It is difficult to avoid the news about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. As someone who has stopped updating Twitter — except I did re-enable the autopost for this one given the topic — it’s surprising how much Google thinks I need to know about the play-by-play details of that business deal. AllSides has a roundup from across the political spectrum. It’s fascinating to scan headlines and see what different groups are emphasizing.
When I look up from the news, though, little has changed around me. Most of my colleagues are too busy to be on the Internet that much. They have families and pets and projects. They run marathons, go hiking, publish. It’s the same thing people 10, 20, and 30 years ago were doing. And yet the phone in my hand holds so much evidence of the hyper-fragmentation of our society, the rendering apart that has ceased to be simply Titanic and seems to approach a hitherto unknown level of un-becoming. IRL, we’re only a hair’s breadth from the online, and it’s always spilling over — shaming and making fun of strangers with videos, conspiracy theories causing protests, teenagers recording themselves in the park, &c., &c.
Having a proper attitude about speech, not to mention being the one managing our appetites instead of being led by them, is spiritually important because it is part of developing virtue, an important part of any Platonizing practice. We want to be prudent, courageous/even, and temperate. I was wondering how to start this post to ensure that people actually read it, that the words were not dismissed, because this is so important. That kind of structured approach is impossible, though, because social media is addictive. People who are addicted to something will rationalize their behavior until a shock to their system makes them want to change, and even then, the road to recovery is filled with many stops and starts. In addition, America has a problem with toxic cults and a creepy tendency to pollute our discourse with “sinners in the hands of an angry god”/”original sin” weirdness. We just have a lot going on. We are collectively a mess.
Social media companies change rapidly. They have new boards, new CEOs, new CFOs, new everything-Os (spaghetti-Os). Most platforms have very low barriers to posting unfiltered thoughts. We know based on studies that social media algorithms reward rage and other explosive emotions. We also know that many of the heaviest users are plagued by loneliness and other issues, that they are searching for community and meaning.
The more your thumos (spirited part of the soul) is activated by what happens on the app, the more eyeballs see your content, the more your epithumia (seat of desire) swells up from the dopamine hits of a sense of belonging. Eventually, the warping of our desire convinces us that these unfiltered thoughts are authentic, whereas what we are in the flesh while we post — a human being scrolling on a phone or computer — is a shadow, an echo. We lose our prudent sense of being, and our reasoning faculty is shackled to finding reasons that what we are actually doing is okay.
Social media advertisements tell us that loneliness and a need for belonging will be solved by downloading their app, just as politicians tell us that their party platform can give our lives meaning and dignity or shopping channels can make people love us for our belongings. For the longest time, when I was struggling with Twitter, I must have downloaded and deleted the app dozens of times. I remember the ad that autoplayed in the Google Play store. Some guy’s house. An entire community outside supporting him as he figured out Twitter for the first time. Supportive is not a word I associated with Twitter. Ever. And yet that was the ad.
Now, after the takeover, there are lists filled with alternative social media platforms. There are also people gunning to return to Twitter, many of whom were banned for violations.
(Incidentally, some of the things on those lists of “alternative social media platforms” are not social media platforms, but communication tools centered on specific topics, like Discord— Discord is like Facebook Groups (e.g., you can have a server for dog-lovers), but functional and more private, unless you are on an Influencer’s server, in which case I pray for you — or a WhatsApp or Signal or Telegram group among friends. Chat platforms are also vulnerable to overuse, though.)
I recommend taking a step back. Instead of doing whatever you were planning to do, read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. Someone on the Digital Minimalism Reddit board even made a handy kit for embarking on Newport’s 30-day reset. There are different levels, as considering a change in habits is something many people like to tiptoe into.
Ultimately, though, this is a question of actually identifying what personal need an app is supposed to solve for you so you can ask the even more important question of does this actually address the need, or is something else more appropriate?
Let’s take me as an example. I offer myself up freely.
