my professional brand) via my blog, writing for publication, and perhaps a mailing list; the latter sounds like a good idea (expect an Everipedia email discussion list!). Another idea is to post to Twitter only via some service, and never, ever replying on-site, but instead telling people to look for my replies on my blog.
- Staying connected to family and friends without social media. This also strikes me as being particularly easy. I know that my family and my real friends will be happy to write to me by email if I start writing to them, especially if I get into the habit of using email cc lists and maybe, again, mailing lists. We could also use other networks or sharing services that (say they) have more commitment to privacy and self-ownership.
So much for the suggestions. I haven’t really discussed whether they’re actually feasible qua solutions, so next I’ll tackle that.
Evaluating the solutions
A lot of the solutions suggested so far might sound like “rolling back” to older technologies. There’s something to that; but I’ll also consider some other, privacy-respecting solutions. Besides, the older technologies are still very sound, and the newer social ones that have replaced them are obviously problematic in various ways.
Consuming more traditional media
Like many, as I started spending more time on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, I started spending less time consuming professionally-produced content. Maybe, the suggestion goes, we should just regard this as something of a mistake. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m a crowdsourcing guy at heart and I hold no brief for the merits of traditional media, especially mainstream media. But insofar as one of the purposes of social media is to clue us in to what’s going on, news reports and good blogs can be used. They probably should be, too; when I started Infobitt in 2013, one thing that really struck me was how poorly informed we would be if we just looked at the stuff that came across our social media feeds. I discovered this when I helped to prepare news summaries daily. There were a lot of important news stories that we found that were not widely discussed in social media, or even in most of the mainstream media. You’ll probably be better informed if you stop using social media to keep up with the news; of course, your mileage may vary.
Going back to email, cc lists, and listservs
There are many social functions that social media can do, that email and traditional email discussion lists can’t, or not as easily. But many of these functions have turned out to be unimportant and not worth preserving.
- Short public and semi-public back-and-forths. Facebook and Twitter both excel at a kind of communication that is pleasant and easy, usually banal, and rarely profound. If you’re actively using these services and occasionally get into rapid-fire discussions about some controversial subject, ask yourself: Is anyone really improved by these exchanges? Again, they’re fun. They’re hard for me to resist, that’s for sure. But when I take a step back and look at them, I have to admit that short messages might be good for marketing, but as a method of public discourse, they’re an ultimately insidious and harmful. Advantage: email.
- Registering instant support or other reaction. If you ask me, this is one of the more obnoxious features of social media, one that addicts us but for no good reason; it merely appeals to our petty egos. There’s little useful information conveyed by the fact that a tweet or a post gets a lot of likes, and this also tends to make us “play to the crowd” instead of revealing our most authentic selves. Advantage: email.
- Memes. They’re possible on email, but there’s more support for them on social media. They can be funny or rhetorically effective, but they’re one of the things that is making us dumber and coarsening our discourse. They’re better off gone. Advantage: email.
- Sharing multimedia. It’s true that pictures and especially videos are more difficult to pull off in email and even more so on listservs. Video is neat to share with friends. If I could trust Facebook, I’d be happy to share family videos with family and close friends—I’ve never been foolish enough to trust them that much. And email has nothing on YouTube. That’s why I actually haven’t shown my extended family many pictures in the last several years; regrettably, I got out of the habit of one-on-one sharing. Other (and perhaps ultimately superior) methods of sharing multimedia socially among those we trust might be necessary. Advantage: social media.
And here are the ways in which email, email cc lists, and listservs are perfectly fine, if not superior to social media:
- Actually communicating personal news and opinion. The main and most important thing we do with Facebook is to share news and opinion. Email is perfect for this. It’s a “push” notification in that people can’t ignore it. But that pressures the sender to make sure the announcements really are important and aren’t just cat pictures, or whatever. (Yes, I know some people love cat pictures. Mostly, though, they love sharing their own cat pictures.)
- Long-form messages. As my friends know, I sometimes like to go on…and on…and on. This isn’t a bad thing. Long-form text is a good thing, a necessary thing for actual intelligence. The ability to easily have our say at a length as great as we please means that those of us with more complex and voluminous thoughts on a subject won’t feel we’re doing something frowned-upon when we wax, er, eloquent.
- Threading. Email (whether one-on-one, in small groups, or on a listserv) naturally comes in threads by subject. If you change the subject, you change the email subject line. Easy-peasy, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. As to side-threads, in a whole-group discussion, remember how we did this? We said, “Take it off-list, guys.” Sometimes, we did. Sometimes, we recognized that it wasn’t worth the bother. And a lot of times, those endless public exhibitions of rhetorical ping-pong really weren’t worth the bother.
I’m not meaning to say that we must choose between email and social media, here. I’m saying that email (and listservs) can probably be considered a sound substitute for social media. There are other possible substitutes, too.
