Why I Shed the Shackles of Social Media
Who knew that being “connected” could disconnect me from my true self?
I was a happy child. Don’t get me wrong — I was goofy, awkward, quiet, & uncoordinated (ask my Little League coach about that last one) — but overall, I was happy. I had a loving & supportive family. I had many friends. Growing up in a small Connecticut town, I was privileged to have a good public school system with excellent teachers. In my hometown, there were a number of parks to play in, churches to attend, & many activities for the youth, whether it be in music, theater, sports, or arts & crafts. For all of these reasons and more, I was happy. But somewhere along the line, my happiness was taken away, and I began trekking a slow & insidious path towards self-destruction.
I. The Early Days
AOL Instant Messenger & Myspace (2003–2009)
I think it began in the spring of 2003. I was in 6th grade, a ten-year-old with a creative and inquisitive mind. My quiet days of early childhood were long past; I began the middle school experience with newfound extroversion. I liked meeting new people, experiencing new things, and embracing all that life had to offer. I was in band, choir, played three sports, was active in my church, and did well in the classroom. There was one area, however, in which I struggled — romance. Though I wasn’t plagued by acne (whew!) or by being overweight (wish that was still the case), I simply had no ‘game’. Every girl I had a mini two-week crush on ended up giving me the heart-breaking “I like you as a friend” line. While my closest friends were dating their first ‘girlfriends’, I was by myself, picking grass in the outfield. That is, of course, until I met Sarah. Sarah was a kind-hearted gal, a blue-eyed beauty who played soccer, a sport which I had no previous interest in until I met her. Because my best friend was “going out” with her best friend, it seemed natural for me to suggest that I tag along during one of their ‘dates’. My best friend agreed. After being coached by him on what things to say/not to say (apparently saying “I love you” on the first date is a total turn-off), we went to the movies. After the movie ended, we walked outside the theater, and I was frantically thinking of something to say before each of our parents picked us up in the parking lot. Sarah’s father was the first car to pull up. Before I could even blurt out a stupid line, Sarah turned to me and gave me a scrap piece of paper with a bunch of letters on it — an awkward combination of the words “soccer”, “girl”, and our birth year, 1992. Before I could even ask her what it was, she was gone. My friend slapped my back, laughing. “Dude! Nice! She gave you her screen-name!” Her what?
You see, up until this point, I had no idea what AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) was. The extent of my computer usage was me playing that pinball game on Microsoft Windows to kill time during study hall. I was simply so busy reading books, playing outside, doing homework, or hanging out with my family that I did not really spend much time on the computer, which was in our family room, anyhow. But now I reached an impasse — I finally met a girl who had interest in me, and she gave me her screen-name. What harm could me creating a free account cause? I went home that night, tapped my fingers as I waited for the Internet to dial-up, and created my first screen-name, which I will not share with you now because of the inevitable embarrassment it will cause. Anyhow, I added Sarah & my best friend to my “Buddy List”.
Admittedly, my mother wasn’t too pleased. “You are involved in online CHAT ROOMS?” she wailed. “No, Mom, it’s not a chat room with strangers. These are my friends,” I responded. But it didn’t do any good. My mother heard all of the horror stories of Internet chat-rooms in the 90’s, and obviously feared the worst. She suggested that I not get involved in AIM, but told me that if I decide to use it, then the computer will stay in the family room. And so my initiation to social media began, albeit in the same room my dad napped during NFL football on Sunday afternoons. Eventually, I became quite adept at Internet socialization. I even learned online chat etiquette — such as how guys shouldn’t use more emoticons than girls, how I should put the relationship start-date in my bio, and all the acronyms like “g2g”, “lmfao”, cya”,& more. Chatting with friends on AIM opened a whole new world for me. Before AIM, if I wanted to talk to my friends, I would have to do so during school hours, unless it was really urgent, and then I would call their house phone (“Hi Mrs. X, can I please speak to David?”). Now, I could say goodbye to my friend on the school bus, and message him five minutes later on the computer. How cool was that! And so, in addition to the many activities ten-year-old me had going on, I added a new one: chatting with friends via the computer screen.
