There has been much discussion in my newsfeeds lately about whether or not to quit Facebook, or some other social media platform. And I get it: I’ve broken up with other companies for far, far less than what these companies have allowed to happen. From the domestic violence “quiz” on Snapchat involving Rihanna to the racism and misogyny that has long been allowed to proliferate on Twitter, it has not been a good series of recent moments for social media. Finally–and this is a fairly giant straw for the camel’s back–we’ve now got the Russia problem, and influence-peddling of the worst sort, and we are exhausted by the notion that a platform that allowed us to admire each other’s dogs and babies and recipes might’ve also helped get us the worst troll ever as the president of our country.
So, to break up or not to break up? In some contexts, of course, breaking up is not an option. I recently came off of a job where I managed what was for me a large communications team—around thirty people, in rapid growth mode. And we had a social media team because we needed a social media team—we were a large nonprofit, often engaged in advocacy and promotion to galvanize support for the causes we were working on and for our organization. I am old enough to remember the Before and After of social media proliferation, and while I sometimes think nostalgically about the days when we had to fax press releases and design and print and mail actual paper, I pretty quickly came to terms with the fact that social media was here to stay, and that the world of communications had changed forever.
On a personal level, however, connecting through social media does, indeed, feel more like a choice. I am on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Instagram, and the channels took on new meaning for me when my family relocated to California more than seven years ago. Beyond the staying in touch aspect, social media also nourished so many of my quirks and curiosities, like once my Facebook friends found out that I loved tiny, tiny things, they began sharing tiny, tiny things for my enjoyment, and who knew that so many of my friends have deep-rooted affections for Dirty Dancing and The Sound of Music? I like seeing my friends’ kids grow up. I like to hear about my friends’ new pursuits and new phases of career development. IRL, I love sharing and I love being the recipient of sharing.
These days, however, being on social media feels like a wheel of Horribleness; there are days when the toxic stuff just takes over the good stuff, even when people are sharing the toxic stuff in well-intentioned ways. Like, there is so much coverage of Trump and his horrible behavior and inconsistencies it often feels as if we’re drowning in hopelessness and despair, when in actuality, we are still just getting one fairly distinct slice of content. But the amplification of that one slice has gotten pretty insane; I sometimes open my Twitter feed with apprehension, thinking that I can’t bear another Tomi Lahren vomit-load of nastiness, another round of shots exchanged over the – literally—Parkland students’ dead bodies, and if there is an app to scrub Tucker Carlson’s face from my Twitter feed, I’d download it ASAP. (For the record: I do not follow any of the people I can’t stand, but many of the comedians I do follow make fun of them.)
So I, too, have had my moments of wondering if I need to break up with Facebook or with social media in general, which brings me, first, to a reckoning of whether I CAN break up with these channels, or if they are, truly, an addiction that I haven’t yet named, and second, to a question about whether or not is a form of privilege to even be able to break up with these channels in the first place.
Let me spend a moment on privilege, if I may. Before the last few years, I had not thought seriously about privilege—as a concept, it was abstract and large to me, and on a personal level, I was not skilled at ascertaining the ways I was privileged versus others. I knew that in many respects, I was “lucky,” meaning, I grew up in a fairly affluent household, and all of my education was paid for by my parents, who had emigrated here from Korea and had lived through wars and tough times before getting to America and becoming successful physicians. I did not think about whether my luck was mitigated by being a woman, and being Korean-American—as I wrote in an earlier piece on this blog, I was not fully conscious of processing incidents of racial or gender bias as such, and in fact, had a habit of neatly tucking away those incidents in my consciousness as me experiencing anything other than bias.
Last year, during a training on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I did the “Privilege Walk” for the first time, which is an exercise that asks you to take a step backwards or forwards in response to particular questions, as in, “If you are a woman, take a step backwards…if your family has been on public assistance at any time during your life, take a step backwards, and if not, take a step forwards.” At this point in my consciousness, I was starting to become more aware of being a woman of color than I had been previously, and so I assumed that at the end of the exercise, I would be towards the back. Boy, was I wrong. At the end of the exercise, I had taken many steps forward, and only a few steps back, because of all the socioeconomic privileges my parents had afforded me, growing up. I was standing – literally, not figuratively – at the head of the pack. (I believe I was outdistanced only by two white men in the group.)
I am, in short, the product of much privilege, which leads me to this question: is it morally right for me to break up with social media when others do not have a means to disconnect from the toxicity and violence in their lives? This, to me, feels like a pertinent question.
Let me explain why, and give an example: Shaun King is a writer and a journalist and an activist who uses Twitter (@ShaunKing) to tremendous effect. He has repeatedly focused his followers’ attention on police brutality, often before the mainstream media outlets begin covering the story. He has called attention to the racism embedded in our criminal justice system, and has called for reform of the prosecutorial functions, and lauded district attorneys who have been bold enough to take steps against overly harsh and inequitable sentencing guidelines. He has tirelessly worked to identify white supremacists who are captured on camera committing unspeakable acts of racism and violence.
If I break up with social media, am I not breaking up with Shaun King and every other person of color, every activist, who is fighting to remedy these injustices? If I can turn my back on the injustices of the world which are amplified resoundingly on social media—the injustices that are not being adequately covered or discussed by the mainstream media outlets—do the people who are suffering the worst impact of injustices in our society have the same luxury, of simply turning off? It does not feel that way: it feels like I can turn off the channels, and they cannot turn off their lives.
I know what this sounds like—just another case of liberal guilt. (Guilt is a powerful motivator in the Korean culture, in many strains of liberal/progressive politics, in parenting, and also, in my eating and exercising habits.) My staying or breaking up with social media is not really going to make a difference, one way or another; this is, as they say, a storm in a teacup. And I am not inclined to judge people who simply can’t take the experience of being on social media platforms anymore—as I said at the outset, I get it, and there are days when I feel as if I just can’t, anymore. I thank God for the Dodo, which feeds me a seemingly endless diet of cute animals doing cute things.
But I think one of the benefits of learning how privileged I was, starting with the exercise I did, is that the learning is an ongoing process. I can’t, obviously, erase my privilege—it is there, it is a part of me, and there is no going back and undoing the circumstances that created all of the privileges I have. But I can certainly check my privilege, again and again and again, which helps me push myself to be more rigorous in thinking about inclusivity and equity. And as importantly, it also helps me to not look away when others are suffering and I know too few people are paying attention, and too few people are doing anything about the problem. Social media should not be a substitute for action, don’t get me wrong; but action begins with awareness, and I support causes that I simply wouldn’t have before because I’ve had my awareness heightened through social media activism. (Just one example: Twitter activists organized efforts to get much-needed supplies to Puerto Rico, which has been so heartbreakingly ignored in terms of disaster relief and recovery, and I found donating this way to be really easy and was grateful to those who had made it possible.)
In other words: breaking up with social media now might very well make my mental health, my outlook on life, so much better and more positive. But it might also help me look away when really, I shouldn’t.