The Inherent Burnout of Social Media Activism

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CW: This post will include mentions of mass violence and shootings.

Last week, following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, I found myself a bit overwhelmed and desperately needing a break from the endless cycle of grief on Instagram and the news. This wasn’t a new occurrence: following last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I worked myself into a panic after constantly refreshing news articles once I heard about the shooting.

Since the Parkland shooting, following my sadness, tears, and subsequent anger, I tried to become as involved as I could be in local student activism by working with March for Our Lives Georgia and organizing a walkout with over 400 students at my high school. This resulted in, along with work that actually made me feel like I was contributing to the fight towards more gun control laws, many new activist friends on Instagram who, like me, occasionally shared information or calls to action on their stories or feed. After the two most recent devastating shootings, everything being shared became too much; a never-ending cycle of memorial posts and vigil events and scathing tweets and pleas from students for this to all end.

There is something inherently exhausting about sharing on social media. Whenever I share things on my story, it is with hope that someone will see it and interact with it, that they will take something away from it even if I don’t know. But it’s a bit like yelling into the void: half the time, you’re not even sure if the void will yell back or even hear you. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that sharing things is a part of our activism, leaving myself and many friends feeling drained and exhausted at the fact that nothing is happening, even though, in reality, we’ve done very little.

(This isn’t to completely discourage sharing things on social media- the campaign a few months ago of Blue for Sudan was an effective and contagious campaign of education. But the problem lies within mistaking education and raising awareness with making a concrete difference itself, and trying to use social media as a platform where all you try to do is raise awareness, constantly.)

I realized I needed to take a break Monday afternoon, after I’d been compulsively checking Instagram all day to see what else my friends had shared and what else could make me feel like I was doing something. I wasn’t consciously stressed, but I did realized that the compulsiveness of it was inherently damaging: an endless feedback loop of my own thoughts to no reaction. It wasn’t even that we weren’t talking to each other, planning vigils and town halls: we were doing that, and that was making us feel like it was making a difference, but we nonetheless kept yelling into the void as if that was going to help. I convinced my best friend, who’s even more active than I am, to join me, and it honestly helped so much. (I’m sure any adults over 30 following me are scoffing at the simple idea of taking a break from social media, and how these dang youth can’t detach themselves from their phones, but it’s a bit different when you’re a teenager and literally everyone and everything you know is held in the palm of your hand, and you’re using social media to actively communicate with other people. Taking a break requires contacting dozens of people whose numbers you don’t have to tell them you won’t be reachable. Also, that’s a bit self-righteous.) It also made me realize that I much more enjoy treating Instagram like Tumblr, and having post notifications on for, like, my friends and five other accounts I care about, and then just going on it when I actually want to rather than having to see everything every day. It’s so much more refreshing, especially since Instagram is my one main social media.

I think, as a whole, we’ll probably reach that point where we realize that social media is an inherently damaging platform for constant activism, and while there are always useful aspects, the historic staple of grassroots activism is so much more effective and meaningful. I’m not sure when that will be and, of course, there are so many more people discussing this already and more eloquently than I can. In the meantime? Try to avoid the burnout of yelling into the void. Keep your social medias personal and private. Don’t let the heartbreak overwhelm you in the endless cycle of sharing. Talk with friends about organizing something, however small, in your community.

how involved are y’all in activism, online or otherwise? what do you think about social media burnout and “yelling into the void”?

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