It isn't about any of the lovely people I know online, or any one particular thing, in fact – it's the sheer crushing weight of it, the remorselessly updating infinite feeds, the curated perfection, the inauthenticity, the trends, the endless Stories and all the weird dynamics that go with Stories, the fact that engagement for single-image posts has dropped off a cliff, the way social media has deforested the web and maybe it all needs a bit of rewilding (I'm stretching a metaphor here). Everything all at once.
Most of all, it's the way I cease to be able to think when I spend too much time looking at any form of social media. The mind fills with static, eroding and blurring and bringing stupefied oblivion. My ability to concentrate, create, think clearly are all massively handicapped (and I use the word 'massively' without exaggeration). It feels like thinking at the time but it's fake thinking. Dulled almost beyond belief, bittily skipping from one fragmented twithought to another like a broken record player.
The truly insidious thing is that I don't realise this is happening when it's happening. Only by stepping away – entirely, and for several days – does it become obvious. And I mean really obvious. The sense of sheer relief when I log the hell off always takes me by surprise. The mind comes out from under a thick fuzzy cloud and colours seem richer again.
I've been writing about this stuff for years now – long enough to realise that this is more nuanced than I once believed, and I'm not going to criticise anyone who chooses to use social media differently. I'm not going to criticise anyone for only posting their best, most curated photos on Instagram, or presenting nothing but favourable aspects of their personality. The successes, the humblebrags, the carefully measured doses of 'reality' in an attempt to provide balance. The on-brand narratives. I do the same. We're all in this together. We all have to swim in the same sea. (People who post insufferably cringy business pep talks on LinkedIn can burn in the deepest circle of hell, though.)
To be extremely online was once seen as abnormal, but now it's the default – and it requires a significant degree of willpower to go against it, even if we feel the need. As, I think if we're honest with ourselves, we all do from time to time. I get it, I really do.
But it's important to remember that, potent as these forces are, we still have individual agency. Nobody will come and put you in jail if you delete all the social media apps off your phone (unless you're a social media manager, perhaps). The world will not stop because you stop posting. These services are actually a lot less important than they encourage us to believe. This lesson was reinforced to me when, earlier this year, I deleted my Twitter account after years of overthinking it... and there were no negative consequences whatsoever, only a sense of freedom, of a vast invisible weight being lifted, that has not waned since. Life without Twitter is happier, simpler, and less anxious. Better.
Earlier this year, an Instagram reel I posted went viral, and my number of followers exploded. For a while I thought I'd have a go at doing Instagram 'properly': posting more reels, trying to get more engagement. But this fizzled out soon enough. What, I asked myself, was actually the point? More followers, sure. But why? More readers, potentially – but I've never seen any convincing evidence that success on Instagram translates to books sold. Or any form of social media, for that matter. At least not for me. I'd have to spend more time promoting myself on the web than writing, reading and walking, and even then it's a pretty massive gamble, isn't it? Especially when time on social media has a direct, devastating effect on my ability to write and think in the first place, undermining the very foundations of the whole thing.
I know writers with far more followers than me who put a lot of effort into online promotion – ten hours or more every week. And in unguarded moments they've admitted that they think a combination of word of mouth, friendly booksellers, and fairy dust sell far more books than anything they do online. It's probably helped a bit, of course. But is that help worth it, considering the vast cost? As ever, there are exceptions – writers whose fortunes have been made on social media and who are still somehow able to write books and live their lives.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are all slaving away, providing content – so much content – for Meta for free. We should all think about that a bit more.
The Faustian bargain of social media is a complex one. Sometimes the equation stacks up one way, and we can gain more than we lose (or at least we convince ourselves of this). Sometimes it stacks up the other way and it can feel like it's controlling us. The important thing is to realise that we can decide not to participate. It's literally as easy as that. The world won't stop spinning, and we might regain something of ourselves in the process.
The interesting thing is that nobody ever gets to the point where they have it all figured out. Lessons need reinforcing, reappraising; approaches and coping mechanisms need adapting as we learn and grow and the landscape around us changes. I've been through all this before more than once. I've tried a number of different strategies, from going back to a basic dumbphone to hiking across Scotland without internet access.
Several years ago, I wrote a book about all this called The Farthest Shore (Vertebrate Publishing, 2021), and although my thinking has moved on a fair bit since then I think much of what I wrote still stands. Here is a scene from near the start of the book that outlines the situation for me in early 2019.
