The 46-year-old social media virgin: how people ditch Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and survive

Twitter users have threatened to leave the platform in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover. Is it so bad to be off social media entirely?

Matt* should’ve joined Twitter years ago. He fits the user profile perfectly: highly educated, a politics junkie, across the news, loves a debate, and he’s a climate scientist.

But unlike many users publicly grappling with Elon Musk’s new universe, threatening to jump ship (but then lingering on the deck), or trying to muster the energy to migrate to another platform and, ahem, “toot”, Matt is a social media virgin. Unblemished, unsullied – the 46-year-old has never joined a single social media platform.

“I’m not very quick to pick up and run with new technologies,” says Matt from the Victorian town of Geelong, “but that lag time meant that I began to see things I didn’t like about their adoption.” Along with privacy and data concerns, he figured most algorithms encouraged outrage and constant use. Like a true scientist, brevity (and committing casual comments to the public record) also put him off: “I didn’t know what could be usefully said in 140 characters.”

Twitter might be a social media minnow (29.5% of Australian internet users use it at least once a month, compared to Facebook at 76.8%) but watching people tweeting about whether to stay or go in real time is instructive. It’s a snapshot of a growing awareness among longtime social media users (and people who still dimly remember a time before the internet) about how vulnerable they are to changing algorithms (and owners) and what drew them to social media in the first place.

And perhaps unicorns like Matt can show us that there’s another way to live entirely, that maybe we don’t need to Google the word “Mastodon”? Maybe we just … stop?

“It’s hard to be that person because most of your networks are there and you’ve invested all this time, energy and content. There’s a cost to leaving,” says Jordan Guiao, Research Fellow at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology and author of the new book Disconnect. “The big platforms rely on that. Everybody knows that they’re bad news now, but physically moving is still really hard.”

The trends aren’t exactly reflective of Matt’s monastic stance. By the end of 2021, 82.7% of Australians were active on social media, an annual growth of nearly 1 million users, nudged along by an isolating pandemic and the growth of TikTok.

As social media becomes baked into our daily online diet, how does it feel to be excluded from the conversation? I interrogate Matt in the same way I might approach a time traveller from the 1880s, or a very smart baby. How do you keep up with the news? “Radio, print, online.” The zeitgeist? “Most of the time it gets reported there if it’s noteworthy.” What do you do with all your spare time? I think about it the opposite way around. Where do people find the time to be on social media?”

Leaving the Las Vegas (internet)

Felicia Semple, 48, from Melbourne fell off Instagram in May. She still hasn’t hasn’t explained her absence to her not insubstantial follower base – all 24,000 of them.

“It initially happened by accident. I decided I wouldn’t post while I was away on holiday, but then I just couldn’t make myself go back,” says Semple.

Semple started a blog called The Craft Sessions in 2013 to “provide a space for crafters to come together” to share ideas and inspire each other. Increasingly, Semple wrote about the connection between mental health and crafting, or “the head stuff” as she calls it.

Joining Instagram initially grew her community in very meaningful ways. But more recently, “every time I’d open it I would feel dread, rather than joy. It had become a chore – a stressful, anxiety-ridden ethically-dubious space.”

Instagram’s algorithm changes that highlighted videos shifted things for many people.
Instagram’s algorithm changes that highlighted videos shifted things for many people. Photograph: Rafael /SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Like many artists recently who’ve built whole careers on the platform, Instagram’s algorithm changes (mainly mirroring the TikTok model of snack-sized video) changed everything.

“The requirements of the algorithm had changed the type of content I was creating,” says Semple. “It was warping my own creative impulses and my message, by messing with my biology, making me feel that I needed to keep up.”

“The most popular platforms want us to be there with 24/ 7 engagement at all costs,” says Guaio. “The way social media is built is Las Vegas crazy, super bright and completely addictive. In the real world we don’t live like that.”

We need to “start to think about a healthier way of doing it … develop platforms that don’t have this kind of extractive business model that relies on us being there every second of the day, or … getting dopamine hits for every like.”

Semple knows that the decision to quit Instagram was a luxury, as she wasn’t relying on it for income. Many people who’ve built their businesses on social media feel like they have no choice but to adapt.

But these days she’s sleeping better. “I have more time and peace of mind. I finished my psychology degree last week.” Given all that, Semple is thinking of ways to engage with her online community again.

‘I’ve read three books in one month’

Forty-five year-old Olivia Sinclair Smith works in education. She quit her platform of choice, Facebook, a month ago.

She’d tried to leave before, but this time she went cold turkey. “I was just mindlessly scrolling through posts and people’s bits and pieces and wasting more and more time doing it. I started to feel guilty afterwards, like I was addicted and I couldn’t stop.”

Since quitting, “I don’t feel the guilt and the self-loathing I used to get from staring at crap posted by people I barely know … I’ve read three books in the last month which is unheard of for me.”

Sinclair Smith has strategically kept a slice of the platform – Facebook Marketplace. “I made a fake profile which has no friends attached and I use that to look at items to buy.”

“I am tempted to join the interest groups using my fake profile,” says Sinclair Smith, but she’s worried it could be “a gateway drug”.

A great rebalancing?

Guiao says people are becoming more discerning. “We are seeing a bit of a move away from the giant, public, mass-market platforms into smaller and more community focused platforms and private messaging like WhatsApp,” he says. “We’re actually going back to how we naturally communicate in our physical or our real-world social networks.”

Guiao says to expect ourselves to disconnect entirely is unrealistic, especially digital natives. “We’re going be online now for the rest of our lives. But there’s something to be said for rebalancing it,” says Guiao.

How that rebalancing will work for younger users embracing more broadcast platforms like TikTok and YouTube remains to be seen. For users looking to engage with niche topics and communities on those platforms, it can still be like running through a casino looking for the ball pit and ending up at the craps table instead.

“The challenge is that there isn’t a viable alternative … even if we wanted to change, it’s very difficult,” says Guiao.

Guiao points to Eli Pariser’s work, who talks about the concept of “digital parks as quiet spaces to gather. How do we build online versions of that? The ‘Las Vegas’ internet isn’t an inevitability.”

Remember, these places have existed. “Before social media, there were community platforms like blogs and forums and all of those things that [were] built for connection, community and collaboration but weren’t built to get you addicted.”

Matt has no desire to join the party. But he’s still forced to reckon with social media, given that his children, currently seven and nine, will eventually have to confront it. “In the social lives of younger people, there’s a very heavy price to pay for not engaging. All I can do is help them to understand that the priorities they have for their own lives are not even remotely aligned with those of these companies.”

“I do also worry about the capacity for them to find refuge in their lives.”

Most of us won’t ever be as pure as Matt, but we might get smarter at making social media work for us. Maybe tooting doesn’t sound so bad after all.

*Name has been changed


Sophie Black

The GuardianTramp

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