I’ve been screaming my opinions at the world via the internet for a solid decade now. Back in college, I discovered LiveJournal, which I filled with movie reviews, shoddy political analysis, and snark (which I directed at other people on LiveJournal). Then Facebook opened up! And Twitter! And Instagram! And you could link them. I have now spent a solid decade getting positive reinforcement and criticism — at least someone cares! — from strangers online.
Social media has brought us all together. But perhaps it’s brought us just a little too close. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram make it easier than ever to plug in and experience a firehose of anger, joy, fear, and “like” (love is a little strong, perhaps) with the tap of a thumb or a few keystrokes. But in a world where Twitter can facilitate digital hate crimes and Facebook is struggling to keep the news legit, let alone civil, does it make sense to turn off the firehose altogether?
In 2014, after Facebook “unzipped” Facebook Messenger, I removed the app. I still look at Facebook, of course, but my primary distraction over the last few years has been Twitter, where, in the space of a few short years, I’ve racked up thousands of tweets. In a lot of ways Twitter is the perfect intellectual treadmill: Read a snippet of a thought, click like, retweet, and move on to the next snippet. My Twitter timeline is a sea of RTs and favs.
Over the last few months, though, Twitter hasn’t exactly been a source of joy. The issue, really, is that the election threw everyone who fancies themselves a smart person (pretty much anyone with a computer and an opinion) a giant hunk of red meat tinged with panic to gnaw on. I discovered that my anxiety grew rapidly via the platform: What was going to happen to my gay friends? My non-white friends? My trans friends? Twitter, for all its flaws, is an excellent way to get these concerns, and opinions on them, front and center.
So I started tweeting, RTing, and sharing to make my voice heard. At the same time I started having trouble sleeping and began feeling more anxious and miserable. I stayed up later to spend more time on Twitter, and I ignored other hobbies in favor of immersing myself in a sea of bite-sized information, tweeting and retweeting until reloading my feed became muscle memory.
“Sherry Turkle has written about how these apps have been ingeniously designed to trigger the brain’s reward center. We log into Facebook and we have Likes and notifications waiting for us,” Biondini says. “It was purposely designed like that, by Facebook’s researchers and UX designers, so we’ll return to Facebook over and over, like a rat to the lever. And we go back again and again to get our fix.”
Turkle, for those unfamiliar, has spent years arguing that social media is a negative. As MIT’s Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, Turkle tries to find the psychological and social impact of technology, making it more or less her life’s work, and she rarely likes what she sees. She’s pointed out that there’s value to in-person communication that Facebook just can’t replace, a position which isn’t particularly uncommon among scientists.