From 2010 to 2019, from the ages of 13-22, I was quite comfortably the Most Online person that I knew. I joined Twitter back when shortcode messaging was still encouraged, I was a day one user of Instagram for Android, and I was one of the few people on this planet who genuinely loved Google+.
Social media has historically been a force for good in my life. It cemented friendships in high school, it drew me into local politics, and Twitter has lead to many of the interesting opportunities in my life. Without Twitter and Bury Football Club, I wouldn't have met my current employers, and I'm not quite sure what I'd be doing today.
All of this provides context to a curious stat that I uncovered this week. Thanks in part to our digital marketing team, my LinkedIn profile has more posts on it from the past six months than both my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts combined. For someone who has religiously used both platforms for the best part of a decade, and never really been that into LinkedIn, that's a very unusual statistic.
In my eyes, there's two ways to chalk this up. The obvious first answer is that my professional life has been far more interesting than my personal life as of late. Work's been going well, and there's only so many Instagrammable sunsets one can take from your own house. I'd actually be willing to accept this as the probable cause of my social media silence, if not for two very distinct reasons.
Firstly, I've never been particularly shy about talking about work on my personal accounts. For better or for worse, what I do for a living is a huge part of who I am, and I'll talk about it anywhere and everywhere. It would stand to reason that, even if my life outside of work was boring, some of the things I'm doing professionally would make their way over to my personal pages.
Secondly, Facebook and Instagram aren't just platforms for creation, they're platforms for consumption. If I was still actually using Facebook, then I would consider this as case closed: my lack of posts is just a lack of things to talk about, my life has gone into regression over lockdown, and once all of this opens up I'll be back on my merry way continuing to irritate my nearest and dearest.
The truth is rather different. As I write, the Facebook app isn't even installed on my phone. I haven't looked at my Facebook feed in four months. Instagram fares better because I still use Stories fairly regularly, but in terms of actual non-emphermal content, I seldom scroll through my feed.
This leads to the question that I've been asking myself this week. What has caused me - a man so online that I liveblogged WWDC three years in a row despite not being a journalist, an iOS developer, or ever actually attending WWDC in the first place - to stop using platforms that were fundamental to the way I used the internet just a year ago?
If you strip back to the fundamentals of why we ultimately do anything in our lives, it's about emotion. You listen to your favourite record because absolutely, The Seldom Seen Kid is a fantastic piece of art, but actually because it allows you to relieve experiences and feelings that you once had. Before all of this, you'd head down to your local to catch up with your mates and to feel connected to the world that you occupy. Personally, I used social media to capture those same senses of emotion: in a world where my friends are scattered across the globe, and I see those friends who I am closest to exceedingly rarely, my Facebook feed was an ample substitute for seeing them in real life.
Over the past year or so, a common trope has emerged in discourse around social media that the platforms have forgotten about their core principles in an attempt to capture as much value as humanly possible. I would actually make the opposite argument: social media platforms are steadfastly sticking to their original goals, but inviting harm by ignoring the health of their platform whilst doing so.
Since the beginning, the goal of social media companies has always been to make as much money as possible by connecting as many people as possible. The metric that every social media company has chosen as their baseline for this activity is engagement: number of clicks, number of returning visits, number of daily active users. The more engaged people you have on your site or platform, the more people you can sell adverts against.
Where I would disagree with breathless Netflix documentries, or much writing on the subject, is that this isn't a dirty trick or a rare industry secret. On the contrary, it's how all media, social, printed, or digital, has operated for hundreds of years.
Tabloids were one such invention of the quest for engagement: they were an invention of the early 20th century designed as an easier-to-read, aggregated version of broadsheet newspapers. It was designed to engage a portion of the public that previously may not have had the time or inclination to read broadsheets, and by getting your news in the hands of more people, you reach more of your total addressable market and you sell even more ads.
The concept of tabloid journalism, on the other hand, came much later. The sensationalism that we now associate with tabloids, and clickbait as its digital translation, was borne out of the same metrics that drive Facebook and Twitter today: newsrooms with metrics on engagement, either copies sold or number of clicks, not on quality of communication. For the most part, there was no specific goal or intent on the part of tabloids to reduce quality of coverage: it was a by-product of the things that they chose to measure.
This is the impasse that our social media platforms find themselves at today. The metrics that are commonly accepted by the market to be valuable: session durations, daily active users, interactions per post - were a great focus during platform growth phase, but are wholly inappropriate for mature communications companies with wide-ranging social impacts. Netflix, by the way, has managed to get optimisation of their platform for binge-watching almost down to an art form over the past decade, which is a fantastic retention strategy but a questionable social one.
This brings us nicely back to the subject of emotion. If we strip everything back to first principles, we use social media because it makes us feel something. As Facebook's growth continues, the pool of people with access to the internet who don't have Facebook is reduced, which means that any attempt to continue improving engagement metrics requires more conversations to occur within an existing userbase. On top of this, we have seen time and time again that if we optimise content discovery for quality of engagement rather than quality of communication, we end up amplifying negative posts and emotions over positive ones.
Algorithms are only as good as those who design them and those who contribute to them. If an algorithm is designed for engagement, and people engage more with negative and misleading content - as a cursory glance through your Facebook feed will show you - then it is this kind of content that gets shown to more people. This is a societal problem that platforms are significantly amplifying, not a problem that social platforms are creating, although both have the same end result.
I started this post by questioning why I've pulled back from social media. There is a threshold where the benefits of engaging with social platforms are outweighed by the negative effects derived from the things that are required to ensure that engagement happens in the first place. For me, this threshold has been met.
The reason I've stopped using Facebook, then, is very simple: the emotion I now associate with using it is innately negative, rather than positive, and I'm feeling the same way about every other social media platform with each passing day. As much as I still use Twitter, I don't post to it anywhere near as much as I used to, and it's a platform I've felt at home on for nearly half my life. The story of our social networks is a cautionary tale for what we choose to measure ourselves on: by optimising for the obvious, we end up not thinking about the necessary.