The Post-Social Media Era

Personal ponderings on how to navigate this new frontier (part 1)

 Illustration by  dangerlam

Illustration by dangerlam

 
“Only that which can change can continue.”
– James Carse

This quote has been one of my most favourite quotes for many years now.* But, in the past few months, I’ve been beginning to realise that it might even apply to myself.°

* There’s an irony in that.
° The dangerlam tells me that the humour might be too dry here, but I think it’s just right. 

For some time I have been cultivating an exquisite distaste for social media. And yet, in my game—as a wizard & writer masquerading as a motivational speaker & leadership advisor—social media seems to be almost an ‘essential’ thing to do (lest I disappear into obscurity). And thus I am left in a quandary: how to dabble in the dark arts of social media, without succumbing to the misery it ensures? How to play the very silly game of establishing one’s self as an authority, without ascribing to the algorithm? How to continue to ‘self-develop’ when courting a world of fake news, false intimacy, and real distortion?

It’s got me questioning the whole bloody thing. And so, I write these personal musings in the hopes that shining a light into my own perturbations might:

  • Illuminate that you are not alone (if you’re experiencing likewise)
  • Highlight another way of seeing things (if you’re not aware you’re experiencing likewise)
  • Reveal you an alternative path (which may turn out to be terrible)

So, shall we?
 

How I Came To Realise: It’s Worse Than You Think

For quite some time I’ve fancied myself as ‘above’ the masses that use social media. Here I was, in my tower, reading actual physical books and occasionally meeting and conversing with people outside and IRL. I knew social media had long turned poxy, but I’d still dabble. I thought I needed to for ‘presence’ or something. That if I didn’t post something I’d be forgotten, and thus eventually forced to become a hedge wizard and take a job as a barista like other philosophers (which probably wouldn’t be so bad). And besides: is an endless Instagram scroll-hole really such a bad thing? It’s inspiring. Art and stuff. I can control it, I thought.

~ Shallow Thinking ~

But then a year or so ago I read Deep Work by Cal Newport. This helped me realise just how much the Internet (social media in particular) can distract and fragment our attention, keeping us in the shallows. I made myself new rules to mostly follow—namely: no internet before 1pm or after 9pm. This gave me time for deep focused work in the mornings, and quality reading time in the evenings.*

* Of course, travel almost always disrupts this rhythm—prompting me to think about how I structure my years. But more on that in another musing.

And yet still—social media would exist in the peripheries of my day, luring me into scroll-holes, inane conversations and junk content. But also, sometimes: lovely insights into the world of friends and strangers, random lols, videos of cute animals, and exposure to new artists and thinkers to follow. And so, it all seemed (and in some ways—continues to seem) quite fine.

~ Distorted Thinking ~

My next nudge came from the simple yet emphatic book by Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Yes, you could watch his TED talk—but reading the book (with a soft lead pencil to underline) will be much more… affecting.

This book was compelling. The thing it made me realise was that social media is not only distracting us all from deep work—the algorithms and feedback loops were actively distorting our reality. I came to realise just how much it was biased: not to the left or right—but straight to the bottom. Social media is making us collectively dumber, unhappier, fractured, politically unstable, angry, fearful and more inclined to regressive polarity. “If you can quit social media, but don’t, then you’re part of the problem,” Jaron Lanier says.

I was already teetering (my use of social media has always been sporadic and haphazard at best)—but by Argument #3 in his ferocious little book, I was ready to pull the plug on them all.

Or at least: I thought I was. 

But then on a whim I checked my inbox in LinkedIn and it turns out people actually use that as some sort of emailing service. Buried amongst all the fake sincerity, flagrant neediness and drivel were some legitimate business opportunities.* Opportunities I otherwise would have missed. And besides: I sometimes use LinkedIn when I’m traveling to catch up with folks in new cities (my chat with Mike Walsh in London manifested thus). Sometimes.

* Even arch-wizards like me need coin to pay the spies and acquire new spell components.

This prompted me to check Twitter and lo! Folk had been messaging me there too. What the? Unlike my actual email inbox—which is warded by a simple cantrip: an automagic responder that manages expectations, deflects responsibility and dispells any sense of urgency—these people reached out to me directly. Directly! The messages in my social media inboxes were (are) of course mostly about attending their courses, buying their programs, or doing favours for them (like endorsing them or sharing their content with my network). But still: they had reached to me directly, and were now waiting for me. I was letting them down. I was being a Bad Person.*

* I don’t rather like saying ‘no’ to people—it clashes with my sense of generosity, benevolence and abundance. But then I don’t have the time or inclination to have my ‘brain picked’ for an hour by one individual for the price of a coffee. It clashes with my sense of value. But then what is time? I wouldn’t be where I am now if not for the help of others. And so the spiral begins…

Then I remembered Maria Popova’s advice, that sometimes the best response is no response. “Why put in the effort to explain why it isn’t a fit, if they haven’t done the homework to determine if it is a fit?” And, for the vast majority of cases this holds true. And yet I’m still left with a sense of unease. 