I've always known that I can't think properly when my mind is jacked in to the internet, but only in the last few years have I thought to ask why.
It started when I was studying for my degree in Computing Science at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. I began my studies in 2005, a few years before a double-whammy digital revolution: social media and smartphones. Back then, there were plenty of ways to waste time on the internet, but you had to be sitting in front of a computer to do so. That had changed by the time I graduated in 2008. Facebook, which I'd joined in July 2006 when it was for university students only, opened up to the general public two months later. Mobile phones had become far more sophisticated in a short period of time, and although it would take a while for most people to upgrade to a smartphone, I remember my first sighting of an iPhone in the wild in 2008 and thinking this is the future. For the majority of my degree course, though, the internet was something you accessed from a desktop or laptop. Even in that innocent time, it was like a wrecking ball through my attention span and ability to concentrate.
Put yourself in my shoes. I was 19 years old and living away from home for the first time. I'd always found it difficult to make friends, and now I'd left all my old friends behind, forced to start from scratch. I was overweight and introverted and self-conscious. Everyone else seemed to be going out to parties and having fun, but I felt awkward and out of place at the few hall parties I forced myself to attend in those first couple of months at uni. My attempts to fit in were painful. Early on, I'd realised that my preference for classical music wouldn't make me many friends, so I'd pretended to enjoy rock instead. It didn't work. Invariably, I found myself stuck at home, browsing hillwalking or writing forums while other students on my floor were going out to the pub.
Internet forums let me be myself. They provided social validation and the company of like-minded individuals. I didn't have to pretend to like Van Halen when I was posting on Outdoors Magic or the Forward Motion writing community. On the internet I had a voice and I felt valued.
This combination proved deadly. I found it increasingly difficult to get off the internet and get on with my work. Partly that was because I needed my computer for my studies, and when compiling Java code in NetBeans all the distractions of the internet were only a click away. I became a master procrastinator, wasting hours on forums and compulsively hitting the refresh key to see if I'd had any replies. Deadlines would creep up on me; more than once, I found myself pulling all-nighters in the library in order to get my work done.
I did make friends at UEA eventually, and by the second year I was living a normal student lifestyle, complete with regular trips to the pub, drunken escapades, and the occasional house party. I'd found a tribe of people who didn't care that I preferred Beethoven to Snow Patrol and who appreciated my various quirks. I'd discovered girls, too. Although I had started to spend less time online, by this point damaging patterns of behaviour had become firmly established; when faced with a task that required intense concentration, I was unable to resist wasting time on the internet. All my friends were on Facebook by this point. Facebook took previous methods of procrastination and dialled them up to 100, supercharged with new features such as notifications, 'pokes', games, groups and apps. Flicking over to the Facebook tab became a reflexive impulse.
When I eventually upgraded to a smartphone in 2010, Facebook was the first app I installed. I met my future wife Hannah on the UKClimbing forum in the same year, and our relationship blossomed largely thanks to Facebook. In the years after this, I became ever more dependent on social media. In 2014 I started working as a freelance writer and editor, and social media was how I found clients and readers. I'd become more enmeshed with the internet than ever before. And, more than ever before, I found my ability to concentrate on the work that mattered – even, at times, my ability to think – fundamentally compromised. By 2012 I found it difficult to sit down with a good book without reflexively reaching for my phone every ten minutes. I wondered what the hell was wrong with me.
For years, I assumed that my own lack of willpower was to blame, that this was my fault. It took me a long time to learn that this wasn't entirely accurate – that subtle forces beyond my control or knowledge had been manipulating me. The fragmentation of attention had become big business, and people had no idea.
In Utopia is Creepy, Nicholas Carr writes that 'Distraction is the permanent end state of the perfected consumer, not least because distraction is a state that is eminently programmable.' The first book I read by this author, The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, was a wake-up call; it reveals how people read in a fundamentally different way online, and presents evidence that the time we spend on the internet may be harming our ability to read and think deeply. I read about how social platforms are designed to be addictive, to make people anxious and upset, to deepen social divisions, because that makes more money for advertisers. In his no-holds-barred treatise against social media called Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier explains how it works:
Customised feeds become optimized to "engage" each user, often with emotionally potent cues leading to addiction. People don't realize how they are being manipulated. The default purpose of manipulation is to get people more and more glued in, and to get them to spend more and more time in the system.
