Deactivism: The Pleasures of Life without Social Media

Finally, on February 21 (2018), I decided to completely withdraw myself from the two main social media accounts that had kept me busy online for nearly a decade: Twitter and Facebook. My account of leaving these two so-called social network sites is not any more special or deserving of attention than any of the countless others. All I have done is to rejoin the overwhelming majority of humanity which, regardless of all the hype designed to promote social media, remains wholly disengaged and indifferent. Being like any other person in this majority is hardly a special achievement, worthy of a lengthy essay, but I do feel regret for not giving a proper farewell to the nearly 8,000 who subscribed to my Twitter feed, and the nearly 5,000 in Facebook.

The final straw, but not the primary reason, was finding on the last morning that just overnight (precisely, during the night), I had been stripped of dozens of followers (others reported losing many thousands). For three solid months I had seen a mysterious pattern—the exact moment I logged in after a few months’ absence in late 2017, I instantaneously lost 84 followers (and I had not even typed a word). For the months that followed, and for the first time ever, my net gain in followers was consistently negative. Constantly I saw that former followers had been either deleted or suspended, or the total number of accounts they followed was always reduced to zero—they were forced to follow nobody. I also saw a political pattern: the accounts were always those of libertarians and conservative populists, especially Italian, British, and American. On my last day, I investigated further and found that each of the accounts that had been stopped from following me or anyone else, had a statement posted on them by Twitter: “Caution: this account is temporarily restricted”—as if it were some radioactive contaminant. It was reported by many others that a purge was underway in Twitter, focused on anti-liberal accounts, which only added to previous rounds of shadow bans, account deletions, censored trending topics, etc., with similar measures to suppress posts and persons in Facebook. The idea that I was spending time on sites where unseen managers would decide what I was permitted to see or read, was absolutely galling. My continued presence simply validated the censorship, by taking the selfish line that as long as I was not directly and overtly censored (yet), then the system was still acceptable. Why should I? Who made me do it? How many insults can one take?

This moves us to much larger issues, and I would encourage others to both experiment and reflect on their practice. First, I had taken several periods of absence from “social media” (to use that idiotic term)—sometimes an absence would last mere days, other times a couple of weeks, and on three occasions it would last several months. For a few years, I refused to post anything on Sundays or during major holidays: the idea was not to cheapen treasured days of rest and celebration, by being obsessively focused on building content for Twitter and Facebook. What I noticed from each of these absences was how immensely beneficial they were for me: the peace of mind, the increased clarity, the development of new plans, with more time devoted to exercise, relaxation, spending time with those that matter to me, and reading serious work…as in books. As a result, over the last year I deliberately began to scale down my involvement with sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Second, those absences reminded me of all the ways I had grown to resent the intrusion of the Internet as such, the Internet as a whole, remembering how much better things were before 1994, when I first started using the “World Wide Web” (and even then because a professor at SUNY-Binghamton forced me: to compel us to get email accounts, he decided grades would only be communicated to us via email). I did not own my first computer until the late 1990s. I have thought of the millions of jobs lost thanks to the Internet, and the way that daily social interactions had been perversely altered. Displacement and dispossession of economies and geographies is the ongoing gift of the Internet.

Gathering information was once a fully social and even multi-sensory experience. Sometime in the 1980s, when I needed an Amnesty International report for a research paper after reading a reference in a newspaper article, I could not just visit a website and download it. I could telephone their office in Toronto and ask them to mail it, but there was the issue of paying for it, which had to be done in person. So getting this document meant setting aside time on a Saturday afternoon, showering, getting dressed, walking, taking a bus, then a subway, seeing people, a chance encounter with a friend downtown, then walking further downtown, visiting the people at the AI office, getting the document, having a conversation (and obtaining further leads), and then doing the return journey, with a stop at a café along the way, and then a record store, all the while enjoying a beautiful sunny day. By the time I reached home, I had already read the report in full and made notes. That was life without the Web: slower, healthier, and friendlier.

All that has been replaced by sitting in a chair for hours (murder for one’s health) and harvesting a vast number of PDF documents, which I rarely have the time to read, and which I sometimes re-download forgetting that I already have them. Fast yes, but also unhealthy and isolated—efficiency without substantive gain. Working at a computer could just as well be done in prison, because at this stage surroundings no longer matter.

The fact of the matter is that we do not need the Internet, we do not need social media, and we certainly do not need “smart phones”. What are you, a brain surgeon, that you always have to be available in case of an emergency call? Listen to what people say when they use these “essential” gadgets, as I listen to the hordes on campus—the most typical utterances are: “Hey, what’s up? Yeah I’m on the escalator. Ok, see ya later”. Impressive. Clearly, it’s money well spent. It is almost as if individuals have become afraid of a moment of silence, possibly because they intuitively fear discovering that inside, they are empty.

