The Lonely Diplomat: lessons from my social media detox

It was time to take my own advice

and use social media for good.

Is it time for you to do the same?

I thought that it was time for me to review my own relationship to social media and challenge the story that I noticed that my personal social media use (ie: that which was not for my work at The Lonely Diplomat and another website on loneliness) was well under control. That is, that I was using social media for good within myself.

As a regular reader of my blog, you know that one of my recommendations for living this diplomatic life is to ‘use social media for good’. This means that we use our various social media apps for their powerful purpose of helping us visually and aurally connect via video and the phone. What it doesn’t mean is that we use them to passively connect with each other through absentminded scrolling and thumbing ‘like’ or another appropriate response before scrolling some more.


You’ll also know that I say that reaching for social media when feeling lonely or socially isolated is like drinking salt water when thirsty: it feels like it’s what we need, but it’s actually doing us more harm.

I conducted the review like an experiment and recorded my thoughts and feelings at times during the month of May 2020. I’ve written the body of this post like I was taught to write up a science experiment in secondary school, to give it a certain scientific rigour, if anything.

Without any spoilers, I thought that I had been using social media mindfully.

I was wrong. Really wrong.

* * * * *

Purpose

To test how I use social media or if it uses me.

Method

  • Refrain from scrolling, posting, commenting and/or ‘liking’ on my personal Instagram and Facebook accounts.


  • Use the scheduling tool for posts for The Lonely Diplomat and The Loneliness Guy social media pages.


  • Not advertise that I was doing this by a general post on social media. I do not wish to shame anyone for their use of the medium during a global pandemic and the need for physical distancing.


  • Stay curious. Stay honest.

Assumptions

  • If I’m to recommend using social media as a tool ‘for good’, I need to regularly review my own use.


  • I am using my personal Instagram account as a type of photo journal to record something special from each day.


  • Social media is an important tool for disseminating information to my audience across two websites.


  • Social media is an important tool for communication keeping in touch with family and friends spread across the globe and in multiple time zones.


  • Social media is an important source of news.


  • How much ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO) will I experience?


  • Will anyone notice that I’m not on my personal social media?


  • Will anyone connect with me?

Observations

30 April 2020

  • I shared my experiment with The Lonely Diplomat subscribers. Received some lovely encouragement [my subscribers are the best, by the way…].


  • Soon after I started, I felt compelled to check on the reach of that morning’s social media posts. Is this FOMO already?


  • I’ve noticed thoughts about whether anyone would notice my absence on social media. What’s that about? Is this a sign of something deeper?


  • Will people reach out to connect with me if they’ve not heard from me? Have I made a mistake by not sharing this on social media?


  • I’ve been working on Facebook scheduling posts for The Lonely Diplomat and The Loneliness Guy. I’ve noticed the siren call of the notifications bell is tempting me.


  • Jeff [my partner] is going to do it too after I told him what I was doing. We agreed to an exemption for his birthday (which is during May).


  • Observation: I wanted to take a photo of tonight’s sunset and post it to my Instagram story. I kept my phone in my pocket and stopped and enjoyed the sunset just for me.

1 May 2020

  • After discussions with Mike Campbell [my friend and mentor and guest on my podcast (see details below)] about being where my audience is and what brings them to social media, I posted a picture of me shirtless in Instagram for The Loneliness Guy. I was nervous to do so. After posting, I really wanted to check the metrics [Metrics are reach, impressions and actions taken from a post] Is this a need for external validation coming up already?!

2 May 2020

  • Posting content on my work accounts. So glad that I turned off notifications on my personal Facebook account. I couldn’t on Instagram and these notifications are taunting me.

3 May 2020

  • Spent more time creating and scheduling posts for The Lonely Diplomat and The Loneliness Guy social media accounts.


  • I moved the Facebook app on my mobile phone to a page where I wouldn’t see it. I’ll only access Facebook from my laptop for the rest of the month as the Facebook app on my phone opens on my own personal page.

4 May 2020

  • Posted content on my accounts for The Loneliness Guy on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


  • What’s the point of Twitter?


