What I did on my social media vacation

As do many people who use social media, I have a love/hate relationship with its various platforms.

I use all the major services, and for the most part, they serve me well and I enjoy them. But there are times when they annoy, upset and even anger me, and I want to walk away from them.

In July, I did just that.

For most of that month, I stopped using the Big Three: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It wasn’t easy. I’ve been involved with social media since 2007, shortly after Twitter burst onto the scene, and I was the Chronicle’s first social media manager. All these platforms are woven into the fabric of my daily life, an important part of my work, play and relationship routines.

Would I describe myself as addicted? Using social media had certainly become a habit, mainly because they worked so well for my uses. But over time I was unhappy with the way I reacted to what I saw, and my interactions with friends and colleagues became less than collegial.

I’m not alone. People interacting online say and do things to one another that they’d never do in face-to-face encounters. I’ve long likened this to the kind of behavior seen in motorists, in which a vehicle’s barriers of glass and steel grant them license to be jerks. Distance begets contempt.

A pair of researchers from Cornell Tech, writing last week on the Technology Review website, argues that social media is “polluting society,” beyond simply the kinds of issues typically dealt with by content moderation. Nathaniel Lubin and Thomas Krendl Gilbert propose “a policy framework — perhaps through something akin to an Environmental Protection Agency or Food and Drug Administration for social media … to identify and evaluate the societal harms generated by these platforms.”

Part of my social media job at the Chronicle was to train reporters who were not “digital natives” to navigate these often prickly landscapes. But over time, I found myself falling into the behaviors I’d cautioned against. I did not like what I was becoming on social media, and so I unplugged from the Big Three for the month, with some exceptions.

Here’s how I make use of the three platforms, and what I did to step away from each:

Twitter is my preferred social medium. I use it to keep up with news, particularly in the tech realm, as well as share my own stories and columns. Your Twitter experience is really shaped by who you follow — and who you block or mute — so careful curation can turn what some refer to as a “hellsite” into something useful and entertaining. (Though there are big caveats here, as many women or marginalized individuals can attest; harassment, trolling and threats can be horrific.)

On Twitter, I felt as though too many of my replies to posts with which I didn’t agree were snarky and unnecessarily barbed. I also found myself replying before going back and looking at previous posts in a thread, or before reading a linked story, and wound up deleting too many tweets that seemed foolish.

But Twitter is also a key channel for promoting what I write, so I allowed myself to tweet links to my columns and stories, and for briefly checking reactions and commentary on days I posted. I banished the Twitter app from my home screen of my iPhone, disabled all notifications and only used the Twitter web page to post.

To keep up with news, and particularly tech developments, I relied instead on email newsletters and Apple News, the aggregation service on my Mac, iPhone and iPad.

Facebook, whose corporate name is now Meta, is the social network with which I have the most fraught relationship. In October I wrote that I find Facebook’s actions as a business “despicable,” and it has long been the platform I’d most love to dump. Since I have “retired,” I find myself relying on it to keep track of the lives of people I worked with for years, as well as members of my family.

But Facebook is also where I most felt my behavior was increasingly less than kind. I found myself too often correcting friends when they misspoke, particularly when they posted incorrectly attributed quotes on images. My lovely wife says I sometimes act like a member of the “Safety Patrol,” and she is not wrong.

When a former Chronicle colleague blocked me after I made an oafish joke about a statue he found inspiring, I knew it was time to take a break.

I also took Facebook’s app off my phone’s home screen, but this was a platform where I still needed to share my work, so I continued to post my writing. The toughest part of staying away came when I learned that Steve Gonzales, a Houston Chronicle photographer and possibly the nicest person on the planet, had succumbed after a years-long battle with cancer. I had stories I wanted to tell, but I couldn’t.

Instagram it was not hard to give up at all. All I do there is post photos of my cats, photogenic meals or interesting images captured around Houston. And because Instagram is undergoing a metamorphosis to be more like TikTok, the social video service that’s eating Facebook’s and Instagram’s lunch, it’s not as much fun as it used to be.

I did post one image related to a column I’d written (link in bio!) but otherwise, this was the easiest service to kiss goodbye for a month.

There are two platforms and I didn’t give up.

TikTok, which I first wrote about in August 2020, serves the same function for me as mindless TV. When I just want to let my brain take a seat behind my face and zone out, TikTok is a go-to, but I never post there. Don’t follow me — you’ll be disappointed.

If anything, my TikTok time increased during my social media break.

LinkedIn has been described as an endless business networking mixer. Most people use it to look for another job, and since I’m certainly not in the market anymore, I use it primarily to post links to my writing and look for sources. My behavior on LinkedIn didn’t change at all in July.

A few days before the end of the month, I jumped back in to the Big Three. I feel like I achieved my goal of reining in my worst tendencies. I’m more deliberate and thoughtful before posting on Twitter, less apt to be snarky and sarcastic. I’m no longer the corrective scold on Facebook.

I’m still posting photos of my cats on Instagram (I had several nice private messages from folks saying Venus and Milo were missed!). But that platform’s changes, including an annoying increase in ads and unwanted “suggested posts,” likely means I’ll participate less and less over time.

In summary, what did I do on my social media vacation? Hopefully, I became a nicer person online.

dsilverman@outlook.com


twitter.com/dsilverman

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