In summer of 2005, another new thing came up — I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. This chronic, painful, and draining illness caused me severe distress, and forced me to spend part of the summer in the hospital, where I received intensive care. To this day, I still don’t remember much about that summer, besides the pain, the medical testing, and the 24/7 ESPN access I had being in a hospital bed, across from a small TV. I do remember something else, though — by August, when I started 8th grade, everything changed. In previous years, all of us students were a unified group. True, you had those who were more athletic than others, while some were more musically-inclined than their peers, but when we had a school assembly, it was clear that we were one student body. Fast-forward to the fall of 8th grade? Suddenly, my fellow marching band-nerds ended up quitting the trumpet, in order to form their own band, a rock band comprised of angsty teens in skinny-jeans. with long hair and little parental supervision. The kids who were the stars of gym class? Suddenly, they began lifting weights, blasting DJ Khaled wherever they went, with their jeans the exact opposite of “skinny”, hanging low as to show off their underwear. While I was in the hospital, teenage sub-culture entered the picture. You had the jocks, the ‘gangstas’, the emo kids, the nerds, the popular and pretty cheerleaders, and the losers. What a summer to miss out on!
I had zero knowledge of these subcultures. To quote a crying girl from a famous movie, I wished “we could all get along like we used to in middle school.” But alas, that was not to be the case. And since most of teenage-hood is summarized by the phrase, “sink or swim”, I decided to swim and learn all about the latest trends from the shark-infested waters. Among the many things I missed out on in summer 2005 was the explosion of Myspace, a social networking platform where you could share photos, surveys, music, and more. By the time I logged on, there was already an established culture. That quiet girl from my history class? She was a low-key master at HTML code, with her profile page showing off all of her glittery, sparkling icons. My best friend? I didn’t make his Top 8 cut. The new girl I had a crush on? She revealed in a survey that she was taken.
Although I was a slow learner, I somehow managed to make it work. After some advice from a few friends, I realized that people visiting my profile page did not want to hear Schubert’s “Ave Maria” playing automatically. And so, I replaced it with whatever song was the flavor of the week (tell me if you’ve heard this one before). Although I loved classical music, poetry, and the Catholic faith, I made sure I did not include that in my “About Me”. After all, the “hot” girls in my class liked Akon and anarchy, so I needed to be somewhat on the same page as her, right? I learned the art of a mirror pic, though fortunately, my self-confidence issues prevented me from posing shirtless in the mirror with my dad’s digital camera. My eyes were captivated by the alluring notifications saying that I received a new message, invitation, comment, etc… it was like a drug I could not get enough of. I started compulsively checking my computer to see if anyone messaged me or sent me a friend request. I spent untold hours trying to find the perfect wallpaper for my profile page, only to change it five hours later.
Admittedly, my mother wasn’t too pleased. “Why do you look sad in all of your pictures?” she asked. “Why don’t you post the picture with your sister at your 8th grade graduation?” “No Mom,” I snapped back. “You don’t get this stuff.” The computer was still in the family room, but I didn’t use it. I was given a laptop for Christmas, to help me “study” and “do research”. And, while I did some of that, much more time was spent finding out who the hell Akon was, and how to effectively perform this stupid dance.
II. Late Adolescence & Early College Years
Facebook & Twitter (2010–2015)
By the time we were preparing for high school graduation, the Myspace craze cooled down. Sure, many of us still had our profiles. But we were adults, now. Many of us were getting ready for college, and so we started looking at the stuff which college students did on the Internet, namely, Facebook. Facebook looked pretty ugly in comparison to our flashy Myspace pages, but maybe that was the point. Maybe there was more to life than writing “MINE! I OWN THIS” on our friends’ profile pictures. Facebook looked professional, social, and more mature. That is, if you count virtual ‘poking’, bumper stickers, and people writing on your “Wall” as professional. Still, it was different and people were on it, so it was officially “cool”. As we plugged in our personal information, such as our birth date, hometown, and attending college, we were then connected with “people you may know”. That girl in my math class who I never talked to? Lemme go shoot her a friend request; I’ll never know when I may need to ask her a question. Although they were called “friends”, most of the people I added on Facebook were people whom I vaguely knew, but for some reason wanted to “connect” with. When I moved away to Philadelphia to begin my college studies, I would see what former high school classmates were doing. One girl had a baby a few months after graduation — I didn’t even know she was pregnant! I saw photos of my glassy-eyed friends holding red solo cups — I see they attended their first college party! My freshman year of college wasn’t the happiest time of my life, so I took solace in living vicariously through the adventures (and misadventures) of my Facebook friends. My social network began expanding.
