We should all be aware of the strange effect of social media on our minds – Laura Waddell

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Social media can be a blessing and a curse, but for me, limiting its use may leave my mind clearer, writes Laura Waddell.

I already know that I will continue to drink as much coffee as I like and sleep until noon every chance I get, and that I won’t go to the gym or eat breakfast regularly. But if I learned anything from last year that I’d like to take into the new year ahead, it’s a resolution to venture into the unknown more often, sitting more comfortably with silence.

Twitter and other forms of social media provide lots of information but can also affect the way you think about different issues (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

Twitter and other forms of social media provide lots of information but can also affect the way you think about different issues (Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

I don’t mean that I’m going to climb a mountain. I’m definitely not going to climb one. But I’m hoping to give myself more space to breathe, and time to think, by making more active choices about how I consume information and news rather than letting it stream by me online, endlessly.

When I took an exended break from social media to finish up a big writing deadline last year, it was the longest spell I’d spent entirely away from Twitter since perhaps 2013. From the independence referendum onwards, I became an avid user, joining the league of the Very Online. It was always open in a tab. When using my phone, my fingers would tap the app habitually and unthinkingly.

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A blessing and a curse

I’ve always been a big advocate of its benefits in its social as well as professional use. Twitter in particular is what you make it, and as well as following enjoyable books and arts-themed accounts and informative politics tweeters, it became a truly brilliant tool for professional use, allowing me to network with other publishers and book workers, and particularly those clustered in London.

I felt more aware of what was going on locally. The people I met became important in my life. It resonates with me that social media has allowed special interest groups or social campaigners to find one another, as do the statistics on abuse and its impact on freedom of expression, particularly for women and especially those of minority ethnicities.

For these people in particular, it’s both a blessing and a curse. Twitter, like other social media, is a public realm more democratically shaped by its users than other, more traditional channels of communication, while still mirroring the prejudices of general society.

We know also, increasingly, how social media impacts our democracy, and it’s a terrifying prospect that this is the new status quo, where misinformation bots join algorhythmic targeting, feeding people what they will agree with rather than what will challenge them. News as a constant stream of content, increasing polarisation, endlessly upping the ante with shock and vehemence, and normalising far-right views.

Baby Yoda

I knew all that. I’d already left Facebook, in part unable to stomach its sucking up of citizen’s data and commercialising its users (and I still think it’s bizarre that so many left-wing campaign groups use it exclusively to promote their protest events), but also, in truth, because it lagged behind Twitter. It wasn’t as fast to respond to news, it was even slow with memes catching on.

Baby Yoda is probably only just arriving over there. I just now realise it wasn’t giving me what I wanted, like Twitter, with its weird blend of relatives, friends of friends, and people I’d met once at a house party, rather than my Twitter feed specifically crafted around my interests and views. Anyone I wanted to stay in touch with, I have, or at least know where to find them.

I’d already deactivated here and there, but taking three whole weeks or so away from Twitter felt completely different. I realised that I shouldn’t only be concerned about its impact on politics and public discourse, or how its ability to drag down my mood was getting worse as my years on the platform passed, but also how it impacts my actual thinking, especially as a writer.

In the first day or so completely deactivated, I noticed how impulsive my reactions were to whatever I was reading, taking a kneejerk action to share them, sometimes opening Twitter before realising I’d actually deactivated, not just logged out. After more time had passed still, I felt some of the clutter fall out of my head; imaginary arguments, small annoyances. I realised how many people had been taking up real estate in my mind who weren’t actually relevant to my everyday life or work, or even particularly pleasant.

Negative framing

When I went back, I noticed it too. Irritants souring my mood very quickly. The performatism of it all. While away, I read a very interesting interview with the author Lucy Ellmann, talking to Sian Cain in the Guardian. In it, she spoke negatively but honestly about motherhood. I thought it was refreshing. But unbeknownst to me it had caused a storm on Twitter, where Ellmann, a mother herself and an author who had just written a huge radical novel from the perspective of a mother, was being accused of being anti-mother or anti-woman. I was glad to have come to it without the negative framing. But soon I noticed myself narrowing my eyes at other things. I recall enjoying Saturdays reading Twitter with my first and second coffee of the morning, finding interesting longreads and camaraderie. Those days feel long ago. There is a lot of bad news, but really, there always will be.

After my long break, I felt a bit nauseated by being there at all, and continued deactivating every weekend, with those weekends getting longer and longer, stretching into Fridays and Mondays, and then beyond.

I don’t want to be an anti-social media evangelist. I still feel the benefits of social media, and its use in advocacy and representation. But I can’t ignore how much it frames my reactions to what I consume, funnelling them down predetermined routes. In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

I’m going to try to remember that this year, and spend more time away from constant notifications.