Meet the social media hermits

Dubai - There is a new minority online: those who don’t have any — or very limited — traction with social media platforms. What does it mean to be a virtual ‘networking’ recluse?


Published: Sat 3 Jul 2021, 10:46 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:11 PM

A few months ago, I went MIA — Missing in Action. Actually, it was more like MISA — Missing in Social-Media Action. For a long time, I didn’t put up a post on Facebook, didn’t hit ‘Like’ on my friends’ cooking videos, didn’t articulate my two bits on burning issues facing the planet and did not share my dinner and lunch pics. The self-imposed hiatus was due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, the subsequent lack of socialising (leaving me with little chance to flaunt a haute outfit or a gourmet meal) and the all-pervasive blue mood around the world than any consciously-planned social media detox.

But the reaction to my absence stumped me.

It wasn’t exactly an outpouring of grief but there was a considerable amount of concern. “Are you okay?”, “What happened?”, “I didn’t see you on FB” were some of the most common lines from friends and followers. Their endless queries and my long-drawn explanations reiterated the one truth that underlines our online existence these days: if you are absent from social media, you might as well be absent from life!

According to insights website Datareportal, at the start of 2021, there were about 4.33 billion social media users around the world. 521 million new users had jumped on to the bandwagon until April 2021. Analysts now say 70 per cent of the eligible global population use some form of social media. That means nearly 3/4th of the world — across age groups, borders, social and economic classes — is on their phones liking, commenting, raving, ranting and sharing their lives away.

And the remaining 30 per cent? Well, they are the minority who have stayed far, far away from the powerful shadow of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snap and are much happier for it.

The privacy concern

Finding these social media hermits, as tech-website Techopedia terms them, is pretty hard but as it turns out, they are quite at peace with their filter-free, analog life even as the world they live in goes digital with a vengeance.

For Ramesh Venkataraman, a London-based private equity investor and self-confessed social media recluse, the story begins and ends with privacy. When Facebook started getting popular in the early to mid-2000s, people around him were getting hooked to the platform but Ramesh wasn’t tempted. “I was only mildly amused at the idea of joining an avenue that, back then, acted as a tool for connecting with old school and college friends. My view was that I don’t need Facebook to be in touch with friends: if I want to be in touch with them, I already am,” he says.

As the years rolled by and social media became much more of a phenomenon, Ramesh created a LinkedIn profile but wasn’t inclined to give it a serious shot. “Putting my life out there never really appealed to me. Also, very early on, I had figured out that social media was going to be a privacy menace. You are disclosing a lot of data, why should Facebook have so much information about your life?”

Why indeed? It’s a question that most of us have wisened up to only now, but social media absentees had perhaps known this all along.

Mumbai-based pilot Ramesh Krishnan gleefully lists the ‘top five’ reasons why he is a “social media outcast”. “One, I don’t feel the innate need to broadcast what I had for breakfast on a given day. Two, people tend to play to the gallery when there is so much peer pressure in terms of getting likes, waves or whatever. Three, my locus of self-worth is primarily intrinsic and not extrinsic. Four, there is little privacy, you get tagged or linked without your consent! And five — there is too much pressure to respond or else people get offended,” he rattles off.

But in an SM-obsessed world, how does he resist the temptation to NOT get on to the bandwagon? “I don’t have to resist at all, I just don’t have the urge,” he shrugs, surprised that the question even comes up.

An unhealthy addiction

In fact, a pronounced lack of interest in oversharing details about their life was a refreshing trait among all those I interviewed. A far cry indeed from Facebook, Insta and Twitter addicts who get intoxicated by the ‘likes’, ‘shares’ ‘retweets’ and ‘comments’ their words, pictures and videos generate.

Take a look at your friends list, you will instantly find people whose day revolves around the posts they make. Be it their routine at work or a catchup with friends, everything is dutifully captured for social media posterity. If there is no excuse to share a pic, Facebook and Instagram helpfully throw up ‘memories’ — posts from the past that pop up on one’s feed — giving them more fodder to feed their feed. From wishing their partner on an anniversary to thanking their best friend for an intimate gift, their emotions just don’t seem complete until their followers are fed with all details, festooned by emojis, filters and catchy captions.

As countless research has pointed out, this behaviour, indicative of a deep need to seek validation, isn’t great for your mental health. “Excessive social media addiction can lead to depression, anxiety and feelings of low self-worth. People often will feel dissatisfied with their work, their addresses or their appearance as they frequently compare themselves to others,” says Carolyn Yaffe, clinical psychologist, Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic, Dubai.

Most people are aware of these facts yet can’t tear themselves away from mindless scrolling even if it scrambles their brain cells, clogging them with too much information. The American Psychological Association estimates that trying to juggle multiple tasks at once, such as clicking back and forth between Facebook and an important project, can reduce your productive time by as much as 40 per cent — a high price to pay for likes and comments.

