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For the past two years-or-so, I have been trying to live social media free.

GIF: Traditional American mailbox

Originally, it was a way to address some nasty recurring phenomena: Firstly, I tend to see upsetting stuff online and then get into arguments about it in the comment section. This led to regular, strong anxiety whenever I spotted a notification symbol anywhere, regardless of where it was or what it was for. Secondly, I felt like I was putting myself and my identity out there for the world to ridicule, bully or even worse, doxx and harrass, so I felt unsafe and threatened often whenever I got into a serious argument online on an account that I also had personal information attached to. Finally, I felt like social media itself was making me interact in a different, more arrogant, inauthentic and self-centered way. Instead of being myself and developing my real personality in accordance with my interests and intrinsic motivations, I built a fake image of myself mainly through identity shopping and self presentation that got harder and harder to maintain.

It stopped being fun when every interaction was about a controversial opinion or deliberately presenting myself or others in this or that way, even though it was just a part in a greater discourse. It was no longer authentic human interaction, it was a charade.

I therefore then decided that this negative way of interacting with the world had to stop.

One might think that the solution to this was simply not to interact with that kind of content anymore, sieve it out with word filters or just create a new account every once and then; have anonymous accounts, stop sharing personal information, and try to be myself and not give in on the hype. But since I had already tried that many times in the past, to simply change my behaviour on social media or filter my content to my liking, to no real effect, I decided that social media itself and its design was the problem.

Divider: Owl on a line


The beginning of my efforts to abandon social media was defined by an excruciatingly frustrating wave of deleting and then slowly reinstalling and recreating accounts. It turns out that a lot of the time, the urge to consume content or entertainment of some kind, to socialize and to participate, is just too present to ignore. As uncomfortable as it makes me, keeping books and other physical media nearby as distraction did not help; the internet just dispenses much more dopamine and stimulation at a shorter pace and I did not regularly manage to override these desires in order to read a book instead. Some news, interests and hobbies are only taking place or available online, which neccessitates using a phone regularly, which draws you into the social media sphere once more.

Plus, there is a regular stream of incentives to rejoin certain sites: it gets tiring and frustrating to find out that you can once again not join a friend group because they exclusively assemble on Discord or you even cannot download a piece of software for the same reason. Sometimes the best way to get help for an esoteric tech problem is simply to consult Reddit, and without an account, you cannot do that. If you want people to read your fanfiction, you will have to interact in fandom spaces most of which exist on Tumblr, Discord or Twitter. Otherwise, you will always be an outsider. Much of today's life is dependent on operating certain social accounts.

Last but definitely not least, the main point that kept driving me back to rejoining social media over and over again was plain, old loneliness. As a queer person with mainly online-oriented hobbies, making friends in real life can be daunting. You not only need to find people who you like and who like you, a potential friend also has to accept you for who you are and not be weird about it, and hold ideologies that are at least compatible with your world view. That simple requirement unfortunately filters out plenty of "normal" friend finding spaces: electronics, tech and other nerd meetups are often plagued with intolerant people who fundamentally cannot or do not want to relate to me, and most male-dominated hobbies like football, hanging around in pubs or joining a sports club or gym have put me at risk more often than not. Living in a non-anglophone country but having been raised by the internet also makes it hard to relate to people socializing in my native language and in my native culture; it feels odd and occasionally awkward, the terms they use, the jokes they make, the lack of knowledge about how I percieve social limits, mental health and identity.

The only place to really find friends and real long lasting connections in real life as a queer person like this unfortunately still is the internet. And virtually everyone who you would ever want to interact with there is on social media. Looking in from the outside, seeing people socialize, find friends and love in larger Discord communities, seeing them interact with their hobbies, communities and interests, all while being denied the same thing yourself, is quite depressing.

And those are the times that I kept deleting and rejoining sites like Twitter, Discord or Instagram; and in time, it felt like a really bad tradeoff: either I get constant anxiety and regular, sometimes dangerous toxic interactions from social media, or I am completely lonely without a chance at participating in society at large, finding or keeping friends, and building relationships with people.

A False Hope And A Sad Conclusion (The Fediverse Ain't It)

GIF: Colorful stick figures dancing in a circle

Around this time, the Fediverse and alternative social media sites began to really take off. I knew Mastodon, Diaspora and Pixelfed from way back, but I never really felt comfortable with them due to the lack of apparent interaction that you would get there; you would put effort into a profile and then you would get perhaps two or three reactions on them before they would fade away. This had now changed: the Fediverse and other sites were and are alive and kicking.