As I read more widely, things started to make sense. For me, those 'emotionally potent cues' related at first to social belonging and banishing loneliness, but nobody is immune; human beings are social animals, and we all crave validation. That's why it's incredibly difficult not to look when you see the red notification badge light up in your Facebook app. You want to know what people are saying about you. When a post gets a lot of likes, you feel good – and when it doesn't, you feel ignored, a rollercoaster of emotions that contributes to the addictive nature of social media. The brain chemical at work here is dopamine, sometimes known as the pleasure chemical. Notifications are a bit like a slot machine, and the humble like button – now present on every social platform – has been shown to be incredibly addictive.
For the first time, I started to understand how I had been manipulated into spending so much of my time scrolling and liking and sharing. I didn't resent the genuine interactions with family, friends and colleagues, but I did resent all the other stuff: the compulsive checking, the fake news, the flame wars, the trolls, the inability to concentrate on anything, the growing feeling of numbness after I'd spent too long on the internet. The time speeding up and slipping away. It was precious time subtracted from my life – and what did I have to show for it? I also soon realised that there was a gulf between awareness of the problem and actually changing my own behaviour. I experimented with deleting apps from my phone, taking half-hearted breaks from social media, trying to go back to a basic dumb phone for a while. I even stopped using Facebook permanently. Nothing seemed to work. When I left Facebook, I found myself spending more time on Twitter. Same drug, different packaging.
In his book Digital Minimalism, computer scientist Cal Newport explains how the invention of the smartphone created a new attack vector for social media to banish whatever solitude once existed in our lives:
The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds.
Genuine solitude, I realised, had long been absent from my life. With multitudes of real-life friends, old colleagues I no longer really spoke to, and online acquaintances constantly there in an always-on ambient presence on the other side of various screens, I was never actually alone. I would tweet a thought before taking the time to reflect on it, and then it would be gone, a bird fluttering out into cyberspace. What was that doing to me?
By early 2018, work had grown busy and complicated, and the quantity of email I received every day had spiralled out of control. The stress caused by my dad's long illness and death compounded everything else, adding to the overwhelm I felt. Before, my reaction to too much time online had felt like a buzzing, grey emptiness; now it felt more like red panic, and yet I was so hopelessly entangled that I still couldn't look away. When I opened my email account, I felt crushed, stupefied, burnt out. When I logged in to Twitter, I saw dystopian headlines and political division, and yet Twitter was where I found new clients, found readers for my work, made genuine connections. I wrote in my diary that I was heading towards a nervous breakdown. Something had to change.
I would fantasise about stepping away from the internet entirely. I read about 'Walden Zones': offline cabins or retreats where internet access was impossible, and people could achieve zen-like focus alone with their own thoughts. I remembered the writing shed I'd once had at the bottom of the garden at my parents' house in Suffolk. In those days, before uni, I could rattle off 3,000 words of awful prose an hour with no internet to distract me. Such productivity was unimaginable fifteen years later, when I'd struggle with a blank text document for half a day, anxiously watching emails ping into my inbox and notifications racking up in a Twitter window in the background. Even when I managed to escape to my happy place in the mountains, social media followed me there, ruining any chance of genuine solitary reflection or observation in nature.
'The tragedy is that the stroll, the camping trip, and the face-to-face chat are now themselves suffused with digital ephemera,' writes Nicholas Carr. 'Even if we agreed to turn off our gadgets for a spell, they remain ghostly presences.'
I felt those ghostly presences constantly. I had felt them during my dad's illness, and I felt them when offline in the mountains. Was the internet to blame for this change in me, or was it the destruction of solitude that the internet – and my smartphone – had facilitated? Had I just grown up but failed to adapt to my responsibilities? Was my anxiety caused by some other factor altogether? I had no way of telling, and I realised that I needed to get a new perspective on the problem. My disorganised attempts at getting to the bottom of it had all failed. I needed a scorched-earth solution.
You can buy a copy of The Farthest Shore, which details my scorched-earth solution, here. Signed copies are available. Now I'm going to go and post a link to this blog post on social media, and then log off for a good long while. I'll continue posting on here occasionally as usual. As ever, thank you for reading and supporting my work.
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