Olly Headey

March 9, 2022

Why do we bother with social media?

Concern and despair about the perils of social media come in waves, and there have been some stormy waters in the circles I inhabit this week. Why do we do this to ourselves?

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with social media since it’s incarnation. In fact, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the social aspect of the internet since about 1994. I used to inhabit Usenet discussion boards and IRC, and these had similar effects and consequences as contemporary social media does today. Discussion boards were exciting to use at the time. Communicating with actual people from all corners of the planet about topics you were passionate about was a wonderful thing. I would look forward to logging in each morning and reading the new threads, and checking to see if anyone replied to my posts. The habit was addictive, just like social media. Occasionally, of course, some messages would be misconstrued and you’d be faced with challenging feedback or, worse, digital excommunication. In turn this would make you feel pretty terrible for a while, unless you were a heartless troll I suppose. Negative online interactions – whether on a mid-90s BBS or modern social network – can play on your mind and they can be difficult to correct. In some ways these challenges are actually good life lessons that you need to learn to navigate, but at the same time they can seriously diminish your mental heath. Is it really worth it?

I used Facebook for years. I used to like hearing about the escapades of others, and it allowed me to keep in touch with friends who had moved to the other side of the globe. There was a darker side though and the honeymoon period didn’t last long. Brexit was the tipping point for me. This was the most polarising of topics and people’s emotions were being fed by misinformation, post-truth politics and even alleged state intervention. I found myself in bitter, unwinnable arguments with family members on Facebook, which eventually spilled out offline so I ditched Facebook and never looked back. I don’t miss it (and, for the record, I was right about Brexit 🤪).

So why don’t I ditch the other ones too?

I’ve had a Twitter account since 2007. Twitter can be a fantastic source of real-time news if you feel that’s important, but if you look at it objectively it generally isn’t. It just wants you to think it is so you keep ‘engaging’. Listening to a morning news bulletin is more than sufficient for keeping up with what’s going on in the world, or reading a daily edition of a sensible newspaper. For industry-specific news such as the tech/software world, you can do the same – subscribe to some RSS feeds (they still exist!), or Substacks, or HEY Worlds, or podcasts and stop feeling that real-time is necessary. It’s not, it’s just FOMO. On most levels Twitter is just the pits and it brings the worst out in people. I’ve unfollowed everyone (ok, I still have some lists I read in digest form for the time being) and I plan to keep my distance. I don’t think it’s worth it. But can I bring myself to delete it entirely? FOMO.

I’m too old for Snapchat and TikTok but I’m on Instagram. I find it more pleasant than Facebook, but I have a private account and I only follow/am followed by a small number of IRL friends which makes it a lot quieter and for now the positives outweigh the negatives. I doubt I’d miss it if I binned it though. Maybe I should? I also have a public Instagram for my photography hobby but I’m looking to move that to my own website. It’s just a gallery after all. I don’t need the comforting confirmation of likes.

I find LinkedIn useful but only because it’s become the de-facto 21st century business phone directory. I don’t read the feed. Networking has proved really useful for me over the years from a work perspective, and I’ve used LinkedIn to connect with people who have subsequently helped me out, so I’m happy to stay on it despite hacks and its murky history of dark patterns. From what I gather it’s a great place to find new jobs as well, although how long this remains the case given increasingly heavy-handed recruiter practices remains to be seen. They face stiff competition from some hot new recruitment startups as well. Times are changing.

Social media isn’t going anywhere. In fact it probably hasn’t peaked. If my kids’ generation are anything to go by it’s even more popular than ever. It’s no longer Facebook or Twitter, instead it’s WhatsApp, Snapchat, Tiktok and Discord (and probably others that I haven’t heard of yet). We need to continue to educate people about the social dilemma, constantly remind ourselves that we don’t need that dopamine hit, and train ourselves to resist the constant urge to check and scroll. This is so hard! Things that help (if you have Trappist-level will power) are removing apps from phones and only using a laptop when you must check or post something. And if you must have apps then turn off all notifications – you don’t need to know right now

Despite these efforts, you’ll almost inevitably get drawn back in. The only permanent fix is to completely delete your accounts, but the pull of FOMO is often too strong. It’s the sunk cost fallacy. You’ve invested so much of your life in it, how could you possibly abandon it, even when you know your life will be better for it? The more we talk about the downsides of social media and its impact on society, the more we’ll reinforce this sunk cost to ourselves. Then, rather than trying to constantly navigate these endlessly stormy waters, we’ll finally be able to give our social media accounts a quiet but conclusive burial at sea.