Simultaneously, Twitter appeared on the scene. At first, I didn’t really ‘get’ it. What is a “tweet”? Moreover, what the hell is a “hashtag”? What can possibly be worth saying in 140 characters? Eventually, I started following the accounts of athletes, celebrities, and companies. Maybe if I ‘tweet’ at Taco Bell, I can land a free burrito, or so I thought. Twitter was my weakest of interests, but there was something about its instant news-feed that I found so enticing. It was pretty cool to be one of the first people to “retweet” Fall Out Boy’s announcement of a new album. Getting real-time results of sporting events was a neat feature. Then in 2010, I saw Twitter’s finest hour — the platform was used during the 2009–2010 Iran protests as a way of revealing to the world what was going on in the country. While news stations covered what they could, Twitter was where I saw live updates of Iranian protesters, and heard from their lips (or finger-tips, I guess). The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was another event in which Twitter was used to reveal the on-the-ground details of the protests. What once seemed impossible (me talking to protesters in the Middle East) became a daily reality. I relished in the opportunity to engage with people during these major world events, and others found my tweets via the trending hashtags. 2010–2011 was the year Twitter truly took off, as it were, and became a major platform for millions of users.
Facebook & Twitter provided me with connections I never thought would be possible. Whereas AIM required me to know a person’s screen-name in order to talk to them, Facebook & Twitter were platforms designed for strangers to interact with strangers. Even though Facebook called these connections, “friends”, I became “friends” with people who I never even met, even to this day. Twitter allowed me to engage in lengthy debates, share jokes, and develop relationships with people — all in 140 characters or less!
By 2012, I had a very nice smartphone in the iPhone 4s. Given the capabilities of the phone (and the growing use of mobile apps), I was no longer required to be on a computer in order to use Facebook or Twitter. Myspace & AIM were platforms mainly for computers, and so when I was in bed, I didn’t have access to the latest gossip. But since Facebook & Twitter had mobile apps, I could keep up with the latest news, status updates, photos, and more, all from the comfort of my bed! My self-imposed 11 p.m. bed time became quite relative, and I started to go to bed later, around 1 a.m. As a college student, this was normal, right? The need to constantly check social media became a need to constantly check my phone, and vice-versa. I would find ways to hide my phone during lectures, so that I could comment on my friend’s photo from the previous night & let him know that I needed the tag removed. When I was 19, I got my license, and within the first month I was pulled over for blowing a stop sign. I wasn’t speeding, nor was I in a rush. I didn’t see it, because I was trying to respond to some jerk on Twitter who posted something I found offensive. Admittedly, my mother wasn’t too pleased. “Can you ever eat dinner without that damn phone?” she asked. I didn’t respond. I was too busy staring at the seductive digital screen.
III. Grad School & the Breaking Point
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Tinder (2010–2018)
Facebook & Twitter in one hand, I began to discover and juggle other social networks. While YouTube was nothing new (I watched it even in middle school), it became an app which I used to kill time. Waiting on the train? Might as well destroy my family’s data plan & watch the top 5 greatest trick plays in college football history. But YouTube, for all of its bells & whistles, never really became a ‘thing’ for me. Sure, I had a YouTube profile and had a list of 80 videos on my “Favorites”, but I didn’t start vlogging, nor did I watch vlogs. I just didn’t find them appealing.