  • Found myself checking the metrics to see the posts’ reach. External validation again.


  • Commenter on my post on Facebook triggered a shame response in me. I experienced a real shame storm. I handled it according to my values. Felt more positive afterwards. He still disagrees with me, but I’m ok with that.

5 May 2020

  • Reflecting on this whole external validation thing.


  • How can I separate knowing what’s working and hitting the mark with my audience and needing to respond to questions, comments, etc. AND not take it to heart?

13 May 2020

  • Becoming aware of a vicious cycle: are people not reaching out because I didn’t mention that I’m not on social media and don’t know to reach out in other ways?


  • I’m feeling disconnected. I reached out for support.


  • Still don’t want to conduct a school yard experiment and trap people into engaging with me after feeling guilt or shame themselves.


  • Using social media for promotion and engagement on my work across two sites makes it hard to isolate my personal social media feed from that of my work.

16 May 2020

  • It’s the first Saturday night after lockdown. I discover that friends are getting together without contacting me. This really hurts.


  • Thoughts and feelings about what’s wrong with me. Why don’t I ever feel like I belong in a group? Just on the outer. Skirting around the edges of multiple groups but not included for such a large part of my life [will be more on this feeling in a future post].


  • Has been radio silence from friends. It feels like no one drops me a line to see how I’m going. No one ever calls, either. This makes me sad. I talk to Jeff about it. He listens and is awesome.


  • Trying to be objective, but know that I must feel these feelings. Reminding myself that I am enough.


  • I also recognise that I’m not getting any notifications about friends’ birthdays. This also makes me sad and reminds me of times when I remembered my friends’ birthdays WITHOUT being reminded by Facebook.

17 May 2020

  • Posted content of Jeff and I walking and holding hands to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia on The Lonely Diplomat and The Loneliness Guy. Was nervous about how this would be received but proud that I did it.

18 May 2020

  • While running this morning, I had the thought that Facebook and Instagram is not about connecting, it’s about pushing content into the world. Don’t know if I thought of that or have remembered something I read. But it hits me like a tonne of bricks and I stop in my tracks and note it down so I don’t forget. How can we connect when we’re all pushing images of ourselves or pushing a product or service out to the world? Is this why so few people actually contact me? I feel very disillusioned.

30 May 2020

  • The experiment went a little awry there as it’s been a while since putting down comments.


  • Had coffee with some friends in the past week and told both about my social media experiment. Both said that they’d noticed that I’d gone quiet and had intended to reach out to say hi by text, but didn’t.


  • Ending the month feeling calmer about myself and how I engage with the world – especially about external validation – and with more clarity about how I use social media.

Comment/review

  • Despite doing a lot of work within myself over the past years and working on validating my own thoughts, feelings and actions, I clearly have work to do on my need for external validation. My responses surprised and alarmed me. I need support to find ways to manage the need to know what content is resonating with my audience across my websites and seeking personal validation.


  • I very much value Instagram as a way to capture and preserve something special each day. I missed the mindfulness opportunity to snap something or someone with whom I connected. However, I want to know how I can post a picture on Instagram and keep my wish to have it serve me as a daily photo journal of my life without allowing ‘likes’ or comments.


  • I’ve learned that I have lots of friends on Facebook from whom I do not hear anything. I do not see their activity, and I suspect that they don’t see mine. In my feed, I see many posts from a few people and then advertisements and news content from media sources I follow. I feel that the algorithm that determines what I see on my feed has narrowed my focus so it feels like I’m in an echo chamber and few new ideas are introduced.


  • The experiment has prompted me to ask the question: Who’s earned the right to be in my life on social media? Who’s presence in my social media life uplifts, supports me and inspires me? Who’s presence has the opposite effect? Who’s comments on my posts or on the posts of others leave me feeling badly about myself?


