Like many millennials, Lena Dunham is no longer on Twitter. Last week, the usually unflappable feminist told Re/code Decode podcast host Kara Swisher that she had left the platform because it was an unsafe space that had created something "cancerous" in her. Essentially, she was sick of dealing with trolls. Dunham will continue to compose tweets, but the interactions will now be managed by staff. As more and more celebrities entrust their employees with the responsibility of their 140 characters or less (or their square Instagram photos, or their pithy Facebook posts), ordinary young people everywhere are also deleting their accounts across all platforms. So, after ten solid years of the overwhelming socialisation of our lives, why are millennials and Gen Z net natives fleeing the social space?
It should be noted that some people develop unhealthy dependencies on social media, while others can indulge recreationally, without consequences. Perhaps the love-hate relationship many have formed with these instantaneous, all-consuming sharing platforms isn't about the tech itself, but how they're using and abusing it. As our social media lives have flourished, so too has the potential for unhealthy stalking, distracting over-engagement, FOMO, jealousy attacks and the threat of too much outside noise.
Take writer Ali Segel aka Online Alison, for example. The 29-year-old writer broke up with Facebook, but eventually came running back. "I deleted it when I was stalking too much," she admits, "but I always end up reactivating." So what's keeping her hooked? Like many, she finds it a useful tool for professional promotion. "Career-wise, I feel like I need it to stay relevant. I found my manager because he was intrigued by a status I posted on Facebook." But it's not all business, says the internet over-sharer. "I'm also aware that I have a borderline internet addiction. As soon as I feel an emotion, I go to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to post either a status or picture. I wait to interact with complete strangers rather than feel whatever I'm supposed to be feeling. It's a marvellous way to stay completely un-present, feed my ego, self-sabotage and be masochistic."
On Reddit, young people share their experiences with giving up social media in a thread called, "People who deleted their social media accounts, how did that work out for you?" One user writes, "Feels nice not having to wade through a ton of SJW [Social Justice Warrior] bullshit, clickbait articles, sensationalist news stories, blatant propaganda from both sides of the political/religious spectrum or trying to have an intelligent conversation with people, only for them to dismiss you with a "bye Felicia!" or condescending Willy Wonka meme rather than act like an adult and support their stance."
Another user, who maintains a Facebook account as a way to manage events but tries not to engage with it beyond that, adds, "I'm definitely a much happier guy overall when I'm not browsing through my friends' pages or reading their latest posts on my feed." This particular user elaborates on the culture of jealousy and envy spawned by these "networking" websites. "What started as a way to keep in touch slowly became this magnificent highlight reel of the seemingly perfect lives that they were living," writes DividedBy_Zero. "The front page was loaded with pics of engagement rings, newborn babies, exotic travels, nights out and marathons ran. Then without thinking about it, you start comparing your life to theirs; you begin wondering where you went wrong while everyone else is living their dreams. Facebook just became this unintentional pit of despair and self-loathing, and the deeper I went in, the worse I felt coming out."
It's not a new idea that social media, specifically Instagram, allows people to present a curated, idealised, best self to the world. One that is perpetually glamorous and on vacay, impossibly free of messiness and everyday mundanity. Even "honest" moments are contrived, like the otherwise flawless woman posing with a dot of pearlescent zit cream accompanied by a self-deprecating caption. Last year, this woman faked a 5-week excursion to Southeast Asia as an experiment in exposing social media's ability to manipulate reality.
A quick poll on Twitter revealed an overwhelming sentiment of social media fatigue. Liz, a fashion designer, told me that she deleted Facebook four years ago, and that she thinks Instagram is the next to go. Jazzi, who used to blog but not so much anymore, said that she hasn't Instagrammed in 70 weeks and that her response to me was her first tweet since 2014. Though she still maintains all platforms except for Facebook, she doesn't interact and refers to herself as a "casual observer." Stacey, a PA from London, deleted Facebook three years ago when "it went rogue and published private messages on [her] public wall." She has no regrets about her decision. And Kate, a writer, deleted Twitter for about three years when she realised most of her tweets were about being hungover.
When Jaden Smith deleted his account back in May, it caused pandemonium. His sudden departure inspired countless speculative think pieces about a world without tweets like, "How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren't Real." We'll have to get back to you on that, Jaden. Of course, he's back on Twitter, maintaining his mystique by following only 5 people. The public had another scare when angelic it-girl Lily-Rose Depp apparently committed "social media suicide" and deleted ALL THE PHOTOS off of her Instagram. Turns out it was just a false alarm, and that her account had been hacked.
So why are people opting out of social media? For Generation Z (the oldest of whom are age 19), one big reason is an increased desire for privacy. According to The New York Times, Gen Z-ers are more aware of their digital footprint, and don't want to get photographed in compromising positions without their knowledge or permission. They're not the only ones craving a bit of anonymity in the era of overexposure. Céline designer Phoebe Philo was quoted as saying, "The chicest thing is when you don't exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person!"
I think we all knew it was coming. The gratification and thrill associated with social media has substantially faded as too many images and voices vie for attention, causing what feels like thousands of attention-hungry children speaking over one another, simultaneously saying everything and nothing. A lawless clusterfuck. Sure, many of us still scroll through our feeds on auto-pilot, mindlessly double tapping photos of cacti, skimming heartful captions while feeling nothing. But, overall, we're withdrawing from social media in favor of decluttering and clearing our heads, seeking out meaningful and authentic connections, and forgoing the dime-a-dozen opinions of others in favor of experts. Enough of "pics or it didn't happen."
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Text Jane Helpern
Photography Harry Carr