Third, there is the political economy of social media, whose nature I find entirely objectionable. All of us who use these “social media” are doing free labour. It is work, where we generate content, promote engagement, and build audiences for advertisers. In return, we get none of the revenue—so our work serves to make certain individuals immensely wealthy and powerful. In return, they arrogate to themselves the right to decide what we can read, what we can say, and how to say it—there is not even basic respect in return. Some argue—almost righteously, as if they had pounced on a major discovery—that Twitter, Facebook, etc., are private corporations, that supposedly owe us nothing: “they’re not public utilities”. Exactly, and therefore they deserve none of the public’s support. Moreover, even when dealing with paying customers, like RT, which spent hundreds of thousands advertising on Twitter and Facebook, they were treated like a dog turd in return: bans, limits, stripped of advertising revenue, and their private business with these agencies was promptly reported on in detail by executives for these companies, who testified at various congressional hearings. A private company that “owes nothing” even to paying customers, is hardly one whose business should be sustained.

Fourth, there is the question of national hegemony. It ought to be plainly clear to everyone by now that these so-called globalized social media, are simply just American media. When tensions build, they are all too ready to remind us of this fact. People outside the US, who are impacted against their will by the US, are not allowed to share their opinions about US politics on such platforms, because that’s “meddling”. Well, if you want it for yourselves, then keep it to yourselves, and stay out of our affairs while you’re at it. But don’t go around preaching that you stand for globalization, openness, inclusion, diversity, the free market of ideas, free speech, democracy, etc., etc., ad nauseam, because you are not fooling anyone (save for those who are already fools and cannot be repaired). Social media then are just the latest tools in the armory of US cultural imperialism, and deserve to be shunned.

Fifth, add to the above the ways in which this tool, developed for the US military, is a gift that keeps on giving back to the military-security-intelligence state. Why would we voluntarily place ourselves under its surveillance? People have lost their jobs, or job opportunities, over a single tweet or Facebook post, as part of the growing totalitarianism that is post-liberalism—and these acts of exclusion and punishment are ironically performed in the name of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion. Encourage people to become engaged, but then don’t tell them how they can suffer the consequences—ordinarily, this might be called entrapment, and it was supposed to be illegal.

Sixth, there is the abominably debased quality of the “social” in “social media,” specifically where political debates are involved (or “deadbaits” as I prefer to call them). Any media that pride themselves on “virality” should be enough of a warning sign: what is ultimately being promoted is instantaneous mass orchestrated reaction. Social media are thus the preferred training tool pushed by globalists—such media prioritize acceleration, instant consumption, and mass response over slow, careful, critical deliberation. Me-tooism is the new brand of mob formation. “Dragging” and “calling out” are low-calorie substitutes for lynching. What prevails in the moments between “viral” events is nothing better. Crusades of outrage are routinely launched; there are relentless acts of petty partisan tribalism. Righteous indignation is rendered routine. One is pressed into thinking the very worst of the designated opponents. Ad hominem attacks and other substitutes for logic abound. No one is to be credited with making a good point, if they are said to have made other, “bad” points in the past. Entire arguments, however well reasoned and well researched, are dumped because they were published in a non-approved source. Anonymous nobodies, following behind their iconic “thinkers,” spend hours each day in the act of policing the boundaries of their partisan camp, or of their factional splinter group. You get lectured on transparency and honesty by anonymous trolls, who obviously lack any understanding of irony. Arguments without evidence, or arguments in spite of evidence, demand respect solely for the passionate force used to make them, or because they serve “the cause,” or because the person(s) making the argument have the right identity. If you are a professor, you learn that the years (or decades) spent acquiring knowledge in a subject area, plus all the resources devoted to the task, not to mention the training that went into preparing you, are worthless: everybody else always knows better, with their deep knowledge gained on the fly. Anti-intellectualism does not just come from outside the university’s walls. You get lectured at by snarky graduate students with deep insecurities who fashion themselves as activists, called “stupid” by barely literate undergraduate students who misspell their protest signs, and are immediately denounced as “racist” for the mere act of disagreeing with one of these imbeciles. The obsessive moral narcissism on display in social media correlates with the fastidious adversarial forensics around specific, single words. This is the crowd that thinks that “words matter” and “words can do real harm”—they need to assert this, because their professions and perhaps their very being counts on others believing this to be true. “Information is power,” the word-obsessed like to tell each other, when information is actually as good as a pile of junk. When you have little, or less power than others, then sometimes delusions of power set in and you cast about looking for make-believe substitutes for power, like information. Equal access to information is celebrated—when there can be no equal access under present conditions. Access is reduced to the mere act of gaining hold of data, but what renders it “accessible” depends on resources that are still distributed highly unequally, such as the training necessary to make sense of the information.

