Social media isn’t fun, and that might be okay

Lately several of my friends have left social media. I wish I could join them. Unfortunately, running a blog or any other creative pursuit makes social media obligatory. Instead, I have joined the ranks of those who have drastically scaled back their usage. You see, social media isn’t fun anymore, and I don’t want to be anywhere near it.

I remember enjoying my time on sites like Tumblr and Twitter years ago, before the former died and the latter became a mudslinging venue where half the competitors and crowd were robots lying to you. No wonder we all end up doomscrolling.

But even back in the halcyon days of social media, I knew plenty of people who avoided anything to do with it. Clearly, they did not enjoy what they experienced.

On top of just being terrible to use, there is much to despise about how these services track and monitor you, even when you’re on other websites. The advertisements they bombard you with reveal how much they know.

That’s a topic for another article though. Based on how many people still use these sites, it seems those privacy concerns have a small impact on user experience.

Instead, I’m going to look at how we got here and why today’s social media isn’t fun. To be clear: I don’t think that’s a totally bad. It’s also 100% my opinion. Your mileage may vary, and I should begin by talking about I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with my appraisals.

What is fun?

“Fun” is subjective, and that complicates my argument.

Yeah I hate Facebook, but it’s undeniable some people enjoy it. Twitter stresses me out, but other people spend most of their day on it with glee. I semi-enjoy Instagram, but I often find it overwhelming. Others, especially younger people, say the platform has a significant negative effect on their mental health.

For me, social media isn’t fun for scores of reasons. Here’s a short list of the faults, which I’ll touch on in more detail later:

  • their effects on public discourse
  • their effects on privacy
  • the way they encourage comparisons between people
  • algorithms that suck
  • invasive, pervasive advertising

When I enjoyed social media, it was because the platform I was using gave me an outlet for creativity and self-expression. It usually gave me a lot of control over profile customization. The content was engaging and made it easy to spend time on the site.

Today, social media isn’t fun. It feels more like some sort of weird obligation. It’s where the news is, it’s where your friends are, so you have to be there. Though, with every friend who leaves, the pressure becomes less intense.

This argument is one about personal experience, even though I believe many will relate with it. If you disagree, let me know in the comments. An article like this will only be benefitted by dissenting views, especially if they include techniques for mitigating the aspects that suck.

How did we get here

Social media used to be exciting. There was a time when I would hear of an upstart platform at school and happily investigate when I got home. (Back in my day, phones were made for calling, and you had to walk up hill both ways to sign into your Myspace account.)

In the mid-to-late 2000s, new social media sites with wildly different capabilities that appealed to different demographics were popping up all the time. I found myself creating profiles on scores of them.

What separated the good from the bad was basically how many of my friends were on each platform. For some reason, everyone I knew was on Today, you have to do some digging to find any info about it. Aside from passing references, I found a press release announcing it had left beta, and another disclosing a partnership between the site and an internet services company.

The only reason I know the name is because I went searching through my oldest email address and found some emails from 2006 informing me people were sharing photos with me. Captures of the  site in the Wayback Machine aren’t pretty, like this mess from 2007. That’s not how the site looked, but I guess the CSS file didn’t make it.

Back then, I found it exciting to explore new platforms and the opportunities they promised. I definitely had accounts on other sites, but I can’t remember most of them.

The sites I do remember are probably names that are much more familiar to you: Myspace, YouTube, and Facebook.

a timeline of social media's early history
I do infographics now! This one covers the early history of social media.

The rise of Myspace

It’s funny to think that back in those days, we recruited one another onto social media by word of mouth. I distinctly remember being in Grade 9 art class when my friend Nikki told our table how much she was enjoying Myspace and that we should join. She wasn’t the only one to do so, and eventually I took the bait.

Myspace was my favourite site back in high school. At least for a couple years. I was impressed by how much freedom it gave you over customizing your profile, and most of my friends were active users.

