I’ve found myself conducting a boycott of social media. I wish it was a consequence of some high level condemnation of the noise that it brings into my life, or because of some crusade to reclaim my time and attentional bandwidth. But it isn’t. I had network problems on my laptop and was forced to uninstall the majority of programs on my machine, including Chrome. When I reinstalled the browser, I needed to sign back in to all the services I use most, including Facebook and Twitter. But I didn’t. I left them logged out, and because it’s a minor pain to sign back in—complex passwords and two factor authentication—I only log on once or twice a week.
B.J. Fogg’s BMAT model says that to perform a behaviour you need motivation, a trigger and the ability to do the thing. By leaving my social media accounts signed out, I’ve increased the moat around ability—using them is marginally harder to do. I still have the motive, and I still get triggered, but ability is inhibited. This has had an interesting effect.
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and they say that because only in the absence of a thing can we evaluate the impact of its presence. Our heart grows fonder because we’ve stumbled upon a gap left by the thing that isn’t there. The same process has occurred with social media; I’ve been forced to think about what value the social media services actually provide. Not to society, or culture, or some other abstract collective, but to me. Findings:
- Social media isn’t a great marketing tool. Mainly because I’m never active enough and because I haven’t tried to weaponise the various services.
- Social media is good at helping me find interesting things to read.
- Social media is good for a quick shot of dopamine.
- Social media is also good for a quick shot of anxiety and FOMO.
- Social media is mediocre at keeping me “informed”: I’ve eliminated news in my feeds.
- Social media is mediocre at maintaining existing relationships: email is better for that.
- Social media is fantastic for discovering people and sparking new relationships.
The latter is the finding that most astounded me. I had an inkling that social media induced anxiety in my mind, and that it was a valuable source for interesting content. But I didn’t realise that the primary thing I kept coming back to the various services for was the possibility of new relationships.
This is, perhaps, just a consequence of something I gleaned from reading Jonathan Goodman’s Viralnomics a year ago: social media—and other tech tools—allow us to meet people we never would have encountered otherwise and form deep, sincere, intimate, genuine relationships with them. Sure, social media can be used to game the metrics we live by and capture value; that seems to be the default use, understandably. But to me, this is a by-product, a useful utility. What matters more is the chance to meet like-minded and unlike-minded people whose presence challenges me, inspires me, and enriches my life.