Leaving Social... but why?
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Hymnoxis grandiflora (Old-man-of-the-mountains) Phacelia sericea (Silky phacelia) bloom in a high mountain meadow in the mountains near Durango.
It almost feels strange to use the internet as an avenue of self-expression. I am a deep thinker who is logical, yet passionate and emotional. I am a challenger who questions virtually any idea put in front of me. All these traits require in depth conversation to navigate and understand, yet here I am writing on a blog. To understand how this has become my primary means of sharing, I wanted to reflect on why I left social media, and then on why I continue to share on my blog.
Social media is something that my age group seemingly came to age with. The rise of various social media platforms corresponds to my late middle school, early high school tenure. I can remember picking out the music for my MySpace page and carefully crafting the dark, angst riddled theme of black and red colors that represented my tormented being in adolescence. I can also remember when Facebook was first released, and my peers began adopting it. I was a sophomore in high school and carefully presented myself on MySpace and secretly chatted with friends on AIM messenger at home, hoping my parents would never find out about my internet presence. They were hawks - and using these tools was strictly regulated. When Facebook began becoming popular, they had verification procedures to ensure you went to the high school you claimed, and they required everyone to be 13 years of age. Thus, the user group was predominately real people who actually lived the lives they claimed on Facebook. One of my earliest memories of Facebook was suddenly realizing many faces of peers I had never met, but were associated with my high school. Being a school of nearly 4,000 students, of course our social potential was high, but my realized social circle was small. Regardless, Facebook became a way that people connected. Not long after joining, I quietly never used it, but instead maintained it.
The Denver Skyline is a strange symbol of where I grew up. For one, its beautiful - for another I almost never got to visit Denver as a suburb child - instead views like these were a rare treat. Perhaps representing the freedom social media left me is the haze in this photo that obscures Mt. Evans.
Upon leaving high school and going to college, Facebook became the rapid way to add someone to your social circle after meeting new people. Facebook was still pretty fresh and hip - it was almost a replacement for asking for someone's number. At the time, I still used flip phones, and Facebook was reserved for the internet. Now, outside the nest of the Hawk's perspective, the internet was a liberated place for my own curiosities and productivities - and Facebook in particular held many riches. The friends with whom I wanted to bike, but never heard back? Well, Facebook revealed who they actually went biking with. Early in its use, Facebook was rapidly becoming a social barometer and some sort of metric of truth and ego, rather than a tool to maintain connection with people. And as far as my high school friends I may want to stay in contact with? Well, high school was a time of being an anger riddled bassist who played music in a metal band to escape the confines of my sheltered lifestyle, and my friends were reflections of that. College is where I grew into an academic. Early in my college career, I had to write a rhetorical essay on love, which quietly harrowed me from the angst and inspired me to academia. My high school friends did not understand that, and distance became natural - a similar phenomenon to my relationships with my parents, but I will save that topic for another time. So, what then was Facebook for?
While hanging out in the remote wilds of the Modoc Plateau, working for a federal land management agency, I met and connected with a high school peer I never actually knew, Phil Krening. Phil helped elevate my photography by sharing some perspective on composition and post-processing, and thus ultimately helped inspire a deeper passion for photography (his photos can be viewed here: Phil Krening Photos). Since then, social media has become a photo sharing platform interspersed with personal life updates. Oddly enough, the photography aspect drew me to connect with various photo sharing groups. Thus, photographers and algorithms began sending random people who like those photographers to my page. The result was suddenly a profile of people I barely knew clicked a like button on a post and moved on with their life. Meanwhile, like before, the people I knew continued to post photos of their adventures with people, while generally not responding to my own attempt to plan adventures or also not reaching out to me. The result: Imposture syndrome, isolation, and loneliness.
Living on the Modoc Pleateau was eye-opening, as it served as a gateway to exploring the remote reaches of the Western Basin and Range, while also giving access to the Cascade Range and the coastal region. Not only was it expanding in terms of photographic skills, but also provided a new perspective on land and ecology, where rivers flow with the wetness of the high Cascade through the sagebrush empire.
