Social media is too much for most of us to handle

I know, because I let it all flood in. And it was damaging to my mental health

Column In 2008, I formed a hypothesis that everyone has something to teach you, so the more connected you are, the more you should be able to learn.

I decided to make myself the test subject by following as many people as I could on Twitter – what could possibly go wrong?

For the first several months the experiment succeeded wonderfully. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake I felt myself among the best-informed people on the planet, reading tweets from reporters on the scene as it all unfolded. It all seemed to be going so well that I followed more and more and more people, eventually topping out at more than 13,500 feeds.

If someone had asked me, "Do you want that many voices inside your head?" I might have been far more considered about who I followed. But that would have defeated the purpose of the experiment; this wasn't an effort in selective curation, but an attempt to explore the outer bounds of "hyperconnectivity." I wanted to know what happens when we're all very broadly connected to tens of thousands of others.

When the Arab Spring exploded, my feed filled up with the most horrible stories and photos of brutality, revenge attacks, and all the bloody fury of white-hot anger pent up over decades. At first I couldn't look away.

Then something snapped – and I found I couldn't look at it.

I found myself feeling angry all the time. About something. Anything. Nothing I could name. As I used an unfiltered feed from Tweetdeck, no algorithm had come between me and my feed, artificially amplifying my anger. This was all raw and real – anger coming from all the voices inside my head shrieking about injustice, oppression, and terror.

Throughout the 2010s tragedies poured in: invasions, wars, refugee migrations, mass shootings, massacres, all of it flooding in through these thousands of holes I'd drilled in my head.

By the middle of 2017, despite a string of successes in my life, I felt continually depressed. I took a rest break – unplugging for a fortnight – and immediately began to feel better.

That little bit of clarity showed me that this experiment had been a complete success. I had learned what it meant to be hyperconnected: always knowing too much about the thoughts and feelings of too many people.

It meant terrible mental health.

I never really went back to Twitter. I do still use it to promote my columns (while it lasts) but for me it's become a broadcast medium. One-way, outbound only. I value my mental health and peace of mind.

Six years after pulling the plug on that experiment, it's easier to see the effects of hyperconnectivity at scale.

What happened to me has happened to hundreds of millions of others. With connections pouring in from all around the world, everyone now dumps their thoughts and feelings and hurts and loves and hopes and fears into a gigantic stew. We're all stewing in that pot, and it's doing us more harm than good.

It isn't clear to me how anyone can have that many voices in their head without challenging their mental health a bit – or more than a bit. Looking out onto a world filled with QAnoners and COVID-deniers and worse, it's becoming obvious that "social" media has driven a fair few people well beyond the bounds of reason.

And why wouldn't it? We evolved to manage tribe-sized groupings in our forebrains. "Dunbar's Number" correlates the volume of our brain's neocortex with the number of social relations we can meaningfully maintain. Our big brains give us room enough upstairs for 150 others – not 1,500 or 15,000. When we connect beyond our natural limits, we tip over from "social" media into something else – often propaganda, noise, or full-throated anger.

These days I spend time on Mastodon, which many folks remark has the same feel as early-days Twitter. I suspect this means it's in a Goldilocks moment, when the number of connections is "just right." As the Fediverse continues to grow, will we resist the desire to overconnect? Have we learned our lesson? This has all happened before – does it need to happen again? Can we afford it if history repeats? ®

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