What I got wrong about social media

I recently returned to social media after an eight-month hiatus, and I urge you to read the full explanation here. In addition to that rationale, though, I have several stray thoughts about the medium – and my return to it – that yearn to be expressed. Conclusively, I got a whole lot wrong about social media, and this piece explores those revelations.

1. Social media can be a useful – and enjoyable – tool

Firstly, after traversing the classic debate between technological instrumentalism and technological determinism, I landed somewhere in the middle. In my freshly formed opinion, social media platforms are not entirely neutral, because they are designed to horde and monetise human attention. However, we can also modify our usage – via tweaked settings and self-regulation – to make social media work for us, and that concept is often overlooked.

Indeed, to a large extent, the relative goodness or badness of social media depends on how we use it. Who we follow. How we curate our timelines. The words and accounts we block and mute. The information we actively seek. The insights we willingly share. Fusing instrumentalism and determinism together, then, we see how our use of social media alters its impact on our lives.

That is why I have created a baseball-exclusive profile on X. If used solely to follow baseball, my greatest passion, social media can be a force for good. For joy, even. Yes, there are still concerns beyond the simple content of social media – privacy, addictiveness, a warped sense of reality – but with adjusted settings and sufficient guardrails, these platforms can work. They can become innocuous nodes in our life. They can deliver efficiencies of time and effort. And they can make us happy – if we let them.

Perhaps rightly, we all think very deeply about the dark side of social media – conspiracy theories, political extremism, psychological abuse, harassment, bullying, harassment, comparison – but what if we can avoid all that? What if innocent inputs can create innocent outputs? What if we can keep the positive aspects of social media while dumping the downsides? That sounds utopian to some, but I think it can be done.

Ultimately, I believe the social media that became unbearably toxic was the social media of political extremists who wanted to be cancelled just to prove a point. The useful, fun social media of breaking sports news, hilarious cat videos and atmospheric latte art? That is still very much alive. We just need to find it in the morass, then protect it from contamination.

Conclusively, for all the handwringing about ‘censorship’ and ‘free speech,’ we easily forget social media was the greatest liberator of expression – sans gatekeepers – since the printing press. If you do not say stupid shit or seek to intentionally harm others using its gifts, social media can be a helpful, enjoyable repository of your thoughts, feelings and experiences. Many people forget that.

2. You cannot live today without using convenient things made by bad people

I have also come to recognise the resounding uselessness of virtue signalling in a contemporary world ruled by leviathan profit motives. Avoiding social media on moral grounds – because you disapprove of those who own and run the dominant platforms – is self-defeating. Here, there is an unacknowledged discrepancy between the macro virtue signal of eschewing social media and the micro convenience of using it. When all is said and done, social media remains the easiest outlet for creative expression, and ignoring that for supposedly virtuous purposes – because ‘Elon sucks’ – just makes life harder than it needs to be.

People who avoid or boycott products because of their owner, founder or senior management are overly idealistic and set for relentless frustration. Unfortunately, if you trace any consumer product back to its origins, you will likely find murky characters, dodgy dealings and problematic connections. Charities are plagued by corruption. Water companies are prone to complacency. Heck, we cannot even agree if solar panels and electric cars do more harm than good. But what are you going to do – sit in the basement and isolate yourself from the world? Why do that when we have so many brilliant tools at our disposal to make life better. 

Ultimately, you cannot live today without using convenient things made by bad people, so depriving yourself of those convenient things is a recipe for avoidable agitation and struggle. Try to imagine life without oil majors (Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP) and the fuel they provide; without tech giants (Microsoft, Apple, Google) and the systems they create; without supermarket behemoths (Walmart, Target, Tesco) and the food they simplify; without ecommerce goliaths (Amazon, Alibaba, eBay) and the options they promote; without transport titans (General Motors, Volkswagen, Ford) and the opportunities they enable. Yes, many of us would like to live in a world where such companies do not have a surfeit of power, but that is out-of-touch with reality. The toothpaste is not going back in that tube.

To a certain extent, then, choosing between branded flavours of things we have been trained to crave is immaterial. It is also a waste of energy. Shell or BP? Volkswagen or Ford? Walmart or Target? It does not really matter. These brands, and their amorphous products, have so penetrated society and reshaped how things are done that eschewing them – or their anchoring industries – is incompatible with comfortable survival. Capitalism is so entrenched that making anti-capitalist decisions unilaterally only hurts you, the consumer. Being stubborn over these things makes life tougher, and I’m at the stage where making life easier creates bliss. Anything that helps me do is worth consideration.

