Living Outside the Filtered Echo Chamber: A personal essay on why I left conventional Social Media and the impact it had on my life.

I would like to preface this personal essay with this statement:
I think social media can absolutely be a force for good. I think it has many benefits and perks. I believe that, if used correctly, it can be a good thing. I am in no way advising people remove their online presence if that is not what they personally want to do. This personal essay highlights
my thoughts, my personal experiences and the changes I noticed within my own life when I deleted conventional social media. I also would like to acknowledge that I am aware I do still have an online presence – this blog and also my youtube channel. While I define the difference as these are personal platforms that don’t really allow for the same level of back and forth mindless engagement as other media, there is no advertising, and my blog and channel are not as convenient as most other social media, I am aware they still count as a variation of online social media. I use them as a personal creative outlet knowing there is little chance of a steady audience, rather than relying on a pre-existing, selectively chosen “news feed”.

About three years ago I was required to research social media and its impact on people as a whole and as individuals. During that research I came across a talk from 2011 in which Eli Pariser spoke on what he called the Filter Bubble. It was a perfect explanation on how the internet – Facebook, Google, news engines, all filter the information they give to the public on an individualised basis. For example, Google is said to use 57 different key points of reference to filter the information you search for, so it can tailor its data to you without you ever being logged in to an account. That’s awesome. It’s also kind of terrifying.

The talk stuck with me and I went down the rabbit hole of research in to echo chambers, filter bubbles and cookies (the digital kind, not the edible kind). Finally, I couldn’t see anything but the filter-bubbled-echo-chamber and it began to upset me. So 12 months ago I deleted a lot of my social media. I got rid of Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. I never had Instagram. I deleted a lot of messaging services and told everyone I was moving over to just a few platforms. Much to my surprise – and chagrin – a lot of people rioted against the idea of deleting social media. A handful of people commended me, but started taking bets on how long I’d last (the highest time frame was two months). About a third didn’t say anything – these are the people I have come to realise never saw the message and therefore easily forgot I existed as I ceased to have a visible, convenient, persistent presence on their news feeds.

I know that last sentence sounds cold and calloused. It is. I lost quite a few people in the deletion of social media and it hurt. But that hurt was a crucial part of the realisation that social media had turned me (and everyone around me) in to a mindless scrolling “liking” zombie. I wasn’t having genuine connections with the people on my feed. I hated scrolling through but I couldn’t stop. I could feel myself becoming increasingly disinterested in the people around me as people – I wanted to know only the best and most glamorous parts of their life. I even caught myself verbalising how little I cared about literally anyone on my feed because I simply didn’t “have time for their superficial bullshit” despite that being the only thing I wanted from them. I was in a paradox – wanting only the best from people, while I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted to scroll for scrolling sake and not actually process any information. I wasn’t really engaging with anyone other than to have the occasional troll or heated argument about something that was being over-hyped by the very echo chamber that had been tailored just for me.

Looking back now on how the filtering system works, it’s no surprise a lot of people missed the memo I was leaving. If my feed was being filtered, of course everyone else’s was too. It’s incredible that I had been so annoyed at individuals for what was, in fact, a mass scale problem. A problem that so many people I was annoyed with probably didn’t (and still don’t) know is happening. 

I had become increasingly annoyed at common social media. Facebook and Tumblr had increased their ads on their news feeds. I realised that my more conservative friends were never showing up in my feed any more. Snapchat stories were boring and monotonous. I was tired of important conversations happening on a platform that would delete the information. I was bombarded with images of over the top brutality to humans and animals for shock value from far left activists. The only right-wing argument I would see would be something my Leftie friends had posted with a diatribe about why the Right-wing were wrong. I noticed my arguments for politics, religion, philosophy becoming warped, hive-minded and coming out as meme length digestible snippets with no real thought behind them. I lost my ability to debate without getting heated; I’d stopped listening.