Seventh, social media are especially useful in providing free publicity for celebrity activists and journalists, the two groups that most monopolize debates in social media. The rest of us are there seemingly just to promote their careers, for free and without any thanks. There is little to no actual discussion between the iconic writers and their loyal followers, or their critics. If you fail to “follow,” no worries: inevitably someone pops up to tell you to follow Glenn Greenwald, or whomever else is deemed to be capable of doing our thinking for us. We have self-styled “rogue journalists”—it’s all about style, and having a big mouth—who do not actually “report” on anything at all: their specialty is outrage, and telling us what to think. Their other specialty is intellectual dishonesty, as they recycle and appropriate the work of others as if it was their own. And while we professors are idiots, there is nothing like poaching on the work of eggheads and then signing your name to it, to the applause of an instant 30,000 retweets.

Eighth, social media have achieved little or nothing of value to the societies of their users—because they are not truly social, nor are they about achieving any collective gain. The ceaseless “deadbaits” ought to teach their participants the meaning of futility, but for some reason they soldier on, continuing the endless cycle of repetition of complaint, accusation, snide fake-humour, and self-promotion. Many are quick to seize on the latter point, so in between complaining about power and denouncing rivals that are nearly identical to them in every respect, they mope about their personal lives and then post “selfies” (and it’s mostly women who do this)—because what one needs is a regular dose of large close-up photos of some juvenile sucking bubble tea through a straw.

The only value I see in social media, especially in having withdrawn, is understanding that the movements that thrive with such media are busy achieving their own implosion. Having created echo chambers, the only way for individuals to excel, to gain notice, to capture attention, to secure some pre-eminence, is by attacking those that are readily available, i.e., from one’s own circle. The external enemy has been removed or distanced, so now the attacks are primarily against one’s own: that is where one proves one’s worth as a supremely critical firebrand, one who possesses the ultimate moral purity and correctness of political vision. Thus I witnessed cretins on the left cannibalistically turn on Slavoj Žižek, their former designated thinker, launching petitions and protests against his imaginary “racism” and “fascism”; or steamy accusations that Chelsea Manning was not a bona fide Marxist, not one of our own, but a “closet libertarian” (and so what?); or that Julian Assange is an actual rapist, and an actual CIA agent, who somehow supported the Iraq war; and that someone celebrating immigrants was guilty of “othering,” while their critics were judged guilty of committing an “intersectional lapse” (whatever that means in Newspeak). Social media are thus the perfect way to box all of this up, and then we can kick the box away. The movements that are built on such foundations, will destroy themselves, or be destroyed by the generous backlash they provoke.

The next time you see me in social media, it will only be because I am paid to do so. In the meantime I continue here, because it serves my purposes: I mostly write for myself; to help clarify my thinking; to learn what I do not know; to express an opinion which I am later free to discard; to keep myself from bottling up certain thoughts for too long so they do not fester and become seeds of extremism; to raise questions that others are failing to raise; to ensure that, for the record, no one can claim there was total unanimity among scholars on this or that subject; and, if others find this useful, then that is an additional benefit. I can always hope that it inspires others to do better, so that I can learn from them in return. I am otherwise beyond the point of needing to prove anything to myself, or others, when it comes to research and writing. This I do because of the sheer pleasure of it.

Only because they came out recently, and are relevant to some of the issues above, I recommend the following articles:


12 thoughts on “Deactivism: The Pleasures of Life without Social Media

  1. I’ve for long time liked and worked with tech stuff, but to me, being social have always reqired eye-to-eye contact and the reason why I’d never joined fb, twitter etc.

  2. Thanks for an excellent deconstruction of what it means to be a party to Twitter and FB et al. Like you, I have cut myself off from social media, in my case, it was for just over two years. The only thing I missed about the absence was the immediacy of being able to chat with a few very specific friends (real, but virtual due to distance between us). It was interesting that even though the friendships did not die out during this period, the amount of contact dropped to almost zero. This was enough that eventually, a few months ago, I reopened my pages but limit my visibility and usage dramatically. The result is, frankly, not much different. I do not see my continued online social media presence as a strong possibility.

    Reading your far more insightful thoughts has pretty much confirmed my own reasons for leaving social media in the first place.

    I do hope, however, that you continue to write your thoughtful musings online.
    Bon courage,
    PS I was staggered to learn today that a one billion dollar loss in share value of SnapChat has been attributed to one tweet by a 20-yr-old apparent celebrity, Kylie Jenner (I’ve never heard of her).

  3. An excellent critique of “social media”: comprehensive while evoking a delightful appreciation of a peculiar succinctness in its broad offering. Thanks for it.

  4. Yep, good move. FB has its genuine uses- it is a fantastic tool for coordinating logistics of group activities.
    Twitter is a genuine plague on humanity. Besides all the good points in the article, it actively enforces a suicidal reductionism in thought and expression. Want to know why the decline of political discourse accelerated? That’s why.

    FWIW, long-form blogs are not entirely free of some of the impulsive behavior patterns, but at least you get some genuine reading material out of them.

  5. Very thought provoking article. Confirmed my own feelings about social media. I try not to get bogged down in twitter, and don’t use FB to any extent.

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