Why I'm quitting social media
The phrase ‘quitting social media’ yields 81.5 million Google search results – a statistic that underlines our perpetual dissatisfaction with the genre. Digital detox announcements have become cliché, especially when most users log back in a week later, desperately craving those sweet, intermittent dopamine hits. Nevertheless, there is an itch that needs to be scratched regarding social media. There is an instinct that needs to be explored. After much deliberation, I’m joining that dubious club of social media quitters. I have had enough, and here are the reasons why.
My complicated relationship with social media
Firstly, a brief overview of my complicated relationship with social media. I first made a Twitter profile in 2012, aged 17, to promote my nascent writing. A LinkedIn account came soon thereafter, but I did not join Facebook and Instagram until 2016. Snapchat soon entered the rotation, as did WhatsApp. A slow adopter, I fell hard for social media once the floodgates opened, and for a while, the benefits outweighed the costs.
Social media helped me find work as a freelance journalist. Social media helped me transition into a corporate career. Social media helped me follow baseball despite living an ocean away from its sequestered grapevine. Indeed, for a short period, social media was a positive force in my life, but the honeymoon phase did not last long. My enjoyment of social media waned when its objectives became muddled.
In 2018, I suffered a mental breakdown as battles with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and stress-related cyclic vomiting syndrome culminated in suicidal ideation. Social media played a key role in that murky nadir by amplifying incessant reminders of my perceived inadequacy. Snapchat proved particularly potent in this regard, to a point where deleting the app became an active step in my defence against suicide.
Subsequently, digital minimalism became a key part of the refreshed ethos that drove me out of psychological squalor. I unfollowed a bunch of people, moderating the vibes to which I was exposed. I adjusted settings and tweaked filters, reducing the visibility of triggering content. I even removed all social media apps from my phone in August 2020, occasionally logging in on a laptop to check messages.
Those tactics worked incrementally, limiting my time spent on social media and improving my mood, but after sampling success with each subtle change, I yearned for something more. Something hardcore. I wanted to dig deeper into digital minimalism. I wanted to reduce my social media footprint. I wanted to delete my accounts.
Accordingly, in the past three years, I have deleted six social media profiles and mothballed a further two accounts. After deleting Snapchat, I deleted Instagram, and the sense of relief – of newfound clarity and authenticity – was cathartic. I subsequently deleted WhatsApp in 2022, to widespread consternation, before devising a complete social media exit strategy in 2023.
In recent months, I have executed that strategy, placing the social media branch of Planet Prentonia on indefinite hiatus while further pruning my digital presence. I deleted LinkedIn and divested of all remaining Facebook pages and accounts, gaining a new lease of life with each deactivation. Now, my last active social media platform – the @RyanFerguonHQ Twitter account – is also being closed with immediate effect, completing my 11-year rollercoaster ride through the digital Thunderdome. And to be honest, it feels great.
I’m quitting social media for better mental health
At the root of my social media dissatisfaction is its tendency to negatively impact the mental health of users. Social media exacerbated my psychological struggles by amplifying anger, polarising politics, encouraging extremism, multiplying misinformation and accentuating abuse. The steep devolution of social media from innocent cat videos and nostalgic reacquaintances to hate speech and propaganda has taken its toll on me. I’m tired of the bitterness and cruelty displayed on these platforms, so I’m quitting social media to safeguard my mental health.
You see, social media relies on negativity and outrage for sustenance. A March 2023 study published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal found as much – each negative word in a headline boosting click-through rates by 2.3%. In a world dictated by clicks, negativity is thus an effective marketing tool – in a society saturated by marketing. We are conditioned to seek doom and gloom, and social media turbocharges that premise beyond comprehension.
Founded in the utopian spirit of connecting people across shrinking borders, social media more readily divides people across red lines of cultural antagonism. From cancel culture and sanctimonious pile-ons to doxing and pervasive digital schadenfreude, people seem stuck on turbines of slurry and scandal. Generally, people are unhappy online – whether mired in the latest political meltdown or engaged in vitriolic arguments. Being content, considerate and compassionate seem incompatible with being online, and so I’m severing those ties. I’m choosing to be happy.
