For about 2 years now, I have pulled back from the major social media platforms. While I still have accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve made the choice to avoid them as much as possible. Initially, I was afraid this would disconnect me from important relationships. I do miss seeing family photos and hearing what old friends are up to. However, I’ve realized social media sites care more about keeping me occupied than staying connected with those I care about.
The Attention Trap
When I realized how much time they were taking from my life, I decided to log out of all my social media accounts. There is always more content to find on the internet. So after I had seen all my friend’s posts, social media sites would add new recommendations to the feed. Twitter (even pre-Musk) had gotten particularly bad in this respect, with many posts showing up as “Your friend liked this post” or “Popular post from account someone else follows.” Similarly, I ended up stopping all Facebook notifications because they kept coming up with new categories like “Posts your friend commented on” in a desperate attempt to get me to engage. Even worse, it seemed like the algorithms would hide posts from those I followed, thinning out the content even more.
Instagram was also changing to be more of a trap. Stories had become the primary way people posted. The ephemeral content format nicely removes the social barriers that prevent people from posting less-than-perfect photos. But stories are so short-lived that require you to open the app at least daily to see what your friends are doing.
I realized that I was opening these apps to fill my time. Any empty moment, or even a busy moment when I was stressed, I would reflexively open these apps. Even putting time limits on the app didn’t break those habits. Realizing how often I hit those time limits made me rethink my approach.
So I removed all my social media apps from my phone and logged out from my browsers. At first, it was strange, but then it felt freeing. I no longer was stressing about the latest news. I was more alert in social settings. I began to see how much those feeds were more of a trap than a service.
Where I’m at today
So far I haven’t felt much temptation to add the old social sites back on my phone. I tried some workarounds to accessing Instagram and unfollowing most accounts, but then Meta locked my account so now I only check it when I get an email notification, which is infrequent. Much of the online content I consume now comes from an RSS reader which uses a long-time web protocol to gather new posts from around the web. Since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, a lot of people in the software developer community have moved to Mastodon which is more RSS-friendly, or have been more active on their own blogs. The developer community was a significant part of my initial motivation to join Twitter, so this has made my transition easier. It’s refreshing reading people’s posts from blogs or from Mastodon without all the suggested content. The RSS reader I’m currently using has a generous free plan but I’m considering upgrading to a paid plan.
I do wish I had a way to keep up with more family and friends. I rely on private group message threads and phone calls for most updates about immediate family members. But I also think having a smaller group of people I interact with more intentionally is probably a positive change if I follow through on texting, calling, or visiting people. I still have relationships with the people I care about most. It takes more work but I can learn how people are doing in addition to what they are doing.
I’ve also noticed a few other ways in which I’m still using my phone to kill time. I’ve added time limits on apps like YouTube and the news app to limit how much I check my phone during the day. I turned off Google’s “Discover” feature which suggests articles and news. Even my RSS reader app can sometimes be a time suck if I’m not careful. I feel better about having more control over what I’m consuming and there’s no longer an endless feed of posts. But I want to avoid reflexively checking my phone.
The few times a month I’ll open up a site like LinkedIn or Facebook remind me how these platforms are not aligned with my goals. An endless timeline designed to steal my attention while offering “personalized” content that is anything except personal. For many people, they may find these services useful, but right now they are not where I want to be.
How I share
As a professional web developer, I’ve enjoyed exploring alternatives to sharing on social media. My website is now a hub for all sorts of content. I’ve implemented an RSS feed and use some external services to share my content via email and on the fediverse/Mastodon so anyone can subscribe. It’s a bit disconnected from how most people get their content, but it’s available for anyone who is interested. Practically, I don’t think dropping social media is a viable option for anyone who needs to engage with followers, but I primarily post for myself with little expectation others are reading.
I’ve also been getting more involved in IndieWeb technologies. They include a broad range of protocols, tools, and conventions for social sharing on the web. The solutions aren’t perfect and many rely on the generous work of others, but they allow me to interact in similar ways to social media; commenting, liking, and replying to posts; while also maintaining tighter control of the experience. As my opinion about posting online changes in the future, I can make adjustments to my site to fit what I want the experience to be.
Despite the promises, I don’t think social media sites line up well with my interests or how I want to spend my time. The advertising-based model leads to some convoluted incentives that make a poor experience. With other issues like privacy and data-portability, I don’t see the primary social media sites providing the value I want. I hope that someday there will be a correction of the status quo, leading to more user-friendly social media ecosystems. Mastodon and the broader fediverse is certainly one to watch moving forward. I would love it if my site was accessible from an app like Threads in addition to Mastodon. But I’m not holding my breath.
I don’t have any expectations that other people will follow me in this choice, nor do I fault them. These sites are embedded in our culture’s social fabric and they will continue to be for some time. Still, I encourage people to make the choice that is best for them. It turns out social media isn’t as central to life as it might seem.