Reevaluating How We Use Social Networks

Home-bound for three weeks, I’ve come to rely on the internet for social interactions with anyone except my family. Now more than ever, I’m thinking about the role information environments play in my life. Some are helping make things better, and others, not so much.

Among the helpful ones, I count the information environments that are essential to my work: Zoom for synchronous communications and Slack for asynchronous ones. I’m a longtime user of Zoom, but the lockdown has nudged me to learn somewhat obscure features that make it more valuable to me. I have some concerns about Zoom’s privacy and security policies, but overall I’m satisfied with the system. Slack is something of a mess (I often have trouble finding older stuff or orienting myself within threads,) but the company is working to make it better. And in many ways, it’s an improvement over the most obvious alternative, email.

Both Slack and Zoom are environments that enable private social networks. They make it possible for people to collaborate remotely in (relatively) small groups. These days, most of my interpersonal interactions happen in either of the two. But not all; I’m also spending more time on three big, public social networks: Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I’ve been using these places for a long time, but the lockdown is leading me to reevaluate how I use them.

Of the three, LinkedIn’s role is the most obvious: it’s for professional communications. People there seem to be looking to share and learn from other professionals. Discussions tend to be helpful, sober, and practical — if sometimes a bit self-serving. I’m learning much from interactions on LinkedIn and looking to spend more of my time there.

My perception of Facebook has changed as a result of the pandemic. I was down on Facebook for a long time. This wasn’t so much because of my use of the place, but because of its policies and because so many friends had given up on it. Still, I have many contacts who are active there, including family members and old friends who aren’t very tech-oriented. As a result, I keep in touch with many people I care about on Facebook. I don’t know why, but I’m finding less political posturing or general animosity there these days — even though it’s an election year in the U.S. (It’s a marked change from what I remember during the election of 2016.)

The opposite is true of Twitter. Twitter has been my “main” social network for many years, but these days I’m finding it challenging to spend much time there. My main timeline — where I follow many people who I know “in real life” — is angst-ridden and polarized. I’m finding little nuance there, and therefore not learning as much as I used to. I’ve tried several approaches, including setting up topics-based lists and unfollowing or muting very chatty or noxious accounts. But whereas I’m sometimes inspired or elevated when I use LinkedIn and Facebook, I often leave Twitter feeling angry or sad. I still find value there, but it takes an emotional toll. I’ll continue to tweak my configuration to see if I can make it work for me.

I want my interactions with other people to improve our well-being — mine and theirs. Social networks can make our lives better, but this requires being mindful about which we use and how. Their structures are different, and this makes some more conducive to some types of conversations than others. The current crisis is an excellent opportunity to reevaluate our use of these places. We have no good reason to spend time in places that make us feel bad — even if our bodies are cooped up at home.