07 Sep 2016

Social Free Summer

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Written by John Waller, September, 3, 2016

On June 3, I was feeling depressed, scattered, and distracted…so impulsively I deactivated my FB account, deleted all social media apps from my phone…and quietly stepped away. There were still plenty of ways to stay connected in my life…text, phone, email, happy hour chats, campfires…but there was something about social media that felt unhealthy, unproductive, and in fact, destructive. I didn’t know exactly what it was, and I didn’t know how long I needed to detox, but my inner voice told me to reassess why and how I was plugged in. And I was curious, what would happen if I removed myself from the social media playground… Would I miss out on personal and professional opportunities? Would I become detached from people I cared about? Would I be oblivious to world events? Would I feel lonely, left out, irrelevant, insignificant? Turns out my experiment would last three months. I have no advice or epiphanies to offer because everyone’s circumstances are unique, but enough people have expressed interest that I thought I’d share some insights from my social free summer. If I could summarize all these thoughts into a single image, it would be one above from my 40th birthday in June.

1. My brain became a Facebook post machine. Rather than be fully immersed in the moment, my brain would spin into how I would construct the scenario or photo as post worthy…whether I actually followed through with it or not, my mind was constantly crafting social media fodder, like a steaming pile of compost, churning the rinds of life into micronutrient soundbites. I also can trend a little perfectionist, so in that churning was way too much dissection and analysis-paralysis of what I was going to share.

2. I realized that my own ego was a driving motivation behind why I shared. This is no surprise, really…we’re all looking for validation and the Facebook platform is an easy way to rack up a sense of self importance. Like droplets of dopamine, each “like” fills up the ego tank to make us feel like good, interesting, cool people. So if I was really being honest with myself, my engagement on social media was about connection, about inspiration, about sharing things that are important to me, and it was also heavily weighted on boosting my own self esteem. I’ll admit it…I liked “likes”. But I began to feel that I was placing too much dependence on this source of external validation…what about sourcing it from within!? I had some work to do there…likes be damned.

3. There appear to be a lot of dynamic, beautiful, inspired, and productive people out there on social media, and I found myself getting caught up in other people’s lives. People that I’ve never even met. The daily reminders of names and lives and struggles and successes in the feed over time carved out a space in my brain…and began to occupy a significant part of my thoughts. Social science has suggested a cognitive limit to the number of people with which we can maintain stable social relationships…150. I was finding that the space to think about my own life, and my inner circle, was being eroded away by thinking about a lot of other people that I barely even know. Yeah, I know, that may be you….

4. Stepping away from social media allowed me to gain control and clean the filter by which I allow information into my life. Browsing social media channels can feel like drinking from a firehose, and Ill be blunt…there’s a lot of stupid, fake, material, and toxic bullshit out there. I’m all about being informed, but each of us has the power to choose what that information is and where we get it…and for me, a bit too much sewage was seeping into my drinking water.

5. Everyone has an opinion, has a cause, has a voice to be heard, and the beauty of our country and social media is here is a platform where you can say and share whatever the fuck you want. But the space gets real noisy as everyone begins to shout over the other person in an attempt to be heard and seen. In the three months of being social free, my world began to feel more peaceful, less polarized, and less noisy. Stepping away from all the shouting helped me gain clarity, perspective, and a reminder of the universal truths that bind us all together. I’m no Buddhist monk, but I do feel a greater sense of calm.

6. When I removed the intention to share my experience, I found myself more present and immersed in the moment. Call it selfish, but I started doing and interacting a lot more for just myself…no acknowledgement required. I was no longer defined by what I shared. By stripping away the motivation to prove, or boast, or share what I was doing, or the conduit for approval, I discovered the influence of what others thought also stripped away. What freedom! Sever the social media tether, and its super cliche to say, but I became my more authentic self.  #authenticforreals

7. I can be prone to depression. There are a number of triggers for me but I found depressive episodes fueled by a comparison to what other people were doing began to subside. Let’s face it…most contributions to social media are inflated expressions of a person’s best self. Celebration, accomplishment, inspiration, wisdom, love, popularity, opportunity flood the news feed…the average life can feel boring and aimless in comparison. While for some that may be the motivation they need to get off the couch, for me I found myself sinking deeper into the cushions. Conversations with people in real life affirm to me that I’m not the only one that has a shitty day, and who can feel skeptical, lonely, and lacking purpose. Facebook seeks to affirm to me that I’m the only one on the planet that may struggle with this “unattractive” sickness.

8. I removed myself from a corporate data collection machine designed to know me better than I know myself. Ive been a long term eager volunteer of JQ to Facebook since 2006…this isn’t just a snapshot in time, but a deep and sophisticated database of who I am, what I like, where I go, who I stalk, how I feel, and how I’ve changed over time. With every post and like, we volunteer all of this information for free to a multibillion dollar company who banks it in a server farm in Prineville and works really hard to figure out how to best turn that information into profit. Facebook should be paying us for our posts! Anyone who is on Facebook must accept a heavy compromise to their privacy. As a naturally private person, I needed to consider my implication in dismantling my own privacy. So there you go Facebook…Im prepared for an onslaught of ads for backcountry gear, anti-depression remedies, and Buddhist retreats.

9. Quit participating in social media engagement, and you quickly start paying attention to everyone else who is. I became more observant of other people’s habits, behaviors, and conversations related to being connected. I didn’t really like what I saw. There are producers of content, and there are consumers of content, and both are deeply engaged with using or looking at small hand held devices…after a while it began to feel weird to me. Look around at any airport and you’ll see what I mean. There were several moments over this summer where I found myself the only one amongst a large group of people not looking at my phone. I was surrounded by people participating in a conversation that I was not a part of. It felt lonely. I felt left out. Don’t feel bad for me…it was all self induced…but I realized how much of our social conversation is had online, and oftentimes, how little actually happens face to face.

10. Because I didn’t already know what was going on with everyone, my interactions with friends and acquaintances became more surprising, more spontaneous, and I was more curious. I love asking questions, especially if I don’t already know the answer. So conversations weren’t a recap or an update of the cliff notes summary of their life I was already aware of. They started deep and curious and oftentimes covered uncharted territory. It was exciting to connect with someone and not feel like I had just interacted with them online. There were fewer assumptions about what was going on in someones life, or about how they felt about something. Because I really didn’t know…I had no hints or clues from an online profile to form a bias, or judgement. All I knew was what I saw with my own eyes, and what I heard directly out of that person’s mouth. That’s the real stuff right there, btw.

11. I didn’t check my phone nearly as much, and for nearly as long. The habit to cure micro moments of “boredom” with a quick scan of social media feeds was broken. Standing in line, a red light, passenger in a car, sitting on a park bench, going to bed, waking up, waiting for a meal, all opportunities that I was taking to check in and scroll and troll… There was no intention behind it…it was habit and filled the space with “something to do”. Add up all these micro moments over the course of a day, and I found I was spending a lot of time (up to hours everyday) wasting time with nothing productive to show for it. What else could I be doing? What else could I think about? What could I observe more closely about what was happening around me? I found healthy answers to all these questions…

So, if you’ve read this far, you may be wondering why, despite all I’ve said, would I be such a hypocrite as to re-engage with social media. Fair question. Because I missed it…I missed feeling connected to my tribe…its a simple human desire to be a part of something, to know what’s going on. And I felt like every now and then, maybe I have something valuable to contribute. But the better question is how I will use it differently…so that I can participate without gravitating into the same orbit as before and feeling like I’m feeding the monster. I guess we’ll all find out….I know you’re listening, Facebook.  :)