It’s not accurate to say that I don’t use social media at all. I just haven’t been posting to social media. I login in to both Facebook and Facebook’s Instagram two or three times every day.
What keeps me coming back? Both apps learn what I respond to and show me more of it each time I log in. I’m not proud of this addiction. I don’t enjoy giving away information about my likes and habits, and don’t want to be targeted for ads based on that info. But in lieu of hanging out with friends all over the city and country and world, and in lieu of direct, personal communication, it is a small morsel of connection.
I have two friends who invariably have fresh stories and posts every time I open Facebook or Instagram. These are two friends I’ve talked to in real life during the pandemic. One, who lives in the D.C. suburbs, I recently got together with in person for a socially distanced outing. The other is in another time zone, but we’ve talked by phone a few times during the pandemic. I know much more about their lives than they know about mine. I learn more about their animals, plants, kids, socially distanced hangouts, food, wine, distance learning, meetings, biking, walking, adventures and social/political passions every week than they have learned about mine in the life of our friendships. But I know both friends do not post about certain aspects of their lives: hard times they are going through, relationship issues, professional frustrations. The frequent updates give me the brief illusion that we’ve caught up, that we’ve spent time together today. A quick “like” or “heart” sends them a blip of a message: I’m thinking of you; I see you. But it is no substitute for picking up the phone, for meeting up.
After I catch up on these two friends’ posts, the app shows me some similar but less prolific friends’ lives. The same dynamics apply, though their narrative thread is looser. I have to fill in more of the blanks. These friends are no less dear to me than my most prolific friends. I apply a few “likes” or “hearts” and move on. Almost all of these prolific and semi-prolific posters are single women. I assume this is part of Facebook’s formula for maximizing the number of ads I see. I feel gross about these friends’ lives being used in this way, as if they were the women in a beer ad keeping attention on the screen through a break in a football game. Is this what everyone sees? Or just me. I have no way of comparing my Facebook experience, friend network, or psychological profile to anyone else’s.
Next, the feed shows me posts from a few non-friend “content creators” I frequently “like.” Some of their posts and recommendations have made it in to this series, including Rebecca Solnit and Heather Cox Richardson. I “like” some of their new content. I “like” long articles, having read only the headline and the posters’ comment. I feel guilty, knowing that I’ve just accelerated these articles reach without judging the nuances of their facts and the original author’s intentions.
I find a link I want to read in its entirety. The Facebook app opens it in a dumbed-down browser panel unsuitable reading more than a paragraph or two. If I leave Facebook, it will be difficult to find the original poster’s conversation about the article, and I’m sure to be distracted by other things the next time I open Facebook, anyway. I find the hidden “…” button and choose the “open in Safari” option. This might be the end of my social media time for several hours. Or I might leave that story open in Safari and return to the Facebook app for more.
That “more” in my feed might be absurd and hilarious posts from the dystopian “Bots of New York,” a disturbing AI-generated attempt to replicate photographer Brandon Stanton’s popular “Humans of New York” series. Or it might be art critic Jerry Saltz’s Instagram feed, a mix of art he stumbles upon, political commentary, erotic art jokes, and glimpses of his coffee- and takeout-fueled life with his wife, New York Times critic Roberta Smith. I often feel that I know more about Jerry’s day than I do about my next-door neighbor’s. Though she too is a frequent social media sharer, I often know more about the meal she’s just cooked through Instagram than I do through the enticing smells that waft through our open windows. An ad for a meat delivery box follows her post.
My phone interrupts me. I’ve asked it to limit my time on social media to 15 minutes a day. But I’m not done. I blow through the stop sign by clicking the “remind me in 15 minutes” button and continue.
Facebook’s “groups” tab has a red notification bubble. I glance at these to make the red bubble disappear. Silly memes and comment threads about urbanism, trains, baseball and podcasts. Distractions. Many of these groups have so many members that they hardly seem private. A long-dormant private group of alumni from a fellowship I once had pops up. An opportunity for a new grant. The details are hard to read and navigate in the Facebook browser. After twenty frustrating minutes on two devices and three web browsers, I determine that I’m not eligible for the grant. I put my phone down.