Elana Kopelevich

On social media

November 29, 2023

social media
tldr: Social media is mostly bad. It's addictive, it's terrible for society, and it makes you feel icky. But I'm back on it because I'm a hypocrite and I'm trying to promote my projects.

I am not above the sway of the scroll. I can either abstain from it completely or I can let it diminish my wellbeing one minute at a time. If this sounds dramatic to you, you are in denial. Every minute you spend mindlessly scrolling is not only a minute chipping away at your mood, weakening your concentration, and warping your worldview, it's also another payload of your data moving into the hands of corporations that use it to steal even more of your time and attention.

We know social media is bad

Most people know this at some level. We have all seen it first hand, from the seemingly innocuous behavior of a family member that is obsessed with "likes," to the friend we can't talk to anymore because MAGA. Millions have watched The Social Dilemma, a fairly simplified explanation of how social media companies manipulate users into engaging with them and how this behavior negatively affects people psychologically. The New York Times had a great podcast a few years ago, Rabbit Hole, about how easily the media companies easily radicalize people with "the algorithms." There is an important organization, The Center for Humane Technology, that develops resources for educating people about the epidemic that is stealing our minds, and I believe their working is slowly seeping into public consciousness.

I think fewer people have read tomes like, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and perhaps have a less clear understanding of the way that these companies use our personal data to control our behavior, Still, almost everyone I know understands that their phones are listening to them, that their social feeds are criminally curated, and that civil society has moved beyond fracturing, to fractured, in a large part because of the propaganda machine that is social media.

We are all wringing our hands at the amorphous scoundrel. We watch frontmen like Zuckerberg testify before congress (like he is the lone individual who caused this and can fix it). We like to direct our anger at faces because a larger system to too hard to comprehend, but at the end of the day, these companies actually have fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. They have to design the most manipulative interfaces because that is what makes the most money. The worst part is that in some twisted way, many of us are those shareholders, via our retirement funds and all the other indirect economical interdependence that is also too hard to understand. Such is modern capitalism.

I am not writing this rant today to offer new information or a novel solution. I won't waste your time pretending that I can do that. Your attention is limited as it is. I can suggest that you check out all of the things that I've linked to in the paragraphs above, if only for your education. Better understanding provides some defense. That said, I'm here, on my own website, writing a reflection, a record of my own experience.

My personal experience

In the beginning, I joined all the things - MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Like a wide-eyed rabbit hopping into a salad-laden trap, I started posting flattering photos of myself doing fun things. I reposted some social and political things. I was never a hot takes gal on Twitter, but I tried to pretend like I was having meaningful conversations there. I also posted filtered pictures of artsy objects to Instagram and watched with baited breath for social validation.

In time, I recognized the absurdity of it all - the artificial sense of connection, the popularity contest, the charade of meaningful conversation in 140 character chunks. I connected the change in our larger social structures and the bad feeling that came directly from an hour of scrolling, and I called it quits. It wasn't all at once. I dropped off of these platforms one by one and it was like a weight lifting from my shoulders with each account cancellation. For years, I self-righteously prided myself in "not being on social media." It was the new version of "I don't own a TV."

But something changed recently. I started a project - a web project (a comic) that I wanted to promote. "Promote" is the key word here. How did people share their work before social media? I could certainly print physical artifacts and give them away (on a street corner?), or purchase an ad in my neighborhood newsletter, but what about reach?! How did anybody really tell anybody else about anything before the social media hellscape that exists today?

Mastodon (and others)

It didn't take me long to fold. I created some new accounts. I avoided the corporate monsters in the first backslide. I started with Mastodon. Choosing Mastodon over Meta solved some of the problems that caused my initial exodus. With the distributed nature of the platform, no corporation owns the data. If you're up for it, you can run your own server and own your data. If you use someone else's server, it still seems pretty likely that they're not exploiting your data. You also control the information in your feed, as it shows up in chronological order and there are no ads. This is huge.

I created an account for myself (so I could approach it as a community platform, and come as a human and not just a brand) and one for Mooshy and Co. (to promote my shit). I introduced myself and shared my interests and I immediately got hundreds of (real human) followers who were interested in a variety of things, from climate, to philosophy, to writing and art, to just having a conversation. I got less of a following on the Mooshy account, but I assume that's because the comics aren't really funny or polished yet, and also, it's a brand. I get the impression that Mastodon people are a little burnt out on brands.

Mastodon, is 90% better than the corporate platforms for all the reasons I mentioned above. The result of its differentiations is a platform that is less addictive, often has interesting information on it, and is not slimy. That is a big win. There are only a few problems, and unfortunately, they're kind of major. For one, it is still an endless scroll. I have less of a problem disengaging in relatively less time, but I still find myself mindlessly scrolling through hot takes and half conversations for more time than I intend. What's more, it still provides the same false sense of engagement with people. Since participating in "the conversation" is totally optional, it can be like standing at the outer edge of a group of people, not saying anything, and then walking away believing that you made some kind of connection.

There is also the rise of the loudest, the most righteous political 'splainers, and over-sharers. There may not be an algorithm, but these are the people that share the most. Yes, it would be the same situation in a physical room full of real people, but it's more subtle and insidious when it's happening online. I know you can do things to curate your feed, but I don't care enough and I don't think that solves the underlying problem. I regularly close the app with a feeling of doom.

All that said, my biggest problem is that it takes my time, and I've just been focusing on Mastodon in the previous paragraphs. I haven't even gotten into that fact that in my second round of backsliding, I also created an Instagram account for Mooshy (I mean, there is more of audience there!), and I spend time promoting the comics on Reddit, which is actually the worst for me. With both Instagram and Reddit, the feed is not chronological, the design is intentionally addictive, and when I'm done promoting my own stuff, I think I'll just spend five minutes looking at what else is out there. It's never five minutes.

What is my point?

Social media is bad, and I'm part of the problem.

Well, yes, but the cat is out of the bag (Why was the cat ever in the bag? What a horrible idiom). Despite the fact that my experience is not the extreme and this whole phenomenon is actually a terrible social problem, nobody is going to fix it. Short of pushing for education and crawling policy changes, we're on our own.

I've attempted total abstinence (I highly recommend this - life is so much better when you're not looking at a screen), and fell off the wagon (because I'm selfish and want people to pay attention to the thing I'm making). I am now back to engaging with the beast, but I am writing this reflection so I can be clear with myself and so I can be more intentional about my engagement.

Here is what I recommend (to myself):

Okay, I'll report back and let you know how it goes.