Blogs and traditional publishing
I’ve created a fair bit of value, I imagine, for Quora, Medium, Facebook, and even Twitter, with various long-form posts. I know that what I’ve written has given them well northwards of a million impressions over the years (I think several million), free of charge. I could have put those posts on my blog, or in some cases cleaned them up a little and submitted them to professionally published websites and magazines. Why did I end up spending so much time on Quora and Medium in particular? (By the way, as of this writing, I’ve saved my old Medium writings and I have deleted my Medium account. I will do the same with Quora soon.)
In the case of Quora, I joined because it looked like (and was, surely, and to some extent still is) a powerful and successful engine for extracting really interesting opinion and insight from some smart people. My problem with it is the same as the problem I’ve had with Medium. It’s a multi-part problem. First, over the years, the platforms have grown greatly, each a single enormous global community. (Federated sub-communities a la Stack Exchange would be better.) Second, partly as a result of that, they have come to be increasingly dominated by the left. As my regular readers know, I’m a libertarian and an individualist, but all groupthink I find to be a turn-off, especially when my contrarianism is no longer tolerated. Third, the left has become increasingly censorious. I’ve found my sometimes prickly remarks, once accepted without comment, increasingly censored by “moderators” who rarely explain their often arbitrary-seeming decisions, unlike the more honest and polite older-style listserv moderators.
While censorship is part of the problem I have with these platforms, another part is the fact that I am writing to financially benefit people who set themselves up as my digital masters. This was acceptable to me for a while, as it has been to many of us—mostly, I suppose, because I think it might have gained me a larger and more active audience. In retrospect, however, I’m not so sure. I think that if I had simply stuck with my blog and had written as much there as on Quora and Medium, I would have ultimately had a larger and higher-quality audience.
If I have an important message that I really want to get out there, then I hope I’ll try to get it traditionally published more often than I have been.
Will I ditch all social networks? What about alternative social networks?
The big exception will be Twitter; more on that in the next section.
There are some social networks I won’t leave. One is Stack Overflow, the question and answer site for programmers. As far as I can tell, it really does seem to respect its audience and to be well-run. I might well be inspired to check out the other Stack Exchange sites. I’ll stick around on Reddit for a while, too, at least for work-related stuff. It seems relatively OK.
Messaging services are generally OK—but that, of course, is because you’re not the product. I hate Facebook, so I’ll stick around on Messenger only as long as my work colleagues use it. I’ll tell my friends and family to start using other services, like Slack or the awesome Telegram, if they want to message me. (Of course, good old text messaging is usually my favorite for people who have my phone number, but that’s for things that demand an immediate reply.)
I certainly see no reason whatsoever to leave any of the web forums that I occasionally frequent. Web forums are still robust and have few of the problems listed here. I’ll consider them over mailing lists, but I think mailing lists are a bit better for meaningful discussions.
I might well consider some alternative networks that respect privacy and practice decentralization more (I intend to study them more; see below). One is Mastodon; another is MeWe. I have great objection to such networks. The problem, as I said above, is that they don’t scratch the itch. The root problem is that they don’t have critical mass and I can’t guarantee that my friends and acquaintances will follow me there. Email is different: everyone has it, everyone uses it.
Even quit Twitter?
After much soul-searching, I decided to keep using Twitter, but only following one strict rule about how I use it: I will not post, retweet, respond to, or like anything else, including my many pet topics, unless I’m promoting something I or a work colleague has written.
I’ll just include a Twitter thread I posted:
Do I merely want to roll back the clock?
Traditional media, email, listservs, and blogs: Are those really my answer to social media? Do I want to roll back the clock?
At this point, my honest answer is: Not really. I’m actually reluctant to leave social media, because what used to be called “Web 2.0” really does contain some useful inventions. The tweet is excellent for advertising and promotion. Multimedia sharing on YouTube, Facebook, and (if you use it much—I never did) Instagram is very convenient. The moderation engine on StackExchange sites is excellent. I might be able to get behind some variant on the general Facebook theme. I’m very sympathetic to some newer styles of social networks.
It will prove to be the downfall of all of the older, soon-to-be-dying social media giants that, at root, they chose centralization over neutral protocols. They chose to concentrate power in the hands of corporate executives and bureaucracies. That is neither needed nor welcome for purposes of connecting us online; once we knew what we wanted, Internet protocols could have been invented to deliver them to us in a decentralized way. But that would have made the platforms much less profitable. Centralization is what we got. That led directly to decisions that degraded our experience in the service of profits and political influence. The centralization of social media has proven to be a blind alley. It’s time to turn around and find a new way forward.
Do I want to stick with email and the rest forever? Of course not. I’ve had (and often proposed) all sorts of new technologies. I think we need decentralized versions of social media, in which we participate on our own terms and enjoy the benefits of ownership. That would bring me back.
