Every few months I have to delete my twitter app off my phone. Otherwise I might fall prey to ‘Social Media Empathy Burnout Fatigue Syndrome’. This isn’t really a thing. It’s a combination of ‘empathy burnout‘ and ‘social media fatigue‘. Two terms that I’ve come across to describe the fallout of constantly checking our social media feeds. We can’t help but feel empathy and a significant degree of fatigue as we scan every update and reaction. Right now with emotions about to reach fever pitch at election time, it’s going to get a lot worse. There are good reasons to love social media. For instance if I need to immediate information (like how bad the fires are in the bay area), I can get a real time feed like no other source. Many times you can sneak a heads up on something important and get ahead of it, e.g. stocking up on toilet paper in a pandemic. But on the flip side we have good reasons to hate it. Any medium that encourages quick fire, short, gut reactions that you can’t take back become quite ugly. And it can come at a high personal cost too.
Watch out for any medium that stores initial reactions forever
I tend not to post that often especially if a story is unfolding and I don’t know all the facts. Not so for some people on social media. If you want to see a steady stream of no holds barred gut reactions on display take a look at trending topics, then click on the top or latest tab. You’ll see the unfiltered musings of anyone who happens to be posting about that topic in a snapshot of time. It’s like being in a very large hall with everybody shouting opinions, facts, and cries for help. All of which you can hear them all as you scroll down the feed. But we know first reactions aren’t always right. Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book on fast and slow brain thinking. The fast brain is the initial reaction, fast, intuitive and emotional. We need that kind of thinking sometimes when we have to react suddenly and our brain will naturally behave that way like first impressions of a new person. In that type of scenario your brain plays a helpful role in assessing the situation. But you’re rarely in a flight or fight when you’re choosing to post on social media. Sometimes we need the ‘slow brain‘ which is deliberate and more logical.
You can’t help but pick a side
Most situations don’t demand an instant reaction yet we are enticed into it, even with only sparse background information to hand. Your words are recorded and very possibly amplified. What’s worse is that it’s hard to rescind that first reaction. In fact it’s natural to double down instead. Take for example a new trending story on twitter e.g. shootings at protests. Here are the inevitable turn of events which I’ve based on my own experience when spending too much time on trending topics. A shooting is reported. First the reports claim an initial viewpoint which is usually backed up by videos. It’s easy to believe this is the ultimate story. At this stage you instinctively choose a side maybe biased by a previous political leaning. Other videos emerge maybe from another angle that make you question that initial assessment. Too late you’ve already liked or commented. Once you’ve reacted you’re backed into a corner. Depending on the audience you could be cancelled or you could be celebrated. This could change in a second if even more new contradictory information comes to light. For some people there is confusion and fatigue as you try to reconcile what is really happening. If you didn’t react online, phew, you can save yourself the embarrassment. For others I suspect, it’s a question of searching for information that will corroborate your view because your mind is already made up and you’ve backed a horse.
How sure can we be of anything online?
What’s missing for sure is a chance to evaluate with all the real facts presented before you. There’s just no time for that. The medium functions like a trap. The casual remarks you might make with a few people around are not able to be tested in a safe environment. It’s out there for anybody to see and we might come to regret it. We all are prone to form an incorrect and untruthful opinion based on the knowledge we had at that time. The best philosophers throughout history have argued that we can’t be sure we know anything at all. Yet here we are expressing opinions on a medium that preserves our every word and may even amplify it. It can come at a great cost. Twitter famously doesn’t allow you to edit once it’s posted. You can delete but not edit. Unfortunately anyone can screenshot your post so once it’s up there, it’s up there and very difficult to deny. Many have experienced the humiliation of an objectionable long posted tweet which resurfaces years later.
In real life you can gauge reaction
In real life you have other indicators alongside an opinion. Perhaps the person has had a few drinks or they look like they’re not fully concentrating – things we can see. Online, all we have is the words, lacking context. After all who checks to see all the great things that person said before or diligently checks their qualifications in an internet minute. In person you have the opportunity to refine what you say in real time as you see the faces and body language of early reactions. It’s a safe place to offer an opinion especially if you’re uncertain and the group is small and close. Online, all those affordances are gone. We’re already suffering from lack of real life interactions in the pandemic and the consequences will become apparent. Being able to discuss and challenge in a face to face situation has been irreplaceable in some creative environments. This might be one of the things that set us back. The same hasty judgements and context lacking comments that we see on social media may seep into our every day work. It might be a smaller hall full of people shouting but it will still have the same distractions and traps. Once you’ve reacted online for work (be it slack or another internal feed), you could still fall prey to back an idea that you feel compelled to defend to the death. Even after new evidence emerges that should sway your opinion. Work or personal, our online behavior plays out in a similar way.
The burnout and fatigue will make you unproductive
I’m always more productive once I’ve taken a break from social media – always. It’s hard to stop watching a car crash and it’s hard to stop refreshing a feed when a big event is happening. So without thinking you refresh and scroll in any empty moment. However, your brain needs quiet time to be creative and productive. Filling that time up with the consumption of updates, tidbits of news, opinions, even if harmless and amusing takes away that quiet time to reflect. We’re starting to understand that open desk working is having negative impacts (and it will be interesting to see how home working has served to reverse that). We also need to understand that a busy mind filled with social media distractions in not conducive to productivity. How can we think of new things when our minds are busy processing the constant stream of updates, much of which makes us none the wiser? Empathy burnout and social media fatigue are real things.
Go on, take a Social Media holiday
I advocate social media holidays. If you’re at home during this pandemic, and finding it difficult to kick off new projects that you might have the unique opportunity to do while working at home. Ensure you’ve taken steps to create a distraction free working environment. I expect I will install Twitter back on my phone very soon. Until then I will enjoy the freedom of leaving a loud busy hall, full of shouting people into a calm side space for at least a little while.