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Unlearning the Habits of Social Media

By Elise Greeley, Point Park News Service

Almost every day, I become angry at something I see on social media.

Of course, this anger is often because of the news. But more and more often, my anger explodes because of other things: ill-formed political arguments on Twitter, someone using the wrong terminology about a serious social justice issue on Tumblr, even strawman arguments posted by my loved ones on Facebook.

I don’t often engage with what makes me angry, but I don’t just scroll past and move on either. I sit and stew. I screenshot the post in question. I send it to friends with a casual, “Can you believe this?” I let myself get angry, every day. I’ve been letting myself get this kind of angry for years.

And I need to stop.

The simple fact of the matter I’ve come to realize is that, despite evidence toward the contrary, social media isn’t a mirror for life. The currency of social media — likes and follows, engagement counts — is invisible when I’m going about my daily life. The staged Instagram photo that I decry as fake has no bearing on how I see its subject in class, at the coffee shop, on the city bus. My Twitter feed, curated according to my interests in political news, doesn’t reflect what most everyone I interact with in real life is thinking about. I’ve found myself saying “everyone is talking about x” and immediately being met with silence. Why? Because my favorite journalists, pundits and faceless commenters on the internet are not actually everyone.

It’s a combination of the medium and my own fault. I started regularly using big social platforms in 2009. I was 12 years old. As a result, my entire teenagerhood was co-opted by Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.

I was terribly shy growing up, not to mention nerdy in a way I didn’t know how to articulate (no to “Harry Potter,” yes to American geography). The socialization I could’ve received elsewhere came gift-wrapped in the form of my first laptop. Social media has not just become a habit, it’s become as integral to my thinking as speech itself, hanging out with friends, spending time reading a paperback book. Social media has become so embedded in my life that I no longer know it as a resource or a crutch I lean on to excuse my own social shortcomings, past and present. Which came first – the chicken or the egg, the anxiety or the social media?

A few days ago, I read a short article in The Atlantic by Paul Barnwell, an educator who has observed that his students don’t know how to communicate with one another outside of their smartphones. This piece was written in 2014, but I can only imagine it’s become more salient in the past four years. Despite those ever-present devices meant to connect them to the world, Barnwell observes, his students are a little lost on how to connect with the classmate sitting right across from them.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say I have this problem. But it’s no wonder that kids a few years younger than me – some who have had smartphones since they were pre-teens – might have this problem. When you primarily deal with your peers in Snapchat streaks and Instagram likes, I imagine it can be hard to see the person next to you as they really are.

I may have escaped being a full-fledged product of the Instagram generation by a few years, but I’ve seen firsthand the social ecosystem its teenage users operate under. They follow out of necessity, offer meaningless likes and have “Finstagram” accounts — secondary Instagram profiles set to private where one can be less polished and more oriented toward their closest friends. This has always struck me as disingenuous, but not malicious, and left me wondering a simple question — what’s the point, then? If I maintain my new realization that social media has no bearing on real life, then what’s the point of having two Instagram accounts? Why not be your genuine self all the time? Or why not delete your Instagram altogether, free yourself from this double-bind and keep your private moments private once again?

I don’t quite have an answer yet. Because despite the funhouse mirror social media leave me with, I can’t envision myself deleting, at least not totally. Deleting the apps off my phone and leaving my social media time to my laptop might work a little bit. At the end of the day, though, what I have to do is unlearn the habits I’ve had for the past decade.

At 21, I have to unlearn my life spent on social media. I have to unlearn viewing world events and discourse exclusively through the prism of Twitter. I have to unlearn judging people based on their Instagram photos. And I have to unlearn limiting myself to these social networks that have proved to be not all that social, to stop tethering myself to them day in and day out. This is something I’ve never done before. I wonder what it’s like.

As with everything else in life, the only way to find out is to begin.

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