My sin was Instagram. Holy hell, my sin was Instagram. I was one of its first users when the app came out (I should put that on my CV or something), and I immediately fell in love. I always had an interest in photography, and as smartphone cameras were getting better, I was capturing some pretty sick shots with my iPhone. I travel quite a bit, and so I end up taking a lot of photos wherever I go. Eventually, I began realizing which photos to share & which to keep private. That picture of a majestic purple and pink sunset? Share that ‘ish. That selfie of me with a double-chin? Cute… but probably not going to rack in the “likes”. I learned the art of hashtagging, and I quickly made a name for myself as one of the most popular Catholics on Instagram. I was getting messages from people all over the world, everyone complimenting me on my photography & curation. Instagram also let me peer into the lives of others. Whereas Facebook was a conglomeration of status updates, videos, memes, pokes, and more, Instagram was all about one thing — pretty pictures. Suddenly, every place I went, I ended up capturing. Every church I visited, before I even knelt down to pray, I snapped a dozen photos, trying to capture that “perfect” shot for my 17-thousand followers.
I was never really a Vine guy, but I had one. My first time drinking at college was actually captured on Vine, as I “slapped the bag” and, when I was finished, yelled “WOOOOOOO!!!” Vine was the place where I could pretend I was funny for like, 6 seconds. Some people became celebrities off of Vine; I was simply the one watching their creative videos, wondering how I could go viral, too. Speaking about going viral, I created a Tumblr account, hoping to get some of my blog pieces out into the Internet frontier. Unfortunately, my blogging career never left the launching pad. Instead, I saw that the way to success is by posting “sex gifs”, sad poems, witty, hypothetical text exchanges, and fashion photography. Given that none of the aforementioned things are within my talent range, I quickly bowed out, but kept the account anyhow. Vine and Tumblr were two social media networks which I used every now and then, but not to the extent that I used Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
I suppose I should mention Snapchat and Tinder, now. Yes, I had a Snapchat. No, I didn’t really like it. While some of my friends truly went crazy over filters which made them look like dogs, I used Snapchat mostly to send my friends stupid pictures, like me wearing sandals without socks in 30-degree weather. My interest in Snapchat waned as the company began relying on TMZ, celebrity gossip, & click-baity news titles (I Opened My Toilet and You WON’T BELIEVE What I Saw!”). Still, I checked it often, if for any reason but to watch my friends’ stories. I saw how my friend Josh had a rough day at work. I watched my friend Sonya complain about the weather. I saw Emily at an EDM concert, although I couldn’t really make much out from the screams & bass. But I’m sure it was fun. I watched these stories as I walked to & from class, but never during class — I never knew if and when my friends would go from posting a picture to a video, and I couldn’t risk my phone blaring the video of my friend lip-syncing to “Despacito”.
I have written about Tinder before. There is not much else to say, other than the fact that it is entirely possible to ‘match’ with someone while you are sitting on the toilet. For thousands of years, our ancestors established moral codes for choosing a spouse. Hell, even animals have elaborate mating codes. Meanwhile, in 2018, we swipe left & right while sitting on the train, possibly sitting next to someone you just swiped left on. But enough on that; time for my last social media platform. When I signed up for a LinkedIn profile, I pretty much knew I hit adulthood. Whereas 15-year-old me was using HTML to make my Myspace look “cool”, my 25-year-old self is wondering if such coding experience counts as a “professional skill”. The cool thing about LinkedIn is that it is the social media platform I used the least. The bad thing is that I found out how many people I know sell “It Works!” products.
Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. YouTube. LinkedIn. Tumblr. Tinder. Throughout the past 8 years, I have used these apps, sometimes purposefully, sometimes unintentionally. But I used them. And even worse is the fact that they used me. For years, I have tried to balance the usage of these apps with my studies, my gifts, my faith, my friends, my family, and myself. And guess who won? The apps. I attempted to fill every silent space with the noise of these apps. The morning walk to class? Time to scroll on Facebook. Waiting in line at Starbucks? Time to check my Twitter DMs. Waiting to be seen by the doctor? Time to post that picture of last night’s sunset on Instagram. Admittedly, my mother is no longer baffled by this. She knows that, for the past decade, I have had various social media platforms, and spend a gross amount of time on it. Her concerned has shifted; as an educator, she sees how many fights in school have been the extension of fights which began on social media. Just last week, she saw two girls get suspended for fighting over a guy, the boyfriend of one who was caught by the other. The cheated girlfriend posted something about “home-wrecking hoes”; the other girl saw it, and confronted her in the hallway, leading to hair-pulling, shouting, and school suspension. “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!” my mom tells me on the phone. “I hate Facebook,” she says. As she says this, I am watching CNN’s coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress over the latest data breach scandal. “Me too, Mom,” I respond. “Me too.”
