Saturday’s walk — and my writeup of it — became heavier than I expected. I was looking for fresh air, exercise and a change of scenery beyond the short neighborhood walks I’ve been taking in recent weeks. I didn’t expect policing and religion to be the memoranda, hints, cartography of the journey. But if we knew what we’d find on a walk, there wouldn’t be much point leaving the house.
Still. The walk leaves me wondering if I am becoming paranoid and poisoned by social media. Or am I noticing more keenly because my walks have been less frequent, because the environment is changed, because the moment demands we pay attention?
The Social Dilemma, a documentary by Jeff Orlowski about the ways social media is out of control, has been a frequent topic among friends (off social media, on zoom, at a socially distanced picnic) in recent days. I haven’t seen it yet (my Netflix membership lapsed long ago), but I am familiar with the perspective of Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology, featured prominently in write-ups of the film.
I’ve written about my wariness of social media a few times during this series. I still haven’t posted about this series to Twitter or Facebook-Instagram, though I’ve noticed that a few friends have shared posts (thank you). I don’t think those networks are a net positive for my life. I hold on to the idea that I should advertise my business and promoting my art and writing there. But the effort always feels hollow.
It bothers me that I saw a man being arrested and immediately compared him to photos of militant instigators based on social media posts that have haunted me since the early days of the Minneapolis uprising. I realize that I sound like the conspiracy theorists I criticize when I speak about shadowy characters working to instigate trouble. But I trust the voices who have shared these images and stories with me, experienced journalists and writers who have spent time in war zones, lived in authoritarian countries, followed protest movements for decades.
We are exposing ourselves to social media’s manipulative algorithms at a time when our country is going through such extreme division. It isn’t helpful. But it’s also not a coincidence. The growing influence of Facebook and YouTube on politics was apparent when I worked on political social media in its early days: rapid escalation of conflict, widespread misinformation from unaccountable and anonymous sources. Facebook has admitted it failed to police political ads and misinformation during the 2016 election. It’s impossible to say how much of Trump’s ascendency is due to Facebook’s algorithm, but I don’t think it is zero.
I think I’m done with Facebook and Instagram for good. When? After this countdown hits zero? Tomorrow? For a while I was removing them from my phone after each use. I’d download them in the evening and look at what friends were sharing and then delete the apps again before bed. But, the rewards aren’t there for me anymore during this pandemic. I’ve written about what I see when I open my feed and the anxiety it causes me. There are other channels for seeing what friends are up to. Other channels for finding nerdy baseball talk. Other channels for books and art events and conversation. Re-awakening blogging here on this site is part of the solution for me, building the platforms we want to see in the world.
Meanwhile, my next long walk will be a nature excursion…