It all started in 2004. The Facebook was new and had just started accepting more colleges, and my classmates were pressuring me to join. I often have a reflexive counter-reaction to peer pressure, so it wasn't until the spring semester was winding down and we'd be apart for the summer that I relented and joined. And… I was wrong to reject their overtures. The Facebook was fun! We could post on each other's walls, send photos back and forth, meet new people. It was fun!
Fast forward twenty years and I'm I find myself hating all of it and wondering if this was all a big mistake.
I was never a huge Facebook user (even after they dropped the "The" and starting every post with "Derek is…"), but it was nice to have an easy-to-access online spot for all of our shenanigans. There was nothing else like it. Yeah, comparisons were made to MySpace, but Facebook wasn't the same at all. I spent most of my "online social time" on Star Trek and tech forums, because those were more my interest and speed anyway.
And then along came Twitter. I resisted at first, again partly due to peer pressure, but also because I had become a professional writer by that point and I was increasingly verbose. The thought of limiting my thoughts to just 140 characters was revolting (it would be years before Twitter adopted threading). But I caved and got on, and while I often spent a lot of time editing my text to fit the limits, I really enjoyed it.
You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Or you're Google+.
And then Google+. And Instagram. And Vine, Reddit, Meerkat, Snapchat, and on and on and on. Some were really good. Some were Google+. But most were at least fun to use at first.
Some I joined and used and liked, others I wanted to try out just to see if I liked it, and some just because that was the only way I could reach some people.
But over the past several years it's all just gone to shit. Facebook was the first. I was okay at first when Facebook started allowing adults on. My parents both joined, and it was fine. They posted innocuous stuff just like everybody else and it didn't ruin all of the fun I was having with friends. But when Facebook started allowing businesses on, and news on Facebook became a thing… I started not enjoying my Facebook experience.
People got angry. And mean. And more tribal about the groups they identified with than ever. I found myself opening Facebook, scrolling for a bit, getting mad about something somebody said, and then leaving. I watched people I love turn into people I barely even recognized. Even after repeatedly paring down my friends list and blocking or unfollowing people, it just wasn't fun anymore.
It was late 2020 that I'd had enough. I'd already mostly stopped using Facebook by that point anyway, but I was done and stopped posting any more, deleted the app from my phone, and didn't look back. If I didn't need to be able to access Meta business tools I would've deleted my account entirely.
By this point I was already all-in on Twitter. I was probably addicted, if I'm being honest with myself. Part of my enjoyment of Twitter came from being able to customize my experience through apps like Tweetbot (RIP), which allowed me better control over what showed up in my feed.
I was having a grand old time, and then the double whammy of COVID and the 2020 election turned Twitter into a hellhole. No matter what side you were on, it was ugly and it was not fun. But I persevered, for some reason, constantly adding new terms to my Tweetbot mute filters just to keep my timeline somewhat sane. But when Elon Musk bought Twitter, everything somehow got even worse.
I deleted Twitter and it took months for the "I should tweet this" impulse to stop.
I found myself getting angry at the decisions being made and the way the community was changing and just decided one day that I was done. I didn't have the energy to be this mad all the time. And so I deleted Twitter from my phone and logged out on the web and haven't looked back.
A sign of how addicted I was: it took months for the "I should tweet this" impulsive thoughts to stop. I would grab my phone and open the app launcher folder where Tweetbot used to live, only to remember that I wasn't doing Twitter anymore.
But that's okay. I still had Reddit. I'd been a Reddit user for years, but never all that active. It wasn't until I found some specialized communities that meshed with my interests that I became more involved, and slowly it started to consume more and more of my time. Like Twitter, I used a third-party app (Apollo) to take control of my Reddit experience, muting the subreddits and keywords and users I didn't want to hear from while still allowing my personal interests and the rest of the general topics to float up. It was fun! And the specialized communities aspect reminded me a lot of the forums that had been my first internet addiction.
Reddit changed and I did not like what it became. It used to be fun. Now it was work.
And then this summer, Reddit went to shit too. First there was the killing off of third-party apps through absurdly high API fees, followed by moderator protests that took major portions of the site offline for days on end. While they all came back eventually, sometimes in weird ways and sometimes with Reddit forcing the sub back open, it just hasn't been the same.
On top of that, without all of the muting tools to manage my Reddit feed it turned into a unceasing flow of garbage. Reddit changed, and it wasn't something I liked any more. I'm still active on Reddit, but I've limited it to just six small subreddits that I have personal interest in. They're more like individual forums than a large interconnected social network. I only check it a few times a day now, and because it's just those communities there aren't that many posts to scroll through before I reach the end of what I've already read and can't scroll any further.
It's kind of sad. The rich and vibrant social networks that defined my early adulthood are no longer part of my life. They changed from what I loved about them, becoming toxic and divisive and even dangerous to my wellbeing and society as a whole. While I certainly derived some personal joy and utility from Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, I can't help but wonder if they were a mistake.
The problem we run into with all of these efforts is how we paid for them. In that we didn't — the vast majority of users on any social network never provide them with any direct payments in exchange for services, and that's what enabled all of them to grow as fast and as large as they did. They were free, in essence. All you had to do was sign up. We paid with our attention, by viewing ads on almost every page load. And that meant that the people running the social network had every incentive to get us to load more and more pages, to keep scrolling, and to keep commenting so others would do the same.
Free-to-use, ads-funded social media always trends towards designing for addiction.
The ad-based model forced every single one of these social networks to lean into cultivating addiction in its users. They wouldn't call it that — the tech development term is "engagement" — but they needed users to be addicted. Every page view might only garner fractions of a cent of revenue, but in aggregate across millions or billions of users? That's real money.
They all prey on the tendencies of our human brains. And it's not just the social network itself, no no no, the people posting on it do the same thing. How do you think news and influencers became so popular on social media? They tailor their content to what they know will drive more
addictive behavior engagement. So headlines and photos and videos get more and more outrageous over time, to the point that you struggle to reconcile the world you see outside with the world you see through your phone.
I'm no psychologist so I won't try diving into the dopamine effects that social media has on us. I only know how it made me feel, at first and later at the end. All I have is some advice: if you find you're using this stuff a lot, consider dialing back. And if you find that using Facebook or Instagram or whatever is making you feel worse, delete the app. You don't have to cancel your account, but just cutting off the easy access point into the addictive but enraging may do you some good.
I know it's been good for me.