The Social Dilemma (Documentary): My Personal Experience With Social Media & Steps I've Taken to Quit It

Posted by Craig Wesley on

As with most people, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I was in the first generation of commercial internet users. I'm fairly confident that my brother and I were one of the first people on this planet to have AOL dial-up service. I even recently got a coupon code from eBay because I was one of their first users. I was one of the first users of IRC. My first date may have actually been from someone I met on an IRC chatroom. I was an early user of myspace and craigslist. I think got a handful dates from both platforms:) I was downloading illegal software and music before even Napster existed. I've basically been there for most of the birth of commercial internet.

Facebook came on my radar when I was studying in London for my Master's Degree during 2007. All my classmates were on it and so I signed up. To be honest, I didn't care for it. Just like now, I didn't really see the point of it and when the news feed was introduced, I still didn't care. Don't get me wrong, I love connecting with friends and new people. After all, I'm also one of the first internet daters to exist. For me, at that time, I really enjoyed emails and text messages. I didn't really see how Facebook added to that and, for me, it still doesn't because it have never helped me connect with people in a meaningful way.

But my relationship with Facebook got more complicated. While I was in London, my now wife and I, started an online clothing store. Holy Moly, relatively speaking, we were probably at the tail end of the first wave of online efashion retailers. Shopify, BigCommerce, and other shopping cart platforms that are so popular now didn't even exist back then. When I moved back from London to the San Francisco Bay Area, I decided to continue the business and I spent thousands of dollars on building a following for a Facebook page.

While that business was never successful, to a certain level, I was able to make money from Facebook. I think that also means I'm in the first-generation of users to make money from Facebook ads. As you can guess, my opinion quickly changed. I went from, "I really don't see the point of Facebook," to "Facebook and social media is the future."

Through Facebook, I was able to get a consulting job with a public traded company in Thailand that paid me back for any money I ever lost running old Facebook ads and help pay off 1/3 of my student loans. During that time, I even had two investors willing to invest a total of $500K-$750K in the business, though I turned both investors down. Nonetheless, that all happened in a large part due to Facebook.

But, and of course there is a but, things started to change. I eventually closed that fashion business down because it never really made enough money and I was basically on Facebook as a "normal user." Maybe it was because I was transitioning from a failed business and even the next business venture I had failed, but my relationship with Facebook and the internet took a pretty bad turn. Not surprisingly, this was around 2012 or 2013.

Maybe like many people in their 20s, I was a real optimist. I really thought I could do something good in this world by building a business and helping people around me. I remember having thoughts about how if I ever made enough money that I would just give my friends a million bucks and basically just take care of the people around me.

Not that I'm not empathetic now, but I really felt the pains of the world and it really bothered me. Even when Bush won his second-term, things still never felt like the world was going to end. Terrible things were happening that made me incredibly sad, but here's the thing, I was never really truly angry.

I would say that around 2012 and beyond, I started getting truly angry at people and the world. I know this sounds nuts, but around this time, it was when reality tv and social media influencers started taking over everything on the internet. I remember one of my reoccurring thoughts was, "how could people keep spending money to be like the Kardashians, while we have children dying in Syria, global warming, and overall suffering happening across the world?"

Honestly, it's still a thought I have today, but that thought went from frustration to real anger after a while. And, as you can guess, the 2016 election only brought everything to a boil and the pot is still boiling over. Compared to the Iraq war, where I certainly didn't care to be around people who supported it. I actually ended a friendship with someone who said that the Iraq War was a "sunk cost." I didn't have complete animosity and have a hard time getting through my day because of them.

On a side not, while social media is helping divide and polarize this country even more, it's just amplifying the divide that has always been there since the history of man. Because, you know, the Civil War happened without computers or social media.

It was definitely the 2016 election that I started to realize how unhappy the news and social media was making me. Since then, like an addicted "user," I've taken steps to basically quit this abusive and addictive cycle of social media and news feeds.

While I definitely have improved my relationship with social media, it's still a work in progress, but below is a list of things I doing for my "recovery."

1. I quit using Google News

The biggest detriment to my mental health is probably when I read upsetting news. This really became an issue when I discovered Google News and the iOS app. With Google News, no matter how often I told it that I didn't want to read about Trump, Politics, murders, etc, it would constantly show these news articles at the top of my daily briefing.

While one could argue that Trump is the headline of the day, though I can't see why Trump Tweets should be in the headlines, the last straw for me was when Google started showing me homicide stories from across the US that weren't national news. Unfortunately, certain type of homicides happen every day, but for some reason Google News wanted to keep pushing those stories on me even when I told it that I wasn't interested.

It didn't take me long to realize how abusive Google News was. It was really trying to trigger such an emotional response to keep me as a "user." What Google didn't realize is that what made me addicted to Google News was simply knowing what real life changing events were happening. For example, for me, real news, before COVID-19, was an article about when autonomous driving could be the standard. Having an idea of when people in the US would be traveling by self-driving cars to me is real news, not when Trump, Elon Musk, or Kanye West sends out a tweet. That's not real news, that's literally tabloid news. The same type of news one would have read in the National Inquirer.

