I ruined my social media, sabotaged it even, on purpose. With purpose. I can’t pinpoint any specific moment for you, but in fits and starts I finally committed to getting away from the most prominent form of communication that has taken over our lives, I say without hyperbole. The reasons are many, but I do remember a few breaking points related to singular social moments that expanded like a big bang into the social mediasphere, causing explosions of emotion and debate and exaggeration and dismissal and, well, just a mess of human expression. A black man killed by a cop. A group of people killed by a religious zealot. And less pertinent moments. A new flavor of ice cream. An off-color comment by a politician.
The “crush of humanity” as i’ve heard it called, just became too much. Everyday it was a new issue dragging everyone into an emotional debate ending only in some manner of catharsis before being dragged into the next a day later, or just hours later, only to repeat the process again and again. The pattern became all to predictable. A moment explodes. Everyone screams into their screens. Nothing changes the conditions that created the moment in the first place. We all move on to the next. We aren’t even actors in a play anymore. We’re the audience writing reviews after the show is over, buying tickets for the next episode.
As someone who finds solace only in actually effecting change, getting pulled into these debates and “having my say” left me feeling empty, self-served, frustrated and…suckered. I don’t like knowing those that pull the strings in our society get to shoot first and laugh later while the rest of us yell and scream about how wrong the shooting was, only to wait for the next one, which we always know is coming. We yell. They reload.
Those moments, on the other hand, are the larger societal flash points, while the rest of our time on social media involves filling in the gaps, by detailing every thought, action, and moment of “feeling myself”. The camera live streaming EVERY. SINGLE. MOMENT. of our days is barely removed from the obstacle of bandwidth. It’s coming. Not as an anomaly, but a norm. Narcissism wins. The affirmation of our existence, of which we all agree upon, is always in jeopardy if we aren’t constantly reaffirming it over and over and over.
It’s all so painfully absurd.
And I willingly played my part, for a while unaware of my own narcissistic absurdity, until the mirror of others showed me just how ridiculous, unimportant, and CONSUMING my expressions were. I was increasingly embarrassed that as a grown ass adult I was playing the game of youthful narcissism. At what point was I going to get over myself? 40? (made it) 50? 60? Sharing stupid old man thoughts and grey haired selfies, uncomfortable in my dying age, still looking for affirmations from others even as I neared the end of my existence?
The inconsequence of my moments (of most people’s moments) also emotionally wore on me. The problems of the world are brought into our lives as a continuous stream – a testament to this communication I critique – narrowing the geographical gap between the lives of the privileged and those ravaged by economic inequality, but we speak to each other from our own positions on the ladder of privilege, letting each other know how many miles we ran today, what we did with our hair, how awesome our dinner was, and all the THINGS of our days. Meanwhile, people drink poisoned water. Meanwhile, people take apart toxic computers for a living. Meanwhile, people are shot in the streets for demanding freedom and safety.
And to not be too cynical, at times we use these constant streams of communication and connectivity to affect these more important, less cynical issues in one way or another, to varying degrees of effect.
On the whole though, I felt swamped, by others and by myself. Ultimately, I log on every day. I scroll through. I click and respond. But when I took the time to step back and sit with myself for awhile, or more importantly, to sit with my surroundings, or sometimes run with them, the connectivity was broken and I could see the mediasphere more clearly, or with less of a veil of inevitability. When I could come up and take a breath of air above the flood of communication, I was able to evaluate my role in the smothering, the crush of humanity, and really assess the ratio of actual living versus the talk of living.
The thing about social media is that it is fundamentally abstract. It is very rare that it brings about physical action, or direct experience, or an immediate awareness to ones surroundings. The more I sat in that realm, the more I realized my ideas (these ideas) were confining me to that realm, and neglecting actual action, physical reality, and direct change. The realm of society is built and destroyed on a physical level, not through the hopes and wishes of what we say. I found it increasingly futile to discuss and critique issues that I didn’t address physically, while remaining emotionally tied to these frustrations. I craved the physical experience more and more.
I also remember the days before the internet, before the crush of humanity, when the world I knew was the world I interacted with on a daily basis. I miss that world, but I’ve been trying to get it back. In a nod to zen buddhism, I just wanted to experience what I could affect and respond to in my immediate realm. I wanted to know what I could only know right NOW.