Sure, an argument can be made that social media platforms are mere mirrors of society, that they simply turn private inputs into public outputs. However, the thorough ubiquity of social media – the way it is engineered to grab and horde our attention – has changed the way we think, to a point where those private inputs are no longer private. Rather, they are shaped by algorithms, influenced by groupthink and honed by feedback – delivered via the scorecard of likes, followers, views and retweets. We think in a social media context, and real life has become a means to populating our timelines.
Admittedly, social media has done some amazing things. Reunited families. Allowed hobbies to become careers. Afforded me the opportunity to discuss Yankees games in real-time with friends located 3,000 miles away. At times, social media has even helped raise awareness of mental ill health by signposting support services and challenging stigma. But is the trade-off worth it? Are those occasional positives outweighed by perpetual negatives? I believe they are – hence my decision to quit social media.
I’m quitting social media because it sucks for introverts
As an introvert, it is the social part of social media I loathe, in all honesty. I do not dislike people, per se, but I have no desire to participate in the great brag race, nor do I care for the technological dick-measuring contests that occupy vast portions of the modern day. To wit, social media requires a certain blend of narcissism to work. We post our thoughts because we think people absolutely need to hear them. It is that narcissism – that self-aggrandising obliviousness – that really grinds my gears. I’m just not built to share in the mass delusion. I cannot keep up the wilfully ignorant charade.
Nowadays, our very association of self-worth has been diluted to a quantification of skewed vanity metrics. More than ever before, we are forced to compare ourselves to other people and grade ourselves in a merciless taxonomy of lies and pretence. Image is king, and everything else is supplementary. We struggle to distinguish between real life and virtual reality – the lines of each blurred by the gamification of human experience – but we carry on regardless, because…well…everybody else does.
LinkedIn is the logical endpoint of such vapid one-upmanship. For introverts, LinkedIn is hell with a URL. The utter garbage pumped into that cringeworthy beauty parade is astounding. The sales pitches. The spam. The generic messages sent by thirsty recruiters to every connection in their networks. I find it all absurd. Then you have the contrived job titles – people calling themselves ‘gurus’ and ‘wizards’ and ‘ninjas’ – and the verbose vocations – people ‘optimising solutions’ and ‘engineering innovation’ and ‘maximising sustainability.’ Why do we persist with this crap? Why do we read it, much less post it? We have to get real.
Some corporate types will find sacrilege in my deletion of LinkedIn, such is its compulsory allure. However, in the span of human history, billions of people have found jobs without LinkedIn. I will, too, if the need ever arises. However, I’m content in my current job, so why do I need LinkedIn? Those who are happily married do not keep their Tinder profiles, tweaking content to increase matches, so why do people in comfortable jobs obsess over LinkedIn? I struggle to find an answer.
In a decade on LinkedIn, I rarely posted, so the platform was little other than a sporadic messaging tool for me. The reach of that tool is inherently stunted, though. Everyone has an email address or phone number, but only 930 million people have a LinkedIn profile. Therefore, I bet on myself to find ways of contacting key decision-makers without LinkedIn. The odds are in my favour, after all. Yes, LinkedIn may enable quicker and easier communications, but a little friction can be a good thing. It can be useful to work a little harder to nurture important relationships, rather than relying on social media as a vague simulacrum of meaningful connectivity.
“To re-establish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation,” writes Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism, his epochal opus. “By working backwards from their deep values to their technological choices, digital minimalists transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived. By doing so, they break the spell that has made so many people feel like they’re losing control to their screens.”
For me, those foundational values are introversion, privacy and autonomy. Creative expression is also something I hold dear, but on my terms, in my domain, to my timescales. Such introversion is plagued by stereotype, of course, but contrary to myriad memes, not all introverts are tucked under a blanket at home reading books with the curtains drawn. Some are, and that is perfectly fine, but many introverts crave quality stimulation – deep conversations and explorations of topics that interest them, shorn of pretence and histrionics. Despite its headline promise, social media does not provide an environment in which that kind of synergy can flourish. Instead, social media offers a firehose of unwanted and undeveloped snark. As introverts, we should shun these platforms, just as these platforms shun us.
Indeed, please remember that we do not have to be on these platforms. We are not forced to set up a Facebook account while registering the birth of a child. We are not told to join Instagram in some bizarre modern equivalent of military service. We do not need to have Twitter as a communal prerequisite. These platforms are optional. They are created by private companies and offered as one of many entertainment options. You decide where to invest your time and energy – not them. Rekindle that sovereignty and be conscious with your choices.
