During the Black Lives Matter protests immediately after the killing of George Floyd, I was posting much, much less on social media than I’m used to. Normally, I post at least once a day, often photos of my pets, links to my own published writing, or musings on my life and the world. But in the face of such important nationwide protests, my normal social media presence felt frivolous.
I’ve felt frivolous before, of course. Particularly after the presidential election of 2016, I frequently expressed my sorrow over the ways the administration’s political decisions were hurting people and the environment. I prefaced my pet photos with disclaimers like, “I know we’re all reeling, but sometimes I need cuteness to keep going.” And then my sister was diagnosed with and died from cancer in 2019, and then there was the pandemic. My social media presence was still mixed: grief and joy, serious and silly, and always personal. If I posted about politics, I didn’t link to articles, but rather shared my own reactions to what was happening.
I thought I was making social media work for me. I didn’t add to the cycle of outrage, presented my flawed self fairly honestly (ok, fewer and fewer photos of myself as I gained weight during my sister’s illness), hid people whose political posts made me forget that I cared about them, and supported friends in their triumphs and sorrows.
But going whole days without posting anything, and avoiding social media because the barrage of news stories tipped me over into grief and anxiety (fear for the protestors’ safety, worry about the escalating violence towards them, revulsion at the racist violence and intimidation)—this self-enforced reduction of time spent on social media had me really thinking about the ways I use it and the ways it uses me.
I would say my social media use was down by about 70 percent. I still had those times of boredom that triggered the habit of looking at my phone, but often I stopped after just checking email. Maybe I played a word puzzle. And then I put down the phone, and picked up a book or my kindle to read. I was doing it not to be virtuous, but to try not to distract from the vital messages of this time, and to try to protect my own mental health. Even so, it was difficult. I know that I’m driven to look at my phone—and the three social media apps that I use—not just because of habit, but because of a low-grade addiction. Yes, I enjoy seeing the “likes” on my posts, each one a tiny spark of connection with someone I know. And yes, I realize that those “likes” are designed to give me a chemical hit, using the psychological strategy of intermittent reward that works so well for humans.
Besides reading, and talking to my husband about what I’m reading, I’ve been filling up the extra time by indulging my curiosity. I search the internet for information on native plants, on complex health challenges I or someone I know is facing, and on books I might want to read. Eventually I found myself drawn to search for books on the issue of social media. Surely people much smarter than I had researched and written about how to use it wisely, how to get the best of it and avoid the pitfalls, how to resist the addiction without going cold turkey. Because, like many people, I have reasons to stay on social media, reasons that are important to me.
Reason 1: I have very few in-person friends where I live. When I moved to Memphis, it was to marry my love. In doing so, I gave up my job, and I haven’t gotten another one. (I was a college teacher of poetry, and those jobs are not easy to come by. Also, I’m old enough to find changing careers very difficult.) It turns out that, without a job, you really don’t meet people. So all my friends live elsewhere, and social media helps me feel like I’m still connected to them. I am one of those people who is lonely, and an introvert, and living in a mostly politically conservative area. I would truly feel isolated without the connection provided by social media.
Reason 2: I’m a writer, and I teach online creative writing classes. I use social media to, as shallow as it sounds, promote myself. I post links to my published poems, my blog posts, and the writings of my collaborative blogger sisters as well as other writing friends. I let folks know when I’m going to run a new online writing class, and have gotten several students from those posts. I’m friends with a lot of writers and follow even more who I’ve never met, which helps me see their poems and essays as well as keep up on news in the literary world.
Reason 3: I actually do get much of my news from social media. I avoid the pitfalls of false or incendiary stories because my friends tend to be really, really smart. They’re the people who post only from reputable sources, and fact-check sources they’re not sure of. They counter the viral propaganda machine, and admit when they’ve been fooled and posted something without verification. They are varied enough in their interests and backgrounds that I tend to come across the kinds of news stories that interest me without having to spend hours looking for those stories myself. It may be lazy, but I get the news I want and need from these smart, well-educated, thoughtful people.
But as of yet, I have not found the book or article I’m searching for. I’ve found plenty of books that make the argument for leaving social media entirely, and more that will tell you exactly how to do that. I’ve found even more that explain how to use social media for your own ends: basically to make money from it, as we know the companies themselves make money from our freely-given information. What I want: articles thoughtfully exploring ways to stay on social media but minimize its addictive properties, its tendency to incite envy or feelings of inadequacy when comparing yourself to others, and its time-swallowing abilities. I want books looking at new ways we could approach social media in the future, changes we could make both as individuals and as a society that might uncouple the correlation between social media use and depression/anxiety. Particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the likelihood of future viruses, I want writing that envisions how to use technology to support our human connections.
I miss my college days, before even email existed. I miss going places and knowing I was simply there, with no one knowing how to contact me, and I was perfectly comfortable with that. I miss whatever I did in those moments when nothing was happening, being comfortable with down time, with minutes where I wasn’t feeding my brain new information. But those days are gone, and now I want guidance for the future. I believe we can make social media work for us, because I know so many people with empathy and wisdom, intelligence and curiosity, generosity and warmth. So if you’ve got ideas, I’m all (virtual) ears.