a month-long digital detox left me cynical (7 min read)

It wasn't an official break up, but I did take a necessary month-long break from social media (read december digital detox post). I have never temporarily deactivated with a significant other, but I'd imagine the experience is not far off: thinking about the other person, helplessly trying to find other distractions, wondering wtf happened, and infinite self reflection. There's obviously more to this and happy to start a convo, with four bullet points as starters.


  1. Ambient awareness fogs our vision of DEEPLY understanding each other. 
  2. Whether deliberate or not, every post contributes to image crafting. 
  3. Social media blurs the lines between vanity and insecurity.
  4. In widening these spaces, we've lost depth.

Actions on social media encompass three (likely more) sides to the experience;

  • intention — what/why someone posts
  • perception — how a post is perceived
  • algorithm — the manner in which that post is shared on a platform (in psychological terms, this is the digital variable of the Johari window). 

I'll refer to each of these below.

johari window.jpg


Ambient awareness fogs our vision of DEEPLY understanding each other. 

When I was catching up with a college friend at a barbecue, I mentioned a high school memory and casually slipped in, "That's growing up in the ghetto for ya." They put down the red solo cup, halfway filled with Arizona tea, turned toward my direction and skeptically asked, "You grew up in the ghetto?" It's not too surprising that they didn't know. We met in college while I was finishing up my master's at the University of San Francisco, notorious for its costly tuition, and I had just started a decent paying job at a well-known tech company. On top of all that, I live in the heart of San Francisco, the most expensive city in the country. With only these tid bits, it's easy for anyone to think I've always been able to afford these expenses. (spoiler alert: hard no) The only context of my life that they'd be aware of was through catching up in person, which was rare, or through personal things I've shared on social media, with the caveat that it even surfaces their newsfeed. Simply telling them about the life I lived before moving to SF for college was enough to see the truth pierce through their skepticism (in real life). Talking with them irl was refreshing, but equally frustrating. Our conversation validated one of my mantras: perception is reality. And in the age of online presences, perception is crafted through our news feeds.

Ambient awareness describes how we’re immersed in digital experiences. It’s become the carrier of our perceptions, while social media platforms serve as vehicles to steer the direction of our intentions. After posting photos of different trips on several social media accounts, I noticed when I'd meet people in person they'd say things like, "Wow! You've been all over the world!" (ftr, I only traveled to one international country this year) or "What's up, jet setter?" I knew I consciously posted photos of my travels. Subconsciously, it exposed my costly illness commonly known as the travel bug. The magic of ambient awareness is that it socializes norms to reveal patterns we conveniently subscribe to — posting food photos, taking selfies of outfits, drafting clever and relatable statuses, dedications for birthdays or anniversaries, sharing posts of viral videos/trends/or politically stimulating articles. We offer slices of these moments then consume them in nanoseconds with the swipe of a thumb. With that speed and access to information on all our friends, we're given a sense of how 'someone is doing' or even what they care about based on the glimpses of reality at our fingertips. It's funny to even ask how someone is doing in person if you've already seen their life down to what they had for breakfast. The ambivalence of social media is that we know what we share will be seen, so we have full disclosure over what we omit. There is no handbook for how or what we post, but it's clear we begin to craft what we do or do not chose to post.


Whether deliberate or not, every post contributes to image crafting. 

Knowing that our posts will be seen by other people puts us all in trivial, everyday dilemmas disguised as seemingly benevolent 'submit' or 'post' buttons. Everyday, posts are released into the wild. They dangle for attention, for reactions, for virtual thumbs of validation. At the mere click of a button (maybe more, if filters are involved), we're able to share something we want seen. Not everything is relatable, but everything warrants a shift in perception. Social media has become an inadvertent catalyst of motivation — to be more fit, to try new restaurants, to see new places, to share thought-through opinions (the irony). And that motivation, among others, can come in the form of digital currency. The numbers game is fiesty and some people are natural tamers. Knowing we have an audience means we have a platform to practice our art form. Over time our 'art' evolves into a brand. What started out as cute dad jokes (patriarchy, i know) as punny captions with my partner, evolved into literally becoming punstoppable. People who punned, tagged me in their captions where they had a pun. I even received text messages from people asking for pun caption blessing. When I think of my own perception of people, it's clear to see distinct patterns — the friend that posts political opinions, the friend that shares food videos on their partner's profile, the friend that posts their battle with an illness, the friend who shares articles I don't always agree with. The list goes on and images are crafted over time. No one is telling you how to do it, but we all social media (yes, that's a verb) in patterns or add our own touch. 

