I’ve been off social media for 15 days. I woke up two Mondays ago having reached a breaking point after replaying myself crying in frustration the day before because I couldn’t get a lid off a jar. My partner asked me what was wrong and I said, “It’s too much. Social media is just too much.” Social media is too much? Where did that come from?
I’ll tell you.
Wednesday’s episode of The Daily,‘When Facebook Rumors Incite Real Violence‘, dove into the Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka that was fuelled by Facebook rumours. What I found interesting is that Facebook has agreements with cell phone providers that lets users in Sri Lanka browse the internet and message friends data-free if it’s done through the Facebook app. This gives Facebook a massive stake in the way humans communicate in Sri Lanka, and the way they receive news. I mean, massive.
So, when the government urged Facebook to moderate fake rumours spreading around the social media platform, Facebook replied with a suggestion: if users didn’t want to see certain content, they should unfollow or block the person posting whatever they didn’t like. The problem is that countries where hate speech and false rumours are more likely to spread are in these de-institutionalized places where citizens don’t have faith in the government and/or police to do justice to their beliefs. They feel they must take matters into their own hands. The Daily explored how citizens here are less likely to immediately question these (fake) Facebook posts that are being shared so rapidly. Instead, they’re going to do something about them because they are angry and upset at the lack of justice being served by institutions on behalf of them.
When the rumour that Muslims were destezrylying the majority Buddhist population in Sri Lanka in an attempt to snuff out the Buddhist population began to spread, angry mobs of people formed to burn down mosques and businesses, attacking people, killing in some instances. These rumours preyed on fear and miscommunication. These rumours, like most, destroyed lives.
In response, the Sri Lankan government (temporarily) banned Facebook in some parts of the country which is when Facebook realized they needed to play a more active role. Only when Facebook was no longer ‘active’ in Sri Lanka did they come to the table. They revealed that they were unable to moderate reported posts effectively partly because they didn’t have a large enough team fluent in Sinhalese to be able to do so.
The button on this much more complicated circumstance is that one of the survivors, who was beaten, their business burned to the ground, he can no longer work and is in massive debt. What does he do all day? He scrolls through Facebook. “It’s cheaper than a newspaper,” he says on the podcast.
The Daily argues that Facebook’s primary goal is to grow, and countries like Sri Lanka are not a priority because they don’t offer a profitable market. This is where I take issue.
If you create a platform that becomes the main method of communication for a community, it is your responsibility to those people to ensure that the content shared on your platform does not get out of hand due to your algorithm, especially if you strike deals with networks in those countries that puts your platform at the forefront. I don’t expect Facebook to control its content, or monitor it fiercely, but when the government of a country approaches you for serious aid, you don’t ignore them. Facebook now censors a number of posts and accounts in America, also in Canada, but because Sri Lanka doesn’t account for a noticeable amount of Facebook’s profits, their political and social climate is less important in crisis? This profit-prioritizing mindset is dehumanizing, irresponsible, and destroys the idea of wealth. In this way, Facebook being primarily concerned with money is detrimental to humanity.
True, it is unfair to say that a “business valuing profit rather than product” is the problem, “for no one should be expected to do business without the incentive of profit.” This comes from British philosopher Alan Watts in his essay Wealth vs Money. He argues that the problem is the thinking that wealth is only money, and nothing else. He says, “the actual trouble is that profit is identified entirely with money, as distinct from the real profit of living with dignity and elegance in beautiful surroundings.” Do companies like Facebook realize that people are using their platform? That individual lives are being directly impacted by their platform? That they themselves are people, individuals, that could surely benefit from a broader concept of wealth?
Sri Lanka is one specific example of the destructive ability of a social media platform. This story reminded me that, unlike the Sri Lankans referred to on The Daily, I was able to take Facebook’s advice — I found fake news to be too infuriating, endless scrolling to be too exhausting, so I decided to take a break — and I was able to. Still, I have the luxury of surfing the web, reading and listening to news, communicating with friends and family in ways that don’t involve social media at all. My life isn’t really unplugged, but I live in an institutionalized world. I live in a world developed well enough to ooze with opportunity, education, and money. I took a break from social media to reinstate a feeling of wealth within myself, and I’m working hard for it.