My world view had become polarized and looking at my feed – so had the people around me. No one was willing to listen. We had segregated ourselves from each other – us and them. The Left Vs Right, the Queer Vs the Heteros, the Whovians vs the Sherlockians… (then of course there’s the ever prevailing Supernatural fandom who have a reaction gif for everything – bless them). We’d isolated ourselves from the bigger picture. We were reinforcing confirmation bias on a second to second basis.

I needed to disconnect to reconnect with life around me. Everything was becoming overwhelming and I couldn’t ignore it. It reached the point where ads were all I saw. Anger was a constant state of being. Drama and the need to be loved by all was front and foremost in everyone’s lives. So I took the plunge. I wrote up an explanation, told people the platform they could reach me on, and gave them the address to this here blog. Once I was sure I’d given people vaguely enough time to see the message, I deactivated, and I went (relatively) dark.

In the first few weeks I received invites from people to events. They went something like “Hey loser, how’s the void going? Housewarming at mine on Saturday, be there or we’ll assume you’re officially dead!” Yikes. At the time I laughed, and I’d go to the events. I’d see people surrounded by other people, all with heads bent over their screens, scrolling through their various feeds and not listening to the person next to them (if anyone was talking at all). After a few weeks however, the invites stopped, people stopped replying to my messages, and I was effectively out in the void alone and without a spacesuit. I was finally disconnected from everyone who’s digital audience I had relied on over the years. After a month or two, even text messages and general chit-chat died down and a lot of people moved on and stayed “in touch” with more convenient people. 

In hindsight I’m rather saddened at the behaviour of people who were meant to be my friends and support network. While I understand some of their words regarding my leaving social media were said in jest, there was real fear behind them. I lost quite a few people I thought would have stuck around. I had expected the superficial “friendships” to disappear, but I hadn’t banked on people I’d spent real world time with to stop contacting me too. For the first month or two, I felt like I had been a friend of convenience, rather than a real friend. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be someone elses transient friend.

I understand that my leaving most media had left people confused, and sometimes people forget and they just assume I know something because “It’s all over the internet right now” but the truth is, I simply don’t know. I’ve created some ignorance, which I am trying to combat by checking a variety of news apps and even reading the newspapers in the morning. Note: I said variety. I now actively seek out both left and right-wing ideas. I look for centrist and other ideals. I find I am far more informed on topics of interest than I ever was. My view isn’t being reinforced by the filter of my peers anywhere near as much as it was. I’ve also been able to avoid the vast majority of “Fake News” because I’m more discerning in the news I consume and where I get it from. I’m able to bypass a lot of fake statistics, over hyped dramatic retellings of events and I can get a decent basic overview of the world as it is. Which has been proving rather hard to stomach as the world is in such chaos at the moment, and I’m tired of being sad all the time. So I often find myself going a few months living in blissful world ignorance – which I am aware is not great. I’m working on it.

It’s also assumed that I just know about personal events because again, people forget I can’t see the Facebook event invite. Once I’d abandoned conventional social media, I realised I might experience a large amount of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I was only semi prepared to say good-bye to every event invite Facebook could offer, but I persisted. Occasionally I’d message people and see what was happening. Every now and then I would check my favourite clubs/venues to see what events were coming up. I even subscribed to a few mailing lists for the bands and community events I cared about most. All of a sudden my time was MINE again. And boy oh boy! Did I fill it!

I started getting my gym routine back on track. I was reading more often. I was texting people to see if they were free for brunch, and I got many text messages asking to hang out after work from those few who’d stayed in contact. My calendar suddenly became more full of genuine one on one (or tiny gatherings) than Facebook had ever allowed for. I was and am having real communication with people who genuinely want to see me – because I wasn’t part of a mass invite. I don’t feel obligated to show up because so and so are going. I am no longer a social pariah for not attending this event or that event. My social life has never been more active, and I’ve never been so happy to be so busy. I even get to schedule in Me Time – and no one needs to know that’s what I’m doing that day. I am no longer obligated to do anything I don’t want to do; And let me tell you, that is the kind of freedom money and fake social status can’t buy.

