Neon sign representing zero social media likes

This Is My Brain on the Algorithm

I’m sure there are people who have healthy relationships with social media. Ones where they log in, share a cheeky thought or a cute photo, catch up on what their friends have posted, and log off. 

I am not one of those people. 

Nope, I’m one of those people they call “chronically online,” a label I wore proudly. My chronic online-ness has taken many forms over the years — LiveJournal,, Tumblr — but smartphones really changed the game. No longer did I have to hole up in the basement listening to the sweet sounds of dial-up to get my internet fix. All the delicious drama of online spaces was right there in my hand! 

What could go wrong?  

Act One: Internet Drama Historian 

Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I’ve never been able to resist a rabbit hole, and the modern social internet is chock-full of white rabbits to chase. Twitter, in particular, was great for this. I’d see a subtweet of a subtweet and think, “I have to know what started this.” Some days, I’d lose hours tracking down posts and building timelines until I knew exactly how the conflict unfolded. 

It was because of this unabashed nosiness that I got to be on the front lines of thrilling-but-ultimately-really-stupid publishing events like #dicksoapgate and the Handbook for Mortals scam. I gained a reputation for Knowing the Drama, and if something was going down in publishing circles, my DMs were flooded by people asking me for details. 

Critically, I never participated in the drama. Even when I agreed with the moral outrage of the week, I laid low. I expressed my opinions privately when people asked, but I had a lot of rules for expressing them publicly. Among them: 

  • Don’t subtweet 
  • Don’t post while experiencing strong negative emotions
  • Don’t weigh in on controversy unless you have something genuinely new and helpful to say 
  • Don’t post your opinion about an individual user, even if you think that user is very wrong 

These rules existed because I saw how easy it was to become the Main Character of the Day and I did not want to be that person. As much as I loved investigating the drama, I always felt pretty gross when I saw someone get piled on by hundreds or thousands of angry people. I recognized the psychological toll of being the internet’s punching bag was likely high, and I didn’t ever want to contribute to the pile-on — even if I disagreed with the person. But deep down, I think I believed that it was ultimately the Main Character’s fault. That if they had just followed My Rules for Posting on the Internet, they could have avoided all this unpleasantness. 

I don’t believe that anymore. 

Act Two: It Goes Wrong 

During the pandemic, I started to notice my social media environment going off-kilter. 

Of course, that was probably to be expected. We were all at home with a whole lot of extra time to stare at our phone screens, and the supercharged drama of the early Covid era made dick-shaped soap seem quaint. Scandals were emerging one right after the other, and I can’t lie to you: I was like a kid on Christmas morning. Every day, a new imbroglio to untangle. 

Except the vitriol seemed to be supercharged, too. Some user would post a bad take, get called out, and that callout would rebound across the internet. But not every bad take warrants the direct ire of thousands of people. 

In most cases, a proportionate consequence for a lot of these bad takes would have been the original callout post. Someone posts a bad take, someone posts a callout, the end. But the social internet has no sense of proportion. Once something bad had been amplified, the outrage machine revved up and the discourse cycle would start. The original poster would get backlash, and then the person who called out the original poster would get backlash to the backlash. There were no winners.

Unless you count the social media sites where people were posting nonstop about the latest drama. 

Act Three: Hiatus 

If it weren’t for the Muskening of Twitter, my social media poison of choice, I’d probably still be there sipping all the latest publishing tea. But (fortunately?), the site under Musk has become increasingly unusable, and my attention began to wander to other sites, mainly TikTok and Instagram. 

Then this summer, I decided to take a hiatus, although it wasn’t because I wanted to take a break from social media. It was actually because I wanted to take a break from my phone. I’d started to have pain in my wrist and pinky finger, and I realized it was because I was spending so much time with my phone in my hand. Curbing social media seemed like the obvious place to start for curbing phone usage, so that’s what I did.*

A lot of people take social media hiatuses to be more productive with their writing, but I mostly just watched a lot of TV and worked on cross-stitching. But even though taking a break from social media didn’t make me a magically more productive person, I started to feel mentally healthier. 

I was less anxious, less angry, less self-conscious. I hadn’t realized how bad social media was making me feel until I was no longer constantly being overstimulated by it. Walking away from it didn’t make all my worries disappear, but it did make me realize how many of my worries were based on the fact that I was arbitrarily comparing myself to hundreds of people on the internet. 

And then, serendipitously, I heard a recommendation for a book called The Chaos Machine by Max Fisher, which is about the history of social media companies and their use of algorithms. I’d encourage everyone to check it out, but the gist of it is that for social media companies, outrage is a feature, not a bug. When people see something that inspires moral outrage on a platform, they post more. Algorithms sow divisiveness because it keeps people more engaged (and then they’ll look at more ads). 

As my self-imposed hiatus was set to end, I realized I didn’t want to go back to the way things were. I didn’t want billionaires to profit off of my attention and my outrage, and I didn’t want to go back to feeling anxious all the time, either. 

Finale: A Compromise

Despite what the previous thousand-plus words of this blog post might lead you to believe, there was one thing I was reluctant to leave behind by quitting social media: community. 

I’ve legitimately met so many lovely people on places like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, and there’s really no way to recreate those relationships elsewhere. Because of that, tech billionaires have me hostage — I’m not quitting social media for good. 

And on a practical level, if I’m going to continue to pursue writing, a presence on the social internet is a necessary evil. Instead, I’m radically changing the way I interact with social media. The apps are gone from my phone. I no longer spend time investigating random discourse. 

Last week in a group chat, someone posted the latest social media publishing scandal, and for the first time in recent memory, I knew nothing about it. It felt amazing. 

*I also bought a safe so that I could lock my phone up to reduce the temptation to look at it. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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