A sketch of a smartphone with unanswered messages. Illustration by Pepper Curry
A text message lamenting to a friend that we haven't caught up.

I deleted Twitter and Instagram off my phone. Facebook has been absent from my pockets for years now, and absent from my screen for a little over a year (I don’t check it). On top of that, notifications for Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, and other social apps have been turned off. Right now, the only way to ping me is through Signal, SMS, or a phone call.

Some of this is due to privacy concerns (especially with the shenanigans Facebook have been up to lately), but let’s be honest: these apps have never valued my privacy, and I still used them nonetheless.

No, I removed social media from my phone because I realised I was lonely.

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On a warm summer’s night last November, I was lying in bed, reading a book. Outside my window sat my neighbours and their friends — lounging outdoors, enjoying the still Wellington weather, talking about nothing at all.

As I listened to their conversations about politics and Pokémon Go, I felt a sudden sense of sadness. I found myself wishing I was in their circle, shooting the shit, laughing at jokes while old-school Linkin Park played from a shitty bluetooth speaker, quiet and tinny in the evening air.

When was the last time I spent time with friends like that? It had to have been months. Half a year, maybe?

Every time I saw friends, the conversation would always be the same. How have you been?, we’d croon. When was the last time we saw each other? Three months? Four? We have to catch up more often!

And the months would go by. After the right amount of longing and guilt set in, we’d tee up another get-together. It’s been so long since I last saw you!

Rinse, repeat; like clockwork.

Some of my happiest memories are when I’m hanging out, doing nothing with my friends. So why do I see them so rarely? Why is cancelling plans our main guilty pleasure?

(I’ll come back to this later.)

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It has been widely documented that social media changes our how we think. It makes us more nervous, self-conscious, depressed, anxious, jittery… yet it keeps us coming back with intermittent hits of dopamine. I’ve written about this previously when I was thinking about my attention span, but the detrimental effects of social media applies to actual socialising too.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter— they give us the illusion of socialising. They push the right psychological buttons to keep us coming back, but it’s a shadow of the real thing. We feel like we’re being social, whereas in reality we’re all sitting alone, passively scrolling in the dark, lit by our friends’ highlight reels.

Social media is fast food. It triggers the wants of our mammalian brain, but it’s not good for us.

Socialising fast and slow

I should clarify that I’m not saying that the internet is bad for connecting with people — quite the opposite. But because social media is monopolised by a few companies, the way we interact with each other is monopolised, too. Gone are the days where you would deliberately check a friend’s webpage or blog to see their updates. Where you would have different parts of the internet that you’d “hang out” on. Now, so much of our connections are passive: we scroll through feeds of photos and text, and throw out passerby-comments here and there.

Nowadays, the main way we stay in touch with each other has been dictated wholly by the way we can best look at advertisements.

So if the social medias of today is fast food, what’s our vegetable equivalent?

Intentional interaction

When I go meet a friend for lunch, or visit their house for a potluck, I’m putting in nontrival effort to go see them. I’m saying, through my actions, that I want to spend time with them. It’s active. It’s intentional.

This doesn’t have to be limited to meatspace, by the way. It is just as meaningful and real when I decide to write a letter, or send an email that has no purpose or “action”. It’s the same when we decide to hang out together on a multiplayer videogame, or log onto the same chat channel at the same time every night, or read a long-ass email newsletter.

Even if you are on Facebook, but you’re actively engaged in a fruitful conversation — that can be rewarding too. It’s the intent and the proactiveness that makes a difference, and that’s the very thing that our ad-driven networks have been optimised out of. Everything is served on a platter in the name of convenience, even new friends (that is, “people you might know”). And as socialising becomes easier and easier, it starts to lose its meaning and value all together.

A reality performed

Perhaps we feel such a rush of relief when social plans are cancelled because how we socialise, even in real life, has been radically changed. No longer can we just go around to a friend’s place, or to a local park to “hang out”. Everything feels like it has to be an “experience”, something to be photographed, documented, tweeted about later on. Which in turn, means an implicit expectation (that we place on ourselves) to perform, and perform well.

(I can feel the anxiety climbing up in my chest already.)

This self-imposed expectation is exacerbated when we start to socialise less frequently, giving the times when we do reach out even more importance (and more pressure to perform). Which makes the good times great, but even the smallest social faux pas just that much worse. Which gives us more anxiety, which makes us want to socialise even less…

It’s been so long since I last saw you!, my own voice rings in my brain. I’ve said it so many times now that it feels practiced, fake. I’m so ready to climb out of this spiral.

Digital minimalism

Ever since I listened to Cal Newport’s podcast episode on The Ezra Klein Show almost two years ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how the technologies around me have changed my behaviour and my thinking patterns. This has led to a lot of introspection around myself, and a lot of Marie-Kondo-ing in my digital life.

There’s also something to be said about digital content ownership, and how our words and thoughts are slowly being owned by media corporations rather than ourselves (it’s why I’ve moved my writing back to my own website). But that’s a can of worms in itself, to be opened for another day.

In the past month or so, I’ve spent time with friends more than I have in the past half a year. I’ve gone to breakfasts, lunches, cooked dinner for friends, lazed in the sun talking about nothing at all for an entire afternoon. I’ve exchanged long emails, audio notes, Skype sessions. It’s effortful and intentional — and it should be. My friends are some of the most excellent people around, and spending time with them gives me so much joy. I no longer have the backstop of Facebook or Instagram to fall back on, and it’s possibly the best decision I’ve made in a long time.■

Further reading

Illustration by Pepper Curry. This post was originally published in my newsletter.