It involves a nervous breakdown, and trying to come to terms with open vulnerability.
We are obsessed with it, and we obsess over why we’re so obsessed with it. “There is something undeniably totalitarian about the combination of mass media, Web, and social media,” that great social networking grouch Jonathan Franzen once (or twenty times) intoned ominously.
Its unabashed enthusiasts are derided as unhappy, alienated, envious narcissists and Guardian columnist after Guardian columnist has accused Facebook of being “the enemy of deep thought” and causing “a whole generation [to lose] its way.” (The way according to whom?)
Twitter PR catastrophes have ruined careers on both the big screen and in real life. Last week, my mother became the latest of a substantial chunk of my friends list to announce a social media hiatus, noting that she’d “become hypnotized by social media and [wanted] to live in a more conscious and present state of mind.” By now we’ve all received the take-home message loud and clear: Be afraid of social networks. Be very afraid.
There is indeed much to be afraid of in this brave new social media world. It’s not just the addictive dopamine jolt our brains give us at the sight of that red-lit notifications icon, making us feel like we are ceding control of our very physical chemistry to a greedy corporation. Even worse, Facebook translates our human obsession with judging other people into perhaps the most painful and transparent form imaginable: an algorithm. It makes crystal clear when you have annoyed people you like just by formulaically distancing those people from your feed and concentrating your filter bubble with sycophants.
Like probably all of you, I’ve witnessed agonizing online meltdowns from everyone from emo 15-year-olds to enraged lovers to successful writers to haughty matriarchs, and suffered spasms of terror that I, too, may lack/have already lacked the self-awareness to spare myself such frightful public humiliation “validated” by a stream of Likes. (Perversely, the only thing I could think to do to alleviate that agony was to unfollow such people, thus intensifying my own filter bubble.)
So how did I make peace with this highly problematic phenomenon that is social media? Unlike porn and the #AfterSexSelfie, in the case of Facebook I didn’t set out with the intention to vindicate something that the current consensus deems a scourge on modern living. I joined Facebook in 2005, as soon as they’d added my college to the then-university-only network, and like pretty much everyone else I knew at Kentucky Wesleyan College in those days, I fell in love at first sight. (Facebook was not nearly as vexing when it consisted mostly of classmates’ study-abroad photos instead of your aging father’s Tea Party memes.)
My social network addiction hit fever pitch when I interned as a research assistant for a prominent economist in Washington, D.C. My primary duty consisted of trawling the web for hours searching for press mentions of my boss. I took to feeding his best-stated arguments onto my wall several times a day, like a needle shooting continuous political stimulation into my intellectual ecosystem, leaving me angry and spent after every fix.
But it was not until I started writing professionally, with the required element of self-promotion, that my relationship with the Facebook community became truly tortured. At the time I was writing mostly about the agonies of establishing a stable non-monogamous relationship, an experience that itself severely strained my nerves. Then needing to self-promote such content in a public forum that included my mother and two grandmothers, as well as several ex-professors and ex-lovers, turned my self-concept upside down.
There’s a scene in my favorite-ever novel The Golden Notebook (i.e. the ultimate guide to owning and operating a vagina with intellect, sanity, and grace) where the main character Anna sends her daughter off to boarding school and then, left alone staring at four walls, becomes obsessed with newspaper headlines of suffering and death around the world, clipping hundreds of them, covering the walls of her house with them, compulsively ruminating over them to try to find the single thread that ties them all together and holds the secret to world peace.
At the very lowest point of my relationship, when my partner had split up with me and I’d opted to face my fears of solitude and insanity alone in a cabin atop the Andes, Facebook became to me what the newspapers had become to Anna—but worse. As I trawled headlines and comments, I was haunted by the idea that hundreds of friends and readers were watching me live-report my nosedive into near-psychosis.
One night, after spending nearly a week locked in my cabin, I’d become maniacally convinced that the world is irredeemably evil and there was no longer any sense resisting the pessimism, depression, and self-loathing that made me feel like my soul was going to explode and leave a black hole. I was sure the only way to salvage even a shred of self-respect was to shut down my Facebook account that very moment. But when I went to do so, Mark Zuckerberg’s bots helpfully reminded me that if I went off Facebook, my friends Aaron, Nan, Camilo, etc., would miss me.
And I knew that was true.
In fact, I wrote on the spot to Aaron, told him I was in a very bad place, and asked him for help. And he gave it to me.
“I am always here when you need to talk to someone,” he wrote. And I believed him.
I’ve been on an upswing since hitting that low that Aaron talked me through last August. My sole New Year’s resolution this year is to try to practice radical self-acceptance, to resist the self-loathing that’s been instilled in me since I was a child whose father and pastor and religious teachers taught her that women have been the source of evil since Eve got all friendly with that snake in the Garden of Eden.
I’m not much into self-helpy stuff, but I’ve been lucky to find intuitive guidance along the way from the teacher Panache Desai, whose aim is to help people let go of self-judgment. He argues that the only way to achieve this is to stop fighting yourself and accept even the parts of your personality you want to hide from everyone else, your weaknesses, your addictions—including your Facebook addiction. Only then, he says, can we develop true self-control.
I never did quit Facebook. In fact, social media has now become the crucible where I test my own developing capacity for self-acceptance, failings and all. Refusing to judge my own brain for its dopamine addiction has, in turn, helped me learn when I would really benefit from stepping away from it, letting go of the stimulation, and taking a walk.
As Octavio Paz put it, back when our society was still wrestling with a pre-social-media wave of visual frenzy:
We must turn off the television, and go out for a walk, losing ourselves in the city or in our thoughts. To escape we need to be still and silent for a while, to stop being images, to become again what we are: men and women, blood and time.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.