Maybe We Don’t Need to Unplug. Maybe We Need to Unbrand.
I took a month away from Facebook and Instagram. My social-media detox started in the midst of my having Covid. I was lying in bed for hours at a time and finally had a moment to watch television. I have very little patience left for prestige TV — what is the hottest drama series on the newest platform? — so I turned to RuPaul’s Drag Race for some light in this dark winter. When I lived in Los Angeles, my friends and I would go to a bar to watch each week, but I was too distracted by the crowd to focus on the quick-witted queens.
I was six days into hating Covid and six episodes into loving Season 2, but my phone would not stop pinging and ringing. Granted, I had invited it. I had posted a picture to Facebook of me in bed ill. The message was part New Year’s Day well-wishes and part warning for friends to beware that even those who are most careful can find themselves with a positive test and intolerable fatigue. The outpouring was touching, but I found myself so distracted from my new “program” (as my grandmother would call it) that I missed the lip-sync finale. As Drag Race fans know, you don’t miss the finale.
Distraction, even for the most loving reasons and with the best intentions, is our way-of-life, and, if you’re like me, we spend as much energy every day fighting off the pinging and the ringing as we do on our chosen tasks-at-hand. By mid-January, Covid had wiped me out so much that I had no fight left in me, and I took an official digital detox, signing off of Facebook and Instagram with a “see-you-soon” message and deleting the apps from my phone — not because I was pissed that friends were messaging, but because I needed to recover and bring the volume of life down to actual zero. Also, truth be told, I was kind of annoyed at myself for becoming the guy who posts sick selfies.
And suddenly it all got quiet. Pulling the cord, as you might guess, was wonderful. But I missed my online friends. And I missed them way more than I expected to. The truth is that as much as I personally rail against the dangers of tech to numb us to our own humanity — I even made a movie about it — our lives have changed so much because of tech that we seem to need it to fulfill even the simplest of human needs. I am a human. I have those needs. And in the midst of a pandemic, especially for those of us living alone (it’s now Day 348), those needs are magnified.
What I want from social media is that connection, but without all the bullshit. I want the wedding announcements, and the vacation photos (some of them), and the ability to contact someone who feels long-lost. I do care what my friends from college are doing in the world, even if I don’t talk to them over the phone or on text. And while Facebook itself, as a company, is responsible for the platform becoming a modern National Enquirer of gossip, disinformation, and, well…crap, I have realized that I play a big part as a user in what my experience is. Facebook is like life; it’s what you make of it, ads included. I won’t speak for you, but I will tell you my greatest social-media mistake: branding myself.
Branding is a discipline of marketing. At this point, we’re all pretty familiar with branding. When the social apps took over modern life in the late 00s, their design, by design, made sure that we all became marketers. Within a few short years, we all developed our own little brands, importing all of our most precious information into databases all over the world. We chose our profile picture, just like a brand chooses a logo. We uploaded our cover photo, just like a brand decorates its storefront. We wrote our public bio, just like a brand broadcasts its tagline. Pretty soon, friends became “followers” and things started to get weird.
As the number of platforms that we were on increased, we made sure our visual branding was consistent across Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like. It also had to match our website and our business cards. Those who were even savvier developed separate brand personalities for each platform. Dolly led us in a meme parade to laugh at how we present different parts of our personal brand to our separate audiences. Books on personal branding made frequent appearances on the best-seller charts. And now, the term “on-brand” is completely ubiquitous in our pop culture — meant to evaluate whether or not something you say or do is consistent with the image you project. Social media has made social animals into media animals.
With that in mind, as my detox comes to an end (I challenged myself to a month), I am asking this question: how do I unravel myself from my personal brand enough to enjoy social media the way that I used to? It seems what was really pleasant and fun about it disappeared when I turned into a tool for self-promotion. For me, there are three initial steps I am taking to start to get back to basics.
First, it’s time to think of my friends as my friends again, instead of as my audience. I am going to spend a day soon culling my Facebook list down to just actual friends. Then, I can joy-test the list, like Marie Kondo recommends we joy-test the clothes in our closets. Does this person bring me joy? Does being in touch with them make my life better? If yes, they stay. If no, they go. As RuPaul would say, “Now, sashay away.”
To ease the transition, I am inviting my Facebook feed to join me on Medium if they want to read my articles and engage in political conversations. Most of my writing here is about politics and the pandemic. I love to write, and I love to read, but Medium provides a better space for thoughtful communication of that sort. That will allow me to interact with readers in a more appropriate space. Yes, I am debating creating a separate Facebook Page for that purpose, but who wants yet another channel to manage? Ugh.
Next, I’m removing my cover photo. Granted, not many people actually go to your homepage on Facebook, but I am not Goop. I am not Macy’s. I have no need to dress the front window. It’s a small step, but it will take the pressure off to have to keep that picture current and aligned with other photographs and visual branding on other platforms. I’m no longer interested in presenting a manicured version of me. There will be no storefront. Toward that end, I’m taking the Facebook logo off my website and other business materials, so I can reclaim Facebook as a personal space, as much as that is even possible.
Third, posts will now be about life, joy, and fun, not politics, the latest professional happenings, or projects I’m promoting. No agenda. Companies have agendas. Brands have agendas. Marketers have agendas. I’m tired of having one. I want to think of Facebook now as a group text with a lot of people I love (or at least like), instead of a broadcast channel for Me, Inc. Me, Inc. won't necessarily go away. I do work in entertainment and media. But there are other digital spaces for that. Also, no more hashtags on personal posts. #imnotarealhousewife
My digital detox has been very valuable. It gave me the chance to stop the pinging and the ringing and to recover in peace. It gave me weeks of uninterrupted Ru time. And it revealed to me just how important my friends really are. If I want to stay in touch with them on a platform like Facebook, I need to use the technology the way that serves me best. It’s time I unbrand and just be a human again.
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