Shortly before the coronavirus became a full-fledged global pandemic, I chose to go on an indefinite social media hiatus. I would only log on every couple of weeks to share my articles — an unfortunate requirement of my job — and then promptly log the fuck off. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with social media but used it compulsively because getting online attention is addictive. (It’s also the most efficient way to procrastinate.) Engaging with social media on a daily basis has lingering effects: You might find yourself doing some menial task like grocery shopping, maybe without a mask, thinking, “If I posted about this on my Instagram feed, how many people would yell at me?”
Life under quarantine has exacerbated the custom of living life online. With IRL interaction off the table, it’s only natural to turn to social media as an alternative. But Facebook and Twitter and their ilk always made a lousy substitute for being around other people. Social media is a warped reflection of our world, where people behave more brashly than they would face-to-face — your friends sure as hell don’t behave online like they do in real life. It’s a system that rewards being as audacious as possible. In these dire and lonely times, consuming an infinite and addictive stream of panic will only make you feel worse about an already bad situation. Therefore, in addition to staying six feet away from other people and avoiding crowds, I would recommend practicing social media distancing.
The longer I stay away, especially now, when things are so chaotic and scary, the lighter I become. I am free of the daily outrage, liberated from the discourse. Friends tell me that social media is “the worst it’s ever been” and that “everyone’s going legitimately crazy,” and I don’t care to learn the details. I hear that the president is tweeting more fanatically than ever, rambling about the “corrupt media” and winning “the war on the invisible enemy,” but I have cut myself off from direct, unmediated access into his twisted mind. I can get the Cliff’s Notes elsewhere.
I’m not arguing that ignorance is bliss — well, it can be — or that you shouldn’t keep up with what’s going on in the world. Abstaining from social media doesn’t preclude reading the news or other parts of the web — in fact, I can’t recommend staying informed highly enough. Using the internet asocially keeps you safe from ingesting a million people’s opinions about the news, absorbing their anxieties until they become your own. It gives you more control over the information you consume, which is crucial at this moment when everything seems out of control.
I understand that social media is a way to stay in touch with your friends and a vehicle to stave off quarantine-induced loneliness, but logging off brings you closer to your loved ones. My friends and family don’t automatically know what I’m up to, and vice versa, which means that when we communicate directly, we have actual news to share. In my period of abstention, I’ve been communicating more thoughtfully and deeply. I talk on the phone more than ever — I have a personal distaste for video chat — and I’ve taken to sending letters to my loved ones.
Using a pen and paper to describe how I’m doing and what I’m thinking about approximates the process of firing off a tweet or Facebook post; both involve disgorging idle thoughts into a void. Writing a letter also has the added benefit of being emotionally rewarding without any of the drawbacks that come with social media. I am unbound by character limits, free of the fear of being misinterpreted, safely out of the sightline of trolls and other bad actors. Posting online doesn’t help you know yourself better, but writing a letter does. I am communicating with one person intentionally as opposed to carelessly communicating with everyone, and the act of doing so, even if there’s no immediate response, much better mitigates the loneliness of sheltering in place than social media does.
Social media and alienation are famously intertwined. A 2017 study, which surveyed 1,787 Americans between the ages of 19 and 32, found that those who use social media for two or more hours a day feel more socially isolated than those who don’t. “What we know at this point is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being,” a public health professor told NPR. At a time where you have to cut yourself off from the rest of the world in the worst way possible, you owe it to yourself to do it in the best way possible as well.
It’s not like forgoing social media turns you into a saint who passes the time by working on the next great American novel or cleaning and reorganizing every square inch of your home. I spend my days attempting to write but, for the most part, dilly-dallying around my apartment, baking bread and other treats, playing Animal Crossing, and doing too much online shopping. Untethered to the feed, I am regrettably still me, albeit not nearly as stressed out. This pandemic has already changed the world as we know it, and things are not going to go back to how they were before. It’s terrifying for sure, but spurning social media allows you to be more present, and that is a gift.