A couple of months ago I removed myself from Facebook (apart from my author page) and deleted Twitter. I spend a limited amount of time on LinkedIn and Instagram, mostly for my work. I’ve been thinking about how the decision to (mostly) unplug, based on protecting my mental health, saving time, and stopping mindless scrolling and dependency on fleeting dopamine hits, has changed the way I communicate.

I’ve realised that it hasn’t just changed the way I communicate – it’s changing the way I’m living.

Big claim. Let me try to explain.

It’s been lockdown in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, for nearly 90 days, due to the Delta variant. We’re trying to limit the spread as we wait for Auckland and national vaccination rates to hit 90 per cent. We’re nearly there.

Twelve weeks and counting. Uncertainty reigns. Some days I’ve been teary, unfocused, unsettled. I worry for my daughter. I worry for my country, and for the world.

We’re gradually opening up now, cautiously, in stages. We are tiptoeing, holding our collective breath.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Chemist Warehouse – one of the only shops permitted to open at that time. It’s a pharmacy, but also has aisles of body products, perfume, makeup, and other nice-to-have items. Its fluorescent lighting and shouty signs are an assault on the senses, but it was nirvana after weeks and weeks of seeing only the inside of my local supermarket.

I felt like a starving person as I stood in front of a display of perfumes and body creams. I saw fellow Aucklanders poring over coloured shower sponges and lip gloss specials, drinking in the variety of colours and smells and the reminder of what it once felt like to be “free”.

Suddenly I felt … embarrassed. Humiliated. Here I was, on the most exciting outing I’d had for three months, and it was to a discount chemist crouched on the edge of an empty shopping mall, with $20 fragrances and two-for-one earplug offers. This was what I was reduced to. And suddenly, in the supplements aisle, I started crying. For the stress and the uncertainty and the loneliness of lockdown, and the human frailty of all of us. For the tender desperation of discount shampoo shopping.

I gathered myself, and left. And one of the first thoughts I had was: “I should post about this on Facebook.” And I started to write a post in my head. To package up my experience for public consumption.

And then I remembered I wasn’t active on Facebook anymore, and I felt just a tiny bit bereft.

So I sat with my feelings. Alone. I let the sadness grip me, and I embraced it until it was ready to leave. By the time I got home I was OK, knowing that I had just processed something important.

What would have happened if I had immediately posted my experience on Facebook, in real time, standing in that empty shopping mall, head bowed over a screen? I think I would have tried to be funny, and clever. I would have maybe embellished the experience to elicit more laughs, or to “drama it up” a bit. I would have then waited and checked every few minutes to see how many “likes” my post had gathered. If it had been widely liked, I would have driven home feeling a little more cheerful, having had a bit of a laugh at some of the comments. If people had responded sympathetically, I would perhaps have taken momentary comfort from that. “Awww, I get it”, or “I feel you”, or “Hope you’re feeling better now”. Cookie cutter reactions.

If I had been busy preparing and editing the experience for public consumption, then waiting for online reactions, I would have deprived myself of the experience itself – and of my own, uncurated reaction to it.

Psychologist Dr Susan David suggests:

“When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world.”

I think social media encourages this – and I would take it further. I believe we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world when we try to work out and come to terms with our emotions – any emotions – online. Social media demands that we place our human experiences and emotions at one remove. We push them out of ourselves, embellish, adjust, and curate them, instead of … sitting in them. Sitting with them.

In his book “Notes on a Nervous Planet”, Matt Haig acknowledges that we have always chosen how we present ourselves to the world. But, he argues:

“On social media the act of presenting is heightened a stage further. We are eternally one step removed from our online selves. We become walking merchandise. Our profiles are Star Wars figures of ourselves…

“There is a permanent gap between the signifier and the thing signified. An online profile of your best friend is not your best friend. A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire to tell the world about how happy you are, is not how happy you are.”

Haig asks what is, in my mind, the most important question:

“How do we stay human in a digital landscape? How do we keep hold of ourselves and never let go?”

The other reason I removed myself from most social media was the shocking level of hatred, vitriol, and judgement I was witnessing, and the proliferation of misinformation and knee-jerk mudslinging.

It was making me angry and anxious. I would wade in and fight, then feel twice as bad. And even when I stood back, the constant barrage of discontent and aggression was doing my head in.

I’ve thought long and hard about how we have arrived at this place, at this time in history, in this way. Former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt says:

“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

That’s a whole other post.

Bringing it back to the personal: I decided that I could stay informed and connected; that I could use the internet for good – I could be the boss of it – without being plugged in 24/7.

I maintain a personal Facebook profile in order to manage my author page, which I see as essential to my career. But I no longer post/comment or engage in any way on that personal profile. And I’ve noticed that since my activity has dried up, I’ve stopped seeing endless rubbish in my feed. I occasionally check dates and upcoming event info on a small number of group and community pages, and that is enough. I think the little people in my computer who spy on my clicks and control the algorithms have given up on me.

I private message or phone friends. Or meet them for a (socially distanced) drink.

I feel liberated. I feel like I’ve given Mark Zuckerberg et al. the finger, and it feels fucking wonderful.

We can be the bosses of our online presence. We can step into our power and decide how we want to use the internet, without letting it control us.

A last word from Haig:

“The internet can lead us anywhere we choose. We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and the engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”

From Matt Haig’s “Notes on a Nervous Planet”

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