I remember the specific moment, about halfway through last year, when I realised that social media was doing me more harm than good. I was sitting on my bed scrolling and scrolling, mining ever deeper into the guano of other people’s photoshopped highlight reels, mediocre memes and excessively opinionated commenters with motivational quotes in place of profile pictures. It all felt overwhelming, like being strapped into a rollercoaster of content I couldn’t get off.
I threw my phone aside and went for a walk. While I was out in the sunlight trying to jump-start some Vitamin D production, I tried to figure out what had changed about my social media experience and why it made me so unhappy.
Like many others, I signed up for Facebook during high school. At that time, when MSN Messenger was still the modus operandi for instant messaging, and the wall had not yet evolved into the timeline, social media represented an exciting opportunity for making new friends and keeping up to date with the lives of people I cared about.
In the intervening years, social media platforms have become more universal, and consequently more pervasive. Even the most serious news organisations cite tweets as sources, often directly embedding them into their reports. More visual platforms like Instagram, Vine and (god forbid) musical.ly have spawned entire cycles of trends, along with a raft of careers for models, content creators and enterprising 12-year-olds who can make slime. (Seriously though, more power to the 12-year-olds – their clout is impressive.)
Perhaps most notably, it no longer seems accurate to call a site like Facebook a social network. Pinballing back and forth between niche groups, meme pages, trashy quotes liked and shared by older relatives and the relentlessly curated facades that people I barely know were working hard to project, was exhausting and demoralising. It certainly didn’t leave me feeling more connected to the people and things I care about.
Part of the problem is that most platforms are now designed to force engagement with content based on popularity, rather than relevance or quality. It’s all too easy to become embroiled in the mediocre drama of a controversial comments section, because the loudest and most polarised personalities tend to dominate discussions. Furthermore, physical distance is no barrier to engagement – I’ll never forget the time a Texan grandmother decided to jump in with an opinion on a friend’s post about chronic illness, despite having no remotely fathomable connection to the said friend.
Another issue with the direction in which social media is evolving is the intensification of the pace at which users are expected to produce content. The past couple of years have witnessed the proliferation of ‘stories’ or other features which offer instant, live coverage of our lives. Every update seems to add another feature that demands of us to share more content.
I came back from that walk and deleted all the social media apps on my phone. The next two days were almost unnaturally relaxing, but the honeymoon wasn’t going to last. I soon realised I was missing out on important information, messages, and other, more superficial things I wanted to see by having withdrawn from social media completely. I reluctantly accepted that its presence in my life was a necessary evil.
So then, for me, the question became: how can I reclaim these platforms and make them spaces I want to use? Below I’ll share a few tips that I’ve found have improved my social media experience.
1) Find your niche communities
In an environment as filled with tired, generic content as most social media platforms, it’s a tremendous breath of fresh air to find a group of people to whom you relate effortlessly. I love logging on and finding a feed filled with things I find funny, insightful or thought-provoking, particularly because it’s such a contrast to the morass of mediocrity that I was navigating before.
It’s worth doing a bit of digging around to see if you can find pages that cater to your specific interests, because oftentimes they’ll offer up a steady stream of gems to keep you entertained. Some special favourites I’ve found so far include:
- Catspotting on Facebook, which unites hundreds of thousands of cat lovers sharing their sightings from around the globe
- Cool Freaks’ Wikipedia Club (also on Facebook), where people post interesting or otherwise freaky Wikipedia articles for the enjoyment and education of others
- @ebaybae on Instagram, which offers an incredible selection of the most ridiculous items on eBay
- @magicalrealismbot on Twitter. Hilarious, but also weirdly refreshing on a creative level?
2) Customise your platform
I recently learned that Facebook has an option deep within its settings called ‘news feed preferences’. If you click it, it will guide you through how to customise your newsfeed to prioritise the content you want to see, as well as unfollowing people whose updates you don’t want to see. It’s definitely worth unliking all those cringey pages you liked in early high school; having the world know that I support ‘Chicken in a Biskit are THE BEST’ is no longer integral to my sense of self.
While we’re on the subject of unfollowing, let’s talk about what a magical tool it is. I used to feel paranoid about unfriending people who posted five times a day with filtered pictures of their meals, thinking that somehow they’d know what I’d done. Unfollowing gives me added peace of mind, but it also means I don’t lose access to their profiles. This furnishes me with cherished opportunities to lurk people who bullied me in primary school while I’m drunk at 3am.
3) Opt out of social media politics
Having just discussed the advantages of a subtle unfollow, it was very liberating for me to realise that much of my feelings about how I am meant to use social media are really just constructs with nebulous roots in reality. I pruned my friends list recently and was astonished at the people I’d retained, despite their total irrelevance to my life. Farewell to the Dutch guy I spoke five words to once at a summer camp when I was 13; I wish him well, but it took a few minutes to even remember who he even was.
Making a conscious decision to opt out of social media politics and convention can also make it easier to enjoy the ways you use it. I set my Instagram to private a while ago and, because I have a tiny and selective group of followers, I can post whatever I feel like without fear of embarrassing myself on a wider social stage. Anything to spare me a repeat of that time my dad rang me out of nowhere to tell me I should delete my Twitter account because ‘no employer would want you if they saw that’.
4) The last resort
If none of these things are working for you, there is no shame or stigma that can be reasonably linked to deleting or deactivating your accounts. If you can work out alternative means of communicating with the people you care about, you’re already achieving the core purpose of any social network. And this way, having discarded the relentless excess of irrelevant content, you’re performing a high-quality act of self-care.