For some time into the present, I attempted to maintain social media in a balanced and healthy way. Many folks stated "they would miss seeing my content" should I choose to leave, so for someone else, rather than myself, I maintained a presence. Sometimes, I would get consumed with "scrolling" and observing people's fantastical, purposeful, shared snapshots of the glamorous side of their lives, and be upset by my own struggles. In other ways, I would observe the dogmatic spiral of political hate that would develop through algorithms feeding people information that validates what they already like. And meanwhile, the only translation of social media into real life was criticism from people not close to me, who would occasionally make some sort of judgemental remark, like "I can't believe you like Donald J. Trump on Facebook". Well, of course, I do - I want to know what the president says and believes in - and what his followers respond to. I know good people who support Trump, and I like them as people, even if I disagree with some of their core values. I do not support or condone racism - and I will not assume others are racists given the bigotry of the president. Other comments I would hear from people were related to the size and scale of accomplishments - how big of a hike, which mountains did I climb, etc. - but almost no one seemed to care about the greater depth posted with my content. Sometimes I shared poetry that reflected my deep internal pain and struggle, my past suicidal ideation, and other wearisome to breach and share topics. Yet, people seemed to only care for the beauty of the photo and the lighter hearted content. Some would say they loved the content, and I believe them. It almost seemed as if because they saw my social media content, they were armed with enough to know me and understand me.
A single human is a vast universe of complexity, and the depth begs curiosity and exploration. I always found social media to be the summary of the cliff notes - rather than an opportunity to see the stars.
The content was merely a product of me, my brain, my heart, and the complex emotional space of observing and navigating the modern world. The content represented who I am, at the core, including pains, sorrows, and victories. And sharing self is a delicate and vulnerable thing, that feels even more baffling when self is received by a quick like and scroll. I am the guy who will suffer to hike up a steep drainage to appreciate what's there, rather than drive to the scenic lookout, and to me social media was the scenic lookout. Remaining on the platforms felt isolating and riddled me with anxiety and depression regarding imposture syndrome (both as a scientist and photographer), and wrecked havoc on my desire for deep thought and conversation. Every time someone said they would miss my content, I would fill with optimism that I had friends who valued me. But when it came to friends who visited me, or made plans with me, I realized this was still a void, and that most people on social media do not actually know me.
In many ways, leaving social media a pure decision for myself. Writing this blog becomes more of a formalized journal. It takes some of my raw thoughts and reflections and allows me to formalize them - to articulate a more coherent reflection that others can follow along, if they so choose - and perhaps the most important 'other' is my own self. This blog is my values laid out in an aesthetically pleasing way, where words mingle with photos to help me understand my own self and my own evolving perspectives. I desire to write here with greater frequency for these reasons, and I hope others appreciate the reflections. However, this is a space for me, by me, and the fact it is public is a nice bonus.
The Mother of all Waters (Mooney Falls) framed with travertine pools in the foreground. Just to the right of the base of the falls is the notorious "log" or tree stump that became Insta-famous despite infinite possible creative compositions.
Lastly, the unseen impact of social media seems difficult to quantify. From the social angst it is causing people - I know how it can feel to look at others social media lives in awe of their travels, their privilege, and their life. I also recognize that social media is a wonderland perspective into someone's life, and it's hard to separate the wonderland from reality. Another potential unseen impact is the sharing of space and location of places with a broad audience. I worked as a guide in the home land of the Havasupai, where at the base of The Mother of all Waters (Mooney Falls), there was a log many girls had seen photos of other girls doing a yoga pose on a log, and many girls asked me of the log's location - some perhaps fixated on visiting the location solely for the glamour of the potential photo they hoped to take, inspired by social media. This was not the only location subject to Insta-fame. I have seen many locations increase in visitation, as digital content from places inspired others. Even with not revealing geographic specifics, widely viewed photos will get to the hands of people who can figure out locations. While there is a philosophical debate about whether inspiring others to go hiking and observe the world is more beneficial than the impact of a few places becoming heavily trafficked, my decision to not participate in the process is not to take a stance on this debate. Instead, my decision is rooted in my goals. My goal is not to be seen by thousands, rather to be received by few who deeply care about me, about place, about sharing perspective and feeling. My goals are to live my life away from the scrolling.
One more important point is the Artifical Iinteligance based algorithms that feed those social media platforms seemingly perpetuate isolation in perspective and therefore dogma and polarization. If I like a video about cats, the algorithms feed me more information on cats. If I like more of these videos, I am bombarded with more information on cats until suddenly my whole world is cats. Of course, these algorithms can be advantageous should one maintain command of the information. They feed the algorithm with intentionality by liking diverse themes and ideas to avoid being in a dogmatic bubble, but insufficient conscious efforts by many on the social media world make this difficult on a group-societal scale, even if it can be achieved at an individual scale.
OK - long social media rant over. Hope you 'liked' this read
Thanks for reading. Sorry for the lengthy post.