I was willing to stay in this abusive relationship with Google News so that I could always be on top of what real world changing event were happening. But the problem is that just reading the headline, without even reading the article, is enough to set me off. At this point, most people don't need to read the article to know what's in it. For example, one recent article is titled, "‘He’s a small child’: Utah police shot a 13 -year-old boy with autism after his mother called 911 for help". Without even reading the article, most empathetic people should be upset just by reading the title.

While it's hard to argue against Google search results when looking up news on a specific topic, I had to quit the iOS app. Now, I'll only use Google news on a browser searching for specific news topics that I want to dive deeper into.

2. I don't read news pushed onto me, I go find news from reputable news sources (AP News, Reuters)

Fortunately, unlike my Google News addiction, it didn't take me long to realize that some news being shared on the Facebook Feed was complete trash. Especially after the 2016 election, I made it a point to not read any news being pushed on me from social media. Instead, every day, well several times a day, I visit what I believe are reputable news sources, such as the Associated Press for world news and Reuters for more business and economic news. Unfortunately, all news agencies are truly obsessed with Trump, which is one reason he won the 2016 election, but it's at least a bit muted compared to CNN or Fox News, which are basically on the extreme end of the biases. I find even National Public Radio can be too obsessed with Trump and political news that I've minimized my visits to their website.

BTW, if you think Associated Press is "fake new," then you really should quit social media and the internet as a whole and look to truly define what a fact is to you and test to see if that definition always holds true.

Unfortunately, for local news, it's literally impossible to escape click bait news. The movie, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, is a perfect movie on why local news is generally so terrible. Have you noticed how news anchors can go from looking so serious when talking about a grizzly murder, to so happy when talking about a viral video. And why is the "news" showing viral pet videos? It's basically like watching a bunch of sociopaths pretending to have human feelings. As you can guess, I don't watch local news. I read it like the rest of my news. Nonetheless, local news can be pretty important, especially during COVID-19 so I scan headlines for what's important from my free local news site.

3. I use Facebook only for to sell old junk and even then I still use a pseudonym

During the George Floyd protests and when Mark Zukerberg refused to do anything about certain Trump posts, combined with how Facebook shaped the 2016 election by letting fake news spread like our California Wildfires, I decided to truly minimize my use of Facebook and the information it has on me.

For example, I don't use my real name, birthday, list my location, or basically provide any profile information. I unfriended everybody and unfollowed/unliked all pages, which includes music, bands, movies, books, that I've liked in the past. If I'm actually shown an ad, I mark it as not interested.

There was a day when people posted a blacked out profile picture to support the Black Lives Matter movement and I just decided to stick with that.

Basically, I have the minimum of what could be considered a profile on Facebook. I use it because my wife is still on there and I think it's a decent way to log-in to other websites, especially when all the information Facebook has on me is either incorrect or non-existent.

4. I minimally use Instagram and barely use Twitter

In a different life, I would have love to been a photojournalist, so I do enjoy posting my photos on Instagram and I still can't get away from seeing how many "likes" a photo gets. Fortunately, for the same reason why I essentially quit Facebook, I haven't really posted much on Instagram. In the explorer tab, Instagram is very responsive to when I say I'm not interested in a certain post. Generally, when I say I'm not interested in a political post, TikTok dancing videos, etc, it'll remember that and very rarely show me those photos again.

I've never been a big Twitter user. I literally only follow three account, California Earthquake, City of Alameda, and Alameda Power. I skip the explore tab completely because it's usually junk news or trends to keep users engaged.

5. Other social media platforms, don't know them, don't want to know them

My generation is basically the Myspace and Facebook Generation, so I never got on TikTok, Snapchat, or whatever else is out there.

6. My Youtube feed doesn't know what to suggest

My Youtube feed really only suggests maybe 5, at most 10, different channels that I've watched in the past. Just like Instagram, I proactively mark when I'm not interested in certain channels and topics. I think I've done it to the point where Youtube doesn't actually know what videos to suggest, so all they can do is suggest videos from channels that I'm already watching.

As you can guess, I avoid the explore tabs all together, especially the news tabs. Those are literally all Trump news videos. If I want to see news on a specific subject, then I'll search for it myself and make sure I'm watching it from a real news source.

7. I use Firefox and stopped using Google search

Tor browsers are probably the most private internet browsers, but earlier versions were very slow so I just settle with Firefox and use a minimal tracking search engine, such as DuckDuckGo or Startpage. While I still use Google Mail because of its Spam filters, to a certain degree, I've cut off a big chunk of what Google wants, which is to track just about everything you do online. Gmail scans your emails, Google remembers all your search queries and clicks, and, through Youtube, knows what videos you're watching. By not using google search, it takes a big chunk out of what data they're tracking and storing on you.

8. I usually just stick with the same handful of website that I always visit

When I'm not researching for a blog post, I only have a dozen or so websites that I visit and I stick with them. Sticking within these "walls" helps me to stay sane and be less angry with the world. I'm 100% sure I'm missing out on something in the vast world wide web, but I honestly don't mind at this point.

So far, these steps have really help me get back on a healthier track with technology and the internet. Fundamentally, I try to minimize my exposure to platforms that depend on serving ads and in many ways I'm just trying to go back to "old school" technology of emails and direct messages to communicate with people. As I mentioned before, it's all a work in progress because my wife and I make our living online, a small living, but a living nonetheless. So, for us to literally unplug isn't realistic at this point.

Best of luck to you and hopefully you have or will have a healthy relationship with social media platforms.

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