Who cares about shares?

Not only do social media absentees — unlike people at the other end of the spectrum — scoff at such validation, they actually like to spend their time in purposeful pursuits offline. As Carolyn notes, “Most people who do not use social media did not grow up with it. Therefore, they often prefer to engage in other activities that are non-device related.”

This realisation is more intense among those who have given social media a try at one point in their lives. Michael Tucker, a senior account manager in Dubai, had a Facebook account that he left years ago. He has a private Instagram account with 23 followers where he posts once or twice a month. On LinkedIn, he is present only for professional reasons. “I use social media purely as a connection tool with people I know; I have no interest in connecting with followers I don’t know,” he says.

Michael’s aversion to SM platforms essentially stems from the afore-mentioned negative impact they have on mental health. From exacerbating feelings of inadequacy to the false and inauthentic projection of one’s life, the premise of social networking sites seems to be deceitful, he says. Adding to this unhealthy cocktail is the data controversy, fake news and conspiracy theories, the lack of protection for children and the toxic online environment. “It is a system designed to take advantage of vulnerable people,” says Michael. “I’d go so far to say that social media has widened fractures in society by throwing gasoline on people’s ideological differences and entrenching strongly-held beliefs, which is why we see increasing political polarisation.”

Politics, incidentally, seems to have driven a number of people away from social networking sites. Dubai-based Elham Villalon is someone who has committed cybercide — a tech slang for those who deliberately delete their online presence. Like Michael, she decided to log off Facebook after using it for a while. “There was an election I followed where there was too much fake news and inaccurate information being pedalled. Sadly, people actually believed them without verifying anything. I felt I had enough. Now I don’t use social media for anything other than viewing cat videos,” laughs Elham.

Instagram still wins

However, for all their misgivings and avowed distaste for social media shenanigans, there is one channel that appears to have found favour: Instagram. Ramesh finds Instagram visually appealing and a great medium to share information about his passions — art, architecture and trekking. “If I had to be on social media, I think I would choose Instagram,” he says. Michael likes to keep himself updated on developments in his family and friends circle through their Insta posts while Elham loves Instagram for the simple reason that “it is less negative”.

But those are fleeting hypothetical responses. For all practical purposes, social media ghosts (another fun nomenclature they are saddled with!) vehemently deny any FOMO despite the quizzical looks and raised eyebrows they invariably face. On the contrary, their disdain for those who lay bare their lives on Instagram or Twitter is quite evident. “Frankly, it’s pathetic,” says Ramesh. “Your life is meant to be experienced and enjoyed, not displayed.”

Tackling judgements

Needless to say, these compelling reasons don’t cut ice with those who can’t stay away from their phones or followers. One would imagine, going by the reaction to Netflix documentaries like The Social Dilemma, several users would be tempted at least once to hit the deactivate button on their SM accounts. But going by the increasing numbers joining newer platforms like Telegram, Signal, Clubhouse, clearly that’s not the case.

The ideal path, of course, is to not swing between extremes. As Carolyn says, it is not impossible to be present on social media, enjoying its many benefits while not being obsessed about them. Her tips to keep a good balance? “Don’t let social media become your entire social life, make sure time to spend time with others in person, talk on the phone rather than texting, or engage in other hobbies that do not require a device. Set boundaries and time limits.”

Or else, simply take that one sudden step and switch off. You might be the odd one out but the peace and lack of stress that follows is a good trade-off, never mind the judgements and quizzical looks. In a majoritarian world, social media hermits are the new minority, the most common assumption being that they are asocial, strange or have something to hide.

Ujala Bhan, a mother of two, admits to receiving odd, funny looks from people when she tells them she is missing from social media. Her friends don’t judge her but she says her children, aged 7 and 11, do get amused by her lack of interest and involvement. “I haven’t thought much about why I do not have an account even though I occasionally scroll down my husband’s feed... Perhaps it’s laziness or a lack of confidence or maybe it’s because I am busy enough in my daily life, work and family,” says Ujala, “But I don’t feel like I am missing out on relationships that matter to me.”

That, in a nutshell, describe the credo of social media absentees: you really don’t need a platform to connect or be informed. Do they feel left out because they may not be aware of the latest incident that has triggered conversations or caused outrage? “Not at all,” says Elham. “I get updated on all that I need to know from other sources.” Have they ever felt their absence might impact their career prospects (given that employers do tend to look up potential recruits on networking sites)? “Never,” shoots back Michael.

Therefore, if you still get bombarded with panic assumptions like I was, simply follow what Krishnan does when he encounters sneering reactions to his lack of social-media savvy — especially those he meets for the first time, who are surprised and express bewilderment. “I usually tell them politely, ‘Frankly m’dear, I don’t give a damn’,” he laughs.

(Lekha is a journalist based in India)

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