On social media and self-discipline – James Hitchcock

I lack self-discipline. I’m a self-loathing millennial in this way; I procrastinate on work, sometimes wash down one post-class beer with an unnecessary second, and have put off Sunrise Hikes for three years running in favor of two more blessed hours of sleep. I’m by no means alone in this; I suspect many other college students–both from our present generation and those to whom we’re heirs–partake and partook in the same extensive tradition of mediocrity. Yet one demarcation between us and them in this realm of overindulgence is the omnipresence of social media among young people today. Much has been written about sites and apps like Facebook or Yik Yak–mostly overwrought hand-wringing that serves as a convenient example of the heightened level of self-awareness we feel about the online identities we create and neurotically maintain.

The gist of it all, as of late, seems to be widely understood: social networks can be pretty unhealthy. The cliché pondering “what if that which is meant to bring us together actually isolates us?” has been explored in countless formats of satire, the news, and pop culture. As also noted ad nauseam, Facebook–the long undisputed giant of social networking–is clearly passé. Hungry, equally uninspired scavengers such as Ello nip constantly at the titan with premature obituaries and laughably vacuous “manifestos” directing the future of social media.

Yet no one seems to be leaving. Monthly activity statistics show little to no slowdown in Facebook usage, while studies published in February of this year showed over 750 million users logging in on any given day. Speaking from my own experience over the last academic year, I’d actually begun to use social media more often. Yik Yak’s attempt at anonymizing local communities was innovative and entertaining, I became more active on Twitter, and I’d whittled down my News Feed to render it tolerable, even at times interesting. The apathy with which I’d for a while approached social networks gave way to an unexpected renewed enthusiasm for them.

But after a while, I found myself back at square one. The newness of a streamlined News Feed faded, as did my Twitter usage. Browsing Yik Yak and reddit became somewhat of a chore because of the “dumbing down” of much of their content, which had grown to be primarily composed of reposts and lowest common denominator-type submissions. If I sound whiny, it’s because I was–I had no real motivation for browsing these sites and apps, yet I did every time I opened my laptop or pulled out my phone. It wasn’t a problem of texting or messaging too much; those one-on-one interactions, though faceless, still retained an element of personality that made them worthwhile and satisfying. It instead lay with the feed: the endless, passive fount of data, with its promise of questionably valuable new material available upon every refresh. The result–a plethora of posts, occasionally tasty but consistently nutritionally deficient–was seductively vapid and irresistibly tempting to check at any idle moment. Eventually, though, this apathetic force of habit that guided me to do so curdled into a real sense of annoyance, so I deactivated everything. It was an extemporaneous decision–an angry reaction to a few dumb posts rather than a graceful and thoughtfully planned exit.

It’s also happened to be one of the most pleasant decisions I’ve made this year. Prior to the last few weeks, I’d either afforded those off the grid a sort of bewildered respect for being “above” Facebook and other social media, or looked down upon them as irredeemably socially inept (I’d like to place my present self in the former category, but who’s to say?). But my disengagement with social media has been therapeutic and de-stressing–not quite transformative, I’m pleased to say, but nonetheless significant. The subversive tendency to plan my own actions around how others behind a screen would perceive them has dwindled. Without tagged photos or posts to work with, asking someone how his or her weekend was gains that much more earnestness. I’m still too often self-absorbed at the computer, but I’m now consuming content that’s more personally fulfilling and stimulating–an especially incisive opinion piece, articles forwarded from Mom, and so forth.

I write all this not because I’m exactly proud of my decision (because that’s all it is–not some grand feat or victory) but rather because I’m pleased with it. For those who’re able to use social media as idealized: a sincere kudos to you. But for those others who find themselves in a similar position to mine–perusing Facebook, Yik Yak, and others in mindless rituals whose nominal social benefits are overshadowed by the sheer amount of time they waste and their corresponding opportunity costs–I’d wholeheartedly encourage trying to go without for a bit. I’m certainly not closing the door on social media, but, for the time being, doing so has instilled in me a small sense of liberty that I haven’t felt since seventh or eighth grade.

In the meantime, shoot me a text; I’d love to chat.

Leave a Comment