My social media withdrawal experiment

In the past few years, I’ve gradually trimmed down my social media exposure. In the past month, I’ve eliminated social media almost entirely. Why take such a drastic step, and how do I feel about it now?

Making the easy cut

It started with Twitter. Every time I opened it, I ran across posts that made me feel depressed or angry or frustrated; usually some combination of the above. Not only was I wasting time there, but it was making me feel some very unpleasant emotions.

Seemed like a no-brainer to quit. At this point, I still have an account there, but very rarely use it. I no longer have the app installed anywhere, and am not logged in from any of my browsers. Aside from occasionally checking there for updates from some of my favorite content creators, whose Twitter handles I have memorized and browse to directly, I don’t really interact with it.

You know something? I don’t miss it.

Waffling over Facebook

The other social media site where I spent time regularly was Facebook. I was super torn about my time there. I’m really unhappy with Facebook as a company. I feel that the org does a lot of harm, in a variety of ways. I’ve wanted to stop using Facebook for years.

On the flip side, I’ve also felt compelled to maintain an account there. It’s where I do a lot of interacting with IRL friends. I’ve used it to stay in touch with a lot of family members who I don’t regularly talk with. I’ve used it to connect with and stay connected with interesting people I’ve met at various events. I’ve reconnected with some of the folks I knew in high school, and it’s been fun to be in touch with them again.

I’ve also used it to stay in touch with local and special-interest events and communities. There are several local groups I’ve been a member of in Facebook, as well as a group of folks who are doing ambulance-to-RV conversions, a motorcycling group where I was once an active member, and groups formed around events and classes I’ve attended.

I use it to discover local events here in Vermont. Many local small businesses don’t even have their own websites; they create Facebook pages, and that’s where you have to go to find out about hours, daily specials, and events. I really enjoy attending local events as a way to connect with my community, and I want to support local small businesses - so I’ve felt like I need that touchstone with them, and the only place I can get it is Facebook.

Finally, I’ve used Facebook for work. My publishing empire has pumped a lot of money into Facebook ads, which drove a majority of my sales and newsletter signups. When I was advertising regularly, Amazon’s ad platform was not as robust and not nearly as effective; I don’t know if that has changed in the past few years. I stopped advertising when I fell behind schedule in publishing new books, but I’ve always intended to get back to that when I have the time, so I rationalized that keeping Facebook was required.

The rise of Slack

While also maintaining my Facebook account, I’ve been gradually joining more and more Slack groups. I’m currently a member of eight Slack workspaces, which have a combined membership of over 20,000 people. That’s a lot of conversations.

  1. It started with a Slack workspace for work in 2016.
  2. Then, one of the folks at work spun off a Slack for an open-source project he started, which I joined to help with that project, and also to stay in touch with friends there.
  3. I got involved with another project with this friend - a volunteer emergency management association group - which has another Slack workspace.
  4. I heard about a leadership Slack from another person at work, who said that’s where stays in touch with his friends, and thought I’d find a lot of interesting conversations there.
  5. From there, I found out about a women-in-tech Slack in one of the hidden backchannels.
  6. One of my friends on Facebook pointed me at a Slack group for technical writing.
  7. In addition to the Slack workspace my current gig has, they also have a Support Slack where I’m a member.
  8. Kay and I started our own Slack for collaborating on projects among ourselves, and with our friends.

All told, that’s a lot of conversations to follow. I’m in a handful of channels in most of those Slack groups; as many as 10 to 12 in one or two. That’s a whole lot of information for one person to consume, while also working a regular 40-hour work week and trying to have a personal and social life. I hate to say this, but it’s almost enough to make me miss Facebook’s helpful algorithms that attempt to surface the content I’ll find most interesting.

A lot of these Slacks are of interest to me, personally and professionally, so I’ve been drowning in trying to keep up with them. I’d remove one or another from some device, but end up adding it back, or just looking at it on another device.

Acknowledging the problem

I was checking in on these social platforms several times per day. I’d attempt to keep the check-ins to a few minutes each time, but sometimes I’d get sucked into longer conversations - that seemed really interesting and important - and then realize I’d lost a half hour or an hour at a time. Gone.

After my rafting incident, I was really struggling to figure out what I was doing with my life, where my place was in the world, and whether I was doing what I really wanted to be doing with my work and my time. All of this deep, heavy thinking, combined with poking around these social platforms as I flailed and indulged in some escapism, meant lost productivity. As I bill hourly, and saw fewer hours logged per day, I began to realize this was becoming an issue.

The proverbial nail in the coffin was a rather innocuous point of crotchety-old-woman ranting that raised a startling awareness. Someone in one of my Slack groups posted in the Main channel one afternoon: “Just wanted to shout out that it’s my birthday today, whoop whoop!”

This is hugely poor Slack etiquette; pretty much all of the members of a Slack are in the Main (or General) channel. It’s meant to be used for things that might be of interest to the entire Slack, or to ask about where to discuss things if you’re uncertain which channels are appropriate (depending on the Slack - some Slack groups have a separate channel for that). So this person was basically blasting out to 6,200 people some totally self-indulgent and uninteresting fact in what was a blatant attention grab.

