In My Data’s Eye

Photo by Republica at pixabay.com, edited by Kim Shepherd

I have a deep, dark secret to share. Are you ready? I’m a social media manager, but I don’t live and breathe social media. Gasp! In Deep Work, Cal Newport (2016) speaks of how modern knowledge workers who limit or abstain from the use of anything internet related are negatively judged simply because they reject a widely accepted trend. I always fear admitting social media isn’t a big part of my personal life for this same reason.  

Despite almost a decade of social media specialists being fixtures on professional teams, our career choice is still viewed as more one of personal, rather than professional interest. There’s this idea of the social media worker, who after a 12-hour day of using the technology at work, happily spends her off hours obsessed with the appearance of her Instagram grid, living for the rush of every like her latest post receives. Imagine if we expected accountants to go home and crunch numbers for fun all night or plumbers to clog up their toilets just for the kicks of snaking them. What I do is not who I am. Or is it? 

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy using social media personally, but I’ve never thought of myself as being addicted to it. I’m not naïve, though, to the widely discussed debate over its risks and side effects. Researchers speak of a possible link between worsening mental health in today’s teenagers and their increasing use of social media. The likelihood of self-identifying as unhappy increases as a teen’s use of social media increases (Twenge, 2017).  On the other hand, research also finds that the effects of social media use on adults contradicts the negative indications seen in teens. Adults who used some form of social media were found to be 63% less likely to develop a psychological disorder such as depression or anxiety (Hampton, 2019).   

I’d like to think I’ve focused on having a healthy relationship with this technology, one in which I’m benefiting more from the positives than the negatives. My self-assurance that I’m doing the right thing, though, isn’t enough. The time came last week for me to try to put my data where my mouth is. The challenge: no personal social media use for 5 days.  

I actively use just one platform, Facebook, in my personal life. I wanted to challenge myself to get the most accurate data, so I didn’t move or delete the app on any of my devices. For the entire experiment it was right up front whenever I unlocked either of my phones. I created a new category in my Notes app on my personal phone to collect a tally of all my urges to use the platform. What I ultimately wanted to find out was why I was being compelled to use Facebook daily. Did Facebook serve a positive purpose in my life, or was I just mindlessly wasting time? 

Inspired by the artistry and creativity of which the information designers from the Dear Data project illustrated their data collection, I created an emoji code for my Facebook cravings (Lupi, 2015).  It was a quick, handy and aesthetically appropriate solution for tracking my reactions from moment to moment and place to place. Each emoji I recorded represented a desire to use Facebook. The kind of emoji correlated with the kind of desire I had in that moment, whether for emotional, informational or simply mindless use. 

I quickly discovered opening Facebook to kill time was a physical fidget I’d developed. In the late afternoon, I unconsciously picked up my phone and started scrolling through my feed. I’d meant to check traffic on Google Maps for my evening commute, but, somehow, I never made it there. I did this for probably a good 10 seconds before I realized what I was doing. I hadn’t even been actively trying to read or digest any of the content streaming in front of my eyes. It was a just a physical compulsion to scroll. A higher number of my Facebook cravings than I expected on this day turned out to have little meaning behind them. 

I slipped up twice on this day. In both instances I got as far as opening the app, but I caught myself before scrolling to anything. I noticed that I’m drawn to use Facebook when I’m at my most exhausted. The hours of 2-5 p.m., the afternoon slump, are the worst. Each time I felt as if my brain had been begging for a break. I started to wonder if I’ve developed the habit of letting my brain take breaks through Facebook in order to convince it to keep working at low energy points. There’s always the possibility that logging on will provide me with an informational or emotional piece of content that will reenergize me. Is Facebook my coffee? 

This day was significant because I started to emotionally miss, rather than crave, Facebook content. I belong to Facebook groups where members share and discuss articles. I find these to be spaces where I am safe and supported in exploring challenging and interesting topics.  My life started to feel flat with the absence of these groups. The notification bubbles on my apps normally don’t bother me. However, when I noticed I had racked up almost 30 notifications on Facebook, I did start to itch to know what they were about. I compensated by using Google News and my News app incessantly. My time on these platforms skyrocketed throughout the day, yet I didn’t feel satisfied with what I was reading.  

