Have you ever been a smoker? I used to be one and I’m sure we all know somebody who still is. If you ask a smoker why they smoke they’ll be able to give you half a dozen contradictory reasons why they still do it - it calms them down whilst also giving them energy, it distracts them from problems whilst also helping them focus. Despite these ‘benefits’, they’ll all discuss the habit of smoking in ways that nobody else talks about things that are actually enjoyable.
“I only smoke five a day,” one might say. “I can go ages without a cigarette if I want to,” says another. But do you really need to set limitations with things they find enjoyable? If something’s enjoyable, beneficial for you, and you get genuine pleasure from it, why limit yourself? With smoking it’s because, deep down, everyone knows that it’s a terrible idea.
If you’re a parent, would you encourage your kids to smoke? Or would you try to teach them that it’s not inevitable and they don’t need to be lured into a habit of a lifetime?
If you’re a parent, would you encourage your kids to promote themselves on social media so they knew how to attract likes before it became essential knowledge at senior school? Or would you try to teach them that it’s not inevitable and they don’t need to be lured into a habit of a lifetime?
Having recently quit smoking and had first-hand experience of the ways your brain tricks you into thinking that you need or want a cigarette, the parallels between social media use and smoking have become much more apparent. That urge to look at your phone to see if you have a new notification is very similar to the urge to smoke; refreshing a feed to discover new content is repetitive and distracting in much the same way as standing outside the office with a cigarette is. Small crutches that punctuate our day and regularly reward us.
Social media is designed to keep us coming back for more. It’s well documented that social networks make use of gamification to drive addictive behaviours that encourage users to return to a service over and over again, looking for another hit. It’s like having the world’s largest casino in your pocket.
I’ve noticed recently that social media irritates me more than it satiates me. We don’t need to go over the recent Facebook data fiasco or explain that Twitter is more like a public toilet on a Saturday night than a town square, but Instagram, that once so peaceful and inoffensive place, has started to irk me just the same. The more people I followed, the more I realised how desperate everybody is for ‘likes’. That double-tap on a photo delivering a silent notification to your phone is like nicotine for the digitally-addicted. Photos are edited until they don’t represent what the photographer stood in front of and, if you go seeking the location, you might even come away disappointed by a view that you’d have found stunning at any other time.
And, yes, you can do things to minimise the impact of social networks on your life, or even help to reduce how much you use them. You can turn notifications off on your phone or you could only check your feeds at certain times of day. But just like smoking, the inclination with addictions isn’t to do something less and less - it’s to want more and more.
I’m fed up of being stuck in the Bermuda Triange of social media and endlessly cycling between Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with no apparent escape. I’m fed up of trying to find a kind and gentle corner of the internet only to discover that there be beasties there, too. I’m fed up of seeing people promote themselves as a brand, as if their worth is just an accumulation of likes.
Have you ever taken a photo that got over 1,000 likes? I certainly haven’t, but maybe you have. Maybe I was one of the people who liked it. As much as I hate to say this, I don’t remember your photo. Those likes you’re desperate for and the attention that comes with them exist in the consciousness of your followers (and the algorithms of bots) for mere seconds.
All this rambling to get to this: from tomorrow morning, I’m going to remember what life is like without social media for 30 days. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. It’s hardly novel and the digital detox bandwagon can’t have many seats left, but that’s what I’m going to do. If I have something revelatory to say, I’ll write my thoughts here and let Medium send it to Twitter on my bahalf. After 30 days, assuming I don’t fail much sooner, I’ll report back. I don’t plan to leave social media forever, but I hope time away will allow me to come back with a renewed sense of intention and purpose.
Have you ever quit social media? How did it change your perspective?