A Social (Media) Experiment: Kicking the Habit
Why I'm taking a 6 month hiatus from social media and why you should, too.
It’s an odd way to start a newsletter, but here goes: Welcome to the many new readers (and welcome back to the longtime readers).
In the opening moments of 2022, I outed my plans for the first part of the year in a straightforward, perhaps blunt tweet thread about the net-negative of social media. (If you missed that thread, you can find it here.) In that thread, I shared that I was taking a six-month break from social media and provided the rationale for that hiatus. To recap the thread:
Social media posts—particularly those from Christians and religious people—have grown increasingly polarized, combative, and dehumanizing. Name calling and value judging has become the norm, which has led to something like religious balkanization, where each tiny fiefdom is at war with other tiny fiefdoms. This religious balkanization is spiritually de-formative.
Ironically, the use of social media as a platform for personal attack is common among pastors, priests, and Christian influencers. The result? Their platforms grow and grow and grow, all on the shoulders of anger. This kind of growth reinforces the spiritually de-formative behavior. Worse, it leads me to believe I should grow my audience by engaging in the same sort of de-formative behavior.
The platforms stoke fear, anxiety, jealousy, and anger, all of which is designed to keep our attention. But studies show these negative attention-grabbing techniques lead to feelings of inadequacy and depression.
I let the tweet fly, unsure what to expect, but as the day passed, a good number of signed up for this newsletter. And as you entered the neighborhood, you sent me responses, direct messages, emails (and in a couple of occasions, a text message) echoing your own sentiments about social media. Some of you said you’ve been noticing the downward spiral of civility on social media, but that you still find yourself scrolling the feeds, stoking your own outrage. Some of you said you’ve been contemplating your own hiatus or sabbatical, but you couldn’t seem to put the phone down because… you know… opium does what opium does. Some of you shared that you’d like to take a break from social media, but your work—particularly your work as a writer, creative, or marketer—requires connection to the feed.
It’s that last comment that’s the hook, at least in my case.
Social Media: What it Gives, it Takes.
I am a writer by trade and not just for myself. I’ve authored two published books, and I’m currently shopping a novel. I’ve also co-written, ghost-written, and edited over thirty books in the last five years, including a New York Times bestseller. And if there’s one thing I can tell you about book publishers, publicists, and agents, it’s this: They want you on social media. They want you to work the feed, drum up an audience, build a platform for whatever book you’re hawking at the moment. This, they say, is Important. This, they say, is Responsible.
Many of you hear similar arguments in your own line of work. You’ve been told it’s important to build a personal brand, following, or platform. You’ve been encouraged to grow your business and network through social media channels. You’ve been promised that what stands between you and success is the next 100 social media followers. But after years of being on social media platforms (11 years, 2 months, and 5 days on Twitter alone), I can tell you with some certainty: Social media has taken as much as it’s given.
It would be intellectually dishonest to say nothing good has come from social media. I’ve met friends through online platforms. I’ve connected with great people around the globe, including many of you. I’ve also been exposed to different ideas (Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire comes to mind). And for these reasons, I’m not ready to completely unplug from the platforms. But over the years, I’ve found social media to be a bit of a sneaky thief. It’s taken
my time (how often have I lost 15 minutes scrolling Instagram?),
my attention (how often have I stopped reading to tweet a pithy quote?),
my sanity (how many times have I wanted to shout THAT’S NOT NEWS! at a Facebook post?), and
my shared sense of humanity with those stoking political and religious outrage (how many times have I forgotten that there is a complicated individual on the other side of the screen?)
See? I’m not special. I’m subject to social media’s negative-behavior drivers just like everyone else. And for what? For a bigger platform? More followers? The ability to sell an extra book? Or is it deeper? Is there a lust for a little more relevance, a little more notoriety, a little more fame?
Examination Requires Recalibration
As 2021 came to a close, I picked up Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which comprises a journal of the hard-won wisdom of the last great Roman emperor. Though he wasn’t subject to the distractions of social media, Aurelius knew the distraction of chasing the applause of men. He wrote:
Well then, will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined.
In the social-media era, we’re all chasing our 15 minutes of fame. We create tweets we hope will go viral. We create reels in an effort to catch algorithmic waves, propelling us into stardom. We dance or tell jokes or take videos of our redneck grandparents to gain a few laughs from a TikTok user in Saskatoon. And hear me: These are not inately bad things. But if they distract us from what matters most—even if they help us sell a few more books—we’ll look back from our own universal oblivions and wonder: Was it worth it?
Six Months, Four Questions, Four Books
The modern marketers of the day say you cannot build a readership, a business, a network without social media. They say it’s a necessity. And maybe they’re right. But for the next six months, I’m willing to walk away from personal marketing efforts and platform building for the sake of my own personal examination and growth. How do I hope to grow?
I hope to reclaim time, particularly time that could be spent answering this question: Who do I want to be when I die?
I hope to be less distracted by the internet’s drama du jour and more focused on this question: What can I do today to be more connected to my family or my community?
I hope to spend less time scrolling the feed and more time asking this question: What books, articles, and white papers will help me make better sense of the world?
I hope to spend less time being told what to think by those with competing social creeds and more time asking this question: How should I think about the changing world environment?
I’m sure the journey won’t be as romantic as I hope. I’m sure I won’t answer these questions perfectly. But if you’ve been on the fence about taking a social media hiatus, consider joining me on this journey and coming up with a list of personal questions you’d like to explore.
Along this journey, I hope to use this space as a sort of journal. I’ll share my own reflections, but I’ll also share the insights I’m learning from others. To that end, I’ve chosen four books I’ll be reading (or re-reading), and I hope you’ll read them with me in the following order.
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Right Now, Jaron Lanier
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, Kahneman and Sibony
Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Anna Lembke
(All book links are to my local bookseller, Pearl’s Books.)
Grab a copy. Consider grabbing an extra copy so you can read along with a friend, too, because when we’re navigating tougher terrain, it’s always good to use the buddy system.
Come Along; Invite a Friend
Over the coming months, I hope to see a growing number of people joining this experiment. If you’re so inclined, please invite a friend or two along for the journey. Perhaps we can prove that social media outrage and algorithms are not required for building meaningful networks of people moving toward similar goals. And if you decide to join me, let me know by responding directly to this newsletter. I’d love to hear from you.
And as always…
Seth—cheering you on and taking notes.
I'm here for this conversation and experiment. I am curious if there are other people out here with a similar context. I'm homeschooling six kids right now, don't have a platform, don't have much of a community for various reasons, we're taking covid seriously, no close extended family, and we're likely about to leave our church after two very painful years of trying to stay put. Leaving social media feels like exactly what I need to do but it's also (sadly) the main connection I have to the outside world. I need to do this for all the same reasons Seth has listed but I'm curious about how some of you might be approaching community in a world gone mad both online and face to face!