I just realized last month marked five years since I wrote my goodbye to social media.
I’m happy to report that unlike most people who quit social media and write rants about what social media is doing to us or essays on how distracted we all are by the web (though apparently not enough to stop tweeting), I haven’t gone back to Facebook or Twitter.
It hasn’t been easy, and I can’t say I haven’t had my cursor hovering above the Twitter “join” button several times over the years. If you’re a writer or involved in media or technology, it’s hard to not be on social media in 2019. It’s not only where news breaks and where all the links are, it’s also where everyone is. No one just “visits” social media now, it’s where they live.
But I’ve forced myself to stay off Twitter and Facebook. It probably helps that I consider myself a writer and not a journalist (you can absolutely be both but there’s a difference, at least when it comes to your day to day work), so I don’t have to know the news right now or reply to what someone said on Twitter immediately and I don’t need to give my “hot take” on the topic of the day. I get by just fine thank you using the web the same way I did 10 or 20 years ago: I actually visit sites that I have bookmarked, I use an RSS reader, I use email, and I subscribe to several newsletters (not to mention I still use my phone to make actual phone calls, read print newspapers, watch TV news, and I still send out handwritten letters). We did this for a hundred years and somehow – somehow – we survived.
As I’ve told people many times, everything you do on social media you could still do even if all social media vanished tomorrow: keep in touch with family and friends, get the latest news, display pictures of your dog and/or cat, and see that latest wacky viral video. It might just take an extra click or two.
Whenever I’m tempted to rejoin social media, I remember the time would be better spent actually writing something. I think to myself, would Andy Rooney be on Twitter or Facebook? Of course not. Would Nora Ephron or Ray Bradbury? No way (in fact, social media was around when they were still with us and they weren’t on it). How about Charles Schulz or E.B. White or Jean Kerr or Erma Bombeck? Would Raymond Chandler or Peg Bracken or Oscar Wilde be retweeting and Liking posts and firing off snarky one-liners on social media, deleting and editing and rewriting until it was exactly right? OK, maybe Wilde, but most of my favorite writers weren’t on it or wouldn’t be on it.
How about Don Draper or Ward Cleaver or Sheriff Andy Taylor or Lt. Columbo? They would have hated the constant sharing and the way social media has changed us. Ward would have to sit the Beaver down after he posted something dumb about a schoolmate on Facebook. Andy would have to warn Opie about judging people too quickly and too harshly. Old-school Draper would have hated social media (he once told Sal to “limit your exposure,” and though it was in a different context I think that’s a good rule for social media in general). Columbo? He’d still have a flip phone like I do (though he’d probably constantly lose it and have to borrow yours).
Sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard predicted social media and smartphones. He wrote this in 1977 (via Open Culture):
All this, of course, will be mere electronic wallpaper, the background to the main programme in which each of us will be both star and supporting player. Every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day. Regardless of our place in the family pecking order, each of us within the privacy of our own rooms will be the star in a continually unfolding domestic saga, with parents, husbands, wives and children demoted to an appropriate supporting role.
And in an interview in 1987, he said this:
Every home will be transformed into its own TV studio. We’ll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own soap opera. People will start screening themselves. They will become their own TV programmes.
That’s pretty much dead on. The only things he didn’t see coming were how often people would photograph their lunch for everyone to see and take selfies in bathroom mirrors.