More to See Than Can Ever Be Seen

Breaking away from toxic social media by actively choosing to make better use of your time

Stay home this holiday season, or you could find yourself on a flight like this.

Yesterday I woke up with “Circle of Life” from The Lion King going through my head. In particular, the part of the first verse, that goes: “There’s more to see that can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”

What stood out to me was the irony of it: it’s ostensibly a celebration of the infinite potential of adventure and discovery, but I’ve never heard it as such, because I’ve heard it so many hundreds of times that it’s become background music. Usually, background music during a trip to a Disney park I’ve already seen dozens if not hundreds of times.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a knock on the Disney parks, and I sure as hell am not pledging to visit them less often, post-pandemic. They’re not actually about adventure and discovery; they’re about comfort, safety, and familiarity disguised as adventure and discovery. For a lot of us, that’s exactly what we want from a relaxing vacation.

But it did get me thinking about all the places in the world I’d still like to visit, but I’ve chosen instead to spent my money and vacation time on another trip to Disney. It’d be missing the point to say that I’m choosing a substitute for the “real thing,” since I usually don’t want the “real thing.” Still, just because I’d rather be at Epcot than just about anywhere else in the world, that doesn’t mean I don’t also want to go to Germany.

So why don’t I do both? Money’s an issue, of course. But the bigger limitation is time. Which in turn got me thinking: it’s easy for me to point to where all my vacation time goes every year. But where does the rest of my time go? Why do I feel like I never have enough time to accomplish any of the 10,000 things I want to do?

The obvious answer — apart from following random trains of thought about Elton John songs while in the shower, or writing rambling blog posts — is social media.

Choosing to be Miserable

Even after deactivating Facebook and quietly backing my way out of Instagram, I still spend too much time online paying attention to unproductive, non-constructive nonsense. Making Twitter “read-only” helped only somewhat. It’s reminded me that I’m just overhearing a conversation instead of actively taking part in it, but I still find myself opening it to “check in” and then suddenly it’s 30 minutes later, and I feel worse, not better.

Good timing, then, that over the past couple of weeks, both Instagram and Twitter decided to finally abandon any pretense of staying true to their original purposes. Instagram was sold to us as a platform for sharing photos with a community of friends and followers, a concept that Facebook has steadily been chipping away at ever since it took over. Now they’ve taken what used to be the two main goals of the app and sequestered them to a neglected corner. Replacing them are their shameless attempt to siphon TikTok’s popularity, and a dedicated shopping button. Even for Silicon Valley, that’s a little too on the nose. Meanwhile, Twitter decided to shamelessly copy Instagram’s four-year-old attempt to shamelessly copy Snapchat. Picture an ouroboros with billions of dollars and a hoodie.

Of course, it does no good to just keep shaking our tiny fists at Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and the hundreds of others who made a fortune off of subverting democracy and making people sad, angry, and fearful. They promised a revolution, and that’s what they delivered. Right down to the part at the end of revolutions that everyone chooses to forget about, when the old despots and gatekeepers have been taken down and simply replaced with new ones. This time, they managed to undermine and bankrupt much of the traditional media, by (among other things) convincing people that being diligent and accurate wasn’t as valuable as being immediate.

But change isn’t going to come from a bunch of multi-millionaires and billionaires suddenly developing a conscience. We have to be more conscious about what we’re doing, and diligent about how we’re choosing to enable it or disengage from it.

Choosing to Disengage

That seems simple, but it’s easier said than done for those of us who’ve gotten skillful at absolving ourselves of personal responsibility. We can fall into mob mentality (I have to keep using these things because everybody else is), blame it on corporate overlords (They invest so much money in making these platforms so addictive!), or put it off onto other forces outside our control (I have to have an account to see what’s going on in my career or I need it to keep on top of what’s going on in politics!). At least for me, the harder task is to honestly assess why I keep choosing to get invested in these platforms, what I’m hoping to get out of it, and what I really get out of it.

That (finally) takes it back to the Disney analogy at the beginning. That helped me put it into better perspective, since I can see that my main complaints about Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, are the same types of criticisms that the “I don’t see why adults would choose to go to Disney parks” crowd tends to direct at Disney: in particular, that it’s all fake.

Facebook fakes social interaction with friends and family, but even in the rare times when it’s done sincerely, it’s no substitute for genuinely meaningful interaction. Instagram is much the same, with the additional artificiality of having to compose the kind of photo that’s going to attract attention. And Twitter fakes immediacy and novelty, when in fact it’s neither — getting information immediately is worthless if it’s unverifiable and untrustworthy, and the novelty grows hollow quickly once you recognize how much of it is just people repeating the same jokes and the same ideas with only minor variations.

