My Month Off Social Media
14 followers gained, 8 pounds lost, 0 regrets
I WROTE a story this summer about Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, one of the nine people killed in Charleston. I knew early in the reporting that I’d found one of the most compelling stories of my career, about the deep friendship between four women, Coleman-Singleton being one of them.
When I started constructing the story, I had the passing thought that I was working on something Tommy Tomlinson should write. In Charlotte, Tommy is as prominent as a local print journalist gets. He wrote for The Charlotte Observer for years and now contributes to various magazines and websites around the region and country, including an essay in this magazine last year. He’s a great storyteller, and he writes about people with as much compassion as anyone I’ve read. I thought about emailing the first draft to him to ask him to help me make it better. But the story was so Tommy-like I felt like the journalistic equivalent of a tribute band, so I didn’t.
When the story was published online at ESPNW on June 26, I posted links to my Twitter and Facebook pages and lingered on those sites in case readers wanted to engage me on the story. I do that often, and I tell myself I’m doing so to help my freelance writing business, which I started two and a half years ago. If more people read my work, the theory goes, I will get more work. I tweet so my kids can eat!
That’s at least as much baloney as it is true. ESPNW’s audience dwarfs my 2,280 followers on Twitter and 638 friends on Facebook. The truth is, I really, really wanted the story to be liked. To heck with modesty: I knew people would like it because it was soaked through with pain and love and grace and forgiveness. But knowing people would like it wasn’t good enough. I wanted people to tell me they liked it, and to do it instantly and publicly on Twitter and Facebook. I wanted to see that praise for my writing, even if it was for a story about a person who died in one of the worst moments in recent American history.
I thought the praise would make me happy.
Within a few minutes of the story going online, Tommy himself tweeted a link to the story. “This is just beautiful,” he wrote.
That indeed made me happy.
For about two minutes.
Then I wanted more.
EVERYBODY WANTS praise. We are born wanting it. as we grow up, we want it from everyone: our parents, our teachers, our friends, our spouses, our kids, our bosses. We crave hearing that we are doing well. When I went home to Michigan this summer and my dad told me I had a great family, my knees quivered.
But we, by which I mean I, have turned this simple good into an ultimate good, and thereby corrupted it. It has never been enough for me to turn in a story and get paid for it. The editor has to gush about it. The copy editor has to gush about it. The fact-checker has to gush about it. The secretary has to gush about how much her niece’s husband gushed about it. People have to tell me they cried while reading it. If they don’t, I wonder if their hearts are stone. It never ceases to amaze me how stupid the judges are in the writing contests I don’t win.
Now, in the past three or four years, social media has turned every story into a contest entry. I “win” if my story generates tweets or retweets or likes or shares or comments on Facebook. I “lose” when social media ignores my story.
People with Twitter and Facebook accounts have become the authoritative arbiters of what’s good, and I spend way too much time hoping they will express their pleasure because, I think, that praise will make me happy.
Which it does.
Only it never lasts.
Because it’s never enough.
NOT LONG AFTER the Coleman-Singleton story came out, I had lunch with Mike Graff, the editor of this magazine. We discussed vanity and laughed at how, after we post anything online, we wait approximately 14 seconds before wondering where the parade heralding our brilliance is.
Screw it, I said, or possibly something more profane, I’m better than that. I don’t need affirmation from the masses.
Right there in Earl’s Grocery, at a table near the window, at approximately 1:05 p.m. on July 9, 2015, with a chocolate chip cookie on the table in front of me, I abandoned my social media accounts, on the condition that Graff would pay me to write about it. (I won’t tweet so my kids can eat!) We set an end date of 30 days out, after which I could go back to posting on Facebook about my daughters in search of my own ego strokes and counting how many people tagged me while gushing about my latest story.
When I arrived home after accepting the assignment, which in my head I called “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” I walked to my neighbors’ house. The moving vans in their driveway would soon haul their stuff to Dallas, and I wanted to say goodbye before they left. In the first conversation I had after quitting social media, my neighbor told me how much he liked my recent Facebook status update.
This happens to me a lot because I make my daughters seem adorable, hilarious, and adorably hilarious online. (Posts about the times they have behaved abominably: Zero.) In this case, the post my neighbor liked was a ridiculously cute post about my 5-year-old. She asked me to teach her how to make toast, which I did. Then she asked me if she could put butter, sugar, and dried cranberries on it, to which I of course said yes. I stopped working to watch her eat, which prompted her to tell me not to do that because she didn’t want me to be jealous of this concoction she was happily devouring.
So you can see why my neighbor would bring it up.
I deserved his praise.
This social media fast started to look more difficult than I thought it would be.
I USE Facebook and Twitter for more than just shamelessly searching for praise. Twitter helps me find good stories, and I laud the writers who created them. Especially during NASCAR races and Detroit Tigers baseball games, Twitter makes me feel like I’m part of a group that I otherwise would not be able to join.
