In the latest instalment of her column, Clare Egan reflects on the power of quitting social media
I came of age in an era of technological optimism. As a college student, I joined MySpace, followed by Bebo and later Facebook and Twitter. I was an excited early adopter, using social media to network, share my writing and sniff out professional opportunities. I built a blog and spun it into freelance writing assignments. Ultimately, I wrote an essay for a book self-published by my writing group that was (briefly) a bestseller in an obscure amazon category.
I wasn’t the only one embracing the possibilities of what social media could do. Barack Obama, then a little known junior Senator, harnessed the power of social media to win the White House. Across the Middle East and North Africa, activists used social media to mobilise people in a series of uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Social media was democratising content, we thought. It was going to change the world.
For years, social media was also part of my job. I worked for NGOs, but we were advertisers too. I crafted Facebook ad campaigns based on people’s personal information, and watched the likes and donations roll in. Later, I would see that income stream dry up when the algorithm was tweaked. Social media was the channel through which problems landed on my desk; when people complained about our fundraising, when there was an employment dispute, when sexual harassment allegations were made against senior staff. Sometimes people would comment to say they’d donated, though our records showed that they hadn’t. I worked on the campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland and was subjected to relentless abuse on social media. My then-boss had a penchant for recreational twitter spats that often derailed the rest of the organisation’s work. It was an exhausting way to engage with the world.
In 2018, I left that job and got a serious mental health diagnosis. In an effort to recover, I quit social media without really telling anyone. It was hard at first; social media was an addiction that had wormed its way inside my neural pathways. But slowly, I unwound myself from the toxic, cacophonous noise of the online world. The impact social media had on me was only fully visible when I stopped. It made me anxious. It made my brain stutter and skip. It sent me spinning when all I needed was to feel grounded and contained inside my own body. When I put down the fire hose of information, there was so much more space to breathe. Quieting the noise that thrives in algorithmically defined virtual spaces was one of the best things I did for my mental health. For me, stepping back from social media was an act of self preservation
Social media thrives on distraction. It profits if the user’s anxiety lulling them into a fugue state so they keep scrolling, clicking, liking. It is designed to commandeer your attention. It’s not that users have become less able to focus, but that social media companies have become expert at stealing it. According to former Google employee Tristan Harris “the problem is the hijacking of the human mind.” What I saw on social media haunted my psychic space even when I stepped away from it. At an individual level, social media companies wreck havoc with people’s minds, bodies and emotions. At a societal level, their impact is even more calamitous. Genocide against the Rohinga in Myanmar, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign have their roots in social media.
Social media is designed to be hierarchical and addictive. It’s a video game that you can’t stop playing and can’t win. The more your scroll, the more money these companies make. They profit, often quite literally, from horrific abuse. Many believe that the internet is, at its core, a machine for mass radicalisation. And let’s not forget that Facebook, the biggest social media platform in the world, grew from a product that compared women’s appearances to farm animals. Before I quit, my Facebook feed was littered with ads for (heterosexual) dating sites, fertility treatments and weight loss solutions. According to them, I was fat, barren and alone!
I haven’t quit completely. You may have found this article on Instagram, where I still share my work and some snippets of my life. I deleted my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, but have retained a mostly dormant Twitter profile. I’ve kept these accounts only because I think they are essential for the kind of career I’m trying to build.
During times of crisis, I sink into social media more. The morning after Trump’s election, I found space on twitter to grieve and process the horror. In the midst of the pandemic, dipping into social media while feeling completely isolated felt comforting. That was until they started serving me period-related content LINE WITH MY CYCLE and I watched The Social Dilemma and the whole thing freaked me out.
I don’t like giving advice. People will do what they want to do but for me the decision to quit was life-changing. In many ways, being able to quit social media is a privilege. I am lucky to have been able to do it.[/restrict]