If you spent much time online last month, you probably saw a few mentions of the new docu-drama from Netflix called The Social Dilemma. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you may have already watched it. It is an interesting and compelling exposé on the ways that “Big Tech” has leveraged psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to increase their market share within The Attention Economy.
If you’re a marketer, and particularly if you’ve been active in the world of digital marketing within the last half-decade, you likely weren’t surprised by any of the content or information revealed in The Social Dilemma. We’ve long understood how the algorithms work—and why—and that knowledge is a key advantage that makes us so good at what we do. It’s easy to rationalize that we are one of the “good actors” seeking to rise above a troubling status quo. We are selective about our clients, our targeting, and our tactics. We don’t trick consumers into buying or trap them in difficult-to-navigate contracts. As marketers, we are merely connecting people to products and services that can make their lives better. At least, that is the goal.
When I began my career in digital marketing, I was already a social media addict. Over the years, I had invested copious amounts of attention to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, MySpace, Xanga, AIM…you name it. In 2015, after completing my undergraduate degree and moving across the country to Indiana, I was living alone in a new town with few local friends. Facebook was a lifeline that kept me connected to my “real” friends and family far away. Twitter became a haven where I found new connections who were as crazy about internet marketing as I was. YouTube remained a place to share my secret talents with anyone interested enough to discover them.
It was easy at first to romanticize and rationalize my social media use and ignore the lost hours and emptiness I was left with every evening. Even when I did begin to recognize the addiction, I told myself it was more like a food addiction (necessary, and okay in reasonable amounts) that simply required more discipline. After all, I couldn’t just quit. Facebook’s Messenger was my only way to communicate with friends overseas. Twitter and LinkedIn were the core of my professional networking and most reliable source of real-time industry news. And obviously, how could I advise my clients on the best social media marketing strategies if I wasn’t an engaged participant myself? In the end, no matter what promises I made to myself, the spiral continued.
A lot about my situation has changed since 2015, both externally and internally. I met my now-husband (2016), got married (2017), moved (4 times!), and started a new job (2020). I’ve learned about racism, systemic injustice, political division, and economic uncertainty in ways I’d never before considered. Admittedly, much of that learning came as a result of my social media activity. But I have also identified social media consumption as a personal trigger for feelings of anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction, anger, heartache, and loneliness.
I remember listening to an audiobook a few years ago called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo (I believe Netflix also released a related series not long ago). The central piece of wisdom and advice throughout the process is to ask yourself at each decision node: “Does this spark joy?” Recently, I’ve been pondering this principle as it relates to my personal and professional lives. Rather than evaluating if a belonging brings joy to my life, I have begun to question, “Does this make it easier to do my job?” or “Does this make it easier for me to spend my time on the things that matter most to me?” Honest introspection, for me, has revealed that the answer to those questions, when it comes to social media, is no.
And so, I have chosen to step away. Not entirely and not permanently. I still have access to advertising accounts to do my job and will retain access to some messaging apps in order to communicate with friends and family overseas. But the days of scrolling for hours or constant refreshes are done.
I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers or that I am suddenly going to become an elf of productivity, spinning out content and becoming a fitness icon. I know that this is only the first in a series of steps toward increased motivation and concentration. But the most important thing to me is that I’m no longer embracing excuses to stay in an unhealthy relationship with technology. Yes, social media is a key part of my job. Yes, technology is a tool that helps facilitate long-distance communication. But it is not necessary in the way I once believed, the way I once convinced myself it was.
We need not be hostages to our fields of professional expertise.