I was not amused by this, but was amused by my own observation that it was an attention grab, so I went and posted about it on Facebook. And as I was writing the post, realized that my post about this person’s post was essentially the same thing, but on a much smaller scale. “Hey, I made this pithy observation about human hubris, look at me.”

I did call myself out in the post as I was writing it, but posted it anyway to demonstrate the irony. (And because I try not to self-edit when I realize unflattering things about myself… we all have those things, and sometimes it helps to connect to someone else’s humanity through them, and/or realize similar things about yourself.)

When I realized that, though, I started thinking more about the performative aspect of social media. I regularly post about what I’m up to, or experiences I have, because (I think) the people I’m friends with want to know what’s going on with me and enjoy hearing/reading it. But there’s certainly a performative/attention-seeking aspect to it that made me uncomfortable. And then I realized that if I’m truly friends with those people, I’ll talk with them outside of social media, and can share updates in a more one-on-one way. And if I’m not truly friends with those people, then what am I doing wasting my time performing to them/reading about them?

I know there’s a lot more complexity and value to social media, but this series of realizations, combined with the fact that I was demonstrably losing productivity by billing fewer hours, meant it was time for me to take a serious look at my social platform usage.

Going cold-turkey

Right, then. It was clearly time to curtail my use of these social platforms; at least, temporarily. I decided on an experiment: I would deactivate (but not delete!) my Facebook account, and remove several of the non-work Slacks from my devices.

I’m down to four Slack groups on my main computer - the two work Slack groups, the one with my friend’s open source project (where I interact with those friends for a weekly meetup, and otherwise the traffic is non-existent, because it’s only about 50 people), and the Slack that Kay and I set up for ourselves/our friends on projects. We regularly use that one to share code and work-related tips and tricks, so keeping it alive seemed useful, even when we also have Messenger to communicate (and our offices are literally next to each other).

I have two additional Slacks on my phone; the one for the volunteer emergency management association, and the one for tech writers. Shortly before I started this experiment, I volunteered to help set up and run remote meetups for the tech writing group, so I still need to be available there when the other organizers ping me. I’m set to “Away” there, have notifications other than direct messages turned off, and try to only check it outside of work hours; maybe while drinking my morning coffee, or during the evening while waiting for the dogs to come inside.

My laptop still has all of the Slack groups, but I basically don’t use Slack on it anymore; it’s the machine that sits next to my chair in the living room, so I can use it if I want to poke a project in the evening. I don’t pick it up unless I’m doing something specific, which does not include random Slack browsing.

My initial thought was to try this for a few days, or maybe a week, to see how well it worked out. I wanted to see if I could regain some productivity, and maybe some free time in the evenings. I wanted to see if I could live without Facebook, which would mean being more disconnected from my local community.

It has now been about five weeks since I pruned my social platforms and deactivated my Facebook account. I have not, even once, been tempted to reactivate my Facebook account. I have not felt like I was missing some form of enrichment by not participating in conversations in my pruned Slack groups.

Aside from the initial compulsion to check the things in the first few days after removing them - which made me realize how habitual it had become to poke Facebook and these Slack groups - I haven’t really noticed it being gone, except that I now have more time to myself. I couldn’t even remember how long it had been since I removed them; I had to look up an event that was happening around that time to figure out when it was.

My one - slight - regret has been that I didn’t announce my intent to deactivate Facebook prior to doing it, and leave it active for a few days, so my friends would know what happened and could reach out to me in some other way. I didn’t want to do the whole dramatic “I’m leaving Facebook” thing if it didn’t stick, and I really thought at the time it would be an experiment I’d try for a few days or a week, but I’d then reactivate Facebook. A few friends have noticed my absence and reached out to me, and I felt bad that they were worried or that I hadn’t clued them in.

At this point, I’m leaning toward making this the new normal. I like the extra free time. I like not having to worry about whether I’m missing an important or interesting conversation. I like not having to remind myself that differing political views do not inherently make someone less worthy of respect. And I like not feeling like I’m someone’s product, and knowing I’m not silently condoning Facebook’s moral bankruptcy and commoditization of its users’ personal information by continuing to use it in spite of my reservations.

Still “leaning toward,” though… not quite ready to go all-in and actually delete my Facebook account, versus its current deactivated state. Leaving it sitting there, deactivated, is kind of like a safety blanket. I know I can go back if I change my mind. I don’t want to now, but I don’t know what might happen in the future.

What if I want to reach out to the people there again? What if my husband dies, for example, and I feel isolated living here in a small community in Vermont and want to reach out to my friends across the U.S. as a way of coping? Or what if I decide to change jobs, or career trajectories entirely, and want to reach out to my personal network to find out about opportunities or share new business ventures?

FOMO is what has kept me connected to these social networks, and FOMO is what’s preventing me from making the break entirely and deleting the Facebook account. Maybe some more distance from this break that started as an experiment will make it easier to pull the trigger and make it permanent.