Back in the late 2000’s when Twitter’s Fail Whale was still a frequent and inevitable sighting, I used to read a blog called “How to Avoid the Bummer Life”. It was written by Stevil Knevil of Swobo bikes and centered around mountain biking, beer, mustaches, and generally living a good, laid back life with friends while covered in mud from coasting down some sweet single track. I used to do a lot of biking in the late 2000’s, spent a lot of time on fire roads and beach bike paths, and can confirm that mustaches were “a thing”.
(Sadly, that blog isn’t around anymore, and I haven’t been able to find it archived anywhere. If you now go to How to Avoid the Bummer Life, it’s someone’s fancy travel blog.)
I was recently reminded of that blog while listening to Jaron Lanier’s audiobook “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” (2018). In the book he coins the acronym “BUMMER” which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent”. That’s kind of a mouthful. Basically, the idea is that users of most social media services aren’t the customers of the social media companies, but their products. Users’ attention and their data (both reported demographic data and usage data) are packaged up and sold to entities who wish to influence and manipulate their behavior. The customers of social media are the entities that pay to manipulate the users, and like any corporation, social media is beholden more to its customers (who pay them) than its users (who don’t pay them).
The sync between “How to Avoid the Bummer Life” and BUMMER brings things nicely into full circle for me. About the time I was reading “How to Avoid the Bummer Life”, I started getting active online. It was around 2007, I created a Twitter account, Flickr account, and shortly after that, a FB one. Things were still pretty new back then. It didn’t seem as if the whole world was on these platforms. Elected officials were not on Twitter. Nor were news organizations or large companies.
As of today, my Twitter account is deleted. My other social media accounts are in cold storage. I don’t want a gold star for this. Be assured that I’m not judging anyone who still tweets or uses IG or FB. It’s just the right time for me to close that chapter and pull back from participating in social media.
Back in early August, I decided to take a break from Twitter, FB, and IG until my birthday in November. The idea snuck into my head while praying for my ancestors, and I took it as a gentle sign from them.
A few weeks prior to the break, I had noticed that I had been checking the streams with increasing frequency. The way my days have been working out, I get little gaps of time here and there to myself. The gaps seemed to be too short to read a book or to work on a craft, but perfect to scan the accounts to check out what’s new. It became a dearly held habit.
The little gaps of time quickly checking in became longer and longer. Somehow I was able to stretch time for tweeting when it had been hard for me to make the time to read a chapter in a book or start writing a blog post. I started getting cranky when someone interrupted my scrolling. Frequently, I’d get up from the computer feeling completely drained with nothing done on my to-do list.
So, when I got the little nudge to quit for a few months, I went with it. It was shockingly easy! I had anticipated that there would be withdrawal symptoms or at least a strong desire to get back on. Nothing of the sort. I still read some news sites and blogs, and visited forums where I am a paid member. I read books, and even listened to that audiobook.
As the weeks went on, my attention span started to heal. I hadn’t realized how distractible I had been getting until I disengaged from social media. I used to be able to dive into a novel for hours on end, but I soon realized that this wasn’t the case anymore. Years of reading quick short form hits on social media streams had made deep and sustained engagement with long form text difficult.
Decision and mental fatigue has gotten less in the last few weeks, and my overall well being has improved. When I was reading posts on social media, each post came with implicit questions – Do I like this? Not like this? Respond? Not Respond? Repost? Click on the link? Don’t click on the link?
As I was quickly scrolling through the posts, these questions barely registered consciously, but they were there nonetheless. I must have seen hundreds of posts daily and made hundreds of these decisions. No wonder I had felt so drained.
Then there’s the broadening of horizons. Much has been said about the dangers of social media echo chambers where your own ideas and beliefs are endlessly reflected back and reinforced. I had thought that I had done a pretty good job of following a wide variety of viewpoints, but it wasn’t until I started looking at non-social media sources that I realized I’d been looking through a very narrow window indeed. Coming to my own conclusions on subjects without having other people’s likes or reactions attached to them is very freeing. So is not having the pressure to comment on subjects that I’m still thinking through.
Do I miss my Tweeple? Both Yes and No. I greatly value the friendships and interactions with people I’ve “met” on Twitter. Often, I’d wish that I could get together with those people in person to have longer conversations and adventures “in real life”. I’m lucky that many there also frequent other membership-based forums, so I can still keep in touch in more substantial ways- less like neighbors popping by for a brief check in, and more like pen pals.
I also don’t miss them because I believe that by having the desire for friends imperfectly fulfilled in cyberspace (via social media), crowds out the potential for friendships to manifest in meatspace. There is something about being together physically with a group of friends that is like nothing else. I see the difference sharply with my children’s experiences with distance learning and frequent stay at home orders this year. When they are able to get together with friends in person, the exuberance and joy is overwhelming. I want that for me, too. Not just the online version of that.
Back to the start of the circle. How to Avoid the Bummer Life? I think I’m on my way to finding out. For me, it begins with being more in the body and chasing Exuberance and Joy like they owe me money! It’s listening to the tweets in the trees, and then maybe finding some sweet single track.