I’m quitting social media because it exploits human psychology for capitalist gain
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, questioning the intentions of nineteenth century innovation. “But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
More than 150 years after his death, Thoreau’s probing of utility versus superfluity still looms large over the modern digital debate. Sadly, social media firms have spiralled far away from their founding purposes, to a point where they barely resemble the original services for which users signed up. Today, big tech behemoths are increasingly built to capitalise on our innate psychological weaknesses, which are so easy to manipulate and so difficult to correct. In fact, the entire system – if not the entire global economy – is preoccupied with monetising our attention, which recedes further into the abyss with each compulsive click.
“These corporations make more money the more time you spend engaged with their products,” writes Newport in Digital Minimalism. “They want you, therefore, to think of their offerings as a sort of fun ecosystem where you mess around and interesting things happen. This mindset of general use makes it easier for them to exploit your psychological vulnerabilities.”
Chief among their addicting tactics, social media giants rely on the intermittent dispensing of positive reinforcement to keep us wanting more. In 1971, psychologist Michael Zeiler performed a seminal experiment on this topic whereby pigeons pecked at a button which yielded food as a reward. The frequency of reward delivery was altered irregularly, and Zeiler found the more unpredictable the reward pattern, the more dopamine flooded the pigeon’s brains. The unpredictability of pleasure heightened its potency, and the chase thereof – rather than the attainment – sustained interest and participation.
In short, the same things that make casino slot machines addictive make social media feeds endlessly intriguing. Even Sean Parker, a former president of Facebook, explained how the company purposely exploits behavioural psychology to maximise time spent on the platform. According to Parker, Facebook wove intermittent dopamine rewards into the structure of user timelines, turning natural human interest into monetised compulsion. That became the Facebook business model, and its 2009 launch of the ‘like’ button codified those crafty intentions.
In many ways, since that fatal introduction, we have all morphed into Zeiler’s pigeons, pecking endlessly at our phones, hoping to receive a surge of dopamine released by the mighty algorithm. Even Leah Pearlman, a Facebook employee on the team that created the like button, later left the firm, opened her own small business, and hired somebody to handle her social media accounts. Dealing with the dopamine gradients alone made Pearlman unhappy.
Of course, it followed naturally that, in a world obsess with social media, likes became mineable assets, akin to gold or oil. After all, likes showed what a person was interested in – literally, what they liked – and data analysis helped project likely opinions, personalities and behavioural tendencies. From there, it was only a small leap to determining what made people buy certain things or vote for certain politicians. In turn, that knowledge held the potential to change the world – hence ‘psychographic microtargeting’ firms like Cambridge Analytica opening a dystopian frontier in data-driven marketing.
Cambridge Analytica was eventually shut down, but it still lurks as the symbolic basilisk of a rotten system. When you cut off the head of such a beast, several more appear, and that is certainly the case with big tech. The subsequent rise of TikTok, despite well-documented privacy and political concerns, epitomises our helpless addiction. Thankfully, I never jumped aboard the TikTok bandwagon, but its meteoric surge to domination is unavoidable. TikTok houses the most powerful algorithm consumer capitalism has ever devised, and its effects could be catastrophic. TikTok has trained the zeitgeist to want everything distilled into three quick tips delivered by a beautiful airbrushed model. That trend is unsustainable, and it threatens to eat us alive.
I’m quitting Twitter because it is a mess
For a long time, Twitter was my favourite social media platform. As a writer, it was once ideal for effortlessly sharing pithy thoughts on-the-go – its frictionless app removing barriers to the publishing of whimsical flotsam. In the early days of Twitter, the reverse-chronological feed served unmanipulated content from your respective network. If you followed somebody, you saw their tweets, and that was particularly useful as I gained a small following of readers. There was a pleasing equanimity to old school Twitter, but those days are long gone. So, too, is my participation.
For me, the death knell came when Elon Musk announced that only those with Twitter Blue – an $8 per month subscription – would have their posts show in a newfangled For You page, the default timeline. Almost overnight, the discoverability and reach of non-subscribers was severely hampered – a huge blow to organic exposure and the democratisation of creativity. A self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist,’ Musk literally built a plutocratic walled garden within Twitter. If anything, he is a paid speech absolutist, and I want no part of that movement.