We’ve already discussed these things, but you didn’t believe me the first time. Let’s review:
- What about my followers? If you have a certain number of followers on Twitter, you will probably have a following on most other services proportionate to your Twitter percentile. If you have thousands of followers on Twitter, chances are you could start an email discussion list and, particularly if you loudly announced over a period of some weeks that you are going to leave Twitter forever and delete your account on such-and-such a date, you’ll get a fair number of your followers to join you on that mailing list. You might, perhaps, get them to follow you to another social network, but this is much more of a crapshoot, as far as I’m concerned. Again, everyone has email, but almost nobody is on whatever also-ran privacy-loving social network you’re considering.
- What about missing out on all the essential controversies that are going on on Twitter? Think now. How essential are they, really? Most of those conversations are merely pleasant, and frequently insipid, crappy, or vicious. You might as well wring your hands because you’ll miss out of an important article in the New York Times because you don’t read it cover-to-cover, or because you don’t attend every professional conference in your field, or a zillion other venues. Of course you’re missing out. You can’t avoid missing out all sorts of things. Here’s a liberating thought: you really aren’t missing out on much that is really important, in the long run, if you leave Twitter (and Facebook). Your mileage may vary, but I’m pretty sure this is true for 95% of us. It’s certainly true for me.
- What if my family and friends stay on Facebook, and my work colleagues stay on Twitter, and… And what? Finish the thought. You can’t, in any way that should give you pause. Share a picture? Look, you can and should start sharing pictures and videos privately. There are lots of ways (even fairly simple, automatic, and secure ways) to do that. Learn the latest gossip? Well, use email. Anyone close enough to have gossip you have any business caring about will be happy to chat one with you (and maybe an ad hoc group of your close friends) if you start it up and keep up the habit. And say something that is outrageously false and cannot stand? Well, of course you know that’s just silly. There are people saying stupid things all around the Internet. Sorry, but you have no way of intervening with your righteous indignation everywhere. So, why not do it in communities that respect your privacy? Maybe ones you make yourself?
- OK, what if they don’t follow me to email or whatever? What, you’re going to email your family and friends, and they know you’ve left Facebook, and they won’t reply? Nice family and friends you have…I think mine will respond fine as long as I start the habit.
It’s OK. Really. Just remember: Facebook and Twitter really, actually, sincerely do suck. You’re not missing out on anything important, especially if you scratch the itches that they scratch in other ways.
So what will the next steps? Should I just, you know, delete my account?
If you, too, find yourself wanting to quit social media, maybe you’ll be asking me for advice on how to do it. Well, I can’t do better than tell you what my plans are. Obviously, though, your requirements are different from mine, so you should make your own damn plans.
I’m not saying I’m definitely going to do all of these, in just this order; this is more of a draft plan. The first step in every case is to figure out exactly what’s going on and think it through. I’m also pretty sure that locking down my contacts is the first thing to do.
- Lock down my contacts. Since so much of the solution (for me) involves email, my first step will be to consolidate my email and phone contacts, putting them 100% out of the hands of Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Frankly, I’ve left my contacts to the tender mercies of these companies for so long that the data formats and redundancies and locations (etc.) confuse me.
- Email updates for family. Start regularly interacting with my family more regularly with a cc list and texts, or maybe I’ll persuade them to use Telegram. Not like formal Christmas letters; more like the usual joking, self-pitying, and boastful notes we post on Facebook.
- Replace Facebook and Twitter conversational patterns and groups with specific email lists or maybe forums. Create some email cc lists or listservs, for friends, for cultural/philosophical allies, about Internet and programming, a replacement for the “Fans of Western Civilization” group I started, and no doubt a big list for all my acquaintances. Others as well. I’m going to look into and see if there aren’t some improvements on the old ways of doing things available now. I might install some web forums, as I tried a year or two ago, but I doubt it. I don’t think they’d get nearly as much use as email.
- Pull the trigger: delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I’ll download all my data first, for posterity. I’ll also give my Facebook friends my coordinates for the various lists (above) that might interest them. I’ll leave my account up for a couple weeks, making regular announcements that I’m leaving and urging people to join my lists (or, if I use another technology, whatever that technology is).
- Move Medium, Quora, and maybe Facebook data to my blog. This could prove to be labor-intensive, but it’ll eventually get done.
- Delete Medium (done) and Quora accounts. Won’t be sorry to be gone from there. For me, anyway, this is a long-overdue move.
When is deletion day for you?
I will actually press the delete buttons on February 18, about a month from now. I’ll update this blog with specifics of how I do each task, and spam my social networks with repeated invitations to join various lists, because I’m going away, permanently this time.
I’m giving myself time because I want to talk about people about what I’m doing via social media, and try to spark a mass exodus among my friends, family, and followers. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get Silicon Valley to notice, and they’ll start competing to make better products, ones in which we aren’t the product. If not, we’re sure to benefit anyway.
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