A few weeks ago, I was in my room working on a research paper. I had writer’s block. This was a big paper — I needed to write it, and write it well. I found myself writing a few sentences, and then checking my phone. I didn’t have any notifications. I would write a few more sentences, and then grab my phone and look at the screen. I didn’t have any texts. This cat-and-mouse game went on for 15 minutes before I finally said “**** it!”, threw my phone across the room, grabbed my jacket, and went outside to go and get coffee, hopefully to clear my head.
As I was walking without my phone, I started grabbing my left pocket. There was nothing in there. I would walk for a few more steps, and then I would instinctively look down. All I saw was my feet, because my hands didn’t have anything in them. I continued my walk to the coffee shop, and felt myself fighting the urge to distract myself. A few seconds later, something remarkable happened. I heard a child laughing. I turned my head, and I saw a group of five children. They were playing basketball in a neighbor’s driveway, which was converted into a mini basketball court for the kids. My jaw nearly dropped. I walked by this house every single day for four years on my way to school… never did I ever notice this basketball hoop. In astonishment, I continued walking. I started noticing more things, such as the shape of buildings, and wondered about the architectural style used in its construction. I noticed shops and taverns, the names of which I had never really paid attention to. I continued walking, and I saw a mother & father with their small child, whose hand they both held, as the child was trying to chase a squirrel. I laughed to myself. As I continued my stroll, my eyes met the eyes of a (presumably) homeless man, asking for money. I gave him a few dollars, and asked him his name. He told me his name was “Fred”. “Alright Fred, well I hope you have a good rest of your day!” I responded. It was not the first time I saw a person who was homeless and in need, but it was certainly the first time I saw a person who was homeless and in need there, in that specific spot. And I began to wonder; “How many times have I tweeted or posted about social justice, all while staring my phone screen and walking past a marginalized person?”
By the time I reached the coffee shop, I noticed about ten things which I never knew about my morning commute — the names of streets, the color of houses, the historical landmarks, etc. As I ordered my coffee, I realized something else — I left my phone in my room. I proceeded to pull out my wallet, and the barista looked at me with a confused look: “No phone today?” she asked. I realized how I use my phone for literally everything, including for how I pay for coffee!
After I finished my cold-brew, I had an urge to go into the city. I waited at the local trolley stop. No, literally — I waited. I had no idea how long buses & trains could take. Typically, I would stare at my phone until I heard the trolley’s brakes screech, to which I would pick up my head, scan my metro card, and then proceed to sit down, staring at my phone. I paced a bit, looking down at the ground instinctively. I noticed cracks in the sidewalk. I thought I was going crazy. “What the hell am I supposed to do right now?” Eventually, the trolley came; I boarded, and took my seat. As I was sitting, I noticed something else — every single person (seriously) was on their phone. I could have stood up, stripped my clothes, and ran up & down the aisle butt-naked and they wouldn’t have noticed. It was kind of a scary sight. They all looked like zombies. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as the person next to me scrolled down their news-feed on Instagram, stopping for about 4 seconds on each picture before double-tapping to “like” the photo. I felt like I was surrounded by a group of zombies. And I was sad for the rest of the trolley ride, for I knew that, if I didn’t throw my phone across my room 20 minutes earlier, that would be me too.
