Today is the day I finally leave social media.
I feel I’ve outstayed my welcome. I don’t have anything else to say. The feeling has grown in the weeks leading up to this point; I’ve seen my social media activity plummet in popularity. When you’re online every day, valuing each post’s health as a measure of your own literary career, you begin to lose sight of yourself.
It has worn me down to the point of panic, exhaustion — it’s why I should have left by now. It’s why today is it. I’ve made it to this point; just do it. The effort put in outweighs the end result, and it’s really become a problem; if I’m feeling the way I’m feeling, there may no longer be anything meaningful. It could be that I’m only hurting myself.
I wake up staring at my phone. I fall asleep to the glow of the very same screen. I think about whether leaving social media would make any difference. It probably won’t, and yet I can’t bear to look away.
I always have at least a handful of tweets and posts ready days, sometimes weeks, ahead of when I plan to use them. It keeps me calm, assured that I will always have something meaningful to say, or at the very least, something funny, clever, clickworthy. I never want to be caught off guard. I never want to be left speechless.
Every night, at approximately 10 p.m., I end up back where I started: my desk. I frequently fall asleep there, just as often waking up in the middle of the night, mid-sentence, without any understanding of where the night went. I skim a list of to-dos, all of them dealing with projects for Civil Coping Mechanisms, Electric Literature, a script or two. Toss in a novel and at least a few submissions and you’ll get the typical roundup — a little typesetting in InDesign, a few press releases to draft, a banner to design, a writing session to fit in somewhere — this is a typical night and I am already overwhelmed. I feel that horrible wave of exhaustion from having been up since 6 a.m., and I almost leave the desk for the bed. A few sips of coffee and before long the caffeine kicks in and I can keep going.
I double-click on InDesign and watch the spinning wheel and static Adobe startup screen as it slowly loads. My attention wavers, the cursor moving toward a familiar tab with a blue bird on it. Only while the program loads, I tell myself, and I begin scrolling through the feed, feeling the urge to catch up. When I get the prompt asking me if the current fonts are installed, I’m suddenly too busy to bother, and click cancel. I turn my attention to Facebook, seeking a more immediate response. There’s work, but I trick myself into thinking it can wait.
I skim the newsfeeds, liking and commenting as I see fit. Maybe a few shares — nothing wrong with one or two before noon. It’s early but never too early to share some content.
I watch as someone I know posts something not only clever but also completely on-point. I feel naked, concerned — anxious. It bothers me. I like it and comment, which is the right thing to do; all the while, I envy it because I don’t have anything better to say. I don’t have anything at all.
I notice that the person I’m chatting with posts about what we’re talking about, quoting and tagging me. What do you do in this instance? I like, make a noncommittal remark, and sit there watching as others do the same. I watch as the post gets upwards of 50 likes in 15 minutes. I’m envious and I don’t know why. I want that kind of response. Or a better response.
I really just want to have something meaningful to say. It takes me more time than I’d ever be willing to admit to write a post. And still, I hesitate, second-guessing every word choice. Meanwhile, my friend has turned his post into a 60-likes-or-more conversation piece, the “conversation piece” part not the result of the number of likes, but of the 80-plus comment thread that continues to grow.
Co-workers walk by my cubicle, asking if I’d like to go to lunch. I do my best to politely decline while, in the back of my mind, I’m attempting some kind of grand, not-at-all-vain-or-self-obsessed social media epitaph. I’ve seen it happen before: people bowing out of their social media presences with grace. Some don’t even care and just go silent. How? But I sit here watching the online world move forward without me, feeling ridiculous for thinking that my participation (or not) could somehow move mountains.
My mixture of self-loathing and shame consumes my lunch hour. I'm neither interested in nor deserving of any food; my attention is purely on writing a farewell that will make sense to friends and followers. I begin researching how to back up my accounts. I don’t know why really, but I search on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, I won’t be able to stay away.
I don’t find the information I’m looking for. Desperately, I click back to the tab with the newsfeed. I notice that I don’t have as many notifications at this hour as I should have, and I begin to tense up, my heart beating faster. I am forever judging myself by my social media performance.
I return to an idea that has been in my mind for weeks, if not months: relevancy. Who has it? Does anyone actually ever have it? If you have it, how long can you maintain it? I’m not quite sure if I’ve ever had any sort of relevancy, but at this precise moment, it doesn’t feel like that matters. Like I matter.
This need to matter, to count, to be relevant is what drives me to do all I’ve been doing to gain notice in the first place. And we all want to be recognized as clever or witty. It’s what leads me to posting this next thing impulsively — to earn just a handful of likes. My post is ignored on Twitter. I shouldn’t have posted at all. This is it, I tell myself, my last post.