We can have the best of intentions, but we will never have full control over perception. One social phenomenon that swept my newsfeed overnight was the Kony 2012, a film project through Invisible Children that went viral with aims to bring awareness to child soldier camps and sex slavery in Uganda. I watched the 30 minute video, caught the first wave of posts and remember feeling like I needed to be part of the conversation and immediately take action on my anger, too. Some friends started sharing how they donated and 'you could, too' because it was easy and the least we could do for the cause. I held back, cautious in treading murky clicktivism waters. The second wave of posts from colleagues were now suggesting we be skeptical of supporting Invisible Children and perpetuating white savior industrial complex. In all selfishness, and frankly self-image, I was glad I spared myself from falling victim to the sensationalism. Kony 2012 revealed several layers of our perceived online 'responsibilities'. I'll leave it up to you to breakdown the intention and perception of the first and second wave posts, but will leave you with similar social chess phenomenons: Ice Bucket Challenge, 22 push up challenge, etc. I'm not saying we shouldn't participate in these, but these challenges stick out in my mind when I'm extremely wary of getting tagged in these types of posts. That wariness also exists in unflattering photos, commenting those statuses that are actually baits, and getting tagged in spam posts. Could you guess where the wariness comes from? Ding ding ding. Perception.


Social media blurs the lines between vanity and insecurity.

Younger generations of digital natives have been dubbed the 'me generation' or 'generation like', often alluding to the narcissism associated with social media saturation. I once read an article on the vein of, "How to identify the narcissist on your feed" and it mentioned things like only has profile photos of themselves and posts during peak hours of the day. If only I could find the article again, because it really spoke to me. But on a more serious note, these perceptions continue to feed the patterns we deem as socially acceptable or not. They add on to our own practices, just like how no one uses vignette filters anymore (if you do, this is awkward). The problem with these black and white frameworks is that it leaves people tiptoeing between the grey, with the variables of perception. One way to tell perception plays a role is to acknowledge the selfie struggle. How many times does it take until someone is satisfied with a selfie they're willing to post?

One time I met up with a friend I'd only met through Facebook but was a mutual friend of another. Apparently they'd gone on several trips to different countries and bulk uploaded photos in a Facebook album every day of their trip. When I asked how they've been, they started with, "I'm sure you've seen all my photos by now since I've taken up everyone's news feeds with photos of Europe." I tried to smile convincingly to hide the fact that I never actually saw any of them. As we parted ways, his page finally loaded on my phone and I saw about 15 different posts of his travels that I never saw. In the Johari window, he put me in the arena, while I was actually in the façade. Oops. 

Digital currency rewards us with dopamine. The average person checks their phone about 150 times a day. I've seen posts disappear then reappear at a later time, possibly to expose that content at a better 'prime' time (we all know it's before you sleep and on commute times). But now that the algorithms are changing, people are frustrated that only the most 'engaging' content surfaces their feed instead of being able to chronologically see things. The digital social ladder continues to be more obvious.


In widening these spaces, we've lost depth.

The convenience of ambient awareness is that we don't need to actively knock on doors or dial a number to check up on how someone is doing (this is, of course, dependent on if that person regularly updates their social media). Catching up now takes less effort and it doesn't always require physical contact (s/o to my ambiverts). But now that we passively update or get updates about each other, the infrequent patterns leave us with vague relationships and surface level conversations. Posting about ourselves online is a vulnerable process and requires trust from the receiver. Online platforms tend to be intimidating instead of feeling like brave spaces. We're more willing to share birthday greetings than break ups, or feel more inclined to share a cute puppy video than an article about an isolated incident in a place irrelevant to us. We are at the mercy of perception so it’s easier to play it safe with agreeable posts.  

I've talked to people who say their friends lists include acquaintances they barely know, myself included. Through social media, I'm reminded of people I was close to because I saw them everyday but are now in my peripherals. Our quality of experience now transformed into quantifiable digital currency, enough to see where we are in 'the rankings' and try to climb it. There isn't a like store to spend all these earnings, but our pleasure senses tingle with the release of dopamine when we check our notification badges. Social media also reveals social circles — in tagged photos, in location check-ins, and dedication posts. What is not explicit is the artificial reality that gets carbonized into the cloud. We’ve normalized, “if isn’t posted, did it really happen?” Online platforms let us act on our intentions by bringing things out of the facade and into the arena. The irony of it all is how these are all perceived (see #1 and #2).

Despite all this skepticism, online platforms also have positive attributes that were not acknowledged in this post. I truly believe there is more to people than what is shared online. I’m already observing culture shifts in these patterns as more and more people recognize how oversaturated our news feeds are. More of us will want to build on our authentic selves. More people will want to define their social circles more clearly. It might not be through social media. Instead, it may be through unplugging and reconnecting the analog way (irl). I recommend more folks take a break from their online presences to partake in their own social experiments. It was really interesting to observe instances where Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat were essential to a conversation or part of my day. Moreso, it felt great to give myself clarity yet leave me more curious.

— evelyn, digital native and social media skeptic

s/o to Patrick, Mele, and Jess as extra pairs of eyes and wisdom. <3