When I started online, it was the late 1990s, and I was living in a rural town with 2,500 people. (My graduating class in 2005 had 37 people in it.) The Internet was, unlike that environment, a place where I could finally have friends. People online didn’t have to know about the problems of my analog life like the bullying or the way my parents’ marriage was exploding. When I was older, I realized that most of the young women in college had close friendships dating back to their childhoods. I was often jealous of that, and I had a sorrowful realization that everything was transient, that I was probably a placeholder for people to just get back to lifelong friendships after college. Very little of it felt like it mattered. It felt impermanent, unstable, location-fixed. (I definitely needed therapy.) So I made more online friends. I can’t say that all of those friends were good choices — there’s something about growing up being told you’re not worth much that means you will put aside red flags just because you don’t think you have a choice. The Internet changed. Facebook opened up to everyone from its start as just for college students. Twitter … started, although it wasn’t clear what it was for at first. People were coming online for many more reasons than friendship now. Some people go online just to start sh–t. Others want to be informed about the news, and still more want to vent or raise awareness of things happening in their lives and/or work. Everyone was trying to coexist in the same spaces when we were not all even on the same page about what the book was or what types of human interactions and relationships we wanted from one another.
Throughout all of it, I just wanted to find people whom I could relate to and be in community with, especially since my religious minority status meant that I struggled to find people IRL whom I could talk to about deeper issues in my life. None of the social media apps actually addressed the problem. Somehow, like a frog in water slowly raised to boiling, I had let myself be funneled into social media with the same types of friendship expectations I had once had on AIM and IRC and Xanga and MSN Messenger and LiveJournal — not that the acquaintanceships or friendships there had been any healthier. They had been real-er, though. And a lot of the time on social media, I had been satisficing. While on Twitter, there was one writer I met whom I liked personality-wise. We were on totally different wavelengths spiritually and cared about very different things, so I felt very awkward about her kindness and effusiveness, but didn’t say anything. (We actually met IRL once.) There were a few polytheists whom I knew, but didn’t really know, and I ultimately realized that the hyper-divisive environment on Twitter meant that my trust levels for people were extremely low. I kept thinking about this quotation from Proclus about structuring our speech:
Writings of a genuinely profound and theoretical character ought not to be communicated except with the greatest caution and considered judgment, lest we inadvertently expose to the slovenly hearing and neglect of the public the inexpressible thoughts of god-like souls. The human mind cannot receive all the contents of Intellect, for there are some things known to Intellect but inconceivable by us. Nor do we think it proper to put in speech all that we think of, for there are many matters that we keep secret and unexpressed, preferring to guard them in the enclosures of our minds. Nor do we put in writing all that we express in speech; we want to keep some things in our memories unwritten, or deposit them in the imaginations and thoughts of friends, not in lifeless things. Nor do we publish indiscriminately to all the world everything that we commit to writing, but only to those who are worthy of sharing them, indulging with discrimination our eagerness to make our treasures common property with others.Proclus, Parmenides commentary, 718, trans. Morrow & Dillon
So I did what anyone would do and actually listed the platforms that enable connection: video call portals. Email. My phone number (or, I suppose, WhatsApp or Signal when I have to communicate with iPhone people because Apple doesn’t support our messaging protocol). Who would I give my phone number to? Not very many people. I signed up for e-digest newsletters from a few news websites. Many of my thoughts are outlined here in this January 2022 post.
More recently, though, I’ve been reflecting on readings from Simplicius and Hierocles on friendship and the relationships that we choose. It brings up a lot to think about regarding how to be deliberate and what is at stake when we are not, which is useful for thinking about my lifelong anxieties about relating to other people. It makes it OK for friendships to not have worked out, and it leaves me wondering how to take what I know now and build up those friendship networks in a healthier way. I don’t claim I have everything 100%. But I am rolling up my sleeves, and things are getting better.
Finally, there is the for the sake of which question. We are all doing what we do because we think it’s good. (We all want the Good, after all.) Whether it’s actually good or whether we’re misled by our own assumptions is another thing entirely. The biggest and most important thing is to take care of our souls, and that requires examining our lives with gentle firmness to see where we have made mistakes (yes, we all make them) and make plans to address them (yes, it’s possible, no matter how small your first steps). We are capable of so much, and yet we often give the best of our energy to scrolling, where the weight of the world hits us with decision paralysis and splinters our awareness.
A video from Nick Keomahavong on the 4 types of speech to avoid is also helpful to frame how to move forward in communication-specific contexts, a Buddhist lens that is moderately compatible with what Simplicius writes in his Platonizing Enchiridion commentary. Both perspective lenses support the position that we shouldn’t be engaging in abusive speech. That is an extremely important takeaway.
I titled this post “yes, we should be rethinking social media” because everyone can benefit from taking a step back, especially during times of turbulent change when habits are easier to break and reform. If you’ve read this far, I hope this is enough to get you started. May the Gods guide us all.