A really strange thing happened a few nights ago. I’d just published a post on Instagram talking about the need for stillness. In it, I mentioned that I’ve been reflecting on the necessity for my presence on any social media platform at all, given that I enjoyed writing and blogging more than anything else in the world.
Within a couple of hours of posting that image, the triumvirate of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp went down and stayed down for over 6 hours. Coincidence? Possibly. But I’ve also believed that messages come to us when we least expect them.
The message for me now was resoundingly clear. It was time for me to consider consciously dialling down or stepping back from all social media, as a creator. Not out of annoyance or frustration or the fear of our data being sold (although those are all valid concerns); but more from a space of gentle kindness and compassion.
If you’ve been following me/my work this past year, you’d know by now that I deleted my Twitter account at the end of March and downloaded/archived all of my personal data on Facebook too. I’m still on Instagram and Linkedin, although I am not sure for how much longer, to be honest.
I’ve had a great run with social media over the last 14 and a half years. That’s when I originally joined Facebook. Over the years as I grew to learn about and embrace Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin, newer worlds opened up to me and with them, more connections with the right kind of people. Fortunately, I’ve barely had any negative interactions with anyone, except for a few stray unkind comments and some sly posts here and there; in short, nothing to really get worked up about or even use as a reason to leave social media.
Why choose to step back from social media then? What’s the purpose behind that decision?
It lies in tapping into the power of stillness.
Social media, for all its gorgeous, connective ability also has the undeniable power of continuity and a sense of bottomless exploration. A client of mine recently told me that she feels like she’s entering a rabbit hole every single time she logs on to any social media platform and she’s not wrong. Even for those of us who try and practice the most intentional approach to technology and the power of the pause, it’s truly challenging to step away from it all without feeling like you’re missing something when you do.
Stillness, on the other hand, is both necessary and transformative in ways that can’t really be described in an article or a blog, but let me try.
So what is this message of stillness truly? It’s the deep-seated understanding and awareness that we are absolutely perfect just the way we are. We are glorious, wondrous creatures of existence and we don’t really need social media validation to remind us of that at any time.
Until June of 2021, I wore the label of blogging and social media coach with both pride and joy. I continued to teach people about social media strategy because I trusted and believed that my approach was the right one – intentional and purposeful in nature, without compromising on one’s principles, values and integrity.
It was only after my 60-day sabbatical from social media that I had to wonder if I still wanted that same title or that professional identity. That’s when I switched over to content strategist and productivity coach. Why did I do this? It just felt like the right thing to do. Did this mean I was stepping away from the tag of ‘social media coach’?
After all, I did launch my most successful course ever in April 2021 – Intentional Instagram- which thrives on the principles of authentic connection, sustainable progress and slow, delicious growth.
When I came back to Instagram in early August, a comment from one of my followers caught my eye. She asked, and I’m paraphrasing here,‘If you take a step back from social media, how can you be a social media coach? Doesn’t that sound counterintuitive?’ What an insightful question and I took about a day to reflect on this and answer it when I got the right response.
My reply was that the reason I could still teach people about social media, even if I wasn’t posting every day or keeping up with all the changes, was because I didn’t focus on the externals of social media; I focused on the internals.
On Algorithms and How they Govern Our Decisions
The reason most social media coaches function from a space of anxiety is the need to keep up with changes, especially on platforms that you neither own nor pay for. In August 2020, I made a decision to stop using hashtags on Instagram. Frankly speaking, the main reason was that it made my post look cluttered but also because I noticed that the hashtags while promising to improve reach, we’re also reaching undesirable elements on the platform. I spent so many hours a week blocking and deleting accounts that left spurious messages and comments on my posts.
Similarly, the other challenge with a social media platform is the slew of new features that keep cropping up. You know why this happens, don’t you? It’s the way you try to engage people and ensure they aren’t bored. Instead of doubling down and improving the user experience from a space of value, algorithms begin to favour higher engagement and reward anything that goes viral.
When we keep adapting to every new feature on these platforms, we are unwittingly playing into the hands of, what Tim Wu calls, The Attention Merchants. The more you give your attention away to shiny new objects the more you are taken away from what truly matters. You’re barely scratching the surface of basic features and how they can help you when you’re bombarded with the idea for the next fancy new video or reel or filter. And your mind, ever willing to be distracted, willingly follows the diversion.
This is why, it’s ever more important for each of us to exercise the concept of free will, especially in relation to algorithm-driven suggestions. At every point in our interaction with social media, we have a choice. Whether we actually use it is what makes the distinction clear between consuming what you choose and consuming what you’re given.
Karthik Hosanagar, a professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton, and the author of A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence consciously addresses this distinction in this interview titled: Who Made That Decision: You or an Algorithm?
This is also why when I create content (or any other authentic marketer does), we don’t rely on creating content for algorithms but on creating content for an audience. When you write for an audience, you’re talking to people.
When you write for an algorithm you’re talking to a machine that then feeds that data into a bigger machine and soon it becomes way bigger than you can handle. In other words, you’ve ceded control to the algorithm. In the audience situation, you retain gentle control over who sees your content – because they consciously choose to see that content.
The Role of Stillness in the Digital Era
All of this brought me back to the original idea – Stillness – and how it can govern our existence in both conscious and subconscious ways.
When we practice stillness in the digital space, that can feel like a bit of a quiet rebellion against the information barrage coming at us. It’s when we can choose to pick the people and ideas we want to follow; not because we’re expected to, but because we truly intend to. Think of it as an elective you choose in college instead of studying all of the subjects across the spectrum in your high school.
Stillness also offers the depth, something which the internet generation doesn’t allow room for, on a consistent basis. What happens every single time you sit down to write something on your laptop, with the WiFi, plugged in? Tell me how many times you find your fingers wandering to that next tab on your browser or that itch to pick up your phone to see what new update awaits on your social media feeds.
It’s no wonder that most prolific writers like George R.R.Martin prefer to have a separate computer, without the internet, to write their books.
Stillness will give us an edge in this world and it’s something we all need to embrace, consciously and wilfully. Without it, we will be ensnared by likes, comments and shares and gauge our value as a creator on the whims of an algorithm.
Use stillness to shape your day, make your choices and make it a part of your identity. Your mind and soul will thank you for it.