Penis in one hand, iPhone in the other, it was clear I had a problem.
Stood at the urinal of a Bavarian beer hall, the fact I couldn’t spare even 30 seconds to piss without pawing at my Twitter feed said something about how reliant – consumed, even – I’d become by social media.
Was a major news event unfolding somewhere without me? Had another childhood hero tragically kicked the bucket? Most pressingly, was there a 140-character zinger I could read, rip and quickly repackage as my own?
It didn't matter, I had no signal (below-ground, wi-fi free bars in far flung destinations will do that), so instead reread the same, humourless chatter I’d sighed at earlier. Only upon pocketing my smartphone and buckling my belt did I notice the immense, moustachioed German giggling; then, strolling back into a jammed bar, my beige chinos ‘reimagined’, realise why.
* * *
To the stay-at-home writer, social media is crack cocaine.
A real-time method to explore, focus group, track and publicise articles, for years I spent whole days scrolling under the flimsy façade of ‘research’. Regardless of whether I had actual work to do, I could always delude myself that because I once turned a friend’s slapstick Facebook anecdote into a tabloid story – which paid more in one hour than the previous four weeks combined – the next money-spinning story was all of one click away. (It wasn’t.)
Besides the rabid procrastination dressed up as multitasking, and after more than a decade’s worth of Bebo, MySpace, Friendster, Friends Reunited(!), Facebook, Twitter, Instragram and Snapchat, I realised something: social media was making me sad.
It wasn’t pissy chinos that sparked such an epiphany, rather an enforced two-week hiatus in which I had a to deliver a major work project. Handing my passwords to a friend, with orders to change and not return them no matter what, I had no choice but to do my job. You know, like an actual, functioning human.
The adjustment period was a little surreal. Absentmindedly unlocking my phone and jabbing at the space where Twitter used to live made me question whether I was suffering withdrawal similar to that of a drug addict. But before long it wasn’t weapons grade FOMO I was experiencing – bemoaning all the memes and check-ins and photos I’d never catch up on. Nope. I suddenly felt clearer, lighter, unburdened from the nonsense of it all.
Without the stress of needing to post an earnest news piece to Twitter, something unique and hilarious on Snapchat or birthday wishes to Auntie Sandra on Facebook – else I forever be known as a rotten shitbag – I found myself embracing the blissful ignorance of my digi-isolationism.
No longer were conversations with friends stopped dead by the crushing refrain: “Yeah, saw it on Facebook”. Instead I made real world plans to see people, not feeling it sufficient to swipe through their feed, send them an upside-down-smiley-face emoji on Messenger and set an iCal reminder to repeat in three months’ time. I read books, not timelines. I genuinely enjoyed the nostalgic euphoria of acute boredom.
The upshot of my experimentation was a project completed on spec and on time, something that, months later, remains my proudest work. I felt more switched on and inspired than I had in years (something backed up by science, as with great boredom comes greater creativity). Better still, I’d accidentally sprung the prison of social media, and had no inclination whatsoever to hand myself in.
At the end of my fortnight’s abstinence, my first act wasn’t to jump straight on Facebook to carp on about it to any sucker who’d listen, but immediately delete my account. And after leaving my account dormant for the six months from that day to this, last week I killed Twitter, too.
* * *
I am not a maverick. This year more people want to kick their social media habit than smoking, while it’s proven the more time you spend on Facebook and co, the more depressed and anxious you’re likely to be.
But of course that’s true. Because it is tough to keep pace with your online pals that drink Bollinger on school nights and spend weekends frolicking in Monaco (even if, on closer inspection, it’s in fact Lambrini/Southend). Harmless though such play-acting might appear, this is at the heart of what makes social media a 21st century sickness or, if you prefer, a pile of X-pro III filter dog shit:
It is not real life.
You’re aware of this already, but, you know your friends? They’re not your friends. They’re actors with your friends faces, desperately trying to carve out a new way to make their lives appear baller. And yet it’s not. The grim reality is actually a tilt-a-whirl of approval seeking, promptly followed by misery should their moody shot of courgetti bolognese only receive four likes. They don’t even like courgetti. No one does.
Then there’s the filter bubble. Coined by Eli Pariser, author of a book of the same name, it’s a troubling phenomenon whereby an algorithm presents the stories and posts it thinks you want to (but not necessarily need to) see. Like a diet comprised entirely of Burger King, for a while it feels magic – we all like what we like, after all – but, if Brexit and the presidency of Donald (fucking) Trump has shown us anything, it’s that unexpected things can happen when we all live in personalised echo chambers, hands Sellotaped over our stupid, naïve ears.
It’s why an article titled “Why I’m Voting For Donald Trump” was shared 1.5 million times on Facebook in the lead up to the US election, yet featured on the timeline of nary a democrat voter. Or why there wasn’t a single person in the United Kingdom that thought Brexit was actually going happen, apart from the 17.4 million Leave voters, that is, as everything they read led them to believe it almost certainly (probably) would.
And that’s before you even consider fake news, a modern ill that’s pretty terrifying seeing as a whopping 61% of millennials use Facebook as their primary news source. Name and shaming shitposters is no longer adequate, as not every user will read the follow-up story debunking the bunkum. Besides, due to the handy Jedi mind trick known as confirmation bias, we’re all more likely to simply believe the one most in line with our own beliefs, anyhow.
* * *
Last November, I got married abroad. Before I did, still drunk on my emancipation from social media, I decided to go one further and leave my iPhone in my bedroom drawer. Granted, the subsequent 10 day technological blackout likely wasn’t a fair test – “It’s the best day of your life” etc etc – however I returned home so chilled and devoid of distraction, that I didn’t switch it back on for a further three days.
With shiny social media apps no longer a concern, email is now in the crosshairs. I’ve disabled the Mail functionality on my iPhone, and have started to check my inbox just twice daily – something that’s already boosting productivity. With fewer uses for a smartphone, I’m deliberating a downgrade to a dumb one – a Nokia 3210, or something equally indestructible and whose battery lasts a millennia.
Technology’s sweet and all, but in the same way that more cash doesn’t bring about enlightenment, nor does a device for every body part. Personally, I’m happier than ever being behind the times.
#content ≠ contentment.