~ Bad feels ~

And if I reflect on my interactions with social media, they’re all laced with unease. A subtle melancholic and guilt-laden hollowness, occasionally spiked with mildly inept furore and/or delight.

Each platform, of course, has its own flavour of dis-ease. 

Facebook feels like a polarising echo chamber spawning a semi-retarded vision of society, littered with cute but inane videos, humblebrags, fake news, pseudoscience, and ‘self-depreciating’ posts crafted to enhance likeability. It started off nice, and served me well when I was in university. Now? Not so much.*

* I’ve since deactivated my account. A first step toward deleting it.

Instagram feels like a mesmerising, hypnotic and addictive spell—which can be a very nice form of well-filling escapism—if you only follow artists.* The only thing is that the lingering, come-down effects of these vicarious trips can make you feel rather shabby, insignificant and talentless (if you let it). A subtle eroding of self-esteem and worth. But sometimes warm and so supportive. Bah! I’m a little undecided about Instagram. It’s run by Facebook, and designed to make you feel sad and insecure. But it’s mildly interesting and fun. And in fact—if I’m honest (which sometimes happens)—I love the glimpses into people’s lives. It’s like standing outside their window, without any of the creepiness. (No actually it’s still creepy).

* And yet: what are you escaping from? Perhaps some time addressing that may serve you.

LinkedIn feels like a wax museum of people’s supposed ‘best professional selves’. Like being at a noisy networking event where the doors are sealed and everyone is carrying business cards and their own pull-up banners, with intense eyes and plastered smiles and when they shake your hand they grasp your upper arm too. Except that some are actually mannequins controlled by algorithms, and some are people who will do anything to win the favour of said algorithm. To be its slave. A litany of buzzwords chanted amidst a metric-obsessed circle-jerk full of people reaffirming The Current Acceptable Business Narrative. ‘Fail Fast! Start With Why! Be An Authentic Leader! Hustle! But Don’t Be Busy—Be Mindful! Also Have A Customer Service Mindset! And Be More Agile! Disrupt the Status Quo!’* (Btw, here is a brilliant article on How to Beat LinkedIn: The Game).

* To be fair, there are some lovely people on LinkedIn, doing wondrous things. But in my experience their voices get drowned out in the noise. This is all of my making though—for a few years now I’ve just been accepting any and all requests to connect. I’ll log in a couple of times a week and just accept requests with abandon. I figure they may have seen me speak at a conference, and I’d loath for them to feel snubbed by me. But this also means I can hardly relate to the sea of ‘connections’ I now have.

Twitter feels like descending into a carnival/pit of narcissism and rancour, occasionally spiked with brilliant threads by intellectuals, banter between authors, and insights from diverse perspectives. Maybe. Assuming you follow a diverse mix of people (lest you craft yourself an echo chamber). But even then: the algorithm.*

* And, like with any scroll-hole, best treated as a diver might—how much air do we have? how long have we got?—lest we drown.

Of course, there are more social media platforms—plenty of alternatives to the big four I’ve listed above. And then there are quasi-social media platforms like medium* and (relatively) nascent decentralised open source blockchain-based social media platforms like Minds, which is potentially exciting. But still—it’s all just media.

* Which is mostly free of advertising (unlike other quasi-social platforms like YouTube). Medium still create some distortions, but overall it’s not too bad.

This brings us to the question of social media altogether. What is it even for? Perhaps this is best addressed by splitting our focus. 
 

Do we need to be social?

Actually, I’m not even going to attempt to answer this with depth. It’s not even a question: we are social creatures. We need to socialise—even the most introverted of us—for we exist in relation to others. To reuse a quote from old mate James Carse (and one I used in my ‘How to have a Nemesis’ musing): ‘One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others.’ Also: you live longer, with community.

So: let’s just agree that the social domain of our lives—relating with each other, and having a sense of community—forms an important foundation of our existential wellbeing. 

Is social media fulfilling this profound need?

Yes, I suppose: in the same way a packet of salt and vinegar chips fulfils a need for nourishment. 

Oh maybe I’m being a tad harsh here. One can find immense support amidst some social networks. But are we now having a discussion parallel to the discussion on social media? Or are the two so entangled and entwined? Possibly, yes. Is this a good thing? Probably not.
 

Do we need media?

Of what use does media serve—social or otherwise? 

