Last year, I finally admitted to myself that I have a social media problem. I was checking Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat so many times a day I couldn’t keep count. I’d RSVP to dozens of experimental art events in Brooklyn that I knew I’d never go to. I’d often spend an hour online when I woke up or before I went to bed. The blue light of my phone screen was my closest companion, closer than my own shadow.
So I quit social media entirely during the month of August. During that month, I noticed new things—namely, that I felt lonelier than ever. I missed the company of my friends in a way I never had before. I became acutely aware of my own self-imposed solitude, and I started reaching out.
Most people who know me know that I am a proud introvert. I spent a lot of time during my first years at Columbia in the piano practice rooms, or traveling through the city by myself, staring at the lights of New Jersey across from Riverside Park, feeling romantic and Lorca-esque. But I did something that Lorca and Ginsberg and all those lonely souls who once wandered New York never did. I constantly checked Facebook, keeping tabs on what my friends were doing, converting my days into idyllic-looking Instagram posts. I was tied to that blue screen, in the world and also out of it.
When I quit, I realized that I had been suppressing my own isolation by using social media as a way to feel connected while I was actually distancing myself from the world.
I don’t think I’m alone. At Columbia, I’ve watched people spend entire classes on Facebook, and entire parties on Twitter or Instagram. People seem to retreat back into their glowing boxes during even the shortest moments of silence, falling into social media’s welcoming arms at the slightest lag in conversation.
I don’t want to imply that all social media and technological innovation is a bad thing. I think they can also be extraordinarily positive. Group messages make it easier to connect, shared-interest links can bring isolated and ostracized communities together, artists can showcase their content and form networks, and social issues and hidden problems can be more easily revealed. But to productively use social media, we have to create mediums that allow us to connect, and that encourage us to listen and reflect, not simply to stare, like, and scroll away.
I’m criticizing a specific type of social media use here, which I’ll call “antisocial media”—you know, the kind that involves ceaseless scrolling through posts, sharing headlines of unread articles, and forming political opinions based on comment sections. Though it can feel like an easy escape, the refuge that antisocial media presents us is an illusion. We already have countless voices calling our names and asking for our time. In addition to schoolwork, there are clubs, internships, relationships, personal well-being, and New York City’s allure. It can be overstimulating, even for the most ambitious. I think social media adds to this epidemic of oversaturation, exponentially worsening the feeling that we’re not doing enough—that we are not enough.
Antisocial media heightens and is fed by feelings of inadequacy and isolation. Dissociation (a state of complete detachment from reality, often appropriated online to describe any feeling of disconnectedness) has become a meme-culture buzzword over the past year, and it’s easy to see why when you take a step back. We live in an age in which constant connection is an expectation and information is constantly thrown our way—no wonder it’s so difficult to feel focused, relaxed, and present.
Online, it’s easy to forget that other people are real. It’s easy to forget that you’re real, too.
I followed many of my friends’ finstas this summer, viewing intimate details of their lives on my phone, but only when I quit social media did I realize that I had hardly spoken to some of them directly since May. When I had Snapchat, I would often click through stories showing my friends hanging out together—friends who had every right to go out in small groups without me—and still I’d feel that twinge of disappointment at not being included.
Still, I believe that we have the power to use the Internet for so much good. It can break down binaries, connect many people, and catalyze unprecedented levels of understanding and unity. And I believe we can change the way we use social media for the better. We can use it to bring about substantial connections by interacting directly and by creating a world that is based less on likes and scrolling, and more on direct interaction, reciprocated feedback, and the interchange of creativity.
I don’t want to imply that I think everyone should quit all social media, though, because it is such a huge part of our world. Change has to come from a widespread commitment to reducing our reliance on “antisocial media” and its distracting, impersonal, and addictive nature. We need a world that looks back at us when we look at it. And until we create a digital personal assistant that can really do that, we’d better look up from the screen.
Eden Gordon is a junior at Barnard College studying English and creative writing. When not ranting about social media, she sometimes moonlights as a singer-songwriter. The Idealist runs alternate Fridays.
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