I deactivated my Twitter account last week. My decision to leave Twitter was something I thought about for almost a year, but I continued to use it because I believe Twitter—and social media, generally—has a lot of potential that I consider to be both interesting and deeply transformative. My appreciation for social media comes from how it has changed the dissemination of information, its impact on knowledge creation and learning processes, and how it operates as an extension of our culture, representing both group consciousness and the minds of individual people within it. I’m drawn to social media because I think it’s an interesting way to both observe and participate in a culture, but after many months of careful deliberation, I’ve finally decided that the benefits of social media do not outweigh the ways in which I think it is destructive for our culture. I’m still holding out hope for a social media platform that doesn’t create revenue from advertising, doesn’t try to keep users on its site through addictive measures, and provides some sort of monetary incentive for people to use it, but based on our current trajectory, I’m not sure how likely this is to happen.
First, I want to describe where my perspective of social media comes from. As an individual, I’m deeply interested in understanding my culture and how this culture has impacted my identity, how I perceive the world, and my personal understanding of truth. During the past few years, I’ve been on an investigative journey to understand my culture better, and along the way, I learned that there are a lot of similarities between the way my brain works and how the brain of my culture works, revealing that my culture is just as much dependent on me as I am on it. I learned that if someone were to search for a culture, he would not find it in a distinct, organized place, he would find it in the liminal space between the individual minds of the people who make up a culture and the culture itself. Like water, culture is both fluid and powerful, with the ability to change its own shape or the shape of those around it. Culture—or public knowledge—becomes known when it is freely exchanged among individuals, and connective bridges are formed between personal and public spheres. Social media fascinates me because it expedites the exchange of knowledge between individuals and their culture, connecting individuals from the same—or different cultures—who wouldn’t normally connect, creating new and different opportunities for knowledge creation, and providing individuals with an easy opportunity to publicly vocalize their experiences.
As much as public knowledge, or a shared experience, exists outside of us, I believe there’s an equivalent experience within us, which I like to refer to as personal knowledge. Although personal knowledge is shaped by public knowledge, they are not the same thing. Every person has a unique experience full of information unknown to anyone else, and unless people decide to share their personal experiences, that information will never be public knowledge. Personal knowledge is an essential component to building any social network because it provides networks with diversity. If individual people were not separated by their personal experiences, connections wouldn’t exist. Cultures wouldn’t exist. Borders wouldn’t exist. Knowledge thrives on the differences between us. Societies evolve as a whole, and yet each step forward is facilitated by a single person, or by a group of people working together as individual contributors. The role of the individual is paramount.
On social media platforms, individual people have the opportunity to share their personal experience, personal knowledge, or personal opinions with those in their network, contributing to the knowledge creation process of their culture. I think this can be a collaborative, enriching, and beneficial experience for both the contributing individuals and the culture itself, but I think there’s a narrow gap between what constitutes a beneficial contribution and what constitutes a negative contribution that’s either just making noise or taking up space. I think the fine line between meaningful contributions and meaningless contributions is related to how much time people take to read new information, to reflect on that information, and then to construct a response. Since the advent of social media, it feels like time is slipping away from us, forcing people to respond to each other faster and faster, inevitably impacting the quality of our thoughts and the manner by which we express them.
I believe this is something that could be fixed, but right now, the underlying problem with social media is the addictive aspect of it. It’s constantly begging for more: more content, more likes, more replies, more feedback. It asks people to give it more and more until they reach a point where they’re incapable of giving more, and yet they continue to use it under the false premise that they have something to offer. It convinces people that they always have more, when in fact, all they’re giving it is more of itself. They’re not contributing any new content. They’re just regurgitating the same information it’s giving them. I consider this to be a deeply disturbing process because I see it as chipping away at the novelty and beauty of personal knowledge. Not only does this process create a more homogenous culture, it also removes people from their own experiences, making it harder and harder for them to contribute meaningful, deeply personal content. Over time, I think people begin to lose sight of their personal knowledge, or how to cultivate their own knowledge, and they begin to see themselves solely as the content they’ve been fed through their social media platforms. When this happens, the divide between personal and public knowledge has been lost, or an individual is so far removed from their own experience, they don’t even know what constitutes their personal knowledge anymore.
Many people, and I think sometimes unbeknownst to them, are so obsessed with finding and offering new content, that they begin to live their lives through the context of externalizing their experiences, which I also find deeply problematic. I got rid of Facebook about six years ago because I found myself taking pictures of trips and friends for the sole purpose of sharing them online. We’re asked to share so much of ourselves that it forces us to always be on the lookout for new content, which in turn prevents us from actually experiencing the moments we intend to share online. We’re losing our ability to exist for the sake of existing because social media is teaching us that existence warrants a reward if only we can prove that it happened.
As a person who is studying culture and personally interested in the interactions between cultures and individuals, I thought I could safely use social media by creating distance between myself and it, but I’d be lying to myself if I believed I could actually do that. I think the tragedy of social media is that it’s designed to be addictive. An intimate relationship has been harbored between social media platforms and the advertisers who sustain them, with the integrity of our selfhood paying the cost of admission. I think the worth of our attention, our time, and our ideas is more than some company’s stock price. We can do better than this. If we want to maintain diversity within our culture, I think we either need to change the way social media sites are organized, or people need to leave the sites until we can create new platforms that work for us, not against us. Until then, I’m going to stay off social media, and I hope you leave too.
(I’m also totally aware there are social media buttons below this post, but alas, what to do…)