IV. From Slavery to Freedom
You see, social media promises a lot of things. It promises that we will be “connected” with others. It promises that we will be happier if we use it. It promises that we are the consumers, and not the product. But these are all false. Having Facebook “friends” doesn’t mean we are truly connected with others. If anything, the past few years have shown how ugly the online community can get. Hate & vitriolic speech abound in Facebook political rants. You ever see the comments on a major Facebook news page, like CNN? The top-voted comments almost always call out CNN for being “fake news”, and I’m pretty sure the word “libtard” is a daily requirement for some people. Twitter is filled with a bunch of blue-checkmark’d journalists, each vying to be the top response to one of Donald Trump’s idiotic tweets. Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, Tumblr — all of these social media platforms have created a false sense of “connection”, as if ‘liking’ or ‘swiping’ or ‘snapping’ can replace actual & authentic human interaction. Sure, social media can be used to spread positive messages, GoFundMe causes, & more. But more often than not, it is used as a sort of toxic playground which promotes narcissism & provides endless, noisy distraction.
If the Facebook data breach taught us anything, it is that social media platforms see us as the product, and not the consumer. We are the means to which billionaires achieve their end: the aggrandizement of their wealth. This is not to say that I believe we should abandon the Internet and live like Luddites. I simply think we need a better way of engaging with the Internet, in a way in which we use it, and it doesn’t use us. To engage with the Internet in a healthy way is to essentially revolutionize the way we think about social life & our engagement with the world. Even in writing this, I wondered how I would get this message out to the public without social media. I realized that, whenever I wanted to share my work, music, or thoughts with people, there was a group of people online who were my consumers. This does not need to be the case. For centuries, people have publicized their work without the help of small digital screens and social media platforms. As for me, I have permanently deleted all of my social media accounts, with the exception of Instagram (which I uninstalled the app for) & Twitter. I am keeping Instagram as a way to hold onto photos which I haven’t backed up. (Update 4/17/18, 10:27 a.m: because a large number of people have requested that I stay on Instagram to share my spiritual reflections, I’ll agree use it once a month). My Twitter account is online so that I have a platform to share my writing, although my account is managed by my best friend who has his own email/password, so I cannot access it personally. It is possible to have a career in a social media-less way, but it may take more effort, care, and focus. But what a small price to pay for one’s freedom.
And so, almost twenty years since social media hit the scene, are we actually better off now than we were before? Has our constant exposure to news-feeds & 24 hour news-cycles been to our benefit? Are we a better society after all of this? I’m not so sure. I have spoken with a few people who have deleted their social media profiles; they have mentioned a sense of freedom, serenity, and peace which they haven’t felt in years. There is certainly a joy in the “hidden” life. There is nothing wrong with appreciating the silence & the privacy which comes from being away from social networks.
Since deleting my social media, I now feel liberated. Though the first few weeks without it were tough, I have come to realize that I am simply so much happier without it. I have resumed activities which I had pushed aside, claiming I had “no time”. It’s not that I didn’t have the time — the time was spent staring at a virtual screen. I have resumed things like playing the trumpet & studying vocal performance. I registered for the gym, and am now back into a proper fitness/nutrition program. I have returned to my love of reading books (!), and being able to sit and read without constantly itching for my phone. I have always been a big gamer, and so I now play Xbox, including single-player games I have put off for years. I am doing more of what makes me happy and pursuing those things which add value to my life.
I still see shadows of my former life. A few days ago, I walked through the library, seeing the thousands of books on a particular topic, thinking about all the research, contemplation, and synthesizing that went into each work. Whenever I think of something witty and “retweetable”, I pause. I realize now that Twitter is a place where people vomit their every thought without processing it in their minds, first. Perhaps something we think is so crucial to say could benefit from some extra cooking time in the noggin. Also now, when I visit a place, I take far fewer photos. When I went to a particularly pretty town the other week, I took in the sights & sounds without feeling the need to ‘capture’ it all. I am re-learning how to enjoy the simple things, such as watching a leaf fall to the ground, admiring a sunset from a grassy hill, listening to a favorite musician perform live, without recording it on my phone.
Social media did not become a way of life — it became my life. In many ways, I became a victim to a dictatorship of distraction. But now, I have regained my freedom. I am happy, once more.