I’m a small-time, not-for-profit writer. I will always side with the little guy. Quite frankly, the current version of Twitter is useless for people like me. If I tweet a link to my latest writing, it now has a miniscule chance of reaching new readers. This pay-to-play quid pro quo is compounded by the Twitter algorithm, recently published to GitHub, which downranks external URLs and favours multimedia over simple text. The Twitter algorithm also downranks ‘out of network’ content – pigeonholing creators and forcing them to niche down, anathema to my disparate interests. Never before in the history of Twitter have singular tweets been so hidden or suppressed. Therefore, my time and energy are better used elsewhere.
My distaste for Twitter was exacerbated by once-free features disappearing behind a paywall. Two-factor authentication is now a paid feature. Prioritised ranking in conversations is now a paid feature. Even the blue checkmark is now a paid feature, contrary to its original purpose. In essence, Twitter believes those who pay deserve more reach, visibility, engagement, security and interaction than those who do not. I cannot abide such crass inequality, so I’m doing something about it.
Ultimately, any social media platform can throttle or magnify whatever it wants. They do this every second of every day, distilling raw ingredients into a proprietary bowl of algorithmic soup. They control what you see. They alter your tastes and preferences, often subliminally. They dominate your mind. Quitting social media is therefore an act of redemption. It is a rebellion against corporate complacency. It is a redistribution of power from our monolithic digital overlords, and it is long overdue for society writ large.
Social media is dead, and building your own platform is the pivot
Ultimately, the age of mass social media is over, soon to be replaced by micro-communities that increasingly leverage artificial intelligence (AI) for curation, moderation and maintenance. Indeed, centralisation has failed more broadly – in various spheres – and we must acknowledge its momentous collapse before we can rebuild something different in its wake.
Web 2.0 was defined by centralisation – by the illusive dream of building big, ubiquitous pipelines of content that offered minimal faucets for maximum sustenance. Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and RSS are relics of Web 2.0, and their failure to adapt could prove fatal. Their bygone success inspired many imitators, and the volume of consumer options stratified the attention superhighway. Twitter killed RSS. Facebook was usurped by Instagram, which was eaten by TikTok. Now, there are so many available channels, consumers cannot keep up. And gradually, they are giving up, tired of the Silicon Valley blueprint that takes our interest for granted.
Just look at the maelstrom of wannabe Twitter alternatives that have collectively failed to capture a zeitgeist that yearns for a new place to hang out. Mastodon, Truth Social, Substack Notes, Bluesky, Hive, Post – none have worked. None have gained even a fraction of Twitter’s peak ubiquity. No platform ever will, though, because the point of social media saturation has been breached. There are too many apps and not enough time. People are done signing up for underwhelming clones of the same failed dream.
Where once I spread myself thin, maintaining dozens of social media accounts, I now pick and choose the platforms that work for me. Indeed, the time has come to build on platforms I own rather than leasing space from capricious landlords who could pull the rug from under me with the merest tweak of a formula.
If social media platforms want to choke organic reach and filter authentic content, we should create safe spaces – preferably ones we own – where all inputs are heard. If social media platforms want to dumb down inputs and create a chaotic hellscape of viral noise, we should craft places where people can reliably find our work. If social media is dead, proprietary platforms – blogs, website, mailing lists and meetups – are the pivot.
“There are only two ways to make money in business: bundling and unbundling,” Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape, once said. Well, we are headed for the great unbundling of social media, with centralised bulwarks replaced by decentralised communities. The rented storefronts offered by cunning billionaires will be revealed as hollow marketing ploys, and the owned ecosystems built by independent contemporaries will enable transparent relationships of greater substance. Together, we can create certainty in the uncertain abyss of big tech. That is the vision of Web 3.0.
I’m quitting social media as a writer
Regardless of the expansive rationale, it can still feel daunting to leave social media as a writer. Traditional publishers often ask about the size of your following during negotiations, and after years of instinctively dropping blog links on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, simply posting something to your website and walking away seems odd. That is what I do, however. That is what I have done for quite a while, in fact. Quitting social media as a writer is not only possible; it is potentially liberating, freeing you to focus on actually writing rather than becoming embroiled in the latest reactionary omnishambles.