I made several accounts during this time: on Mastodon, Matrix, Diaspora, PeerTube and on non-federating places like SpaceHey and Crabber. In my real life, I had just come out of a very depressing stage after my gender detransition and slowly started to find myself again. Full of motivation to not repeat the mistakes of my past, I vowed to let my real identity out for once and not participate in identity shopping and online hatestorms.

But what did I meet there now, full of ideals and hope? The public timeline was full of short, provocative opinions and callouts once more, news articles about the state of the world, small, poignant status updates meant to paint the poster in this or that light or to "accidentally" share something about them or their identity, and little to no genuine interaction at all. People were very trigger happy with the blocking and defederation buttons, and the same kind of arguments that constantly arise on Twitter and Instagram also made my time on Mastodon more and more uncomfortable. All the while, I did have some positive interactions with people who shared my hobbies; but because posts vault themselves on the always-up-to-date timelines all of the time, it was hard to find long term engagement with the people I enjoyed talking to.

After more back and forth with deleting and recreating accounts, I also then finally came to the conclusion that the Fediverse was not the solution that I was looking for, either.

Short form social media interaction like on Twitter or Mastodon both are not suited for human connection. The character limits and fleeting nature of posts (after a day or two, they are so far down the timeline they are basically irrelevant) makes the only worthwhile thing to post either hyper-current (and completely uninteresting) status updates like "I just had my first coffee of the day good morning", or short, poignant opinions meant to provoke replies, emotions and reactions. The lack of quote tweets on Mastodon does help curb the harassment typical for these "clever comeback" style posts, but the format itself is encouraging them.

Other platforms had similar issues: Diaspora was full of simple link and video spam without any social interaction at all, Pixelfed saw very little activity, Crabber grew into its own little bubble of people with certain mental illnesses who built cliques and pushed away everyone else, and SpaceHey finally suffered from an influx of people who did not quite grok the concept of it.

Once again, I had no place to go.

A Ray of Light

GIF: Computers sending mail to each other

Finally, through various different sources and avenues that I don't even remember today (I believe it was SpaceHey eventually), I found the web revival movement.

Young people socializing not through social media at all, but through their own hand-hacked websites, or using digital systems without predatory design like forums, webrings, chatrooms and mailing lists, was surprising and delightful to me. Of course, I grew up on these things, but after they went under during the late 2010s, I never seriously considered using them as an alternative to social media anymore, especially because most forums were and are geared towards a specific topic and discourage general socializing.

However, what I found were plenty of pretty active communities, genuine interaction and people who were just as upset with the state of the internet as I was. Suddenly I could express myself in deeper ways than just setting a profile picture, banner and description; I could have cool web projects for anyone to look at, make GIFs and badges for people to use, participate in larger and more interesting discussions, and because we were all somewhat on the same page when it comes to disliking the current world in this or that way, it was also possible to talk about "weird" hobbies with people genuinely interested in it. Identity crafting was less rampant because the return is smaller; publishing your identity is a lot easier just using buzzwords in short posts than having to actually write meaningful thoughts online.

Forums avoid the issues most social media systems have: they allow and encourage long-form posts by design, and through categorizing threads in categories and messages in threads, it is easy to find things you are interested in, no matter how old they might be. While on Twitter, Mastodon or Crabber, posts would become obscure after being pushed down the timeline by just a few hours, forum threads stay relevant for as long as the forum exists. They discourage the "clever, poignant comeback" style of discourse because anyone can respond to them in detail, and bad arguments usually do not hold up. Through website design, you can gleam much more about a person than you can on sites that only allow you to customize a few parameters.

Of course, not everything is gold: it is much harder to make friends on technology that by design does not encourage casual conversation; having to write a mail, a personal message or an entire forum post is more than most people are willing to do to speculate on a potential friendship with someone. People also seem to be less focused on just showcasing their identites and picking friendships based on them; while on Twitter, two trans people with trans flags in their bio are likely to interact in some way just based on that, forums allow a much broader window into someone's identity which makes finding common ground both easier and harder. In a way, people are more distant: everyone can retreat into their own website e-bode, and link lists, webrings and fanlistings are more directories than anything interactive. However, the kind of interaction that you do have tends to be grounded in more meaningful bases: you know someone's hobbies, aesthetic preferences, projects, journal, music; this is much more than you would know about someone on normal social media and therefore can lead to more in-depth interaction.

Right now, I am happy working on this website, posting on the Melonland forums, and visiting cool websites from people across the web.

I wish there was a bit more in terms of one-on-one interaction on the web revival to make friends, and perhaps there should be a more general trend in the web revival to reach out to other people personally, but everything considered I am much happer here than I have ever been in social networks.