Early in 2018, I deleted my Facebook and Instagram accounts—deleted, as opposed to deactivating them, as I had done several times before. Together, these two accounts represented about 97 percent of my social media presence. I didn’t use Twitter or LinkedIn, so all that remained was a Snapchat account with a following of 25 or so family members and close friends.
At the time, I don’t think I could have articulated my reasons for downsizing so drastically. In hindsight, my social media universe had simply become too large and complex to navigate enjoyably. With an audience of approximately 1,200 people across three different platforms, each with a slightly different tone and purpose, I felt a need to simplify my sprawling patchwork of social connections. So I hit delete, and for a little over a year, my social media world was smaller than my second-grade class.
The experience was not exactly what I expected. Somewhat surprisingly, disconnecting from social media gave me a greater understanding of (and appreciation for) it. Here are some of the things I learned.
You don’t need social media to waste time
Let’s just get this out of the way. Part of the reason I was so confident in my decision to walk away from social media is that, deep down, I believed it was a waste of time. Given this, I expected that after leaving it I would, well, waste less time. I figured that I’d devote all the time I spent scrolling through Instagram to reading, or journaling, or something at least semi-productive.
And that happened, to an extent. But it turns out that social media wasn’t so much the cause of time-wasting as an outlet for it. Without Facebook, my brain simply searched for other distractions. I started opening YouTube more often. (I now know who Jeffree Star is and can give you a full history of his drama with the Kardashian-Jenners. Yes, I’m ashamed of that.) During a particularly embarrassing bout of boredom, I found myself scrolling through Venmo for no reason other than to not stare into space.
Managing your social media use isn’t just about the time you spend looking at it
Although I was not immune to wasting time on social media, I had little reason to believe I was addicted to it. On the surface, other than the occasional late night of mindless scrolling, my relationship with social media appeared mostly benign. But it turned out that I did not fully appreciate the hold that it had on me because my relationship with social media extended beyond the time I spent looking at it.
Only after leaving Instagram did I come to understand how preoccupied I had been with capturing my experiences in a manner worthy of public consumption—and how much this process interfered with my ability to enjoy the experiences themselves. Before even pulling out my phone, I was often distracted by the possibility of capturing a gram-worthy shot. Even play time with my daughter, I realized, had been affected by the knowledge that anything could turn into a posting opportunity.
The upshot was that leaving Facebook and Instagram had a measurable impact on my ability to stay in the moment and enjoy my life as it was happening. It's not that I stopped taking photos (I would never), but after so radically reducing my social media audience, I noted a measurable decrease in the pressure I felt to get the perfect shot.
Social media is actually pretty useful
On the flip-side, it became increasingly apparent that I’d underestimated social media’s practical value. I knew it served a purpose in connecting people and disseminating information—but I didn’t fully appreciate how much I’d come to rely on it.
People joke about the obvious pitfalls of getting your news from social media, but I’ve learned (the hard and humorous way) that when the demands of everyday life prevent you from opening every notification from the New York Times, keeping an eye on what’s trending is not a bad way of learning about breaking news. More than that, with politicians now using Twitter and Instagram Stories and Facebook Live, sometimes social media is the news. If you’re reading about it in the New York Times, you may be late to the party.
Likewise, whether it's publicizing an event, announcing a pregnancy, or wishing someone a happy birthday, Facebook and Instagram have become fixtures in the way we communicate. Just because I’d resolved not to rely on them didn’t mean everyone else had, too. This didn’t truly hit home until my birthday when one of my closest friends called me to catch up—having no idea that it was my birthday. Meanwhile, I missed the memo on a number of social gatherings and events, because the memos were sent on Facebook.
Social media changes the way we stay connected
It took some time, but eventually, I found ways to fill in the Facebook and Instagram-shaped informational and social gaps in my life. I became more diligent about reading email newsletters and opening breaking news notifications. I started listening to political and news podcasts. My approach to staying informed became less passive and reactionary—which is a good thing, because there is plenty of important news that never trends. It wasn’t exactly that I’d relied on Facebook to stay up to date on the news, but that I’d allowed the discussions happening there to guide what articles I read and topics I cared about. Taking a more active approach to following current events helped ensure that I was exposed to all the important stuff—even when no one’s fighting about it on Facebook.
Likewise, while my social life didn’t diminish, it changed. My social circle became smaller, and my relationships more intentional and intimate. I sent texts and made phone calls where I would have posted a Facebook shout out. I made a point of asking about how work was going, rather than waiting to hear about promotions or job changes from a public announcement. I attended fewer parties hosted by acquaintances and more dinners and wine nights with my best friends. There was something really nice about this: actively keeping up with a few close friends through conversation instead of passively keeping up with everyone through social media.
Social media connections are not quite as superficial as I assumed
That said, leaving Facebook and Instagram led me to appreciate even the distant connections I had with people there. A few months ago, while preparing to move out of our house, I started looking for ways to sell some things online. At the recommendation of a blog post, I turned to Facebook Marketplace, logging in through my husband’s account. With almost complete overlap between our friends, I couldn’t resist the urge to scroll down his timeline. After 16 months off Facebook, the experience was jarring. Rather than rolling my eyes and feeling validated in my decision to leave it all behind, I felt a sense of loss and even a little regret. Sure, I was not close to most of these people and, in the grand scheme of things, we meant very little to each other. But it was nice to see the lives of that broader ring of acquaintances progressing: people dating and getting married and having children, going through chemo and beating cancer, quitting their jobs and traveling, finding employment after months of despair, changing careers after years of soul-searching, starting blogs and podcasts and small businesses.
Yes, these Facebook friends were not on the same level as my “real life” friends, but my relationship with them was not quite as superficial as I’d assumed. And connecting with them, even from a distance, had real value.
If you were hoping for a verdict on whether retreating from social media made my life better or worse, I don’t have one to offer you. It was not a wholly transformative experience, which in itself is oddly reassuring—life without social media isn’t as radical or far fetched as we make it out to be. That said, downsizing my social media presence gave me a clearer understanding of what I actually like about it. And I’m slowly but surely using that information to rebuild my online social network in a way that works for me.