I recently gave a deliberatively provocative TEDx talk titled “quit social media” (see the video above). The theme of the event was “visions of the future.” I said my vision of the future was one in which many fewer people use social media.
Earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan published a long essay in New York Magazine that comes at this conclusion from a new angle.
Sullivan, as you might remember, founded the sharp and frenetic political blog, The Daily Dish (ultimately shortened to: The Dish). The blog was a success but its demands were brutal.
For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week…My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.
In recent years, his health began to fail. “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”, his doctor asked. Finally, in the winter of 2015, he quit, explaining: “I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.”
This might sound like an occupational hazard of a niche new media job, but a core argument of Sullivan’s essay is that these same demands have gone mainstream:
And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific.
As he summarizes: “the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.”
As I noted in my talk, one of the most common rationales for social media use is that it’s harmless — why miss out on the interesting connection or funny ephemera it might occasionally bring your way?
Sullivan’s essay is a 6000 word refutation of this belief. Social media is not harmless. It can make your life near unlivable.
Sullivan attempts to end with a note of optimism, saying “we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs,” before adding a more resigned coda: “if we are even prepared to accept that there are costs.”
I agree that we’re not yet ready to fully face this reality, and cheeky TED talks by curmudgeonly young professors like me probably won’t move the needle. But when heavyweights like Sullivan join the conversation, I can begin to feel a cautious optimism grow.