My excuse for getting back into Twitter this year was that I “needed” current info about the election and about the rampant government corruption. But honestly, it’s just been putting a “like” on things I already agree with, shallow and extremist takes on information that’d appear in The New York Times just an hour or so later, and the online equivalent of a If You’re Not Angry, You’re Not Paying Attention bumper sticker.

Replacing it With Something Better

Being able to say exactly what I’m expecting out of these things, and exactly why they inevitably end up feeling hollow, is what helps find better alternatives.

The first step, for me at least, is to acknowledge that big, sweeping, changes in behavior don’t work. Every time I’ve tried for self-improvement — changes in diet, breaking bad habits, quitting smoking — an all-at-once change has failed. Instead, it’s required first for me to make a shift in perspective, and then follow it up with more gradual changes.

That means I need to re-think my free time and stop believing in the dichotomy that I’m either being productive, or I’m failing. I almost always have a personal project in the works, even in the planning stages, and I tend to think that all my free time needs to be devoted to that. Not only is that unproductive, it actually backfires: it means there’s so much anxiety associated with the projects that I start looking for escape from obligation to my personal projects, which are themselves supposed to be an escape from work. Whenever I’m looking for quick escapism or distraction, I go for the path of least resistance, which usually means checking in on social media.

Even if you are skeptical about the commonality or severity of “social media addiction,” using the same mental tricks to break addiction can be helpful here. I’ve already mentioned using Micro.blog as a “healthier” substitute for Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. It doesn’t have the broad community that the major platforms do — which is a good thing — but it can still be good for those moments when you think “I’ve got five minutes and I want to see a new, random thing.”

Another good substitute for scrolling-for-novelty is turning back the clock and getting back into RSS feeds. My favorite app back in the day was Reeder, which has such a nice visual and UX design that it makes scrolling through feeds and posts pleasurable. And right on time, it’s come out with a new version, which I like so much I’ll link to it again. I’d lost interest in RSS back when the centralized social media platforms started to dominate, so it’s been funny to see how much my tastes have changed since I last updated my subscription list, and of course how much they’re exactly the same.

But the main thing I’ve noticed since trying to do more scrolling through Reeder instead of Facebook or Twitter is that the content just feels smarter. One of the most obvious problems with Twitter in 2007 is still a problem in 2020, because it’s so fundamental: forcing smart people to force their thoughts into a simple format — whether its 140 or 280 characters, or a photo caption, or a post that’s fighting against filters and an algorithm and paid advertisements for attention — is going to turn smart people stupid. There’s so much that’s gross about the “open web” in 2020, like paywalls and pages littered with pop-up ads and videos, but it’s just so nice to be able to read something written confidently, without seeing it interrupted or immediately followed by dozens of people trying to tear it apart or deliberately and disingenuously missing the point.

I’m also reading more. It’s obvious but easy to forget that time spent reading stuff on social media is time that could be spent reading novels or non-fiction. In years past, I’ve struggled to meet even the most unambitious of goals in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, never feeling motivated to read and never feeling like I had enough time to devote to it. Shifting to think of my reading time as valuable instead of disposable — and conversely, shifting away from external judgments about what I consider to be “worth reading” — has meant I’ve read more in the last half of 2020 than in any of the past six years. And that’s even without listening to audiobooks on my commute.

There’s just too much great stuff to be seen, read, heard, played, and done, to be wasting so much time hearing 100 variations on the same joke, getting angry over a stupid person publicly saying something blatantly false, or hearing a well-meaning but impotent person assert that bigotry and fascism are bad and somebody should do something about it.

Your Mileage May Vary

A lot of this is specific to me, and it may not apply to everyone. I’ve tended to take an all-or-nothing “Bah! Twitter is awful! Facebook sucks!” viewpoint in the past, which ignores that there are undoubtedly people who have the proper detachment and get good use out of the platforms. And those people have always viewed my bitching about social media the same way I viewed people bitching about childless adults choosing to go to Disney parks, which is to say: irrelevant. I used to hate seeing people doing nothing but plugging their latest work on what was so clearly meant to be a platform for sincere personal expression, but now I think they’re the ones who had it figured out before I did. As much as I think TikTok is gross, and will never re-install it, there is an honesty to it that I’ve got to respect: people don’t seem to have any problem saying up-front that they want to go viral and make money.

So now I say: go for it. These platforms haven’t the least bit of concern or hesitation to profit from what you post to them, so none of us are under any obligation to do otherwise. Sell your work! Promote your career! Just don’t mistake bitching about something for actual activism, “spreading awareness” to take the place of actively contributing to a solution, or social graphs and likes and follower analytics to be a suitable replacement for real communities and friendships.

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