Best of all, it was a hub for music. Any band that mattered had an account where they would post a few songs. It was a great venue for finding new artists, and it could have been an incredible resource for documenting the early digital history of local scenes. That is, until the company lost all content uploaded before 2016 in a botched server migration.

By then, though, the site had long been a shadow of its former self. The downfall, at least among my social circles, came before I graduated high school.

Myspace’s tragic fall

At some point, Myspace stopped being about organic socialization and became a gamified popularity contest that revolved around vanity statistics like friend counts, photo likes, and wall posts.

Even elements that are mundane today, like your screen name and profile pic, were things you had to carefully cultivate to build clout. Today, those oddly angled photos and edgy names are sources of embarrassment. Back then, though, they were obligatory.

The one thing you weren’t allowed to customize was your URL. You were stuck with a number, and that number was also a source of clout. The smaller it was, the better. Of course, that was out of your control. The number reflected how recently you signed up. Nikki got me in early, so I think mine was only 7 digits. I had seen popular accounts that had 4. Most people had 8 or 9.

Eventually, using the site became tantamount to hustling. It became more common to post things like “pc4pc?” (which was an invitation to exchange photo comments) than it was to post substantive content.

The bulletin section, the place where you would post so all your friends would see it, became overrun with “trains”. These were lists of popular accounts that implied you should send friend requests to those people. Of course, bigger accounts were listed higher, with larger pictures, and more emphasis on their high friend counts. Your friends would post them when they were listed, usually toward the bottom.

None of the above led to a pleasant user experience for people who were just on the site to connect with friends. It is no surprise, looking back, that there was an exodus. Even people who had success acquiring pic comments and raising their friend count seemed exhausted.

When I logged in to delete my account in 2011, I remember there had been no activity since the last time I had logged in, whenever that was. I remember feeling then that I should have done it sooner.

A bad prediction about Facebook

It seemed to me that Myspace fell because its culture emphasized vanity and meaningless statistics over human interaction. What was once a fun place to express yourself became work that didn’t pay. So everyone I knew migrated to Facebook.

It’s always funny to look back on wildly incorrect predictions of the future. Here’s one of mine. Back then, I figured it would be a short matter of time until Facebook died, just like Myspace and all those sites before it. At that point, an inevitable, swift demise seemed like a central feature of social media. And Facebook was just so boring. No problem then, I would just wait for this second-rate website to crumble away. I mean, you can’t even change the colour of your profile!

Obviously, I was wrong.

Today, there is no site more obligatory than Facebook. And it’s all thanks to parents.

Myspace and many of its predecessors seemed to revolve around teens and young adults. I figured Facebook would be the same. Then, parents found the site. They liked it.

Facebook, which had been another way to stay connected with people from high school who you would never see again, was now the best way to stay in touch with your family. I have had countless conversations with people who told me they only keep an account to stay in touch with relatives. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it gives Facebook a use case no other service has.

I have no doubt that’s a big part of why the site never died as I hoped it would. Put another way: Facebook appeals to a much broader segment of the population than Myspace did, than Twitter does. Social media isn’t fun for me, but grandma probably finds much to enjoy about a site that lets her connect with old friends and see pictures of her grandkids whenever she wants.

Why Facebook isn’t fun

Back when I thought Facebook would fail, I disliked it mostly because of the lack of profile customization. There was also no music. The platform placed severe limits on your creativity.

That’s no longer a major concern for me since I have creative outlets outside social media. Today, my list of grievances is much more substantial.

Facebook has long been a venue for arguing about inane things. I don’t want to partake in these arguments, and I don’t want to see them. Unfortunately, the algorithm sees a ton of activity, figures the content must be engaging, and thrusts it before me and everyone else.

Most attempts I have made at curating an enjoyable feed have resulted in failure. It seems the user has no real control over what content they interact with. The algorithm has proven itself incompetent at showing me content I enjoy.

