Social BulimiaSep 23, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen
Nearly every day, someone tells me about a love affair with a social media service gone sour. Whether Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla or Foursquare, the story is always the same: At first, you’re infatuated, finding delight in every new thing you learn about your love. Over time, the infatuation turns to comfort, and then comfort turns to obligation. Finally, the former delight is a distant memory, the relationship is a chore. You’re just going through the motions, and you feel trapped.
It’s easy to blame the problem on your lover. Reading blogs became a burden,so we started spending time with Twitter. Twitter became too nagging and needy,so we cozied up to Facebook. But things don’t get better—they get worse.
The language I’ve heard people use to describe this angst is sometimes dire. “I get a sinking feeling when I launch Twitter,” says one. “It’s as if there is this huge plate of tasteless food in front of me and I have to force myself to consume it.” Another tells me, “Every day I feel a compulsion to process the list, do my retweets, share on Facebook. There is no joy in it; I just get twitchy if I don’t do it.” The travesty of it is that most of the material we’re digesting and passing along to our social media feeds is unoriginal. We can no longer remember why we got started in the first place; we’re trapped into being conduits for little bits of pre-digested “content.” It’s the social media equivalent of being a poor victim in “Human Centipede.”
Rather than chasing after lovers, hoping “it will be better next time,” maybe we need to admit that the problem is in ourselves. For this purpose, it’s illuminating to consider the disease of “Compulsive Hoarding“.
The television show “Hoarders” traces the lives of real-world people suffering from severe cases of compulsive hoarding. These people tell tragic stories that are eerily familiar to anyone suffering social media burnout. At first, collecting possessions makes them feel good. But they refuse to get rid of anything, and they are soon buried by stuff. Their compulsion interferes with normal life and robs them of joy. Some hoarders try to escape by buying second or third houses, but the new houses soon become filled with stuff.
I’m convinced that this psychology is one of the main reasons we get burned out on social media. When we think about unsubscribing from a feed, for example, we get anxious. We remember the feeling of delight and discovery that made us subscribe in the first place, and we’re afraid of losing that. We think, “This person might say something really important again some day.” Like a meth addict who has lost all pleasure from the drug, we still think back to the first good feelings we had, plaintively saying, “Remember the first time? We had fun, didn’t we?”
Fortunately, beating social media burnout is far easier than curing compulsive hoarding, kicking a meth habit, or escaping a serial killer. Are you ready? Here it is…
Unsubscribe or Unfollow EVERYTHING. It’s the social media equivalent of burning the house down with all the stuff in it. You need to make sure you have no place to go back to. Force yourself to start fresh. Don’t bother writing down a list of “must subscribe” sites that you plan to re-subscribe to as soon as you’ve wiped the slate clean. That’s cheating. You need to burn your little black book with the house. If absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, it’s not important anyway.
Now, take a day off. When you come back, promise yourself that you’ll subscribe, follow, etc. a maximum of ten items the first day. And now is when the magic begins. Only subscribe to things that really delight you. Instead of dreading an overstuffed queue of items to process, you’ll be seeing things you love and wishing you had more. You’ve jettisoned the obligation and regained the serendipity. You’re falling in love all over again. Will things eventually go sour? You can count on it. But then you just wipe the slate clean and start over. For me, this is every 6 months; it might be different for you.
This technique has worked beautifully for me. I’ve tamed my social media burnout and even rekindled the fires with my first love, RSS.
How about you? How have you dealt with social media burnout? Do you feel a compulsion to consume and retweet or share a big plate of content each day? If you deleted all your subscriptions today, how long would it be before you miss us too much and add MIX Online back to your feeds?