Fear and Loathing on Social Media
My Twitter panic started somewhere in Spain. Six days into a 10-day vacation, the news about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, started making its way to my phone. I wasn’t necessarily trying to unplug or do any kind of social media cleanse, but I hadn’t swapped my SIM so connectivity—and news access—came only when there was free Wi-Fi. That night, six hours ahead of Virginia, my friends and I were settling into our Valencia hotel as things were picking up at the "Unite the Right" protest. I’d started to read some headlines but wasn’t aware of how bad things had gotten—or would get. In the interim I’d been unpacking a bag and found a tube of obscure sunscreen and blurted out, “I just realized this is badger lotion." My friend cracked up and said, "That’s a tweet." Without giving it too much thought, I typed it out and sent it.
This is how Twitter used to work: Think of something funny, insightful, whatever, compose 140 characters, and hit “tweet.” Share the news, share music, share jokes with your followers. It was a lovely mixed bag. But five minutes after I sent that badger lotion tweet, I felt awful. My comment was OK as comic relief amongst friends trying to grapple with the news from hundreds of miles away, but as more details came in I realized now was not the time for sunblock jokes.
It never is anymore. For months the gravity of social media has felt heavier than standard atmospheric pressure. The news is often bad and the awareness of filter bubbles is too great to feel right about posting anything that doesn’t seem Important. I’d kept my output to professional news-sharing and the occasional Game of Thrones reaction for months, but in the haze of vacation my old tweet impulses came back. I asked my friend if I should delete the tweet. She assured me that in the flood of bad news she was also getting, it was exactly those moments that served as a nice reprieve. I left it up. It’s a nice memory from my travels, but I still hate that it’s in my feed.
In the September issue of WIRED, my colleague Nick Stockton has a wonderful piece about the “new FOMO”: fear of missing out not on your friends’ night at the bar, but on the news. In the piece, psychologist Ethan Kross suggests that the best way for coping with the ever-tumultuous news cycle is to actively engage with it more, to read every post and comment. Kross has a degree and a lot more expertise than I do, so I believe this, but for me the tendency is to engage far less than ever before, especially in political discussions. Either offer something of value or take a seat. Anything else is dreck.
As the person who edits our internet-roundup column, While You Were Offline, I’m probably overly attuned to this shift. This time last year the internet was already deep in discussion about the election, but there was still time to joke about Rihanna curving Drake at the MTV VMAs. Shortly thereafter, though, that column—typically the one guaranteed LOL in my editing week—took a turn. Social media didn’t get any quieter but it definitely got a lot more serious, to the point where (somewhat counter-intuitively) people were tweeting about how un-fun tweeting was.
In January 2017, a few days after President Trump’s inauguration, comedian Billy Eichner tweeted “Remember when Twitter was fun? Remember when our biggest problem was CHARLIE SHEEN?! I miss those days.” TV host Andy Cohen expressed a similar sentiment seven months later. A little bit of joy returned when things like “covfefe” happened, but amidst the Women’s March, White House staff shakeups, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election, and—most recently—the events in Charlottesville and Hurricane Harvey, posting on Facebook about anything short of an actionable way to do something felt flimsy and ineffectual.
Last month people tweeted a half a million times about Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s twins in the first 45 minutes after it was announced they were born, so someone out there is still posting about things other than pushing back the tide of impending doom. But I realized not too long ago that I missed watching my feeds' meltdown over Real Housewives of Atlanta—and I don’t even watch that show. It’s not as though no one is populating the #RHOA hashtag, or tweeting about the VMAs, but the constant anxiety I feel about my (not actually sent) status update celebrating Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen’s hookup finding itself next to news about Trump’s transgender troop ban is just too much.
Psychologically speaking, I don’t know what this #NeverTweet reticence means—or even if it’s healthy. A literature review coauthored by Ethan Kross (the same University of Michigan psychologist my colleague spoke to) found mixed results for the effects of social media usage on overall happiness. Some studies, for example, have found that Facebook usage can have a positive relationship on a person’s subjective well-being. (OK, that’s cool; it’s not like I stopped looking at it.) Others show folks are better off when they don’t use the social network “a lot.” (Who are you, my mother?) And further research has concluded that passive Facebook usage—the non-posting kind I most often find myself participating in—led to reduced levels of subjective well-being. (Yikes.) Oh, and “subjective well-being” in this case is a factor in one’s health and longevity. (Great, so this whole thing might be killing me softly.)
So maybe it is better to tweet than not to tweet, but about what? Just the day’s news? Or is it alright to go off-topic? According to Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made, it’s a good idea to discuss a range of ideas. As political discourse has devoured social media, other topics such as scientific discoveries or moments of cultural significance don’t get as much traction. Science scored a win when the solar eclipse took over everyone’s feed last month, but so many otherwise important things get lost in the onslaught. Even the less-important bits hold some value because, as Barrett puts it, we should be multifaceted people, online and off, and just talking about bad news all the time is dangerous. "This is really problematic, I think, not only because it means we don’t get a break from the stress and perils of political issues," she adds, "but also because it makes our lives more one-dimensional, which is not actually a good thing from a mental-health standpoint."
In the past couple of weeks, I started making non-work/news-related posts again on social media: Frank Ocean lyrics, quips about Lady Gaga, a joke about my failed pen name (“Typo Negative,” if you’re wondering). I collected some likes and hearts; comics writer Ivan Brandon even responded to that last item with a GIF of Anne Hathaway crying and clapping. It was liberating, and no one got on my case for being an insensitive prick—not publicly, at least. I think some people might’ve even gotten a moment of levity out of it. I'll likely continue this trend, but it'll always feel a little futile. Social media, Twitter especially, started as a way to bring people together—then it brought out the best and worst in them. I've returned to it for now, but I'll never use it the way I used to. And maybe I shouldn't.
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