The best kind of social media

In my ongoing quest to divest from Big Tech, social media's moment on the chopping block has been lingering for a while. It's had me thinking a lot about the way we interact socially on the web and how that maps to interactions in real life.

Before the ubiquity of social media, we still had plenty of ways to connect with others online. As a teen, I had email and AOL Instant Messenger to chat with friends from school after we'd finished our homework (or, more likely, were procrastinating on homework). In my early college years, blogging and Livejournal were ways to share ideas, experiences, new music and the occasional photo with existing friends and make a few new ones. Web forums about common interests were ways to meet new people with shared interests all over the world. In those days, I was probably keeping tabs on 20 or 40 friends and loose acquaintances online on a regular basis. It was manageable, and many of those people I still talk to today.

With the rise of Facebook and Twitter, I was suddenly keeping tabs on hundreds of people: kids I went to elementary school with, classmates from high school, friends I made during college, random acquaintances I talked to one time at a house party, former coworkers, people that went to my family's church growing up. Not to mention all the brands selling things I wanted, bands I listened to, quick-witted celebrities, and well-spoken journalists and thinkers whose ideas I wanted access to. And, of course, all the ads I was being targeted for that subsidized the cost of my participation and made Zuckerberg billions. This is far less manageable.

All this got me thinking about Dunbar's number. The theoretical cognitive limit of the number of people I am able to truly know is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150. If I follow 200 or 500 people, my brain is working overtime to keep up. Even if I only see a subset of their online activity, it doesn't scale. My attention is spread thin trying to care too much about too many people. It costs me more of my time and mental and emotional wellbeing to maintain lots of shallow connections than fewer deep ones.

In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell addresses the attention problem by suggesting we don't need to give up on social media altogether, but that we can engage with it more mindfully using it at a scale that actually works for humans. Partly inspired by her words, I've withdrawn from Facebook entirely, and have significantly cut back on (and regularly audit) who I follow on Twitter and Instagram.

I've also doubled down on some of those older forms of internet socializing. I'm here blogging on a simple, standalone website with an RSS feed, and few people are likely to see this except for the ones who care enough to go out of their way. And I use chat as my primary medium for sharing with others online. I'm in a few group texts, Slack orgs and Discord servers that I drop into to pay visits to small subsets friends and like-minded hobbyists. And I've spun up a server where I host a few of my closer acquaintances (the ones who are willing to run a separate chat app, anyway) further away from the all-seeing eye of Silicon Valley.

Chat is smaller, more intimate, and more akin to actual human interaction. It doesn't scale well, and that's a feature. The quality of the interaction is higher than seeing a few tweets or Facebook posts from someone over a few weeks. Rather than a wide, shallow and public-by-default social network, we optimize for depth and a level of vulnerability that only works well in smaller groups of five or ten people in a semi-private space. We share experiences and struggles, and joke, and riff on ideas together in real time. When we're busy, we close the app and drop in when we can, knowing that our absence is likely noticed in the interim. Most of the people who follow me on Twitter wouldn't notice if I left; they have hundreds of other shallow connections to fill the small void I'd leave.

I also spend time focusing on other unscalable connections, like studying up on permaculture practices to improve the health and yield of our backyard vegetable garden, and learning the names and characteristics of plants and animals I see out my window and while taking walks with my kids. Apps like iNaturalist and eBird are great for this. No apps at all is fine, too. It's well-proven that time in nature is good for our minds, so these things do more good than just distract me from Instagram.

As long as ad-driven capitalism powers the social web, the companies that control them will continue to optimize for shallow, broad connections—it's easier to trigger our dopamine pathways that way—rather than our mental, emotional or intellectual needs. In the meantime, finding ways to "unscale" my online life has been rewarding, and I am grateful to have found an alternate path, even if it's a less popular one.

published 2021-04-05