We’d vaguely heard Gautam John had quit. Facebook. Twitter. And also Instagram (owned by Facebook). John is the director of the strategy at Nilekani Philanthropies, the not-for-profit foundation instituted by Rohini Nilekani. So, we reached out to him, with a simple ‘why?’ What happened?
“I quit Facebook first—I think I deleted my account just before the Indian elections,” he replies on email. “While the proximate cause was an utter mess of a newsfeed driven by the elections, it had been something I was toying with for a while. Facebook had long ceased to be a platform for friends and family alone. I had over 3,000 ‘friends’, if you can call them that.”
Amplification of the awareness
The ambient awareness of this many people, he says, together with the fact that he was addicted to the newsfeed and groups sent him into a downward spiral when it came to time spent on Facebook. And that was just one platform.
“I think I was staring at rock bottom when it came to social media and decided I needed less toxicity, algorithm-driven engagement and social disasters in my life. So I quit. Facebook doesn’t make it easy to quit—they are like a clingy ex that won’t let go and reminds you of all the good times we shared and forgetting the garbage fire that the relationship was,” he says.
John went on to abandon Twitter “when the Russian bots took over just during the US elections and when I realized I lived in an algorithmically created bubble.” The changes to the Twitter timeline from chronological to algorithmically sorted had also diminished its utility, he says, adding, “The final straw was when I realized that I had become reactive rather than considered in my responses. Twitter is very good at structuring conversations for immediate rebuttal rather than well-thought-out replies.”
And Instagram? “I deleted all followers and stopped following anyone I did not have a real-life relationship with and deleted the app. Oh. I also took my account private because I post the occasional picture of my family. I only use it via the desktop browser.”
The point of this article is, you could be John.
Or you would like to be him. But don’t know-how. Not yet.
And then there is a secondary point for this piece to exist. That is, John isn’t alone.
The BUMMER world
Jaron Lanier has been a part of the Internet long enough to actually understand how it works. A computer programmer, in the 1980s, Lanier was working towards making virtual reality less virtual and more of a reality. He got some distance and is now widely known as the father of virtual reality.
In the last two decades, Lanier has written books on the Internet, extensively discussed the philosophy of computer programming, worked at Microsoft Research as an interdisciplinary scientist, and managed to compose classical music—he even opened for Bob Dylan. With all of that going on, Lanier was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010.
Lanier is a typical Silicon Valley achiever. An insider, even. Minus one big exception. Lanier hates social media. Despises it for what it has come to be. And so he is not on it. Nowhere. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. Nothing. In his most recent book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier makes a compelling case for why you should quit.
Many of his points seem all too familiar: Social media deprives you of free will, using algorithms designed to subtly modify your behavior. Social media wants to get you addicted. Social media turns people into assholes, says Lanier. It destroys your capacity for empathy by creating online filter bubbles or echo chambers. Social media distorts the truth.