By the same token, picking which cunning billionaire we dislike least is also pretty pointless, because there is very little we can do, alone, to erode their power or influence their decisions. Specifically regarding tech, I have made peace with the fact that my micro actions will never impact the macro phenomena. I have realised that, ultimately, the backbone of modern existence is reliant upon a few Silicon Valley firms, and resisting that – on virtuously symbolic grounds – is futile. We do not need to turn everything into a sanctimonious totem. At a certain point, rooting for one set of pixels over another seems stupid. Take the path of least resistance.

The recent debacle surrounding content moderation on Substack is a pertinent example. Sure, it is admirable that prominent users voiced concerns about the allowance of extremist, Nazi content. It even feels correct that many of those prominent users left the platform when Substack deigned to remove such objectionable content. However, I’m pretty sure the campaigners and those creating Nazi content share mutual use of other services, as well, not just Substack. Broadband providers, for instance. Telephone companies. Insurance brokers. Will campaigners also boycott those services? Where will they draw the line? How long before we devolve into reductio ad absurdum?

Now, my agenda is not one of anti-woke rebellion, nor will I become a shill for corporate interests whose largesse wreaks havoc. I’m not drinking the Big Tech Kool-Aid, nor am I vilifying entrepreneurs who profit from developing great products. My main overarching point is that, sometimes, the convenience these products afford us is worth the trade-off – personally, professionally and psychologically. We are so far down the road, in the weeds, that we consider frictionless, instantaneous connection to be a birthright. Indeed, we often forget that, without Mark Zuckerberg and his controversial contemporaries, such concepts would remain science fiction. The irony of using Facebook to lambaste Facebook is lost on many people, and we would all benefit from seeing the bigger picture.

It is okay to use social media superficially. It is fine to enjoy social media at a surface level, for the ease and enjoyment it offers, without your actions being held aloft as a politicised trophy in our endless culture wars. Beneath dense layers of internalised, regurgitated philosophising, these are incredibly useful apps. Yes, Zuck probably sells our private data behind the scenes, but so do most companies with which we interact. Such expectations are etched into the rules of engagement nowadays, whether we like it or not.

Besides, there are a lot of myths surrounding supposed Big Tech privacy violations, and while I do not pretend they are imaginary, I do believe they are overblown. We can toggle settings and opt-out of tailored advertising, if that makes us feel safer online. Indeed, to a large extent, social media firms are vilified for giving people things that are bad for them, but which they impulsively want – like cigarettes, alcohol, or Cleveland Guardians season tickets. We rely on self-regulation to enjoy those vices in moderation, so a similar approach should be possible with social media.

In sum, we may call my new approach ‘pragmatic consumerism’ – a real world understanding that we are now reliant upon certain tools to live, and resisting them only creates quarrelsome friction for ideological reasons. Rather than shooting myself in the foot, like the prototypical obstinate ideologue, I’m taking a more laissez-faire view of social media and Big Tech. I’m using it to help me, rather than letting it drive me insane.

3. Exposing the ‘build on your own platform’ myth

This brings me to the whole ‘build on your own platform’ bromide perpetrated by influencer types high on the fumes of their own narcissism. While there are valid existential fears around platforms collapsing and taking years of hard work with them, we have to be realistic here. We have to acknowledge how the world really works.

Quite frankly, there is no such thing as owning your own platform online. Yes, you can buy a domain and build your own website. I have done that here. But I’m still beholden to a content management system and domain registrar, both of whom have their own terms of service. If I violate those terms, my website – the proprietary platform I ostensibly ‘own’ – will be deplatformed. Sure, you can run your own server, but that can be incredibly difficult, costly, worrying and stressful. Unless you are a super-rich IT whiz, doing so makes little sense.

Similarly, even if freedom-hungry content creators maintained manual lists of email addresses through which to distribute work, an email client – such as Mailchimp – would still be needed to facilitate that goal. In theory, Mailchimp can pull the plug whenever it wants, should users abuse their conditions, so our modern delusions of autonomy are exactly that – delusions. There are ways to protect yourself from the risks of cancel culture and deplatforming – some providing more certainty and liberty than others – but thinking an online entity can succeed without using third party tools is absurd.

