I Gave Up Social Media

In December 2015, I stopped reading Twitter. It was the school Christmas break, the girls were home and I wasn't working so I wasn't on my computer much, and I was too busy to read Twitter on my phone.

Then I just... didn't get back on again.

When I stopped using Twitter my mother was five months dead. I was freshly grieving, feeling the weight of being her executor (and the stress of a flood in her unsold house, thousands of kilometers away). I was sad, anxious, and raw.

Twitter was also sad and anxious and raw. Twitter always is. Every grievance, every injustice, every hurt is posted there. A boy is shot by police, a coffee is made incorrectly, a woman is abused at work, a new dress rips, children are kidnapped by religious militants, it rains on someone's birthday.

The world is full of hurt. I am a responsible, empathetic, sensitive person. When I read about hurt, I feel it. And if I don't feel it, I feel guilty about that. Reading Twitter invariably left me with eyes gummy and head whirling with the ideas and emotions and anger and outrage I just took in. I felt upset, frustrated, confused and hopeless — like garbage.

Twitter is what you make it. If you find Twitter boring or hateful or trivial, it's because you're following boring, hateful, trivial people. So the obvious response to not liking Twitter is to change who I follow so I like it again.

But I want to connect with people I care about, and the people I care about, care about things. Some of them care about feminism, some of them care about racial injustice, some of them care about body acceptance, some of them care about grammar or software usability. All of them post nice things about their families and their pets, but they also post about things that upset them. Which things, in aggregate, also upset me.

Social media is also a huge time-suck. I would open Twitter with a few minutes to kill, or 'just to catch up', and look up twenty or sixty minutes later with a dozen new articles in my to-read app. I was reading Twitter instead of books, and posting to Twitter instead of writing.

In some ways social media is wonderful — like constantly having with you a friend who laughs at every quip and pun, enjoys every anecdote and observation you make. Every pain you suffer, every misspelling you cringe at, every fleeting success of yours or your children's can be shared. Especially if you know some of the people who follow you, and share genuine affection with them, these trivial but constant connections weave a web of warm fondness and intimacy across miles, like those glowing yellow lines drawn around the globe in telecom commercials.

I missed that connection, so I started an Instagram account, joking that Instagram is 'methadone for Twitter'. For a while I enjoyed Instagram — it's mostly pretty pictures and nice things. People do post their griefs and grievances to Instagram, but they're mostly funny, like a misspelled name on a coffee cup, or a normal part of life, like the death of a grandmother or an old dog.

But even Instagram started to stress me out: people getting bullied for being fat in public, or not taking care of their cats the right way. I started to have that same tossed-about feeling when I read Instagram as I had with Twitter.

One day I came across an Instagram post from someone I love saying something that I disagreed with. I got annoyed. If we had been together in person maybe I would have seen her context and understood why she posted it. We could have talked about it amiably until we came to a shared understanding. But I knew that trying to talk it over in Instagram comments wouldn't go well. I felt frustrated and disconnected.

So I quit Instagram, too.

And then there was a void. With no social media apps on my phone, there was nothing to do when I picked it up. That void gave me space to notice what I was feeling when I reached for the phone. Often I was bored, yes. Also sad, scared, lonely. I know that social media doesn't help with feeling sad, scared, and lonely — it only makes me feel worse. I realized I was looking for distraction — a pacifier or a counter-irritant. A way to avoid feeling those feelings.

Now I reach for my phone and tend to my virtual plants, or hunt for little things in a video game. Still distractions, but they don't masquerade as time well spent. When I tend my imaginary Senecio serpens I am obviously wasting time, not 'networking' or 'working on my brand' or 'keeping up with current events'. And the games are finite: when my plants are watered or I have found all the little things, I stop.

I know I'm missing some things now. There are rallies and protests and injustices going on around the world that I am entirely innocent of, unless the CBC sees fit to report on them. I don't know if that's okay or not. I learned a lot from social media that I might not have learned otherwise. But I don't know if I did anything valuable with that knowledge.

I deeply miss the connections with friends all over the world. I miss knowing what is going on in their lives, and feeling cared about when they respond to my posts.

I don't know if I'll ever be back. If I can fix Twitter so that it's less upsetting and allows for more connections with friends, and if I can manage my use of it so that it's not a pacifier, and it doesn't distract me for longer than I want it to, that would maximize the benefits while minimizing the harm. I don't know if it's possible, but it's probably worth a try, when I have time.

But not today.