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Divesting from "social" media: Self-sabotaging or shapeshifting?
Let’s just say that I have felt quite discouraged lately. The question I’ve been sitting with is whether I just have a tendency to self-sabotage, or whether a constant feeling of failure is inevitable when we are trying to reorient growth, redefine “success”, and shapeshift into more regenerative, authentic, and life-affirming ways of being with the world.
From my reflections, I realized almost every time I gained mastery in some way of “working” to make ends meet while pursuing my interests in advancing discourses on sustainability, I became disenchanted with the “way” it worked and would decide to pivot how I show up—to be in deeper alignment with my values.
Earlier on, just when my conscious lifestyle blog started taking off, I became dissatisfied with its limiting, individualistic focus and the blogging and traditional media business model. As I envisioned that path forward, it was crystal clear to me: The larger a media platform becomes, the higher its operational costs and advertisement rates, and the less likely that smaller, independent makers and brands would be able to afford that larger “reach”. In other words, mega-corporations with massive marketing budgets are able to “reach” way more people (and sell more) by way of 1) buying endorsements from public figures and influencers and 2) running ads in the most established outlets.
So what, then, if I understood sustainability to require a decentralization of power and a scaling down of production systems? What if I felt strongly about wanting to champion the independent makers and the local artisans and workers who may not even have a brand name or digital presence?
While there are many within the mainstream media space trying to go against the grain, the overall trend at large remains undeniable: corporate interests work mutualistically with corporate and larger media platforms to accelerate the centralization of power on both sides. Seeing this, I knew I had to shed the incentive of being reliant on brand sponsorships—if I wanted to maintain the authenticity of my critical perspectives in the long term.
So I sold my blog to a trusted collaborator and began my journey transitioning toward building reader- and listener-supported, “independent” platforms. This was a multi-step process that, in retrospect, could also be viewed as steps of self-sabotage. I sold my blog just when I got good at blogging, I phased out Instagram sponsored collaborations just when my account grew large enough for that to feel financially supportive, and I phased out ad placements on Green Dreamer Podcast just when our listenership allowed us to attract values-oriented advertisers with the marketing budget to fund our work. I took these leaps of faith, cutting strings before actually feeling ready to do so, because I could sense, through feedback and the tangible increase in reader and listener donations, that people valued my voice and trusted what I was working towards.
But I share this now as I am in the midst of taking another step which is starting to feel like self-sabotage yet again.
I became disenchanted by “social” media as a medium of communication towards the end of 2021, feeling called to divest my time and attention from it.
We already know from numerous studies that “social” media has a detrimental impact on people’s mental health (especially that of teenagers and young adults). But my concerns go beyond the individualized health impacts to the broader cultural impacts.
As context-dependent beings, we are constantly being shaped by the environments we place ourselves within. And I was starting to see how short-form “social” media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, by design, incentivize and reward reactivity and superficiality—that is the culture that their algorithms and platforms breed.
“When a new technology comes along, and [McLuhan] was talking about television, we think of it as like a pipe: Information goes in at one end and gets into our head at the other…
But actually, it's more like putting on a new set of goggles and starting to see the world as shaped like that technology…
What is the message implicit in the mediums of social media?
Think about Twitter. When you use Twitter, you're absorbing [and buying into] a certain set of implicit messages. The first is that the world should be described in 280 characters—that that is a sensible way to describe the world. Secondly, that you should respond to things really quickly—what matters is how quickly you respond. Thirdly, what matters even more is whether people immediately agree with this very fast, very short thing you just said.
I realized why I feel so bad on Twitter even when I'm ‘winning’, getting loads of retweets:
I don't think many things can be usefully said in 280 characters. The world is complex. If you're reacting really quickly, you're probably wrong. Most things worth saying require contemplation and depth.
And it absolutely does not matter whether people immediately agree with you.
[So many] that we admire, when they [first] started articulating the truths they spoke, most people disagreed with them. No one was retweeting Socrates or Martin Luther King, right? They were damning them.
Then I thought about the messages implicit in the physical book. It doesn't matter what the specific book is. The messages are firstly, slow down. Secondly, it asks of you to think deeply about what it's like to be another person, to imagine the internal life of another human being. I realize this sounds maybe a bit pompous or grandiloquent, but I think those insights are morally true.
This is why I treat Twitter like Chernobyl. I think we need to take care of what technologies we use, because over time, your consciousness will come to be shaped by those technologies.”
What if I wish to cultivate intimate engagement, not reactive engagement?
I get the game of “social” media. I see the types of “engagement” such platforms reward—I name it reactive engagement. The question I came to was, what if mastering this game and orienting towards its incentives fundamentally alters the deeper values and messages I hope to embody and relay?
What if instead of reducing complex topics and inquiries into 280 characters, quotable graphics, or hot takes, I feel compelled to create content that invites us to slow down, go into deep contemplation, unravel subjects to their core with curiosity, and sit with something for a few days or even weeks, allowing time and space for the messages to process and interact with different parts of our lives and states of being?
Put simply, short-form “social” media platforms, designed with profit-maximization and use-addiction as their motives, do not encourage nor reward the type of intimate, deep engagement that I am more interested in.
I put social in quotation marks as I think it is an illusion that they foster genuine social connections or true community. It’s funny how big tech co-opts our relational needs that are crucial for our wellbeing, using labels such as “friends”, “community”, “engagement”, and “connection” in ways that I would argue do not adequately represent what people more deeply yearn for. I think it’s more accurate to name “social” media as fragmenting media (for how it disrupts our attention and erodes our capacities for deep focus) or dehumanizing media (for how it simplifies and superficializes the complex human experience).
