On Being Better On Social Media

I am the person I am today, in no small part, because of social media. When I was a newly-out gay man and needed the queer community, I found them on social media. That alone probably saved my life. Ever since those first days of finding my queer community online, I’ve made innumerable friends, connection, and community on social media. I also truly adore my Satanic family on twitter. I start with all this, because I’m going to spend the rest of this post articulating the dark side of social media, how it has reduced my quality of life, and what I intend to do about it.

I’m realizing that, for all the good social media has done me, it has exacted an equal or greater level of harm. I’m starting to suspect that it is making all of us – yes, all of us, including you and me – stupid, addicted, crazy, angry, ugly, and shallow. It does this in a creep, incrementally — so slowly and collectively that we don’t even notice.

I recently read a book called Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. There are only a few books for which I can say there is a Before and After, and Ten Arguments is one of those few books. The book has convinced me that social media, as it currently stands, is an existential threat to humanity. It opened my eyes to things with which I’d become unacceptably comfortable: the way social media (as it currently stands) destroys empathy, banishes context, and chips away at autonomy; the way it cultivates sadness, encourages gross behavior, and lifts up abuse. I’m not fundamentally opposed to social media or big data (see my conversation with Penemue about big data), and I think the concept of social media is a powerful one, and that it can be executed in a way that isn’t destructive, but I don’t think we are there yet.

All of this has been on my mind lately, because things have been particularly ugly in my neck of the digital woods. A friend of mine lashed out at me on social media this morning, displaying alarming racist behavior towards a black womanist scholar I had retweeted. My beloved TST community is embroiled in accusations of crypto-fascism (an article about that is forthcoming.) I’ve also watched from a distance as social media disfunction has ravaged the online Liturgists community. All of it makes me feel too much despair. I’ve also been reflecting on how frequently my day or week is ruined by some stupid social media dispute. The disagreement infects my brain and pushes everything else out. I’ve started to think of social media as the virus in the novel Snow Crash, which crashes not just the hacker’s computer, but also their brain.

I’m at the point of having profound ethical dilemmas about even being on these platforms, because I feel like I’m enabling breakdown simply by existing on them. I’m making these toxic spaces more valuable to others simply by using them, because of the network effect I discussed with Rob Larson in my recent episode Bit Tyrants. At the same time, though, I feel like I can’t leave, because I’m dependent on social media as a content creator. I would lose the vast majority of my income and community as a creator. And yes, I hate that. It makes me feel trapped, and a bit helpless. If I weren’t a creator, I doubt I would be on social media at all.

In light of all this, I am committing myself to a set of standards for social media. I’m putting these standards in place so that I can try to stay sane as I navigate the hellscape that is social media. If you find these standards helpful, I welcome you to adopt them.

I will limit my access to social media.

First things first, I commit to curtailing my social media addiction by only accessing it on my laptop, instead of my phone. I also track my minutes on social media, so I can see how much time is spent on social media week to week. My phone ought to be reserved for essential tools and entertainment that requires focus like books, audiobooks, podcasts, music, etc. I cringe when I look at the hours spent on social media on my phone – hours that could be spent reading, listening to an audiobook or podcast, or simply being in the physical presence of another human being. If you haven’t already, I suggest you look at your screen time stats and bask in the hellish discomfort of realizing you’ve lost untold hours to useless scrolling.

I can’t afford to waste my time scrolling. As a nontheist and a Satanist, I believe I have only this one life to enjoy the universe fully and to leave behind a legacy of compassion. If I wish to uphold the Tenets of the Satanic Temple, especially the first and second tenet, I feel personally obligation to limit my time on social media.

I will commit to understanding that you are not the sum of a single tweet, and I request that you show me the same courtesy.

Bad takes are inevitable on social media, and people who I once thought were gargantuan assholes on twitter often turn out to be decent people with complicated lives. People who’ve lashed out on facebook have turned out to be struggling human beings addicted to platforms that make them ill.

The really sinister part about social media is that, by eliminating context for human interaction, we start to assume there is no context at all. We see the badly worded tweet and forget that sometimes people are tired, hungry, frightened, addicted, confused, or simply misunderstood.

So, I make this commitment: I won’t assume that your tweets are the sum of who you are. I ask that you show me the same kindness, because I’ve posted some exceptional cringe over the years which I regret and don’t feel represents who I really am. Sometimes I’m confused, frightened, and angry, and I’ve made the mistake of posting some half-baked idea that should have been discussed privately with friends, not on social media.

If you don’t show me this courtesy, I will live my life and set boundaries regardless.

If you are unable or unwilling to show me the courtesy of seeing me as a three-dimensional human, then I will do whatever I need to remain healthy. That might require setting some hard boundaries with you, like muting or ignoring you. Or, in other contexts, it might mean engaging with you more fully to understand where I might be wrong. I am committing myself to break out of the social status caste system and live my life as fully as a I can even if I fear I’ve lost social status on social media.

None of this means I can’t be wrong or that I’m immune to criticism — of course not. It means that if I feel like you are reducing me, bullying me, or threatening me, I will set boundaries with you. If you are caricaturing me as something less than human, I will not engage with you.

I will assume that it isn’t personal.

When context is ripped away from discourse, I assume that anything less than affirmative is somehow a personal assault. It’s an ugly part of myself that I’m not pleased with. Social media brings out my fragile masculinity that sees any disagreement as some sort of personal attack. In person, I feel like I’m an adult. On social media, I feel more like an immature middle schooler who is chronically unsure of himself. Confrontational conversations in person are equitable, measured, and fruitful. But when they take place on social media, they devolve into a clusterfuck of insecurity.

So, I will commit to seeing every interaction on social media as not being personal. You think I’m misguided, boring, cringy, stupid, silly, or simply wrong about something? That’s ok. I will assume you aren’t attacking me as a person, and even if you are, I don’t need your affirmation to lead a good life.

I will do everything I can to channel people away from these platforms.

In addition to weakening empathy and communication, I think social media is destroying focus. Because of this, I will do everything I can to funnel people away from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and towards challenging, long-form work that strengthens clarity, communication, and focus. Podcasts, articles, books, email correspondence, Patreon, and private communities all have their drawbacks, but they require a level of depth and effort that is not present on social media. I will therefore use social media as a platform to guide you to denser, harder, more focused mediums.

This is also true if we have a dispute on social media. If you disagree with something I say, or object to something I’ve done, I will request that you engage with me via email, a public exchange via blogpost, or some other long-form medium. If you aren’t willing to take the time to do that, then I will assume your issue with me is not important enough to be addressed. This sounds a bit cruel, but it’s ultimately to protect both of us from the ravaging effect of social media on productive conversation. I want to take our dispute off of social media because I need to protect my mental health, and I worry I might not be able to hear you compassionately and fully on social media.

I also beg of you to engage with independent creators on their own platforms like personal websites, Patreon, newsletters, or discord communities. That strengthens the eco-systems of online creators and makes them less dependent on particular social media companies.

I will never be on social media when I am in the presence of my partner or friends.

Finally, I will be careful to value in-person relationships over social media, especially my partner.

My partner once said to me, “when you are gaming, or reading, or writing, I still feel like you are in the room with me. But when you are on social media, you completely vanish.” That made me sad. My social media use was making my partner feel lonely in our relationship.

When I’m with my partner, I want to be with him, not with some stupid twitter dispute. I therefore make the commitment to never be on social media when I’m in the presence of my partner. I make the same commitment to my friends. If you are in front of me, I want to give you my full attention.

How has social media effected your own life? What boundaries and tools are you using to be a better digital person? Please send me an email and let me know.

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