Money is one part of wealth but it isn’t wealth itself. Watts says: “A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. [They need] real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a…companion.” The paycheck I’m working for means nothing to me if, in the end, I’ve spent all my time scrambling for it instead of dividing my time and energy between the procurement for it and what is truly important to me. Wealth to me is paying off my debts, cancelling my credit cards, and working hard to create a life that isn’t dependant on debt and insecurity. Wealth to me is living modestly and consciously, eating well, writing often, and exercising physically and mentally on a regular basis. Wealth to me is possessing the tools to pursue and accomplish my purpose within the environment I occupy (that being my current physical place on the planet, or my mental state). Wealth to me is protecting myself from mindless scrolling on the internet that distract me from my purpose.
Before quitting social media, when my alarm went off at 6:30am, the first thing I found myself doing was scrolling through social media before I got out of bed, laying there looking at posts of people doing what I want to be doing.
I was looking at people promoting books they had written and published, coffee I wanted to drink in white kitchens I didn’t have, crystal shops run out of homes held by perfect nails done up at a salon. Handmade jewelry and pottery and photography. Likeminded people travelling to places I wanted to go with friends I wanted to have. A dog. A cat, hiking, in the boreal forest. I want that. It took me some introspection to realize that, in these moments, I felt pressure to buy props and clothing so my web-based self might look better, neater, more successful, interesting. To take neat photos of the things I am doing to say that I was doing neat things. I wanted even so far as for a house that had Instagram worthy rooms and windows. This, I feel mostly when I am wrapped up in the endless scrolling of social media. What kind of way is this to start the day, ridden with consumerism and inadequacy?
Sadly, even as I write this, even as I’ve taken a break for 15 days, I still feel an addiction to do this. The superficial joy in just the thought of scrolling through nice photos of things I like. The potential of having.
I’ve lived in a house that has had the internet since the dawn of it being publicly available. I was 14 years old sitting in Yahoo Chat telling people I was 21, and I knew that, on the internet, you could be whoever you wanted to be. Instagram is one more platform where I’ve found myself obsessing over how people perceive me. The control is palpable and creative and I enjoy it when I’m feeling confident and strong. But over time, the more I use social media as a comparison guide (and mask this as “inspiration”) and less of a business tool, my confidence wanes. My time disintegrates. I age, unknowingly.
The difference between being 14 in a Yahoo Chat and being 30 on Instagram is that I now want what I put on the web to be as honest and true as I am comfortable with sharing. I want the internet to be a tool in achieving my purpose. I don’t want it to be my life.
It’s easy to get caught up in comparison. It’s easy to feel inadequate, especially if you’re feeling down, insecure, depressed, or a little lost. It’s easy to bind yourself to stagnancy. It’s harder to say no to such an accepted state of living. But my books won’t get written if I spend all my time looking at other writers on Instagram and the books they’ve written. Nothing will get done.
Social media is massive distraction. It’s a tool that we have sewn into our bodies without even realizing that it’s affecting the way we run ourselves. There are benefits, of course, none of which I explore in this post, but I need to separate myself from the toxicity and rebuild my foundation of wealth in order to reap the benefits. It undeniable, though, that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are businesses that, if we take anything away from the Sri Lankan crisis, are primarily driven by their bottom line. Money makes their corporate decisions. Money over people. Money over humanity. But money is not wealth. Money is not wealth.
“What is necessary,” Watts argues, “is at once simpler and more difficult: only that financiers, bankers, and stockholders must turn themselves into real people and ask themselves exactly what they want out of life — in the realization that this strictly practical and hard–nosed question might lead to far more delightful styles of living than those they now pursue. Quite simply and literally, they must come to their senses — for their own personal profit and pleasure.” ◇
Illustration by Cecilie Wessman Larsen