Mindfulness in an age of Twitter noise

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Social media platforms push us to connect. Seeing 'People You May Know' on Facebook and 'Who to Follow' on Twitter along with metrics like likes, favourites and retweets displayed alongside our posts means we're always encouraged to grow our networks and numbers. 

Chris Johnston cartoon has people conversing in a clearing amid noisy social media devices.Existing as droplets within floods of information can mean we have access to all kinds of stories and conversations. When we use a platform like Twitter to check in with what's current, trending topics, hashtags, and 'moments' can give us instant insights. But what happens when our platforms and networks become too much?

Having been on Twitter for almost a decade, I've seen the platform grow and change. From 30 to 335 million active users since 2010, tweet lengths now at 280 characters instead of 140, algorithmic rather than chronologic sorting, and celebrity feuds and Donald Trump's rants regularly making headlines, it seems Twitter is noisier than ever. Scrolling through Twitter daily, along with Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit, can make me feel like I just can't keep up.

Some people recommend switching off. A Pew study reveals 42 per cent of American Facebook users have taken a break from the platform in the past year, indicating that people are starting to put up boundaries. Advocates for digital detoxes, such as holidaying without an internet connection, say that deactivating social media accounts is 'the best thing you can do', claiming that their 'mind has never been so clear'

Overconnection might be stressful, especially if we actually have a limit of meaningful connections we can make in our lives. Psychologist Robin Dunbar puts that number at 150, but we usually have just four people we trust to call on in a crisis. And thinking of the last mindless scroll I took through my platforms, it definitely felt like quantity over quality.

Instead of following platform prompts to connect more, or logging out entirely, it could be time to get mindful of our audience and develop ways to nourish the online relationships we enjoy. After all, intimacy is still important in the age of the high follower count.

Limiting the number of people you follow and friend, creating an alternative or secondary account for just a few people to see, making lists on Twitter to only view tweets from select people, moving specific kinds of chat to more sparsely populated platforms like Mastodon or Discord, and turning off retweets can all help reduce the noise. We all have to think about our audience when we post, and having fewer people to consider means less stressing over whether this tweet is going to be appropriate for colleagues, clients, potential employers, or friends of friends.

 

"Looking at each social media connection, we could ask of it, does this account spark joy? If not, it might be time to retreat a little."

 

There's an intimacy to the posts in small groups that can make us feel especially connected. Yes, posts from public figures that reveal vulnerabilities or candid aspects of themselves can spark feelings of familiarity and closeness. And we can get a sense of ambient intimacy, the awareness of someone else's everyday rhythms, from seeing their tweets or updates come up often in our feed. The feeling of knowing someone and being deeply known in return, however, is often restricted to just a few people, whether they're friends made at school or through a Twitter alt.

Sometimes, for me, the best part of social media is my family Snapchat group. It consists of my parents and sisters sharing snaps from their day: a dog walk in the park, wearing a favourite shirt, eating leftovers for lunch. Instagram stories, too, are a way of getting away from the crowd. The temporary images usually display more raw, spontaneous moments than Instagram's carefully curated, picture-perfect aesthetic.

There's a balance to be struck. Limiting our feeds too much can lead to being trapped in a filter bubble: only seeing content that we already agree with, and thus avoiding being intellectually challenged. Coming across unexpected accounts celebrating women's art, or discovering a youth-facing government initiative about online health and safety because some people in your timeline are tweeting about it, are part of what makes social media so endlessly fascinating.

But if our social media networks are becoming more stifling than rewarding, we could always use the KonMarie method. Looking at each social media connection, we could ask of it, does this account spark joy? If not, it might be time to retreat a little.

 

 

Emily van der NagelDr Emily van der Nagel researches, writes, teaches, and speaks about social media identities and cultures. She tweets at @emvdn

Topic tags: Emily van der Nagel, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, social media, mindfulness

 

 

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Existing comments

Social media like twitter and facebook and most clickbait new sites are like white bread and highky refined sugar - they give us quick hits or bursts of energy but don't nourish us. And eventually our intellect and mental capacity withers away like it would with a crack cocaine addict.
AURELIUS | 21 September 2018


Thanks Emily, much food for thought for someone who spends a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter. Much of it is responding to posts by “friends” I’ve never met. And feeling some obligation to respond even if only to Like. On the other hand, a number of my friends (no inverted commas) and I use social media as a political tool, getting out to a wider audience of “friends” some information that might not be covered in mainstream media, and sharing information and opinion pieces that come from a wide range of otherwise unheralded sources. I guess social media serves different purposes for different people - or even different purposes for each person ar different times. Now I must get back to work!
Frank Golding | 24 September 2018


I've rather prided myself on not being swept into the social media tsunami. Only one FB account with twenty or so 'friends' and a Twitter account I set up but have never used. Now, though, I wonder if Emily is right. I certainly only mix online with those who share my interests and, largely, my opinions. Restricting social media too much can increase my temptation to self- satisfaction. You may disagree, of course. (But then I'll unfriend you)...
Joan Seymour | 24 September 2018


It's ironic that in five days this article has only generated three comments - I'll be the fourth. Post it on Facebook and it will gather likes and comments in much greater numbers. And then it will sink, probably before five days online. I joined FB to keep up with people who shared a recreational pursuit. It soon attracted people long forgotten, with those connections becoming more and more obscure. Now it is full of advertising and posts from people that some algorithm determines has relevance to me. And it is embarrassing to find real friends who believe and re-post some of the air-headed foolishness that floats around the FB world. I can no longer follow the main page stuff that comes my way. It has become a crowd of people and advertisers, each with a loaded blunderbuss filled with tiny pellets. They all shoot aimlessly into the air and some of their pellets land on somebody else. There is no way to make sure my pellets land on my friends, and no way to make sure their pellets land on me. And there is no way to make sure that the stuff that lands on me is in any way true, or even intelligent and worth reading. Unfortunately, FB has become the defacto way for so many people to communicate that it's the only way I can keep up with my kayak club's paddling days. It's the same with a group of motorcycle friends and a couple of other recreational groups. So I log in every few days, check my groups, and ignore the rest. Unfortunately, Emily's final question about whether a social media account sparks joy would be answered in the affirmative by most users who think that some particular number of likes or retweets is the basis for joy in the first place.
Kim Miller | 25 September 2018


Just a short comment. Like any online communication, some moderation in time spent & discretion in how social media is used are very important. Twitter, if those followed are first checked & vetted, is a HUGE source of valuable news that one cannot get in the biased MSM (main stream media). This is critical in Australia with the likes of News Corp having a stranglehold on MSM. Aussies who don't exercise such an option are being brainwashed. Social justice delivery depends on an aware population, which means an informed population. Just as an example, the needs of CSA victims of RC clergy and lay people ARE STILL BEING TREATED WITH LESS THAN JUST OUTCOMES BY THE RC CHURCH. A very sad outcome !
John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 02 October 2018


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