It's undisputed that social media can be problematic to our well-being. Of course, not everyone will suffer from the addictive nature of platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc. But, as more studies emerge, it's clear these platforms are causing harm to large portions of society, especially teens and youth. This, in addition to platforms like Facebook spreading false information about topics like climate change, has prompted companies, like my own employer, Patagonia, to stop paying for advertisements specifically on Facebook and Instagram.
So what does this have to do with me, one individual amongst billions of others using these platforms? Well, why do I use these platforms? I often justify my usage because of my job as a professional runner.
Yet, in order to be a good runner, do I need to digitize myself and post about it online? Of course not. Running is not online. That's one of the many reasons I love running.
Still, why does our culture, and specifically in my case, the outdoor industry, condone social media usage? Why do I?
I've compared my usage to my older brothers who are brilliant, kind, highly successful, & productive people, voracious readers, good friends, regular exercisers. And they don't have social media, minus the dormant Facebook pages they made in high school over a decade ago. For reference, I'm 30, and they're 32 and 34 years old.
My adult life veered from theirs substantially when it came to social media. In 2016, after winning Leadville when I was 24 years old, I took to Instagram to promote my running, my 'brand,' and to share what I thought was useful and important calls to action about climate and public lands issues. Without question, my ability to navigate social media – the awkward world of self-promotion and digital environmental activism – helped me get to where I am today, working as a marketing and environmental ambassador for Patagonia.
Yet, in recent years, I've started to wonder the utility and cost of heavy social media usage. For example, at every Thanksgiving when my brothers and I would have long catchups, it was obvious I was not reading as much as I had in the past. How did Eric read so many books?! I'd fret, unaware of how I was spending my time. I am aware that many people have healthy relationships with social media while still reading many books, so I'm not suggesting the two activities are mutually exclusive. When I'd ask my brothers why they weren't on social media, they'd have various reasons, from it not bing conducive to their jobs, but mostly it was not interesting to them and it seemed overwhelming. They have other trusted news sources and like having to talk to friends in more analog ways.
After grounding family time over holidays, I'd return to my everyday life, surrounded by other runners, many of whom also were contracted to post for sponsors. I normalized the behavior of running a lot while also simultaneously portraying a version of my life for the consumption of others on social media platforms. This is unsettling to me now, knowing what I know about social media.
It wasn't all bad. I'd weave in summaries of news about climate policies, ideas on how to contact elected officials. But I'm waking up to the other ways to perform that type of information sharing: like telling fellow runners, friends, and strangers in person and via direct contact (phone, email) outside of Meta's platforms. I'm specifically disturbed that Meta (Facebook and IG) is not changing its platforms to account for their own research on mental health, which is why I don't feel okay using the platforms anymore. Not to mention, I always feel a little off after scrolling. I am happier when I chose to spend that time doing other things, like reading, sitting and staring out my window, listening to music, or calling a friend.
Additionally, in 2018 I read Jaron Lanier's book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now when my friend Marcus chose it for a book club. My favorite reasons are: Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. Social media is making what you say meaningless. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. Social media is making you unhappy. Social media doesn't want you to have economic dignity. And social media is making politics impossible.
And yet here I am in 2021 and I'm just now changing my social media usage. I've concluded that if I lose running sponsorship because I take my 'brand' – which is so weird anyways, I'm not a brand, I'm a human – offline, to the trails, to my local run clubs, to my friends and family and in person events like film screenings and conferences, then so be it.
And thankfully, I've deliberately developed relationships with brands that I believe are genuine companies that will not nitpick over social media. Patagonia, for example, has never explicitly required ambassadors to post about products. I feel so grateful that I can work for a brand with those values.
This all being said, it's still somewhat expected that professional runners will have online followings today. Our world values digital audiences.
But, even if I stay a passive 'user,' is that condoning my 'audience' to spend more time on screens? I think so. And I've been doing that while knowing that: "Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy."
That's messed up! I don't want to be part of a system that actively makes us less happy. I want more teenagers to run! I want my 'audience' to engage with climate policy. If the only way I'm promoting my values is through social media, then I should probably find a new way.
Publishing articles or even blogging are more meaningful ways to share information. Long-form writing has more potential to be thought-provoking.
In Real Life
So, as much as social media has supported a lot of my running and climate activism since 2016, I've decided it's time to try something else. As for keeping up with friends who live far away? I'll lean on phone calls and texts for one-on-one catching up.
Do I care if others have social media? Of course not! I will never criticize a friend who loves dog Instagrams more than anything. I will not condemn fellow runners who earn a living from their social media. Unlike Jaron Lanier, I am not proselytizing my opinion or my decision. I'm just sharing my views. Mostly to my Mom who is probably the only one who'll read this far.
I do not discredit that many people glean useful information and joy from social media. I am just choosing to use other avenues for my information: magazines, newspapers, books, movies, friends, etc. And direct contact for communication.
There you have it! As if anyone cares about my social media usage. We're all too busy looking at our phones! 😜
Update: three weeks of not using IG and I feel great. I don't intend to go back!
Update: after two months off IG, I am undoubtably happier, feel more present, and feel like my attention span has deepened.