Illustration by Lam Yik Chun for RICE.
The above image is what I imagine life without social media must be like: lowkey euphoric, uninterrupted by the never-ending distraction that is the social media feed; the gift that never stops giving, with every ‘refresh’ like sticking my hand once more into the metaphorical cookie jar.
Funnily enough, I never used to think this way. Just 6 years ago, a Facebook account was created on my behalf, leading to a slightly heated argument with the friend who did it, ending in the eventual deactivation of said account.
This distaste for social media didn’t last, and during the 2015 General Election, I became one of those guys who lost a handful of Facebook friends due to his unceasingly political posts.
Since then, my relationship with airing my opinions on Facebook has tempered somewhat. I post a lot less, but find myself subconsciously opening Facebook in Chrome after immediately closing a tab on which I already had it open. Or I’ll automatically open Instagram for a quick scroll, despite having picked my phone up with the intention of replying a text.
And so lately, I’ve been asking myself: am I addicted? Or is my state of being constantly connected and engaged now the new normal that I should be learning to embrace?
“I blocked everything, set everything to only me, and maxed out my privacy settings,” he told me, “And even then the way I used Facebook was the anti-thesis of how it was meant to be used.”
Utada, a friend of his who shares his sentiments, gets to the root of the issue when she says that she never wanted to get on social media because of what she knew it would do to her. She had, on many occasions, seen how peers would feel pressured to put out content.
Likewise, Josh, who has always maintained private personal blogs, shares about how he used to get almost obsessive with his blog trackers, watching who visited, who commented, and so on. So when social media surfaced, “I knew that it was a rabbit hole that if I ever entered, I would never climb out of again.”
For both Josh and Utada, the unhealthy preoccupation with monitoring one’s social media engagement (likes, shares, etc.) was something they saw coming from a mile away.
19 year-old Timothy Hue, a friend of a friend, represents an interesting anomaly in that he belongs to the “internet generation”, yet isn’t on any kind of social media.
He shares that his brief encounter with it brought on a myriad of anxieties, many shaped by things like having to accept or reject friend requests, and being terrified by the thought that all his friends would see everything he posted to social media.
“Social media, at least to me, opens up an entire new minefield of social expectations,” he adds.
“When every action one takes is visible, it can often feel like someone is always watching, and that pressure can influence decisions. Posting certain content, or even just ‘liking’ or retweeting, puts your interests in the public arena. Clearing out your contact book, deleting friends and unfollowing channels and such, brings with it the risk that others will notice, and that you may be vilified for, or confronted over, those actions.”
Between hearing about these experiences, I’m forced to confront the toxic patterns in my own behaviour: noticing when I’ve been unfollowed or unfriended; the impulse to document any remotely interesting thing I do on IG stories; the need to share every compelling article I read, as though every instance of me doing this is a chance to assert my identity—me telling the world how I wish to be seen.
Josh echoes my sentiments, explaining how having a channel to express himself would compel him to come up with something new everyday for his “audience”. Eventually, he decided he had better things to do.
These days, I remain tethered to Facebook because it’s still the platform from which I get most of my news. Yet I’ve realised that instead of reading about just one news story, I’m often reading several versions of it reported across several media sites, all of which I follow judiciously.
I don’t prioritise anymore. Now, I just try to make sure I consume everything.
In a recent video segment shared by the South China Morning Post, its CEO Gary Liu discussed how the fundamental economic model of the internet is broken. Because it is one driven by clicks and views, media outlets are now under immense pressure to create as much content as possible, thereby flooding all our feeds.
While deceptively kind-faced millennial basher Simon Sinek will talk about the hits of dopamine we get from every ‘like’ or ‘share’ or new thing we see, I’ve noticed a different problem. I’ve realised that my perception of how “busy” I am has now little to do with how much work I actually have.
Because I’m not just doing the important things anymore. Instead, I’m pausing between every task to drift between Facebook and Instagram, platforms on which I constantly feel I need to “catch up” or “stay abreast of the latest news”. And it feels as though I now have less and less time to actually do things.
Yet this is all an illusion—a direct result of the sensory and information overload that social media facilitates. I feel like I’m busy all the time, yet I have absolutely no idea what I’m actually busy with.
It takes me about a second to realise he isn’t trying to be funny, and then it sinks in. Even if meant to be purely figurative, the weight of this statement forces me to recognise that I am no longer in control of my social media use.
The one thing I notice amongst people like Josh, Utada, and another close friend of mine that I spoke to for this story is that they all maintain small but closely knit social circles. They catch up via text and meeting in person, and mostly agree on the unimportance of remaining up to date on the trivial and mundane details of friends’ lives.
On top of preferring to talk about their interests and their opinions on stuff, they all also value their privacy and solitude.
These observations lead to a somewhat unpalatable conclusion. While I might be the sort that regularly deletes Facebook friends and clears my contact list; who values deep individual friendships over group dynamics, none of this has made me immune from social media’s unhealthy influence.
Utada shares that without the constant engagement of social media, she gets to regulate her interactions with people, “disappearing and coming back to life” as and when she wants with her friends.
It’s not that I don’t care about them. Rather, I’m thinking of how we’ve all spent minutes and hours swiping through IG stories, only to feel like we haven’t really gained anything from it, amazed at how much time we just wasted.
These days, I’ve started to miss how hours used to feel longer, minutes less saturated, and days more spacious. I miss the feeling of having nothing to do—something my social media habits seemed to have robbed me of.
Whether or not I actually manage to do something about this remains to be seen. Today, I feel like Facebook has already won.