“We've collapsed the idea of community with connectivity… Just being ‘connected’ doesn't mean you have any sense of community at all.
To have a community, people need something very visceral. They need to be in close proximity to people. They need to communicate on a day-to-day basis. They need to understand the flaws of people. It's not about curated existences, which you have on social media.” –Brad Evans via Green Dreamer EP350.
Scott Timcke of Algorithms and the End of Politics echoes a similar sentiment—that such constructed, curated worlds are eating away at our capacities to recognize and live with the complexity of other people and the world-at-large:
“One of the ways that I think about it, given the parameters of my scholarship, are questions about alienation. I think it very much boils down to the mechanization of alienation or the digitization of automation. We ultimately start to then have fewer and fewer means to reach out and really have genuine human encounters with other people…
Identities have become very binary. It's you are this or you are that. The levels of difference and the ability to navigate difference and the ability to argue and exchange reasons for each other have very much evaporated.
These categories that are created, shaped, and reinforced on platforms have now become entrenched so much so that we can't even reach out and understand the people who live around us.”
While none of this is a criticism of any individual “social” media post or account, as I’m sure many are leveraging these tools for very important causes, it is a broader critique of the cultural shift that has been happening—as we embed our society deeper into these reductive spaces, sometimes making them out to feel more “real” than the much more raw, dynamic, and complicated world itself.
“We don't really have a common experience of social media. Each one of our feeds is very different from one another. It's very hard to see what other people’s feeds happen to be, so there's a lot of context collapse that occurs.
My way of understanding a tweet is shaped by the tweets that happen to be around it, for example. What am I reading around an issue or what are the other people commenting upon it?
That can attenuate, alter, or shape my understanding, my interpretation of that particular tweet thread, for example, where someone else might not have that same experience.” –Scott Timcke via Green Dreamer EP344.
Finally, beyond seeing through the illusory worlds many seem to be immersed in, as I alluded to in The Power of Silence, it is worth paying more attention to what has been left out and left unsaid even as the world is increasingly “connected” and “aware”.
“The question is, it's not just what's being spoken about, but what's not being spoken about, what's not being shown, what's not being represented. I think therein lies a distinct mediation on the types of spectacles of suffering which we want to be paying attention to and the ones which are being canceled out.
One of the most harrowing forms of violence we can imagine is disappearance… to just simply vanish and disappear without a trace. What we've noticed in with the advent of especially in countries such as Mexico but also globally...
the more connected we are, the more information we have, and the more surveillance there seems to be about the world, the more there has been an exponential rise in the disappearance of humans.
How can we make sense of that seeming contradiction?
Maybe it's not a contradiction.
There really is a real, serious challenge for us to explain—how can we have so much technological surveillance about the world and yet people can simply vanish without a trace in tens of thousands?
This is happening globally, and I think that it’s exposed one of the myths of technology… that actually it's much easier to dispose of life the more technologized we become. That, to me, has to be a real challenge to those who will argue that technology will save us. Because I don't think it does.” –Brad Evans via Green Dreamer EP350.
What am I doing here?
As I meditated on all of these health and cultural concerns of “social” media and the digitization of relationships, I started asking myself this question: If I am conscious that these platforms, by design and with their incentives, are orienting us towards cultures of reactivity, superficiality, fragmentation, and simplification, then what am I doing 1) spending so much time here and 2) publishing content in these spaces to keep people here? What if those health, social, and cultural transformations are compromising our capacities for deep thinking, conflict resolution, and true community building, taking us further away from being able to address the climate crisis and other large-scale socio-ecological challenges of our time?
If I hope to inspire not just perspective shifts but different ways of being and relating to the world, should I not be encouraging people to similarly spend less time allowing our lenses to be shaped by these reductive algorithms and siloed spaces—and to spend more time getting to know our own communities and the real, complex social relations within them?
I cannot say for certain, but my decision to spend less time on “social” media over the past months (the only change I’ve made in 2022) seems to have translated into less supporting subscribership for Green Dreamer's Patreon and this newsletter—in spite of our listenership and readership increasing, significantly, at a faster rate than last year for both. It could just be the state of the world, explained by more and more people facing economic hardships, of course, but I cannot shake the fear that my worth to mainstream society, both in terms of monetary and social capital, is being determined by how large of a “following” I can amass or how active I am on those platforms.
Either way, it feels like I’ve just advanced along my next step of self-sabotage: Just as I got the hang of creating highly sharable, simplified infographics for Instagram last year, I became disenchanted with the reactive and presumptive ways people engaged with them and decided to divest my time from it to play with the idea that “The Medium is the Message.”
I’m left feeling exhausted in this world where up feels like down and down feels like up. It seems like mastering the game would come at the cost of having to cave in to its ways, becoming someone I do not want to be—yet rejecting its rules and rewards to feel more aligned with myself would come at the cost of being weeded out from mainstream society and what I still need from it to exist.
What if wishing to embody the change in form is too idealistic, an impossible pursuit that will lead me to corner myself off into irrelevance? Or is this sort of experimenting at the fringes to break molds a necessary part of the relational and cultural healing that we need?
To reframe the dichotomy, perhaps this process of changing our “how” inevitably means self-sabotage within this dominant system—which places higher values on extraction, individualism, and “productivity” over care, community, and conservation. And perhaps a constant feeling of “failure” and not-belonging is just the validation I need to know that I am on the right path, going against mainstream currents in order to find other ways of being with the world.
But I’m still conflicted. And I shall continue to sit in these messy contradictions and hypocrisies.
Dive deeper: I led an open audio discussion on this article, which you can tune into via episode 11 of UPROOTED (live).
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