I realized I couldn’t simply keep shifting my news cravings from Facebook to other platforms. My screen time on news was getting out of control. Without articles to read I found myself bored. I shifted my surplus time to my relationship with my significant other. However, the more I focused on the two of us, I was reminded of all the people I care about who aren’t geographically nearby. My Facebook blackout meant I had no idea what was going on with them. I realized my time spent searching for news the day before had been unsatisfying because it wasn’t the information I was missing; it was the conversations about the information and the human connections made during them.

The unconscious urges to fidget with Facebook mostly disappeared by this point. In their place I was left with gnawing disconnect. For example, I missed my childhood best friends popping up in my feed and making me nostalgic or my mom’s sharing of a dog video prompting me to text her. I went beyond just thinking about what content I may have missed to wondering how those in my Facebook groups were doing personally. I knew this feeling well. It was the same mix of loneliness and sadness I’d experienced when I moved away to college. Before social media and a thousand miles away, I had felt my once strong relationships with friends and family fade with each passing day. There was less vibrancy in my life when we lived in wholly separate worlds. With the same physical distance still between us and social media removed, history repeated itself. 

Social media adds more serendipity and connection to my life. That’s the conclusion, emotionally, that I came away with from this experiment. On average I craved the human and intellectual components that Facebook provides me with the most. My data mostly align with my goal of meaningful social media uses, but, like many of us, I’ve also learned I’m not invincible to the lure of distraction for the sake of distraction. I can’t unequivocally say I’m immune to the addicting side of the technology either. I am only human, but at least I’m a human who is still mostly in the driver seat when it comes to her relationship with social media. 

Newport says, “your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to” (2016, p. 79). I choose to pay attention to things that can enhance my life. By focusing my Facebook time on the maintenance of connections with friends, family and others with whom I share interests, I shape my world on social media into a positive force in my life that fulfills intellectual and emotional needs. 

I acknowledge that I may be one of the lucky ones. There are many of you out there, adults and teenagers, who are feeling the negative effects of social media. Whether it be as simple as the irrelevancy or shallowness of the content you are consuming on your platforms or as severe as depression brought on by cyberbullying, do not feel you are powerless in the face of this technological tool.  

Most social media content is delivered by an algorithm which analyzes your behavior and that of those connected with you to try and guess what content will be relevant (Derakhshan, 2015). If your social media world is largely the same as your in-person social circle, an algorithm will mostly mirror that real world back to you. If you are dissatisfied face-to-face, you are likely to be dissatisfied digitally. 

As Marie Kondo (2014) would advise, look at each piece of content and person you are connected to on social media and ask if it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, don’t engage with it, hide it, unfollow that person. Make the effort to seek out content creators, personalities and brands that inspire and bring positivity to your life. Follow hashtags or explore options like Facebook groups to discover new content and bring more depth to your social media world. Teach the algorithms. Make them work for, not against your mental health and personal growth.  

I also say you are free to stop using social media. That may sound surprising coming from a social media manager, but I’ll always be person first, technology second. No matter how cool or trendy the platforms are or whether everyone else expects you to use them, social media isn’t worth sacrificing your happiness. 


References

Derakhshan, H. (2015, July 14). The web we have to save. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/matter/the-web-we-have-to-save-2eb1fe15a426

Hampton, K. (2019). Social media and change in psychological distress over time: the role of social causation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jcmc/zmz010/5521084

Kondo, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press.

Lupi, G. Posavec, S (2015). Dear Data. Retrieved from http://www.dear-data.com/theproject 

Newport, C. (2016d). Chapter 3: Deep work is meaningful. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 72-92). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing. 

Twenge, J. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/


*Data graphics by Kim Shepherd. (mobile phone/hand element by LaLaLa_LaDiDah at pixabay.com, emoji elements by Pixaline at pixabay.com and heart element by mmi9 at pixabay.com)

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