when did social media steal our free will?

With last week’s chat of phone detoxes and Instagram hiatuses, we ask when did leaving a group chat or not replying to a text asap become such a big deal?

by Tom Rasmussen
30 November 2016, 8:44am

Have you ever left a WhatsApp group? Until three weeks ago, I never had. But in a feverish hunger to free-up some dank-meme-screenshot memory on my phone, a friend told me that leaving then deleting WhatsApp chats would do just the trick. I was instantly scrolling back to conversations from the depths of 2011, unearthing chats detailing fresher's week plans, random dick pics from a Priest I once nearly slept with, and a long fight I'd had with my old best friend about why Christina Aguilera is better than Britney.

I got obsessed: clearing every single chat that I had not engaged with for six weeks or over; unfollowing every over and under-poster on Instagram and Twitter; un-friending people on Facebook who I met once at the club, or added on a booze-fuelled-stalk-session with a view to late night flirtation. It was the ultimate cross-platform-cull, and it was much overdue.

Halloween at a friend's party in Tottenham, a tap on the shoulder: "Why did you leave the abseiling chat yesterday?" Stunned, I was stuck in a corner clutching a drink and receiving a severely impassioned lecture from a stranger who had added me to a WhatsApp group about abseiling after I'd taken a few classes at our local climbing wall for some literally unknown reason. The last time I connected with said chat was back in May, so it of course fell under the wrath of the aforementioned cull. But nothing could stop him, this conversation went on for upwards of 30 minutes: I couldn't believe it. Not only had I written a message to the whole group explaining the reason for my self-excoriation, I had also never ever consented to being a part of this group in the first place.

So here we are in 2016: with our elections definitively swayed by algorithms and AI machines boxing like minded people into identical categories, and delivering news stories and targeted content to said people just to ignite their interests and gain their clicks-4-cash (all while further cementing our already unshakeable beliefs); with our social media apps which make us contactable at all hours of the day, on every platform, with read receipts which either garner uncontrollable anxiety if you are the sender, or severe guilt if you are the reader-cum-non-responder.

When did technology steal our free-will? When, and why, did it become nigh on mandatory to leverage your social media accounts to express a 'personal brand' and not just a person doing stuff? Why is there so much shame in leaving a Facebook or WhatsApp group? Why, when we don't reply to a message instantly, are we attacked for our lack of thought?

Multiple studies have been undertaken in recent years which show that our inherent attachment to telecommunication devices, and the social media apps which come with them, has caused a spike in anxiety, emotional problems, and an increase in attention deficit disorder. When it's also suggested that social media is in fact more addictive than cigarettes, it perhaps becomes clear as to why.

So think about when you first start smoking, you imagine the first ten or fifteen cigarettes will be fairly harmless. But then ten years later you are unable to go a single night without waking up at 2am and having a crafty roll-up. Going to the theatre or for dinner makes you feel anxious, as all you can think of is when you'll be able to have your next hit of nicotine. Applying that same trajectory to Instagram, for example: you sign up, because everyone around you is talking about it, and you don't really care about it, it's 'just for fun'. But as time passes you gain increased followers, and you begin to recognise patterns of what those followers like, what they don't, and what gets you more of them. Five years later and you have four different Instagram accounts, on each of which you have become a pro at 'community management', with a feed where not a single photo hasn't been thought out. You want to post that picture of yourself eating a kebab because your eyebrows are on fleek, but you don't because it's off brand. You realise you are spending way too much time on something that nobody really, truly, cares about, and you think that you don't care what anybody thinks… but you still don't post that picture.

This leads us to trap accounts, which are apparently the next big thing among the Insta-famous. A friend of mine has a lot of followers and has to constantly tailor his feed to keep them interested, so now he has a personal, private account—or 'Trap' as it is named—where he can, quote, "be free."

It's helpful, but somewhat ironic that you would use a social media platform to find freedom. Of course, it's equally irritating when people or celebrities write endless drivel about 'a phone detox'. There's no denying the power of social media in sharing, organising, connecting with communities which are dispersed across the world, and its role in propagating conversations in a matter of minutes, which would have otherwise taken decades before the advent of the net. Yes, the internet is amazing.

But it is also breaching our consent. When we signed up to Instagram it was literally for lols between you and your lame school friends. When we got Twitter it was so you could secretly sex-DM back and forth with your crush without your mum ever finding out (she can read texts, but she can't work Twitter). It wasn't really about followers or connecting, it was funny and silly and a place where you got a bit of information.

But nobody asked to be constantly connected on every channel possible, the ability to be so just fell into our laps/was forced upon us by the iPhone aggressively cajoling you into updates every five minutes. This sounds like an incredibly privileged problem: but when 62% Americans receive most or some of their news from social media, for example; or when increased connectivity and virtual sociability are causing increases in anxiety, depression, ADD, and all the while proving addictive, the question is a worthwhile one to ask. Not to mention who owns what you post? Who own your personal information? What happens when you leave 'the grid'? Or further more, can you really? (Even when you do ween yourself off your favourite social media site, it's all but the press of one button to be reinstated, with not a pic or a tweet lost)To answer these questions you have to read the teeny-tiny print of every app you use, and who has time for that? I've got a photo to post!

This is not to suggest that we all leave social media and start a non-tech community where we all connect, instead, via feelings—although if you want to it could be interesting—but in a capitalistic world which is out to milk you from every teat you have, perhaps we should be questioning what the real purpose of all of this is? Connectivity: yes, information: yes. But don't forget who is in charge, the shareholders across all of these apps need you more than you need them. We must always be considering our consent, and that of others. If you don't like something don't like it; if you don't want to reply to a message right now then don't reply; if you don't receive a reply right away it's most probably not personal; if you are worried about losing followers for posting that eyebrow kebab picture, post it anyway: chances are these elusive followers will eventually fly the nest, when they to have their cross-platform culls. 


Text Tom Rasmussen
Images via Flickr

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