I started by sabotaging my Facebook. I deleted all my friends. ALL my friends, except Laura. Confirming my decision to do so, I received some really angry messages from people who felt hurt and betrayed that we were no longer digital friends. Instead of deleting my Facebook account though, I just deleted all my friends as an attempt to “start over” at zero, and over time I slowly built a list of people I enjoyed, going from 30 to 50 to 80 to…all of a sudden I had hundreds of “friends” again, and the weight of all that information began weighing on me again, but worse, I found myself checking Facebook in every moment of pause and boredom. The addiction of my narcissistic tendencies was over powering, and although I was less engaged, that wasn’t enough. I had to go all in..or, all out. I deleted everyone again, except Laura. This time I had deleted so many people and groups that any draw to log on “just to see” essentially showed me nothing that would keep me coming back. I had cut the cord. It took losing any of the potential satisfying experiences of Facebook to kill the motivation to even check anymore.
But I still had Instagram. I have too many records of times with August and Laura and cancer experiences that I don’t want to completely eliminate, so I’ve retained it as something of a digital photo book, but I did make one effort to delete everyone that I imagined I would never see in the next year. I figured if I won’t actually see someone in person, there is no compelling reason for me to stay connected via social media either. I want to know the world around me, the world I can affect. I think I got the number down to 80 people, which again reduced my desire to even check in and see what was going on. Like a weaning, I found myself not only uncompelled to check the lives of others, but also enjoying small moments of my own in a new way. Nothing was interrupted. I remembered the calm of paused moments. And overall I felt less emotionally pulled and twisted and burdened by the lives and difficulties and successes of others. I only had the world in front of me to manage and experience, and that is enough.
With so much more to be said, I can’t help but wonder how much positive effect I may sacrifice in regards to animal activism (and anti-authoritarianism in general) by cutting myself off from the stream of communication (outside of this blog). Activism, when I was younger, was very much about “direct action” and being involved DIRECTLY, and although the parameters of what constitutes “direct action” have changed, I also can’t discount the massive spread of veganism through these forms of communication and modern activism. A part of me definitely wants to critique what is called “clicktivism”, but the other part of me remembers struggling to relate to others about veganism and bringing the realities of industrial agriculture to people’s consciousness in a meaningful and impactful way. With the spread of so many videos and communicating the many facets of what comprises veganism and plant-based diets, it’s more than negligent to deny the positive effects such communication has had on furthering animal justice.
As activists, we were always striving to communicate veganism continuously and keep the consideration of animal lives on the front burner, but the infrastructure to do so wasn’t built. Now, with the ability to communicate continuously, we CAN do that, and I debate whether that should be part of my strategy. On the other hand, the ease and convenience of constant communication can lead to an inevitable comfort and form of apathy. If one can constantly repost vegan memes and videos and what not, they have the safety net of “doing their part”, all the while this, as previously described, ABSTRACT activism leaves the oppressors to safely carry out business as usual. If vegan activists leave themselves to the compulsions of the internet, reposting dinner as veiled propaganda, and sacrifice pressure against the institutions and businesses of animal exploitation, then I fear the stagnation that animal justice will face.
Make no mistake, the internet has enabled veganism to come a long way since the days of holding signs on the street corner, but we should not be deceived by the exaggeration of algorithms and self-created cultural bubbles that “we are winning”. We aren’t. That isn’t to say the internet is a useless step towards animal justice, not at all, but if we skew the ratio of activism towards one method, I fear we limit our potential for the rapid progress that is necessary to bring about the elimination of industrial animal agriculture and animal exploitation.
Of course, I say this as someone who has almost entirely broken from social media, primarily for personal emotional reasons, so I’ve limited my own involvement in this new form of activism. All these considerations are written as a positive critique of the movement for animal justice, but also written by someone who continues to wrestle with my own objectives for animals, my own involvement, and what exactly constitutes the project for liberation, not only of non-human animals, but all beings.
I have little to offer as a concise summary to all this, as a framework for solutions, but to simply offer an example of breaking from the stream. I can tell you that in some ways breaking from the stream of communication feels like burying my head in the sand, while in others it feels like seeing the world for what it truly, physically is and recognizing the limits (and potentials) of my actions. I know, above all else, that I wasn’t enjoying the stream of narcissistic expressions, that I don’t think we are ready to process this explosion of communication as a species, that I doubt the positive impact of it’s existence, and that in my most critical moments I genuinely believe we would be better off if the internet somehow just broke and we were all cut off, forced to see our days for what they are around us, and adjust as necessary.
In all these considerations, I keep trying to figure out how we’re going to expand the possibilities of liberation for all beings. And seeing the prison of exploitation our economic and hierarchical system has established, at the very least, I think it’s worth breaking from social media surveillance to literally break cages and set each other free.
Social media will bring us together…and it might also tear us apart. Meanwhile, the machinations of social exploitation continue with business as usual.