Facebook reconnects me with old friends. I see what they look like now, I see the great vacations and promotions they’ve had, and I learn about all of the other good things that have happened in their lives.
Which is to say I don’t know them at all.
The connections we all have created on Facebook and Twitter are connections between the people we wish we were and the people they wish they were. We present only the best versions of ourselves and want to find approval of that higher us. These social media connections become useless because they lack transparency. Put another way, Facebook is overrun with adoring praise under pictures of grotesquely ugly cats.
I wonder what we’re missing with each other by only posting about our best days and biggest wins. Losses are much more important in shaping us. If I could work up the guts to do it, my next social media experiment would be to post only unflattering facts about myself. We are afraid to admit we have weaknesses, let alone name them in public.
These fake connections only serve to make us want real connections more. We turn to Facebook or Twitter for them, come away unsatisfied, and the cycle repeats itself.
BEFORE AGREEING to this social media experiment, I spent much of the previous year wondering what would make me happy, because I rarely was. in the past two-plus years, stress and anxiety over being laid off from my “real job” at Sporting News and launching a freelance career often combined to make me miserable. (Number of Facebook and Twitter posts about this: Zero.)
It seems silly to me now because my freelance career was actually going well. I traveled the country, wrote about a fascinating array of topics, and met interesting people who enriched my life. But I never lived in those moments. Fear swallowed them.
I constantly worried about where my next assignment would come from. I worried that, stripped of the comfort of a full-time employer, I would be exposed as an ignorant fraud. The still, small voice that haunts my darkness convinced me I was teetering on the edge of not just failure but ruin.
One night last winter, I bolted awake in the middle of the night. I heard a voice, and the voice said, “If you don’t relax, in 20 years, you’re going to regret not just your job, but your whole life.”
In case I missed the point, the voice said the exact same thing again.
I’m a Christian, so I think the voice was the Holy Spirit. It was somehow bleak and reassuring at the same time. It identified the problem and hinted it could be solved, which was a step ahead of where I was most of the time.
A few hours later, I fell back asleep. I’d like to say I woke up a changed man. I didn’t, but I thought about that message constantly. For days, it was as though I wore earbuds that played it on a loop. I eventually concluded I was living my life like a man who was floating under a parachute but still flapping his arms to try to keep himself aloft. I won’t say I’ve stopped worrying, but I have worried less. this social media fast, of all things, has helped me relax, too.
These two threads—stressing over anxiety and my thirst for praise—are related. With each, I lose contact with contentment and forget to enjoy the moment I’m in.
FUNNY THING about being off of social media: It was easy to not post. It was harder to not read. A couple of times I started to point my browser to Facebook and Twitter out of absent-minded habit.
My wife, kids, and I talk often with my parents via Facebook’s video calling function. When I told my mom we couldn’t do that, she called it “tantamount to grandparent abuse.”
I picked up 14 Twitter followers in the time I did not tweet, which is a better rate than I pick them up when I tweet incessantly.
I enjoyed the simplicity of being off of social media so much I also quit email for a week, quit the radio forever, and have watched only a few hours of baseball on TV since then. I swear I thought more clearly by the end of the 30 days. I felt cleansed.
I also lost eight pounds.
The month off of social media coincided with one of the best months of my career. Sometimes I think that’s a coincidence and sometimes I think my middle-of-the-night Holy Spirit voice is going to come back and say, “Really? A coincidence? How thick are you?”
I reported one story while standing on Wrightsville Beach, the Atlantic Ocean lapping at my ankles. I watched in amazement as blind kids learned to surf. I shared that with only the hundreds of other people on the beach at the same time.
The following week, I reported another story while in the Rocky Mountains. I posed for a picture at the Continental Divide, the high point, literally and figuratively, of a three-day hike. I thought the photo would make a great social media post, but I held fast to my fast. As I walked away from there, something great happened: I found myself content with enjoying that moment for what it was, without asking the masses to confirm for me that it was great.
This summer, I interviewed Jacques Dallaire, the founder of Charlotte-based Performance Prime, where he has trained 740 racecar drivers (among others) to think differently about results. He says the best athletes don’t worry about results because they can’t control results. There are too many other factors—luck, the weather, the fact the opponent is trying to win, too, etc. The best athletes worry only about doing the best they can. I'm trying to apply that to my writing career.
My month of not seeking affirmation did not end with me not wanting affirmation. The most I can say is, the desire to be praised is rotten when it controls our moods. Obsessing over affirmation pulls a shroud over our hearts. I recognize that, but I can’t figure out how to write and not want people to love it, because what’s the point of writing if not to write something people love?
I don’t know what the key to happiness is. But I know it’s not how many retweets and shares this story gets. I want you to read this story, and I want you to love it, but keep it to yourself if you do. It’s for my own good.
Matt Crossman lives in Charlotte with his wife and two daughters. More of his work can be found at mattcrossman.com. He has a Twitter account (@MattCrossman_). You should follow him but never, ever tweet to him about his stories.
This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Charlotte Magazine
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