I’ve just finished reading Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism° for the second time and I thought I’d jot down a few notes and ideas. I wanted to set out the steps I’m making as a consequence of reading it. I won’t re-iterate his ideas and suggestions here – I’d just encourage you to get it and think about your own life.
A ‘digital life’ involves a lot more than just social media but I’ll address those in due course. Starting with social media is the obvious beast to tackle but other digital media shouldn’t be underestimated and they can be highly intrusive as well (think of how many hours you’ve squandered on Netflix bingeing for instance).
Not being on Facebook is borderline heresy.
I thought about offering an evidence-based nugget for each of these platforms to inform my decision. It turns out to be more complicated than a single study or report can encompass. So these are my personal reflections.
I’ve jotted down my feelings about each social media platform and my decision around them.
I was a little late to the Facebook party and have always laboured with it. I quickly moved into using it just for the groups. Niche areas with like-minded people seem like the best case scenario with Facebook but even then there seems to be a torrent of, well, drivel. And, I’ve found it disheartening to see the polarisation of opinions; the bile some people are happy to post in public; the outright fakery of people presenting a pristine sanitised view of their lives for public consumption. I was catching myself wondering, with a deeply cynical viewpoint, of how many women had been subjected to domestic or sexual violence by the same men they paraded as part of their digitally projected immaculate portrayals of family life.
That’s without getting into the privacy concerns and the political shenanigans across Facebook.
Decision: This was an easy one. I’ve binned it. It’s the social media I’ve liked the least. That said, I can imagine at some point in the future wanting to find, say, people who would be interested in buying crime fiction I’ve written. I would leave open the possibility I might jump back in with a zombie account to run ads. But I hope I find an alternative as I think it would leave me feeling cheap and dirty.
Given this is Facebook’s plaything there isn’t much to recommend it. However, my perception has always been that the underlying structure is less open and feels more private. I’m not going to be naïve about it – I’m sure Facebook are still scraping data for all they are worth. The interactions have seemed less toxic but perhaps that was the corners of it I’ve been hanging around in.
The obsession with beautiful things – food, clothes, people – is wearisome and feels unhealthy. Indeed, the research around orthorexia and ‘healthy eating’ accounts on Instagram° sticks in my mind. It has the same painful ‘like’ structure so beloved of the attention industry. They love it because it makes people stick around, it is the social proof of acceptance that is craved by most of the species.
Decision: Deleted. I can’t imagine ever re-activating.
I came to this thinking it might be a useful way to make connections across academia and into the podcasting world. I dutifully built up my connections to over 1000 and then realised I was getting nothing from it at all. LinkedIn doesn’t seem to even have the saving grace of allowing connections to interact. It’s a parade, a beauty pageant, where we throw out our manicured CVs and hope the world will come to us. Nah.
Decision: Deleted. I can’t imagine ever going back to this. More than anything it just seemed to offer so little. Never mind the lack of conversation, the connection element of it felt threadbare and that’s the one thing a social medium should do.
The ‘like’ buttons are so devastatingly effective that it has become impossible for the attention industry to resist them.
I have never been super-active and I didn’t tweet with the mind-blowing regularity of those who feel obliged to put their every thought, meal, or bowel motion into the world. That said, it has added connections – but, on reflection, I wonder if I could have made those in other ways if needed.
Decision: Deleted. This was the last one I deleted and I’m planning to give myself a 28 day break. I’m leaving open the possibility I may go back on a limited and controlled basis. I’m undecided. At the moment I’m leaning towards a total clean sweep and stopping all social media.
Others: Pinterest, WhatsApp
I got into Pinterest because I listened to some bloggers talking about the remarkable results they had to grow an audience. I’ve been underwhelmed. I’ve also deleted WhatsApp but I’ve not been involved in a lot of groups so that’s been relatively unobtrusive.
Decision: Deleted. There might be a case for WhatsApp in the future for communicating with my family and the group chat feature is very seductive for that. However, it comes back to the old story that it’s not really essential and the downside of these apps is, for me, significant.
For the moment I can still text and it is another animal in the Facebook stable. There is talk of them merging the instant messaging apps° across their various platforms into one killer messaging app. One app to rule them all and in the darkness bind them…
Keeping the social media going
Newport’s book has many examples of people who have kept their social media profiles. The cases he describes have often made radical changes to how they interact with them. Some of them have other people to manage their accounts, some just check them at weekends. If you’re not ready to do the full package then take this step. If you do nothing else then I’d offer this one step to try:
Delete all social media apps from your phone
Don’t mute notifications or hide them away in a folder. Delete them. You can still get onto Facebook, Twitter etc but you’ll have to access it via a browser and you’ll not having it sitting in your pocket. Give it a week, a fortnight, or, even better, a month. It’s the constant connectedness, the dopamine-buzz of notifications that can be so corrosive.