  • As a result, I reviewed my friends list and removed those with whom I had had a passing contact in the past but have no meaningful connection now or those who make me feel bad about myself. If I wouldn’t want to have a coffee or a meal with a person in my real life, why am I keeping them in my online life? This review of my friends and contacts on Facebook and Instagram prompts the question ‘But what will they think when they realise I’ve unfriended them?’ (which we know is a question asked from shame – see link to ‘On what people think’ below), which is quickly replaced with a feeling of pride within myself that I’m deciding what influences, energies and messages I let into my life. I avoided doing a ‘I’m doing a friend cleanout so respond if you want to stay connected’ message, as this cedes decisions on who I let into my online life to the fate of the mysterious algorithms that determine what content we all see; and I feel that I’ve moved beyond such schoolyard tactics to prove friendship.


  • I feel lighter having done this and I resolve to undertake these reviews every six months.

Conclusion

  • I feel that I am now using social media as a tool ‘for good’.


  • I’m excited to use my personal Instagram account as a type of photo journal to record something special from each day.


  • Social media remains an important tool for disseminating information to my audience across two websites, but I need help in separating the reach of my content from my own need for external validation. While I put so much of myself into my work and believe in it deeply and want it to succeed, I am not my work and my work is not me.

  • Social media remains an important tool for communication keeping in touch with family and friends spread across the globe and in multiple time zones, but I am allowed to let those with whom I’ve had a passing contact with many years ago leave my life. The same applies to those people who leave me feeling bad about myself.


  • Social media is an important source of news and information, but I need to remain aware of the information I’m being provided is designed to get me to click.


  • FOMO is real and experiencing it through seeing friends getting together without letting me know triggered me. I was proud of how I responded: by feeling the emotions, asking for help and then receiving the help that was given.


  • Friends did notice that I was not on social media. In future, I would let them know that I was taking time away from social media so they know to connect with me in other ways. To do otherwise – like I did for this experiment – would feel like a childish friendship test.

Challenge

  • Could you take a break from social media for a month, too?


  • Are there any people, organisations or other sources of content in your social media feeds who bring you down or otherwise leave you feeling bad about yourself and where you are as you lead your diplomatic life? Are there people in your friends list who you keep there out of obligation or fear of what they will think if you unfriended them? Could you unfriend or unfollow them?

Final thoughts

Social media is a rich source of information that can be tremendously useful for us. Indeed, many of you are reading these words after clicking a link on Facebook.


Consider this: What we see in our social media feeds is heavily curated. What you put on to social media is curated, too. We all are pushing content of some form into the world, whether that content is our latest explorations of where we are in the world, that delicious food from that fancy restaurant, through to - in my case - products in the form of new blog posts, advising of new podcast episodes, support services and content designed to make you think. We're all pushing out curated content into the world.

When we’re not pushing the content, we’re receiving it – either passively or actively. We all need reminding that we receive the content through a filter: through how we’re feeling about ourselves in that moment and through the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re consuming.


Social media isn't the real world and we - well, me - can consume it without much thought.


This all makes me sad and pensive. We can so desperately want to be seen, to be recognised and feel that we belong that we put so much of ourselves on social media to meet the needs which we’re not getting in real life. A ‘like’ feels like it meets that need within us, but it really doesn’t.

From whom and from where are you getting your need for meaningful and authentic connection met? If we don’t have any sources of meaningful and authentic connection in our lives, then we’re lonely. The answer for this is not found through idly liking, commenting and posting photos on social media.

We must use social media for good – as we define 'good' for ourselves and not how others define it for us – and be sure that it is our slave, not our master.

Want to know more?

Related blogs

Are you using social media or is it using you?

The Lonely Diplomat: on loneliness

The Lonely Diplomat: on the stories we tell ourselves

The Lonely Diplomat: on what people think

Loneliness and the absence of real connection

Podcasts

Ep. 5 – On the stories we tell ourselves with Mike Campbell

Ep. 9 – On social media and connection

Ep. 14 – Thoughts on loneliness

Ep. 25 - On my social media detox (from 27 June 2020)

Resources/further reading

Johann Hari, ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How To Find Hope’ (amazon.com)

Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)

Dr. Vivek Murthy, ‘Together: The Healing Power of Connection In A Sometimes Lonely World’ (amazon.com)


This post centred on the themes of diplomacy, loneliness and connection.


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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.

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