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What I Talk About When I Talk About Social Media

It has been a while since I wanted to talk about it. This post is mostly a personal reflection, but I have also learned a lot through other people’s ideas, and I want to share them.

First, let me ask: have you taken your phone into the bedroom or bathroom in the past week? I’ll come back to it later.

As a millennial (or post-80s/90s in Chinese), I grew up with internet, mobile devices, and social media. Since high school, I have become a heavy user of these technologies. I studied Computer Science and built a Twitter client for my bachelor’s thesis. I had also worked on social network platforms directly and indirectly in my previous jobs. Through different apps over the past years, I have met many people and became close friends with some of them.

China has the most comprehensive and sophisticated internet censorship in the world. Overall, it has become stronger and stronger over the past years. In China, you can only read what the government allows. If you post something they don’t like online, platforms will have to delete it sooner or later. For this reason, you can’t see the world as it is, and you don’t talk about things as you might wish. So, I started paying the so-called “internet tax” to access the complete internet. Since a few years ago, I have avoided using Chinese internet services as much as possible.

My online time has always been high because I’m interested in technology and all kinds of things. During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media helped the world remain connected; my usage increased, too, compared to all the past years. However, in the summer of 2022, I realized I had spent much more time on social media than I wanted. I started thinking about it and making changes.

We use social media for two purposes: personal and public. Personal connections are people you know and want to keep in touch with or know what they are doing recently; most connections are mutual. Public can be things you are interested in, topics you care about, mostly posted by organizations or brands, and you are one of many subscribers.

You might only want to connect with your friends or colleagues initially, but the algorithm will keep feeding more things to you. If you aren’t careful, you can end up with more and more content to consume.

As a start, I reduced my time on Instagram. Since I care more about personal connections than public news there, I separated the two kinds of feeds on Instagram into two accounts. It turned out that the following number for news is more than twice that for personal connections. After the experiment, I could only check the main account more often and left those advertisements behind.

Sometimes, things will change more dramatically after your perspective changes. Eventually, I quit all the social networking services I was using. I didn’t delete my accounts or stop visiting those sites entirely, but I did three things.

Firstly, I changed from mindlessly consuming content to intentionally using it, only using it when needed and not having any alternatives. I stopped browsing the activities of all my friends on a timeline. Instead, I look at their profile only when I think of someone. This way, I can spend less than 1 hour daily on all the social apps.

In addition, I almost stopped posting anything. It’s convenient to use the tools made by big platforms, and it’s easier to reach an audience there. However, a platform can change however it wants, and my content is not entirely in my control. So it’s better to own the content by myself.

Last but not least, I started to tell people about this. To display my attitude and not contribute to their growth, I updated my profiles or left a farewell message to say so. I also told some friends about it.

Social media is not cigarettes, alcohol, or video games. Still, it will be hard to break the habit or overcome the addiction. These companies have spent billions of dollars to hire some of the brightest brains. They are continually working on engineering these digital drugs. They aim to make people stare at their screens and package users’ attention as a commodity to advertisers. People who are paying them are their actual customers. You are losing control, not because you are lazy, but because you are fighting a war with an entire army alone.

Through my fights, I find some practical ways:

Quitting social media has helped me optimize my time online and urged me to consider what truly deserves my attention. My book reading stats have gone back to the level of age before my first smartphone. I have been journaling more than before. I actively thought about how to allocate my time and finally get to things that had always been on my backlog.

Since I still want to stay informed about society, besides books, I have other ways to get information:

Guess what? 99% of them provide RSS feeds for subscription, and podcasts can’t work without RSS. The old way is better.

I have seen the rise of centralized social networks, and I hope to see the fall of it soon.

In case you are interested, here are some resources to learn more: