Taking a break from social media, and then quitting it entirely, had a huge impact on my life and business. If you have recently questioned your use of social media, you might want to read this article.
How I got started with social media
A few years back when I started sharing my art online, I was reading a lot about how to present it, and inevitably I saw advice that you should share your work on social media. So I started social media accounts and tried to build my following there.
I put a lot of time and energy into it. At that point, I thought it couldn’t hurt to be known as many people as possible. And social media seemed like the answer to that. It certainly kept me busy. Keeping up with making posts and the latest trends meant a lot of work with very little results, especially in the beginning. It also meant being up to date what others were doing. This took away time from me making art and learning new things, so basically the things that I wanted to do in the first place. But it also felt sort of relaxing, to keep scrolling through this feed of other people’s work, and I told my self it was inspiring.
At some point though I realized to keep up with all these social media activities you basically have to be a one-person media company at the same time. You have to market yourself constantly. But everyone in the creative industry (and other industries, too) subscribed to this opinion, whether they saw success from it or not.
The negative impacts of social media
After a few years of doing this, I recently came to the conclusion that I really don’t want to be on social media. I find it more important to spend time getting better at my art, and I can’t do that when I have to think of these platforms that demand daily attention. It’s not that I don’t like to connect with people, and it‘s not that I find marketing useless (it isn‘t!), but I like to do it in a more personal and effective way than social media can provide. For me, social media is just not worth the time I have to put into it. It might have its benefits, but for me there are not enough benefits when I weigh in the negative impacts.
One of these negative impacts is that being active on social media slowly (or even instantly?) took away my ability to focus and to block out distractions when I was working: focusing on my art, writing, acquiring new skills and knowledge, and teach all of it in an effective way. This process of deep concentration is what author and computer sciences professor Cal Newport describes as „Deep Work“ in his book of the same title.
He defines deep work as: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The ability to do deep work is – I think – one of the most important things for people who are creative and who want to earn money with their creativity, so for any working artist. Also for anyone else who works with his brain. If you want to create things and cultivate this ability to search for things in yourself, and to put them on the page or on the canvas or wherever you want to put them, you need to have the ability to concentrate and to focus. You need the ability to sit down for long periods of time without getting interrupted.
I noticed that when I was using social media, I was very distracted and not really able to focus on the things that mattered to me. I was becoming more scatterbrained and anxious, and it became harder for me to focus on hard things, like reading difficult texts or writing and drawing for long periods of time – things I used to enjoy. Instead I was drawn back to check my profiles all the time. From what I’ve been reading and hearing from others, this doesn’t just happen to me, but to a lot of people who use social media regularly. Maybe you’ve experienced it, too?
They keep you coming back to distract you
That‘s because social media companies use a mechanism that rewards distraction, to keep you coming back. They need you to spend time on the platforms so you can see the ads that their customers pay for. So every time you check your profile and see likes or comments popping up, you get a dopamine hit, not unlike a dog who hears the bell and starts to salivate. So what do you do? Of course you hit reload, or keep checking your profile all the time. The distraction is built in, and it’s especially nasty in combination with a smartphone, that device you always have with you and that can even pull you out of a phase of deep concentration with a notification sound. This is actually something that these companies took from took from digital slot machine designers (you can read about this in Cal Newport’s new book „Digital Minimalism“ and also in Jaron Lanier’s book „Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now“ – all recommendations are listed at the end of this article).
I don’t want to put social media and tech companies necessarily into a bad light, although I sure would have some critical questions for them and there are a lot of very questionable decisions they’ve made (and still make). For example, these addictive mechanisms were consciously built into their apps – although we don’t even know how it will affect our brains in the long run. I know they already have affected me in a very bad way after a short while. Sean Parker, Facebook’s former president, has stated their platform was “exploiting vulnerability in human psychology”. You can exchange Facebook with any of the other social networks here. The computer scientist and computer philosopher Jaron Lanier describes this mechanism with the following acronym: „Behavior of users modified, made into an empire for rent – BUMMER.“ It sounds funny and almost harmless, but what this mechanism stands for quickly turns into something far more sinister if you take a look at the recent documentary „The Great Hack“ which takes a closer investigative look at the Cambridge Analytica incident.
Why artists need to steer clear of distraction
But back to the artist who keeps getting distracted by social media. What‘s obvious is that these distractions diminish our ability to go into focused work states. They also change our relationship to attention. As for me, I was constantly thinking of how I can produce more content for someone’s feed. Do you notice the wording here? The kind of thinking these companies have introduced (particularly for members of the creative industry, because they produce the most beautiful pieces of content out there) is not only time-consuming and distraction-inducing, it‘s a downright affront on intellectual property rights. A lot of artists have a hard enough time already convincing people to pay for their work — illustrations, music, texts, videos, etc. All of this is worth something, it‘s someone‘s intellectual property. On social platforms you agree to produce an endless stream of content for free, making it even harder to convince people to pay for your work. Sure, there are also artists that get discovered or hired through social media, but the general direction we are moving in is that all of these things should be free. Of course the artists aren’t forced to do all this, they willingly join social media because they think it’s for their benefit. I think this is absurd.
After all I’ve read about these platforms and experienced myself, I don’t want to be a content creator for them, and you shouldn’t either. Since the rise of social media (remember 5-10 years back there weren’t any of these disruptive platforms?), a lot of businesses, but especially artists, have diminished themselves into the role of being someone who produces content every day for free for these social media companies, so that they will have something new in their feed. You can only consume all of this content by infinitely scrolling through a mass of posts, images and comments.
The problem with this content isn’t that it’s all bad or shallow, I have seen very thoughtful and interesting posts, but it’s that in the long run we can only treat it in a shallow way. All the content is part of a never-ending stream of messages (the feed) that we have to get through, so there’s never a lot of time to spend time with an individual message. Infinite scrolling demands that you go on. The post itself will only have attention for a maximum of a few hours, then it’s gone in a digital nirvana. It’s not that you can’t have meaningful exchanges on social networks, it’s that these companies make it quite hard to do so, and they make it a disruptive experience.
I think it’s not a very economical way to spend my time producing a stream of content that will only be seen for a second. I also think it’s not a very good thing to build someone else’s platform with your creative property. And lastly, I don’t buy the idea that social networks are the main channels through which artists are recognized and get opportunities these days. To me, these platforms are the new gatekeepers, and they make you jump through hoops to please their algorithms for a few likes.
More and more books and studies that have recently come out that show that social media (or whatever online distraction you can think of) makes people anxious and even depressed. It actually increases feelings of loneliness. These platforms can have a huge effect on your self-worth, as you can read in Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together.
How I got back my autonomy
Back to my story: All of this made me think, so in 2018 I started to take breaks from social media, each longer in duration. I realized that social media was killing my creativity, and my autonomy as an artist. Without it, I finally had time for the things I really wanted to spend time with: my art, learning new things, reading books, going deep on one thing instead of being distracted by a daily search for dopamine hits in the middle of all-encompassing noise. I also blocked my access to news sites, and to other sites that I knew were time-sinks to me.
I know I’ve tried to build systems to use these platforms more consciously, I tried to block access at certain times and only came there to post and answer comments. For me this didn’t work so well, after a short while I was back into infinitely scrolling.
Do you know what was the worst about my social media use? It didn’t even feel good. It didn’t feel good to scroll through Instagram, or check Facebook 50 times a day. Instead, I felt like I wasn’t in control of these things. A lot of people describe similar behavior, and studies show this kind of social media use can actually be a form of low-level behavioral addiction. Behavior of users modified. For me the logical conclusion was to just delete my accounts. Not only because I don’t want to spend time on there. I don’t want to make other people spend more time on these platforms.
So for me the right decision was just to quit these services to make sure that I don’t spend all my day there. This might not be what works best for you, but it was a freeing experience for me that felt right.
I don‘t need to broadcast on every platform that‘s available – instead I can form bonds with my students (and clients) through my website and email list. It’s much more direct and allows me to connect with others in the way I prefer. Since I gravitate towards learning through long-form pieces of writing, or in-depth informational videos, that‘s what I want to give people, as opposed to the anemic, disorganized bites of knowledge that I could provide on social channels. I prefer to go deep with my thoughts and teaching, and I hope the people who read my blog appreciate this.
I feel a lot better since I took this step. I know how I want to spend my time, where I want my energy to go. I’m pretty sure it’s not social media. I can focus on my creativity and on the analog things in life, and that makes me calm and more centered. If I want, I can even be bored, and just stare into the sky while I‘m thinking, which is something I love to do. Maybe it’s something we should all try once in a while.
Resources for further reading
If you’re thinking about changing your social media habits, read these books and articles to form your own opinion:
Cal Newport – Digital Minimalism
Cal Newport – Deep Work
Jaron Lanier – Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Sherry Turkle – Alone Together
Nicholas Carr – The Shallows
The Great Hack
I’d really like to know your opinion on this – you can send me an email or leave a comment on my blog. I appreciate each one of you taking the time to connect with me through this blog.
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