To be Informed, we tell ourselves. And to a degree this is true. Media does inform us—forming in our minds a certain view of reality. This is inescapable (yet we have some ability to shape this). Just as we are what we eat,* we are shaped by what we consume. And so, if your information feed is full of rubbish, then, well...

* Or rather, what we don’t excrete.

But who is to say what is rubbish and what isn’t? One would hope that the scientific method, combined with curiosity, empathy, reason and discernment (with spirited dialectics amidst ongoing dialogue in a listening society) might help—but social media platforms are not the place for this.* Although they are a great place to discover emerging cultural memes and new works of art.

* I wish they were, but they aren’t. 

And so, what to do?

Prepare To Be Underwhelmed

The short answer is: I don’t quite know. Not yet anyway—I’m still figuring this out. But I’m not sure I’ll ever quite fully know—and so alas: I must work with the broken and incomplete fragments of knowledge and sense I hold. 

And so, here’s what I am doing. I share this with you not because I think it is the single ‘right’ thing to do (it might not work for you—and you’re free to choose*). I share this in the hopes that my own sense of things might enrich and contribute to your own sense of things.

* Perhaps more free than you realise.

In a nutshell:
» I’m socialising outside of social media.
» I’m consuming media (books) outside of social media.

This has been the case for some time, and will continue to be the case. Perhaps, even more so.

But what of this Dr Jason Fox character I happen to be and embody? How does a paragon of prominence navigate the messy frontier of social media?

With distaste and relish.

Allow me to explain

We are (and always have been) in a post-truth world—whether or not we are in the post-social media era (yet) is another thing. I suspect that the insidious business models of these tech giants will mean that social media will persist in the fabric of society for a very long time. But in any case, we are well past the romantic notion of social media ‘making the world more connected’ now. And we are most certainly amidst a new frontier. “It is a different world,” writes Antonio García Martínez in WIRED“one where the universally acclaimed expert or editor has been replaced by internet-enabled rumour and hearsay arbitrated only by algorithms.”

And so we are seeing the emergence of neo-tribalism—where different factions hold (and reaffirm) their own fragments of ‘truth’. This could very easily descend into a new form of medievalism, where different tribes bicker and fight over a particular worldview, so as to have a certain ideology ‘win out’ (has it ever not been thus?—only now, it is more vividly catalysed and globalised by social media). But then there are those who play a more ‘infinite’ game, and seek to contribute whatever tweaks they can to help (blindly, and with knowingly naïve arrogance) steer society unto a better path (or, more aptly: to further coax the emergence of a more listening society).

To do this, one must embrace and master multiple perspectives—to see the ‘truth’ from as many angles as possible, and to synthesise and reconstruct these broken fragments into something more beautiful, meaningful (for the betterment of the world).

Cute. But what does this mean for Dr Jason Fox, in practical terms? It means that I shall continue to wield fiction, narrative and ‘truth-masked-as-fallacy’ (and vice-versa) as a propulsive force. That I shall cast forth avatars and apparitions of myself into the interwebs, to make mischief.

To quote the metamodern poet Seth Abramson, “A metamodern social media user might deliberately misuse a social media platform on the theory that being authentically oneself in a way that is ostentatious and perhaps even a bit annoying is more likely to be an effective form of communication and activism than making oneself smaller by playing by the rules.”

This means treating social media as a smaller, sillier (and unfortunately: significant) part of a wider infinite game. It means stepping into archetype, showing up in character. To play the algorithm and work the stupid masses. Or not. To oscillate between activity and apathy, acuity and ambivalence. To be on it, but never in it—never consumed by it. 

But how do you protect yourself? Oh don’t worry about me. Remember: this isn’t the Jason (the soft, sincere and sensitive introvert) using social media—it’s Dr Jason Fox. And even then, it’s an avatar of the Dr Jason Fox that is manifested and sent forth—not the wizard himself. 

And of course, as an Arch-Wizard of Illusion, Obfuscation & Enchantment, I am acutely aware of the dark patterns social media platforms use to magnetise your attention and manipulate your behaviour. And thus, in addition to the temporal bounds I place on social media (that is: the limited hours of the day I allow myself to access it)—and in addition to removing all pesky alerts—I perform the following ritual before posting anything. I simply ask myself: what is my unmet need?

Any form of communication is an expression of an unmet need

Before sharing anything, catch yourself and ask: what need is currently unfulfilled? And: is there a way to fulfil this need outside of social media? If so, do that. Reserve the messiness and distortions of social media for your highest needs (for society and the world). And then: show up in character—a dissociated authentic amplification of your self (in solidarity with all beings)—and make mischief. Generative, propulsive, inclusive, progressive mischief.

“Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humour; best, to have no way at all but to have instead the wit constantly to make one's way anew from the materials at hand.”

―Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art


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