Take Parler as a prescient, if contentious, example. An upstart social media site favoured by conservatives and endorsed by Donald Trump, Parler went dark in 2021 when Amazon Web Services pulled its servers due to ‘violent and threatening content.’ My point is not a partisan one – Parler meant nothing to me. I merely want to demonstrate that even an online service with 20 million users and the backing of a former president relied on borrowed pipes from the internet’s archaic plumbing network. Amazon, Microsoft and Google control more than 66% of that network through cloud-based web-hosting as a service, so their grip on power is almost unbreakable. Denying that is illogical.

4. Email newsletters are not the pivot

In closing my original piece on quitting social media, I directed readers to my free mailing list, members of which receive a weekly email newsletter replete with links to my latest work. This, once again, echoed gospel spewed by the self-proclaimed productivity gurus and ‘growth-hackers’ who dominate modern discourse. Grow an email list, creators are told, and everything will be fine. You can sidestep algorithmic distribution and reach all of your fans, direct in their inboxes! Except, here is the catch: everybody hates email, and most people do all they can to avoid spending time mining messages.

Yes, I still have a free email list. And yes, I’m incredibly grateful for every single member of it. Your frequent feedback and support is greatly appreciated. However, the romantic notion of email newsletters as a genius pivot to sustainable, autonomous distribution is deeply flawed. Emails are a nuisance. Emails are clunky. Emails are old hat. A medium created in the 1970s will not sustain us through the 2020s, so stop pretending it will.

This year, my newsletters have a click-through rate of 6.82%, outperforming the industry average of 5%. But rather than heralding victory, those metrics affirm my broader point about email fatigue. Yes, I could write more convincing emails or play around with the template to present content in a more enticing manner, but when email accounts for 0.3% of my website traffic – and I’m indifferent to website traffic in the first place – is it worth the hassle? Probably not.

It is ironic, of course, that those who are most successful with newsletters – the Substack elite – typically have large pre-existing audiences built primarily through social media. That is the dirty little secret of the so-called creator economy: it relies on the attention economy it so readily vilifies for vital exposure and sustenance. Without those legacy powerhouses, the niche outlets would likely implode as commercial concerns. How do you make Substack work without 10,000 Twitter followers, won from years of participation in the attention economy wars? How do you live off Patreon without 5,000 YouTube subscribers? How do you monetise OnlyFans without an Instagram thirst trap? You certainly can, and some definitely do, but it is incredibly difficult, and they are in a vanishing minority.

Again, I will continue to send out a weekly automated email and converse with those who engage, but only because it requires very little concerted effort. If I had to build newsletters manually and schedule time to send them out, the juice would not be worth the squeeze, and I probably would not bother. Everything is relative in the field of distribution, and you have to focus on areas that reap rewards. 

I do not blame the recipients of my emails, either. They, like me, are probably bombarded from all angles by marketing spiel every single day. Few optionally read emails, and fewer still enjoy them. Besides, this is the age of TikTok. For anything to cut through, it must be instantaneous, engaging and frictionless. I have railed against that trend for years, clinging to the ink-stained nostalgia of newspapers and books. I would love for loquacious columns to still be king, as they were in days of yore, but that is not the case, and it never will be again. Our attention spans are fried, and only the most expedient apps avoid instant obsolescence. Hence my fresh embrace of social media. It is the only medium that penetrates.

5. Traditional SEO is dying

While quitting social media, I also had a foolhardy – and anachronistic – belief in SEO as a future-proofed driver of traffic. According to my flawed logic, if I wrote about something, people looking for that thing would find it via a search engine, read it, and maybe join my aforementioned mailing list to receive future updates. That flow vaguely works, and my website has pretty good search traffic, but SEO is also changing rapidly. In fact, traditional SEO is all but dead, and relying on it as a primary source of exposure is naïve at best and myopic at worst.