This isn’t the first time a tweet has failed, impressions near nil. In fact, I’ve had so many duds that I almost always have a mini panic attack whenever they don’t measure up. The standard for a successful piece of content is a sliding scale. It used to be two dozen likes, a handful of favorites, maybe a retweet. Once you start getting that, you strive to improve the analytics. Soon nothing is good enough.
My post is still fresh, but it doesn’t have a lot of immediate likes; the tweet doesn’t get any attention. I delete both post and tweet. I make sure to copy/paste what it was into a Word document for investigation.
I revise the post. I tweet out the same. I’m frantically clicking between tabs, looking for some kind of change, some burst of data. I find it on Twitter, 150 or so views, no engagements. Without investigating the tweet itself, I delete it and turn my attention to Facebook. I feel pressure on my forehead increasing, radiating heat moving from the very peak of my forehead to the top of my head. I start to feel dizzy. Another migraine, I figure. But I’m too busy deleting the Facebook post to bother doing anything about it. I’m too busy funneling my time, energy, and waking life into the version of me that has begun to live online.
As I start to breathe heavily, there’s the thought that maybe I can be replaced. By whom? Someone clever, capable of becoming a better literary citizen, a better editor of a press, a better dispenser of motivational tweets. At what cost? Maybe time, maybe energy. All I know is that I can’t bear to be in this cubicle anymore. I wait until no one is around to sneak into a nearby empty bathroom. I take the far stall, closest to the wall, and I sit down on the toilet, making sure to tuck my knees into my chest, legs invisible under the partition, creating the illusion that no one is in this particular stall.
I smell that same mixture of bleach and excrement that exists in most, if not all, public restrooms. I can’t breathe. I can’t get past the fact that I couldn’t crack the current post; I think about relevancy. I think about what I actually have to say, in a meaningful sense — and I come up empty. I stare at the stall walls, listening to someone walking in, using the urinal, and leaving without any notice of me. And why am I hiding? The smell begins to make me gag. It’s not until I’m dry-heaving into the toilet, knees on the cool tile of the restroom, that I realize I’m having a panic attack.
The panic attack makes me afraid to touch my laptop. I fear that either I’ve posted something self-destructive or I’ve completely lost relevancy. Maybe both. Add a third: My internet presence doesn’t exist, every post, tweet, and picture undone — made into the sort of material conjured from nightmares. And then something rational, for perspective: Why does this matter so much to me?
Back in the cubicle, I’ve managed to compose myself. Still, there’s the lingering question: What am I trying to say? That browser tab is still there. I haven’t closed it like all the others. I feel like a failure. I should be done with social media. In the back of my head, I hear the same thing — hey, just do it, it’s not like anyone will care. And I believe it. I still believe it. Seriously, why would it matter?
It’s over, I tell myself — admit that I’m like so many others who burned out, losing sight of whatever it was that got them here in the first place. I almost feel relieved; I can exhale. I can go now.
I linger for another half hour. Mostly, I spend my time on YouTube watching video game walkthroughs, the only thing that seems to keep me calm. At some point I notice the Facebook tab flashing, meaning that someone has messaged me. I look and it’s a dear friend of mine whom I’ve never met face-to-face, and yet we're closer than I am with some of my offline friends.
Whenever one of us needed someone to talk to, we were there for each other. I was there. He was there. He messaged me, asking for advice. Turns out, he was going through a crisis, one involving the possible choice to end his writing career. I almost don’t look, fearing that these messages will keep me online. And they do — he’s the reason I’m still here. I stick around because of the community, the support that really does exist behind the overflow of information.
So what if I’m not relevant; so what if my social media presence fades over time? If it’s costing me so much anxiety and exhaustion, there must be a reason beyond relevancy.
I needed that message. I needed him to message me more than he needed me to message him back.
I ended up on social media for a reason, and though the reason escapes me during moments of sheer panic and anxiety, I take part, no matter what — the pursuit of relevancy, or, in the strictest sense of the term, validation, is an imperative that exists as a key part of humankind’s quest for meaning. Self-definition has become intertwined with social media. We are all here for each other.
I wake up staring at my phone. I fall asleep to the glow of the very same screen.
Michael Seidlinger is the author of several books, including The Strangest, a modern retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. He is publisher-in-chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in innovative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry as well as the book reviews editor at Electric Literature.
To learn more about The Strangest, out now from O/R Books, click here.