Escaping the web

01/2021

Joining online platforms seems to be my recurring mistake, and leaving them my favorite hobby. I left a number of them (most notably, Instagram) in high school after getting bored of them, and never thought much of it. Recently, though, after deleting my LinkedIn account on a whim, I began thinking about the real sources of my boredom—why it seemed to be the same flavor of boredom pushing me away from all these different platforms.

On Instagram, the people I cared about posted a tiny fraction of the total “serious” content I saw, largely due to the platform’s unspoken behavioral norms (post infrequently and perfectly). “Non-serious” content (from “spam” accounts) was usually more fun, but even in this supposedly unrestrained realm, I sometimes encountered strange norms (post with contrived wit and humor, or post mysterious content and gossip, to make membership in your inner circle more “highly coveted”). My own posts were also polished according to norms, and often meaningless and mundane. LinkedIn was a little different, given its primary purpose of professional networking, but I noticed similar patterns on its newsfeed: those I cared about didn’t post, or posted “LinkedIn” content, which I respect but have no interest in. In summary, the content and interactions on these platforms did not add any value to my life.

What’s more, these platforms’ design set the stage for needlessly awkward digital interactions. Maybe I’m the only one who finds these awkward, but here are a few personal examples:

  • “Adding” (or feeling obligated to “add back”) a real-life close friend on a new online platform only because it’s the automatic, knee-jerk thing to do
  • Meeting someone new in real life and later realizing you’ve actually been “connected” on social media for two years
  • Joining an online community and realizing everyone’s exchanging LinkedIn profile links in lieu of introductions (this one probably wasn’t entirely the platforms’ fault, though)

The only online platform I haven’t really felt irritated or bored with is Github, probably because its primary purpose is code sharing, collaboration, and archival, not networking. The “newsfeed” is chronological rather than algorithmic, a little delayed, and not the platform’s main hub of activity; besides “stars”, the only widely-accepted way to engage with others’ work is by contributing new ideas or code. Github’s specificity makes it feel as though events that take place on the platform are properly contextualized; its archival aspect makes it feel less performative and more permanent.

...

For me, the decision to leave the web should be easy; my complaints about it go beyond the oft-cited “online vs offline persona” problem, or “addiction” or whatever else Tristan Harris might point out; my tolerance for its annoyances appears to be below-average. Besides, it seems almost every online platform has its rise and fall, making social media feel even more fleeting and irrelevant in general (though this is purely based on observations from my corner of the web, and I’m not sure it’s universally true). Why, then, do I still feel compelled to exist online?

Maybe because I haven’t figured out what legitimizes my work. For instance, I spent most of my winter break coding and writing things no one else, except maybe a few friends and acquaintances, will care about. This is probably my extreme reaction to the disillusionment I’ve developed over the last year towards creating stuff for anyone but myself: is a personal project really “personal” if I made it in exchange for something bigger?

And if I don’t exist online, do I exist at all? Put less dramatically, must I constantly broadcast myself to a public audience—via LinkedIn or Twitter or Facebook—to legitimize what I do? I don’t think so, but I do think sharing my thoughts and work with more people would be a nice way to get more varied, valuable, and nuanced feedback. At the same time, I’m not yet inclined to try, because I haven’t found a good approach. Popular online platforms provide more avenues for “connections” and (mindless) “engagement”, but not necessarily “nuanced feedback”—after all, as tons of people have pointed out in the past, those platforms are practically engineered to discourage nuance.

...

I began thinking about joining Twitter (as a serious user) a few months ago. It seemed to host the occasional cool interaction, and its shitposts were sometimes funny too. I had concerns, though: I’m not interested in tossing out so many random pieces of my mind, so frequently, as Twitter seems to require (and not just through Tweets, but also through things like “likes”; I don’t enjoy the act of “liking” things on the web in general, and I’m always reluctant to express or imply opinions that way). Conversely, Twitter is noisy. (I made an account just to observe, and followed around 100 people doing work I find interesting across tech, research, and journalism; my newsfeed was still 33 to 50% inane content. I think this might be my fault, though, for getting a little too deep into Tech Twitter™.) Making Twitter work well seems to require an amount of maintenance and effort I’m unwilling to put in. All in all, I’m pretty sure I’d quickly get bored.

Still, it feels like everything happens on Twitter. I’m still contemplating joining. And if I do, the cycle would start again.1

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  1. Therefore, someone please talk me out of it, lol.