More importantly, the way Facebook conducts its business makes it hard for me to morally justify even trying to find fun on the platform. There is an entire Wikipedia page about the site’s privacy concerns, which sites 146 sources. Recently, more than 530 million users had their data exposed in a breach, and Facebook refused to notify them. (You can find out if you have been affected at Have I Been Zucked.) And since 2016, Facebook has done far too little to stop itself from being a tool used by bad actors seeking to spread misinformation. BuzzFeed does incredible reporting on this topic, such as this piece about how Facebook knew the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. was being organized on its platform.

Using Facebook makes me feel dirty. Just call your relatives or send them birthday and Christmas cards. Hold a family gathering once it is safe to do so. Grandma will be happier to see you in person than to accidentally stumble upon one photo of you while scrolling through a whole lot of garbage.

The competition is pitiful

Despite its dominance, Facebook isn’t the only game in town. Unfortunately, its competitors also suck.

Twitter is a hellscape. It is home to the same misinformation as Facebook, and probably easier to abuse through bots. Abuse and harassment are rampant and have been for years. Most changes the developers make to the service seem to have been done without any sort of user testing or exploration of whether users want these changes. Frankly, it’s miraculous the site hasn’t died. And it’s still probably the best option aside from Facebook.

Instagram is where people go to share the best aspects of their life, and where we all go to feel jealous about the things we don’t have or haven’t done. Few platforms offer a less authentic look into people’s lives. Plus Facebook owns the damn thing anyway.

The other platforms of note – Tumblr, TikTok, Snapchat – have either been abandoned by my friends or never embraced in the first place. So, I don’t have accounts on these platforms. I imagine TikTok is fun to use, but I have never been interested in making videos. Since all the good ones are posted on Twitter, I can lurk without an account.

None of these platforms offer the universal appeal of Facebook, nor the wide swath of features like games that keep people engaged. No wonder it reigns supreme.

Fun in the rear-view mirror

Occasionally Twitter can be fun. When some ridiculous news breaks, people post nonstop jokes and memes and turn the platform into somewhere you can laugh. That’s increasingly rare, and usually done at someone’s expense. They usually deserve it though.

The last social media services that were, to me, consistently fun were Tumblr, a micro-blogging website, and Snapchat, a selfie-based messaging service whose messages would self-destruct.

Tumblr, despite its many issues, gave you tons of ways to express yourself. Strong communities formed around niche interests that weren’t prominent elsewhere. I once posted about killing a huge moth in my home and a moth blogger sent me an angry DM. Literally someone whose entire profile was about moths. Good times. It felt like you could me more of yourself on Tumblr, while also being as anonymous as you would like.

Snapchat offered an honest look into people’s lives. Sending a quickly taken selfie to friends felt far more intimate than posting a carefully curated and heavily edited one for the world. I used Snapchat toward the end of university, when my friends were dispersing all over the country, and it was the perfect platform to help us feel connected despite the distance.

Both these services imploded, at least in my social circles, just like Myspace. I decided to stop using both because I noticed that most of my friends had done the same. The reasons why that happened are far less clear to me than with Myspace’s demise.

Social media isn’t fun, and that might be okay

Still, I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing that social media isn’t fun.

Back when I was a Tumblr user, I would regret spending hours at a time on the site. Yeah it was fun, but it was fundamentally a waste of time. I could have been creating things, exercising, or working on assignments. My time probably would have been better spent even if I had been watching TV or playing a video game. Browsing Tumblr was fun, but inherently mindless.

Twitter is far too annoying to use for more than like half an hour at a time. With Facebook, I’ve hardly used the site at all since like 2018, and even then, it was mostly to watch drama unfold in competitive TCG communities. The only reason I don’t deactivate my account is to manage the page for this blog.

Social media being incredibly unfun could be a blessing in disguise. I use it way less frequently now than I have in the past. And I spend my time in far more fulfilling ways.

I can’t totally abandon the platforms like some of my friends, but you won’t find me on them all that much either. And I think I’m happy with that.

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