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Why Social Media Is Not The Friend You Think It Is

Written by: Hamish Reid


I was hesitant to delete my social media. I feared being isolated or worse yet, left behind altogether. I thought it was something that everyone needs nowadays and to an extent, I proved myself right. When I followed through with it I discovered that nothing was what it seemed. What I thought was boring or without value was actually of irreplaceable importance. What I thought was harmless turned out to be the complete opposite. Of all the compulsory credits that are taught throughout middle school and high school, I was never taught anything about the world we live in today.


The one that exists in everyone’s pocket.


After years of using my smartphone like so many others which included social media, I discovered the truth about it: I wasn’t the customer, I was the product. My time and attention were being mined by Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and sold to advertisers who wanted my business. All three of those platforms were run by an algorithm. Those algorithms are fueled by what's called machine learning.


Any machine capable of learning can apply its prowess to a task. In a complicated task like winning a chess game, the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Just ask Garry Kasparov. On May 11th, 1997 Kasparov fell victim to IBM's Deep Blue. Despite the nature of chess and all its insane complexities, that day was the first time on record that a grandmaster had been defeated by a computer. Kasparov underestimated his opponent.


That’s the second truth and my biggest mistake. I had never even viewed my phone as an opponent. For years my phone and I had been locked in deadly combat. The prize? Not a trophy, not stature, not fame nor accolades. I stood to lose what is most precious to any human being, and yet what any human being guards least preciously.


Time.


After all, why would I guard something vigorously that I am inevitably going to lose anyway?


I deleted all my social media in spite of my previous indifference and I discovered another mistake: I absolutely have to value my time. After years of constant scrolling and refreshing my screen, what must have been hundreds of times a day, I was completely lost and baffled. All of a sudden, there were more hours in the day and I didn’t know how to cope. I was earth-shatteringly bored. What was I going to do with all this newfound time? I began to mourn what I had done with it previously: I had wasted it.


There were encouraging things about ridding myself of social media. When I was in a room with my family and they all were on their phones and I was not, all of us in complete silence, I recognized how lonely I felt. I was then lucky enough to realize that I had always felt this lonely but couldn’t see it. I had simply distracted myself from it by scrolling through Instagram. Or rather, Instagram had distracted me. There’s that first mistake again. Don’t kid yourself. When you’re holding your phone in your hand, you’re never the only one in the equation with a will of your own. There’s a reason I felt as though I had woken up from a trance. Chess is desperately complex. Retaining my attention must have been stupidly easy for the mega-computers behind social media. It was learning me the whole way down the line. By now my every emotional tendency and trigger must be stored in one of Facebook’s many warehouses. The computer likely knows me better than I know myself. That’s by design.


We can’t close Pandora’s box now. We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. What we can do is educate ourselves. Social media’s purpose is in part to pacify, blunt or distract from any unpleasant feeling we might have, from trauma all the way down to petty ambivalence, and in return, its primary function is to sell our attention to the highest bidder. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the motivation of those highest bidders. Whatever product or service they’re selling trying to sell you, they have to make you feel as though you’re not enough without it. You’re not enough without THIS. You’re not enough without THAT. You’re not enough without THE THIRD. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. If you don’t believe me try this exercise:


Scroll through your preferred means of social media with a pen and paper at hand. Mark the paper every time you see an ad. If you have well over a hundred marks on your page before an hour is up, don’t be surprised. Being mindful of what you’ve just undergone, you shouldn’t be surprised to feel exhausted, either. But that’s what we do. Every day. And we always go back to the mesmerizing, pacifying beauty of our phone screen in a vicious cycle.


When it comes to deleting social media I can’t pretend I’m a perfect purist. I’m back on Twitter. However, I now view my phone as an opponent, I’m mindful of how shamelessly the app inundates me with ads and I don’t clutch at my pocket like a smoker anymore.


I hope you haven’t felt lectured to as I only meant to share my own experience with you, and at risk of falling into that trap, I think I’ll just stop writing now.