Did Social Media Eat My Creativity?…

While doing some delivery work the other week, I found myself listening to a podcast about how social media affects us.  This is a topic that’s been making its way into my periphery rather frequently in recent months; my friend Belle wrote an article on why she quit Facebook and is loving it; there was also a recent study published which found that teens are having drinking, having sex, and getting drivers’ licenses at all-time low rates which suggested social media was replacing teens’ ambitions.

But this podcast was especially interesting; not just because of what it said, but because of what happened to my brain afterwards.  As I biked around the city, delivering sandwiches with my unwieldy orange backpack, I considered the merits of social media.  And my brain formulated an original, genuine thought about it.  Then, before long, another thought was added to that thought.  And within 20 minutes, I had built a cohesive argument around social media based on thoughts that neither I, nor anyone that I know, had thought before.

The reason this experience felt odd, I realize now, is that my brain has not been used to the sensation of maintaining concentration on an original, unforced thought for a sustained period of time.  Sure, there’s plenty of nice little thoughts bouncing around in the grey matter at any given moment, but they often feel so fragmented that few of them translate into action.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but I feel like it wasn’t so hard to come up with creative stuff when I was a kid.  I remember there was a period during elementary school when I made an alternative world to Pokemon which came complete with 150 creatures, a guide book, a comic book, and a short novel.  Another time I built a series of interactive Zelda-esque role playing games out of Lego, and would invite my friends over to try to beat the game while I ran everything behind the scenes as they explored worlds, collected items, and fought bosses.  My friends and I also developed a game called “tag in the dark” which was probably as bad of an idea as it sounds, but also we all survived without concussions.  These ideas are pretty strange and that’s perhaps why I’m so proud of them.  And I don’t remember ever having to chain myself to a desk and demand cool ideas to spring forth.

One of my my Lego “video game” creations: it was basically Legend of Zelda meets Animal Crossing

Now to be fair, it’s not like my creative outlets have vanished since the days of yore.  I do a lot of work in the theater/film/music world, so I suspect my creative accomplishments per capita are probably reasonably high.  And certainly the fact that there’s money on the line can change how one views their creative ambitions – “HEY KID!  MAKE SOMETHING CREATIVE OR STARVE!”  

But I’m beginning to think that the rise of technology and social media is playing a bigger role in this matter than I perhaps had ever realized.

Here’s some trends I’ve noticed about social media:

1.  It runs the risk of giving us choice overload.  The internet offers us such an endless amount of options it’s hard enough to decide what to watch on Netflix, let alone what creative project to put your full weight behind.  This is anathema for perfectionists, and it can be easier to stick in an IV of other people’s ideas than go through the messy process of coming up with our own.

2.  It’s increased our ability to live vicariously through others.  I have a lot of creative ambition, but sometimes it gets falsely satiated by listening to podcasts, playing video games, or even scrolling a newsfeed.  There’s something about raw human experience that can’t be replaced digitally, but media can be a quick fix that’s convincing enough that we can go for a surprisingly long time before noticing our lack of actual accomplishments.  Not only this, but with so many youtube channels and podcasts and other voices to compare ourselves to, it’s very easy to feel like we’re not good enough or unique enough to create anything meaningful, so instead we sit back and scroll.

3.  It’s put a high value on instant gratification.  It’s so easy these days to measure something’s worth by how many likes or favorites it garners, when the fact is that often the best ideas seem crazy at first.  The creation of the Aeron chair is a case in point – people initially thought the chair was hideous, but it’s now in every tech startup in San Francisco.  Let’s face it: snap judgments from 2D versions of your friends aren’t always the most thorough feedback for ideas.

4. It can use up perfectly good willpower for inane decisions.  This was new to me, but I recently found out that willpower is a muscle that can actually fatigue.  So even if you’re NOT engaging 24/7 with that IV of kittens and political outrage in your pocket, the very fact that you have to continually decide to not look at your phone or watch the next video constitutes a use of your finite willpower, which is why I often find myself exhausted by the time I have to make an actual important decision.

Now, to clarify, I’m not pooh-poohing social media in general.  I just got Instagram a few weeks ago, which means I now have the complete collection.  I’m just realizing that social media is sort of the Wild West – you might find gold in them thar hills, or you can starve yourself.  And I think we’d do well to tread carefully.

This could look different for everyone, but a good rule of thumb I’ve found is to use social media as a side dish rather than an entree.  I’ve realized when life is already good, I really enjoy scrolling Instagram.  But if I have insecurities in my life – like I’m between jobs or already feeling lonely – social media can run a high risk of handing those issues a megaphone.  Here is my professional unbiased scientific graph on how I’d rank the platforms:

There’s also nothing wrong with making a few rules for ourselves.  For example, one thing I’ve enacted is, before checking my socials and email in the morning (which is when I feel most clearminded and ambitious), I try to work on a personal project first.  I also try to take a Monk Day once a month at least (explained in this podcast).  Finally – and this is horribly nerdy, I know – I give myself Habitica rewards for limiting the amount of times I go on each social media per day.

In the end, I say let’s remain vigilant that social media doesn’t begin to undermine the very reason we’re there in the first place – to accentuate a good life connecting with creative projects and great people.  I’m not sure what the grown-up version of my Lego-Zelda-Animal Crossing game would look like, but by keeping some of these new revelations in mind, one day I hope to find out. 😀


This is a fascinating presentation on how tech companies intentionally steal our time:

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