When there’s bad news, I’m always in the same place. I’ve just woken up, I’m in bed and I’m on Twitter.
It’s where I was when my heart broke upon learning the Conservatives had won the 2019 General Election. When the January 6th Capitol Riots happened, I had watched a dozen videos before my first cup of coffee. And I was still under my warm duvet when I learnt of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and panicked over fears of nuclear annihilation.
I average anywhere between 12 and 16 hours of social media usage per week, of which most of that is scrolling through Twitter. When you take out 8 hours of sleep, 16 hours is a full waking day. That’s a whole lot of wasted time. On Monday alone, I spent over three hours on social media — 2 hours 17 minutes on Twitter.
Bear in mind, I’m a lurker, not a poster. Every morning I start the day by microwaving my brain with the hottest takes, and I don’t even engage in any cathartic dunking with a quippy quote tweet to maintain an equilibrium.
What’s hard about admitting this is a problem for me is that I needed social media to find who I am today. The combination of a university education, working in an academic library and creating a Twitter account were all necessary to realise that my secondary school education and upbringing had enclosed me in a conservative bubble. And whilst going to university and working in a library had pivotal roles in bursting that bubble, Twitter (embarrassingly?) did much of the heavy lifting.
One of the biggest pros of social media is that it grants us all access to a wide array of perspectives. Not all perspectives are equal, of course. Disinformation is rife and spreads like wildfire, for example. But we can find trustworthy and intelligent voices on these platforms.
However, the bubble has long since burst and it’s time to re-evaluate my relationship with social media. I must be responsible for my own education beyond what the social media algorithms push in front of me. Especially now that I’m growing more aware of the negative effect it is having on my mental health.
I’ve often told friends that I feel like I’m “existing, not living” or “surviving, not thriving.” This feeling was true before the coronavirus pandemic, but the pandemic exacerbated this feeling and made it more relatable.
But I fear it’s worse than that. It’s dawned on me how often I begin a sentence with “I saw this tweet” or “I read this thread” or “so-and-so posted on their story.” I’ve even regurgitated viral tweets and memes to “contribute” to a conversation or make a joke. My threadbare existence has become filtered through compulsive social media scrolling.
I wish I could at least say that my timeline exclusively consists of all those trustworthy and intelligent voices I mentioned. Alas, the algorithm throws a hodgepodge of disconnected content to keep me glued to the app.
If I start playing through stories on Instagram, for example, I’ll move between two friends walking from London to Cambridge for shits and giggles to an infographic explaining the UK’s complicity in Saudi Arabia’s genocide in Yemen. Then it moves to one friend sharing pictures of her new allotment, to another friend sharing their latest vegan meal, to another infographic — this time explaining acronyms every marketing professional needs to know.
Twitter is not much better. Every time I open the app, the first tweet I’m most likely to read is yet another casually cruel take from a British columnist. Either that or a response to yet another transphobic outburst from She Who Must Not Be Named. Then my scrolling will take me through Doctor Who polls, shitposts about a news item I won’t get the context for until a half-hour later, vague publishing drama, questions that begin with “Does anyone else with ADHD experience…” before getting an ad for a gambling site or cryptocurrency.
By no means are any of these experiences of social media unique to me. I suspect they’re not even uncommon. But there are people I know who have timelines that are far less chaotic. They also tend to live much fuller lives and have a healthier relationship with social media, only showcasing the highlights and not falling down so many rabbit holes pushed by the algorithm
This is the consequence of using social media passively. I tried to combine a personal profile with my creative and professional interests. But because my interests are always evolving, congruence is impossible. It also means the only definable characteristic of my online identity is inconsistency. Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of my meagre following notice — most of whom know me in a personal capacity separate from how I conduct myself online.
Social media as I use it currently is not serving me. But I’m unsure if it ever has. Posting has always been an anxious process, often feeling more like an obligation rather than satiating a desire to share.
However, quitting social media isn’t an option — at least not right now. Today, social media is somewhat of a necessity. If you’re a writer or any kind of professional whose work revolves around marketing or digital communication, there’s an expectation to be on at least one social media platform. And there’s no denying social media can be a useful tool. Networking, communicating with large numbers of people, establishing new connections, broadcasting news and sourcing a range of perspectives — ill-informed or otherwise — are all made easier by social media. Even if you’re not participating in the conversation, you can’t afford to not listen.
So the alternative is rethinking how I use social media. Already I’ve removed the Twitter and LinkedIn apps from my phone’s home screen. I’ll have to limit my usage of these platforms to my desktop. I’d drop Instagram, too, but it’s too awful to use on a PC. I also plan to establish new accounts to separate them from my personal accounts and use social media as a tool. And I need to make better use of channels I prefer using, like this blog and email — a statement I fear makes me sound older than I am.
Who knows, perhaps through a more conscious use of social media I’ll find enjoyment in using it. Or perhaps I’ll find a new way to exist online on my own terms.