I also grew tired of receiving basic critiques to comprehensive work via social media. With all due respect, if I spend weeks researching and writing a 5,000-word essay, only to receive a five-word takedown on Twitter, what good does that do anyone? Everyone deserves the right to reply and for their opinions to be heard, but why should I subject nuanced writing – agreeable or otherwise – to elementary evisceration? If readers are unwilling or unable to match my level of effort, detail, patience and perseverance in crafting coherent rebuttals, why should I care what they think?
I can engage with thoughtful, well-structured and cogent replies. I can participate in civil debate and progressive discussion that enriches everyone involved. I cannot work with ‘absolute garbage’ as a thoughtless Twitter reply. Sadly, though, that is the predominant flavour of response nowadays. Knowing such replies are inevitable, the only way to avoid them is to stop posting links to social media. Stop encouraging shallow replies to deep work. Stop giving oxygen to the trolls.
In the abstract, that seems appealing, but some writers still cling to social media as a key source of traffic – a painfully outdated notion that must be quashed. Theoretically, my website traffic should have suffered due to diminished social media usage. Practically, however, social media referrals have accounted for a vanishingly small percentage of my engagement in recent years – a symptom of shrinking organic reach and a reflection of my digital malaise. Sure, future articles I publish may not gain mass exposure without a social silhouette, but that is my point: nothing will gain mass exposure moving forward. The days of millions posting about #TheDress on Facebook are over. A consequence of proliferation is the loss of shared cultural inflection points. We are all looking in different places, and we must embrace that by creating our own solid outposts in the storm.
I have minimal desire to build a following. I do not want to bombard a retained audience with spammy sales pitches – lord knows we get enough of them already. I write and publish my work as a matter of creative expression, to scratch the artistic itch. If people happen to read or like what I produce, that is a happy coincidence. It is not a preconceived aim. Accordingly, I say no to narcissistic brand-building and yes to people finding my work because we share similar interests. If people are actively looking for analysis on the Red Sox’ demise, for instance, they will probably find my recent feature. And if they are not? Well, that is no concern of mine. I’m not in the business of convincing people to consume my writing. Coercion does not pay my bills.
In this regard, I encourage writers to accept the ephemeral nature of the modern internet. Of life, really. Shortform video is the predominant medium of our age. There is a reason TikTok soared with a 15-second cap on uploads. On the internet, people be movin’ on – and nobody can change that. The ship has sailed. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Embrace the change. Be thankful for those who do show up to your space, rather than fretting over the mythical ‘potential readers’ who do not.
I’m quitting social media to focus on my free email newsletter and mailing list
Moving forward, after quitting social media with immediate effect, I will focus on publishing work exclusively to ryanferguson.co.uk. Those who enjoy my writing can bookmark the blog in a throwback to the early-2000s. Alternatively, please consider joining my free email newsletter. Subscribers receive all my links straight to their inbox without all the bullshit and drama of social media, so that is a great way of staying in the loop.
It may seem outmoded to rely on blogs, emails and RSS feeds to facilitate my writing, but it works for me, and that is the most important thing. This is supposed to be fun, not teeth-grindingly stressful. I’m an introverted writer with a full-time job. Writing is my amateur passion. Simply seeing finished pieces online in any accessible format is an innocent thrill I will never overlook. Besides, I can create ongoing, knowledgeable and polite conversations with mailing list members who actually want to be there, rather than wasting time on social media, where opportunistic goblins cast a wide and poisonous net.
Some people may still enjoy social media. If that is you, great. Continue on your way. Far be it for me to dictate your preferences. However, for many people, the prospect of cutting it all out and closing it all down looms like a tantalising elixir. Quitting social media is a latent desire for millions, and the fact so few act on the impulse is a sad requiem to our baked-in acquiescence. There is a way out, though. There is a way to take back control. You just need to be brave enough to put yourself first and live in your own context. Act in alignment with your soul, not in accordance with orthodoxy, and the answers will present themselves.
The feeling in my body as I closed down my remaining social media accounts told me it was the right thing to do. Fear. Tension. Jittery nerves. If I felt that way putting anything out there – let alone vulnerable figments of my unvarnished soul – I was right to stop doing so. Quitting social media is the latest step in my growth, filed in the same category as exploring fluid sports fandom. This is me. This is truly me. I’m living my own truth, and that is the most rewarding experience of all.
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