Since exiting the mass social media world, I’ve noticed I’m not influenced by marketing as much, but I’m also much more sensitive to it. I SEE advertising around me now because I am not bombarded with over 5000 ads a day (minimum) like everyone else is. This is mostly due to the lack of social media, but also because I don’t own a television and I very rarely listen to radio (I was that person well before my annex from social media). Any ads I see are on free apps on my phone or while I’m walking through the street. Of course, this doesn’t account for inadvertent subtle brand-vertising whenever I look at my Nikes, or the brand of protein powder I use or the labels on my (cough – vast – ahem) range of makeup. But I notice the impact direct advertising has on me and those around me. I’m more aware of what is being advertised and I find myself baffled that I never really realised just how much was being thrown in my face day by day, minute by minute. 

The realisation at just how insidious advertising had become lead to a house of falling cards. I had epiphany after epiphany on how much my mental health was affected by social media. All aspects of it. Deliberately inflammatory posts would get a raged fueled response from me. I’d stay mad at those things and carry that rage everywhere – waiting for the topic to be raised again so I could fume longer. Gossip would reign supreme in face to face conversation, discussions on how good x,y,z looked and where to buy it were occurring all around. Consume, consume, consume. Rarely create. Rarely engage healthily. It was chaos. It still is. While a lot of people are very good at not engaging, or they have different methods for blocking the world out – I just didn’t have that restraint. I probably still don’t, if I’m honest. But my anger and rage has subsided. I’ve found healthier ways to process the world around me. By being less angry at things, and filtering my words through logic (instead of just letting my initial emotional response reign) I’m able to show more compassion and understanding. I’m able to engage in a conversation and use it as an opportunity to learn. Granted, this doesn’t always happen, and I’m still adapting and teaching myself patience, but I’m far better than I was, and I like that I’m calmer. For myself and everyone around me. 

I still scroll through things on my phone, however they’re things like my camera reel. I’m no longer mindlessly scrolling through things I don’t care about. I get to scroll through things I cared enough about to take a photograph. The difference made by such small things is immense. The time given back to me was surprising and I’m proud that I found useful and constructive ways to use it. If you are thinking about taking a hiatus from conventional social media, I can highly recommend it. If you’re not overly thrilled about the idea, that’s OK too. It’s important to step back every now and then, I think, and reevaluate what conventional social media means to you and how you interact with it on a day-to-day basis. I still use my phone a lot more than I’d like, but with ever-increasing technology it’s hard to break away; It’s also something I’m working on.

The last 12 months without conventional social media has taught me a lot about myself and how I interact with the world and people around me. It highlighted so many social issues, personal issues, and seemingly simple ways to fix them. Extracting myself from all the yelling gave me time to observe and think. My mental health is the best it’s been in several years. I have better connections to those around me. My fitness and health is front and foremost in my life. I’ve made good friends with new people who never knew the online persona I presented and I’ve made better friends with the people I knew when my whole life was public. I’ve found an excess of time in my daily life that has allowed me to learn and create. I write frequently (even if I don’t post). I taught myself solely vegetarian and vegan cooking and developed some of my own recipes through trial and error (and the recipes that worked are amazing). 

Personally, I did the right thing in leaving the filter bubble. I am significantly happier and I have far more meaningful connections with the people around me without the echo chamber sounding back my own often ignorant opinions. When I see people face to face, or we chat on the phone I am actively engaged in listening to their lives – and more often than not – people are willing to discuss the nitty-gritty; The stuff they don’t want on display. I’ve noticed people reach out to me for help or advice because I don’t live in the glamorous life of constant conventional social media. I have the very rare outsiders perspective because I don’t see life through the glitzy filters available on everything. It makes my interactions mean more and I feel like I can do more good in the lives of the  people around me. I can give them more of myself because that piece of me is genuine and unfiltered. For me, that is important. 

 

 


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