Very soon, search engine results pages (SERPs) will be unrecognisable to the millennial surfer. Many have changed already, in fact, as AI transforms the way we traverse the web. Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) will summarise heaps of data, replacing the famous ten blue links with an AI-powered gist, fit for rapid consumption by perpetually-distracted, time-poor consumers who seek instant gratification. Bing will do something similar, while Arc is gaining traction with its belief that ‘a browser, a search engine, an AI chatbot and a website aren’t different things,’ per The Verge. Throw in people using TikTok and YouTube as go-to discovery tools; audio search gaining traction; and, well, the central SEO spigot is about to run dry.

As such, it makes sense for me to expand my traffic sources right now, not reduce them. My livelihood no longer depends on writing, but I still take immense pride in my work, and I dedicate untold hours to this craft. I do not chase exposure or engagement, but it would be nice if some people read and enjoy what I produce. Therefore, introducing at least one new traffic pipeline seems fairly reasonable. It seems logical, in fact, hence my shameless pivot.

Social media companies will not send a deluge of traffic to my website. I know that. Those days are long gone. Algorithms are gonna algorithm. But  if I use social media as originally intended – to share links to things I like and exchange proprietary ideas – a positive effect is not impossible. And regardless, one additional reader via social media is still one additional reader. One reader I would not have had without a social media presence. That is a simple equation that often gets lost in debates about scale and growth.

Final thoughts on my return to social media

I still believe in digital minimalism, but there is a difference between digital minimalism and digital depravation. “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. “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.”

I’m still doing as Newport suggests. I’m still a digital minimalist. But I’m also a realist with an indefatigable need to express random, inconsequential thoughts. In 2024, the easiest, most expedient way of doing that remains social media. And for as much as that may disappoint traditionalists, arguing the fact only results in agitation.

I have definitely felt conflicted about returning to social media, and even admitting my ‘relapse’ has taken months of soul-searching and sleepless nights. But ultimately, U-turns are healthy. They illustrate growth and maturity. Admitting you were wrong shows guts and developed understanding. There may well be further reversals, as well. I cannot promise this will work out. But that, too, is okay. One day, none of these pixels will matter. All of this code will be blown into the sun. Nothing is that important.

Indeed, there is something admirably refreshing about abandoned social media accounts. There is an innocence to that insouciance. I’m not talking about those who grandly depart social media strategically, as I once did. I’m talking about those who just forget to use the apps after a while because they do not occupy much space in their life, nor do they zap their precious psychological bandwidth. I envy those carefree consumers who ditch social media profiles like blunt razors – disposable, expendable and inanimate. That is how I plan to view my social media profiles in future, rather than having them loom as millstones around the neck.

Maybe, in the end, mine is a refreshed, matured outlook of positive technological nihilism. Nothing ultimately matters, in the grand scheme of human existence – not the Mona Lisa, nor the Empire State Building, nor my thoughts on the Green Bay Packers’ season ticket waiting list – so we should feel liberated to explore and follow our desires in our limited time on this planet. There is catharsis in such a worldview, and that may be my greatest revelation of all.

I’m fortunate that social media is not a critical thing for me. I’m not a full-time content creator. Writing is not my main source of income. I have a full-time job that pays my bills. Realising that, and coming to terms with it, has been liberating. I do not have to take myself too seriously. I can post whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. My livelihood does not depend on having 100,000 followers or posting 10 times per day. Social media can thus be something of a frivolous indulgence for me, rather than a professional necessity.

When all is said and done, my social media hopscotch is really not that big of a deal. I have re-joined 5 billion people – 66% of the global population – who use social media. Until now, such actions – simply adding and dropping things based on impulse and the value they add to my life – has always felt beyond me. As a quasi-public writer, I have always felt compelled to inform people of major life updates and decisions – from changing the sports teams I root for to quitting social media. Now, though, I have come to two major realisations. One: I do not always need to justify my actions. And two: things change, so only a fool makes grand, bold, sweeping, definitive declarations.

There are still concerns about this project because, well, I’m a sensitive sort prone to existential worry. I may well reach another turning point in the future and decide to quit social media again. I’m a little crazy like that. Sorry. Key challenges remain on managing the attention span aspect of social media usage, and not allowing social media to become a central spoke of my life, but I’m approaching those conundrums with optimism, not anxiety-riddled dread. Social media will be a thoughtless add-on for me – enriching and beneficial – rather than defining my life. Call it growth. Call it acquiescence. Call it surrender. Whatever you call it, it is not that important. It is a minuscule spec on the wider horizon of contemporary life.

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