At the end of 2018 I wrote this:
If I’m strong enough 2019 would see me never reading Twitter, deleting my little-used Facebook account, and maybe no longer using Instagram.
Now it’s 2019 and T1 is over so let’s review how that’s going. (“What’s T1?” you ask. It’s like Q1 but about 33% longer.)
A couple of years ago I only used Facebook to read a handful of groups. On my way to those groups I’d occasionally glimpse a couple of friends’ posts in my timeline but that was all. During 2018 I began spending gradually more time reading my timeline until I could no longer honestly say, “I don’t read Facebook”. It was sometimes nice seeing what friends were up to but at the same time I felt sad and dirty, scrolling for fresh updates while feeling I was contributing to the rise of Facebook’s mundane evil. They’ve totally got the addictiveness nailed and I was hooked enough to always end up on Facebook when I felt I’d run out of other things to do on the iPad.
This year year I stopped. I’ve logged in perhaps three times, in order to see if there’s any news in the group for the place I do acting classes, and I’ve read nothing else. I do miss a few friends who only exist online on Facebook. But on the whole, it’s a win.
I’m not sure if I’ll delete my account. Facebook is the only way to hear about some events, and for me to hear from some people at all. But I don’t plan to use it any more than I now am. Which, annoyingly, is probably just enough to count as one of their Monthly Active Users.
I’ve surprised myself by not using Instagram this year so far, other than briefly following links to specific photos or accounts. I thought it would be hard to wean myself off it because it’s generally such a nice place. I only follow friends so the Instagram of influencers and famous people and brands might as well be an entirely different service. It’s full of fun, smiles, happenings, holidays, children, pets, and square slices of my friends’ lives.
Nevertheless, I wanted to give it all up. First, because it’s still Facebook, only wearing a slightly less evil skin — opening the app I still had that nagging feeling of being used. Second, because I was fed up of the ads every few photos. It was easy to scroll past an ad, and I often didn’t even register what it was for, but… oh, so many ads. They felt like an intrusion from the Other Instagram of commercialism. They intrude horribly into a space that’s otherwise full of friends. I think I focus more on negatives than positives, and the anger I felt at the inescapable ads and the terribleness of Facebook lasted longer than the pleasure from keeping up with friends.
And so I stopped opening the app, moved it to another screen, and have hardly missed it. Well, I really, really miss knowing what some of my friends are up to. I suppose it’s not that bad — I don’t know what I’m missing out on — but I’m aware that, like giving up Facebook, there are now some friends whose lives are now entirely cut off from me.
Let’s round out the Facebook trio. I’ve never been a big WhatsApp user but it’s become the default way for many groups of people — long established or ad-hoc — to communicate. I find it a pain in the arse to be honest. Any sizeable group has so much noise that any signal is lost. But, right now, reducing my limited usage to zero feels more trouble than it’s worth unfortunately.
I’ve continued to read Twitter, with many people and keywords muted. I now only post there to reply to friends — and have increasingly resisted that temptation — or to complain at brands when it seems like the best way to get in touch with their poor support staff. Despite curating my own little bubble it still feels a bit “self-promotey” which my Instagram bubble doesn’t. Didn’t.
I’d like to give up Twitter too. Saying I feel better towards it than I do towards Facebook is damning with faint praise. I don’t feel dirty using Twitter but I do feel grubby, a feeling that increases every time the eye-rolling at @Jack’s latest activities seep into my feed. I’m only able to bear the place because I use Tweetbot — if I’d only been able to use Twitter through its own app and website, with all the ads, promoted tweets, and randomly-ordered timeline, I’d probably have stopped some time ago. Maybe I’ll manage to give up on it in 2019T2, stepping back to only view it through FaveJet.
I’m still posting to Flickr! I still like Flickr and am hoping the newish owners, SmugMug, a company I don’t actively dislike, will do good things with it. A few friends are still using it, or cross-posting from Instagram, so that’s nice. A handful of holidays, children and pets.
It’s a bit quiet in there, in my little world anyway. A handful of people I know use it sporadically. Posting there satisfies the occasional itch to say something somewhere, whether anyone reads it or not. Plus, I don’t feel dirty or grubby doing so, which feels like the minimal test of a social network. I hope it becomes a more popular thing but I don’t know.
As I said at the end of last year I experienced a lot of glumness in 2018. So far, one Third in, 2019 has been a lot better on that front. If we graphed the past couple of years of my happiness levels and my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter usage I think we’d see a clear inverse relationship. As that usage declined my happiness rose. I can hear you saying, “Correlation is not causation!” and you’re right, but still. Many newspaper columns about social media have been written based on flimsier evidence, so allow me this one paragraph.
I really don’t like missing out on some aspects of my friends’ lives. And all these networks are/were, for me, about keeping in touch with friends, no matter how much the services encourage brands and commercialism and “engagement”. But for me, at the moment, the negative aspects of these networks are outweighing the good.
I don’t know how we got to a point where chatting and sharing with friends means having to pick through adverts, and agreeing to being tracked and marketed at, and risk being exposed to, or abused by, terrible people. Our conversations and holiday snaps have become darkly marketed events. You could say this is a fair exchange but it feels wrong to me. The things being exchanged are too different, a kind of category error. It’s a wonky kind of barter in which I feel powerless and used. It’s not why I came here, to the internet.
I wish there were more viable alternatives. The venture-capital-fuelled desire for continuing massive growth seems at odds with creating healthy communities. I liked this brief Twitter thread by Kellan Elliott-McCrea:
What if echo chambers were a feature and not a bug?
Twitter’s challenge is it’s following a playbook for building social software that was operated within implicit constraints of _who_ was online. (this is also the problem with people who fantasize about bringing Flickr back, yes it was better, but the world was also different)
What if instead of trying to create a globally shared behavioral and regulatory norm, we allowed people to choose the set of norms they operated on?
Prior art includes: @doctorow’s “Eastern Standard Tribes”. Tribes built around arbitrary rules.
Builders of social software keep re-discovering their own version of “Gartner Hype Cycle” — the community is amazing in the beginning when the barriers to entry are high, and the work is central to the community identity
Some achieve escape velocity, but most don’t.
Creating social networks of millions of people, never mind billions, feels like a mistake. The incentives for everyone are at odds with “chatting with friends (and maybe friends of friends)” which is what I’m after.
To be fair, I have become aware of more diverse points of view on Twitter than I might have done on a smaller network. While I have my cosy bubble there, other views can creep in from parts of Twitter I don’t follow. On the other hand maybe this would happen anyway; there’s a whole internet of views out there. Perhaps we don’t need monolithic, centralised, privately-owned networks in order to see diverse views. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m definitely not comfortable using, and enabling, Facebook and Twitter.
So, retreat, escape. We still have blogs, newsletters, mailing lists, forums, MetaFilter, Flickr (not evil, yet!), Slack (ditto!) and more.