Social media has inculcated our friendships with a sense of insecurity which doesn’t exist in relationships that aren’t primarily mediated online.
It seems obvious now I say it, but how often do we step back to think on it?
I was forced to think about it quite a bit recently because my fingers began to hurt again. Since 2017, after long periods of work involving a laptop or a phone, I get what I can only describe as a painful numbness in my hands and fingers. I spent most of 2018 finishing my PhD thesis wearing two wrist splints. Now I wear fingerless compression gloves for added hand support while I work. It could be carpal tunnel syndrome, who knows, but it forces me to be very strategic about how I use my phone in particular because it becomes sore to hold it, especially if I have to tap the screen too.
I recently changed my WhatsApp status – My WhatsApp notifications are off (try it) – having had to inform some people that over the last six months I’ve developed a habit of only checking the app for messages once or twice a day. WhatsApp was the last social media app to fall to my all-encompassing notification ban; in 2010 I deleted the Facebook app almost as soon as I had downloaded it, about four years ago I turned email notifications off when I realised I couldn’t actually get any work done if I replied to every one, last year I began muting every Messenger chat as soon as I received one, then most recently I switched Instagram notifications off in about January and took the icon off my home screen sometime during lockdown.
Letting people in on my personal social media strategies always feels like something between a disclaimer and an apology. As my friend Nadia pointed out to me a little while ago, there’s a tension between my strong desire for independence and my strong sense of responsibility to my friends which comes out in my WhatsApp status, or my mobile email signature – Sent on the move… – or in my daily wrangle over whether or not to say “Sorry I only just saw this” half a dozen times in a row.
There are actually a number of tensions at play for me. I really, really like being on my own. I don’t like being lonely. I often want to be left alone, but I don’t want to be left out. I definitely don’t want people to think I don’t care about them. I hate the thought that friends might think I take them for granted. I actually think friends should feel they can take each other for granted much of the time. I’m generally philosophical about losing touch with most people I meet. I dread losing touch with some people. I tend to think if I didn’t get a single message all day I’d feel elated. If I didn’t get a single message all day I’d probably feel lonely. I’d often prefer to leave it more like a week between checking my phone. I’ve told a lot of people I’m always there for them. I now almost exclusively look for holiday spots with no mobile signal. None of the pursuits I’m passionate about in life involve a smartphone. All of my friendships are primarily mediated through a smartphone.
As such, I often worry that talking openly about my relationship to social media will be read as talking passively about my relationships to my friends. I have no idea how you avoid that; it seems frustratingly inevitable.
My broadest range of social mediation happens in a window of about 40 minutes, usually some time in the evening when I remember to check various apps. The compulsion and preference for meaningful contact is quite quickly overtaken by the strategic goal of clearing all notifications in the shortest time possible. Political group chats are the first to get opened and closed, usually without being read. Incoming memes either come next or last. Heart or thumbs up so the sender knows I appreciated the thought. One-to-one messages are the bulk and may be approached a number of ways: chronologically is usually best if it’s been more than a day; chats with only (1) or (2) messages can either be quick or long, it’s hard to know before opening; chats with upwards of (6) can either by serious – what have I missed? – or frivolous. Voice messages are the most challenging because they disrupt the tempo of the strategy and cause me to both slow down and actually hold all the parts of whatever was said in my head before replying.
This almost-daily routine doesn’t preclude other, more meaningful smartphone-mediated interactions throughout the day, but it’s a consistent enough feature of the day that I almost have to plan around it, and despite the fact it notionally involves the largest number of my friends and colleagues, it feels the most instrumental. Not instrumental, more like coping with notifications. In a previous post I wrote about remembering MSN and hating instant messaging. Perhaps what I hate about it most is the sense of entitlement and expectation is forces us to adopt towards each other. The app doesn’t respect your time, so why should I? Like any technological design, the success of social media is its invisbility to us – the almost total flattening of the nexus between the app and the friend. The logic of a your friendship is the logic of the app. It is the app that left you ‘on read’.
It’s popular on the left to adopt a social determination theory of technology in which the politics of a technology are determined by the type of society it is used in. One reason is that it seems like a much more plausible for a technology’s supposed political effect than the inverse – a technological determinist account which supposes combinations of inanimate matter (or 1s and 0s) can at some point take on a political life of their own – though mainly, I suspect, it’s because “social determination” kind of sounds like the sort of analysis that would most easily fit a leftist worldview, like having a social model of disability, for example.
Whenever this type of conversation has come up in the last five years, I’ve tended to bring up Langdon Winner and his theory of technological politics, which says technology can embody politics or social relations, resulting in a reshaping of social reality and possibility by virtue of the technology’s place in the world. A sort of technological-determinism-by-proxy. Aside from this being true in a great many cases (the nuclear bomb, for one, as Winner points out), I think it’s a vastly underappreciated aspect of the politics of social media.
Last night I watched The Social Dilemma, which I reviewed (and recommended) on my Instagram film blog. I generally feel pretty meh about tech documentaries (indeed documentaries in general, shoot me), but there were a number of points I was pleased to see it make.
One was that social media is not a tool. A tool sits waiting until it is ready to be used. I’m trying to refrain from flippantly saying “we’re the tool”, but it’s important to understand social media is a machine, and at that, one with its own desired outcomes. In that sense, social media platforms will try by hook or crook to get your attention. Naturally, we like to think we’re all completely in control in this relationship. Bollocks. We’re either kidding ourselves or just plain arrogant to think that way.
Another was that it’s often presumed that the real moment of reckoning for algorithms, machine learning etc will be when the technology surpasses the peak of human intelligence – the technological singularity and so on – but this is a model which only takes into account the point when algorithms overtake the strongest of human strengths. In one of the most fluent sections of the film, it suggests social media technology is now passing a less-examined liminality: the threshold of human weakness.
I’m not particularly proud to say social media brings out many of my weaknesses. Like many other people, I hope, sometimes I can be distracted, curt, indifferent, blasé, grumpy, needy, bellicose, nosey, anxious, prejudiced, argumentative, intolerant, impatient, judgmental, apologetic, lazy, compulsive, impulsive, cynical, tactless, pessimistic and probably more. I don’t like any of these qualities, and like other well-adjusted people I generally try to keep any of them in check when they arise, but I find myself grappling with these feelings online far more than I do offline. I find myself beholden to the feed.
I recently told friends and ‘friends’ alike that after some time toying with the idea I’m no longer going to have a Facebook profile. It’s not really a clean break or anything that I’m going for – I’ll keep Instagram, I’ll keep Messenger too (people seem to be unaware you don’t need a full FB profile for Messenger anymore), WhatsApp will be on the same basis it’s been all year – but I just want out of the sterile environment, out of the news feed, and out of this bind where I’m supposed to feel like I’ve got hundreds of friends but in reality see hardly any.
Tonight, for the first time for as long as I can remember, I was delighted to go through my inbox and reply to a bunch of emails I’d received over the last week or so. In preparation for deleting my profile, I set up a new email address purely for personal correspondence. No work, no accounts, no newsletters, just emails from friends about whatever friends talk about. Everything and nothing. I shared it on my ‘leaving Facebook’ post and 8 people wrote to me, some of whom I haven’t seen in ages. As I went through each new email my smile got wider and wider. I’m already looking forward to checking my inbox next weekend.
And naturally a new email called for a new signature: Sent in my own time.