I am about to admit to the most unprofessional thing I have ever “done” – or perhaps I should say “not done”. As a professor of communications, and especially “New Media”, I have refused from the beginning to join Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and almost every other social medium (except for a couple of specific, limited-to-friends/family WhatsApp groups). I’ll leave for another day how I managed to do serious research – or even to teach – in the field. For now, I want to offer my reasons – one that everyone else should consider as well.
First and perhaps least, albeit still worthy of consideration, is the personal privacy issue. Social media know just about everything there is to know about each and every one of us – at least those who are “on”. They even know things about you that you might not know about yourself, because their algorithm can correlate different aspects of your online behavior to develop a “profile”: who you are (race, religion etc.), what you like (pick any field of life), and how you think (extroverted vs shy, smartass vs. humble, genius or moron…). Even aspects that you have never mentioned online (e.g., religion) will be “guessed” with a very high degree of accuracy as there are thousands of others out there who exactly “match” your online activity but they have also mentioned the one “missing” element you haven’t. This profile is then used to “nudge” you – “manipulate” is probably the more appropriate word – in language that best suits your profile, into doing things that “add value” to that social medium, whether through advertising or extracting data to sell to others.
Second, social media are huge time-wasters. Of course, we all wish (and need) to communicate with others, and social media even enable us to find “others” that we want to converse with, but didn’t know how to get to in the past, e.g., distant relatives, grade school friends etc. But once online, the social media are highly expert in keeping us there – tweeting, sharing, uploading, and liking – well beyond what we might normally do in regular conversation.
Third, we all like to gossip once in a while; it’s totally human. But the Net exponentializes our “gossip” routines. Indeed, that extends not only to our personal life but far worse it involves the “news”. In a word, we are awash in negativity. Some of it is important and real; it is important to know about society’s social ills. However, most of it is either superficial – or far worse, manufactured, what we now call “fake news”. There are no inhibitions nor (almost) no restrictions on what any person can write or share/forward. And that’s invariably negative stuff: from “the world (as we knew and loved it) is coming to an end” to “they are taking over our life” (aliens, radicals, Antifa or Proud Boys, Hamas or Breaking the Silence, etc.). Online, there is no border between positive reality (read Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for a dose of REAL positivity) and negative unreality.
Fourth, and for me the most important of all reasons – connected a couple of the previous problems – is the “information overload” problem. Part of this is FOMO, i.e. “Fear Of Missing Out”: who is saying what to whom, what just happened that I “need to know”? So we pile it on – and always leave our gadget “on”.
The problem of information surfeit is not just a matter of quantity; it’s first and foremost a mental obstacle to thinking, especially the problem-solving or the creativity sort. The simple fact is that only when the brain is at rest – that is, not having to continually deal with external stimuli – can it begin to get “creative”. Most of us have experienced this phenomenon when we have a problem that we can’t solve, and then in the middle of the night or when daydreaming, “BANG!” the solution appears “out of nowhere”.
In fact, it’s not at all out of the blue. We are not aware that the brain is working even when “we” think it isn’t. Indeed (get ready for this strange conundrum), our brain makes decisions about 0.4 seconds before we are aware that “we” (it) has come to that decision! In short, if the Bible considered Eve a “helpmate” to Adam, there actually was (and is) a prior helpmate than our spouse/partner: it’s our brain.
Unfortunately, the brain cannot “multitask” (not even female ones). If you’re keeping it continually occupied with social media communication, it doesn’t have the time to do the more important stuff. Even worse, the brain is by far the biggest energy consumer of all our organs – and if it’s expending most available energy on social media silliness and worse, then even if and when you provide it with some respite it too will need to rest and not work on that problem that had you stumped.
The bottom line: when it comes to social media each of us has to decide whether to be primarily a consumer or a producer. I don’t mean being a consumer of others’ tweets and posts or producing your own clips and feeds. I mean either consuming other people’s online “product” or producing your own serious thinking and creativity offline – otherwise called the “real world”.
Recently, this basic idea has been pushed in such books as “24/6” by Tiffany Shlain, and “Sacred Rest” by Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith. As a “Conservadox” Jew, completely unplugging myself every Saturday (shabbat) is second nature – and the practice has hardly harmed all the modern Orthodox professionals out there economically or otherwise. Quite the opposite! (Orthodox Jews have the highest average income of any ethnic or religious group in the U.S.)
So whatever your method, give yourself (or at least your brain; physically exercising while “thinking sweet-nothings” is recommended) a break! For a few hours a day, pull yourself away from your addictive smartphone – breakfast, lunch, and dinner are excellent times to start. You’ll be surprised at how much that actually then becomes, and leads to, true “food for thought”.