Social Media is Killing the Expat Experience

Did you see what Donald Trump did today? The U.S. Government is falling apart. This Net Neutrality stuff is so messed up. What do you mean you don’t support the President? That’s un-American. I’ve had to unfriend five people since the election. Can you believe what’s going on in Congress?

I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen some variation of the above on your social media accounts over the last week, or even just this morning. There’s no ignoring that politics and policy discussions have been amplified to an unprecedented level over the last two years, culminating with the 2016 election and becoming the new normal ever since. That increased activity is not restricted to Facebook and Twitter, but has manifested itself in protests and demonstrations across the U.S. and the world. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that the U.S. political situation affects your life.

But what about expats? How much does it affect our lives? From a practical perspective, the U.S. government’s effect on us is mainly limited to taxes, paperwork, insurance, and finances. This varies among us, but the scope of our connections to the government and other U.S. institutions is much smaller. Yet here we are, arguing about a local zoning issue from our hometown – with someone we went to highschool with.

So maybe you haven’t gotten that drawn in. But even thousands of miles away, you’re probably still getting plenty of political articles in your feeds. If you’ve connected with fellow expats on social media, you might be seeing their political posts as well. So here’s a question: How many times have you gotten mad because of something political you saw on social media? What did you say about it? Was it a friend or someone you don’t know?

Now that you’re reliving your last political disagreement, let’s look at it for a second. Did you change the person’s mind? Would it matter? Does the issue directly affect your everyday life? In an ultra-connected, hyper-political world, it seems almost impossible to avoid these kinds of confrontations…to just let it go. The stream of information, of scandals, of vitriol, is constant. That’s why I gave up social media and haven’t looked back.

Facebook’s own statistics show that once a person leaves social media, they have a remarkably low chance of returning. If we spend so much time with Facebook, reading posts, maybe commenting, using it for news, how is it possible that walking away usually turns out to be a permanent decision? Much of it comes down to the weaponization of your attention, the changing of your priorities. Your attention, focused or dead-eyed, is a valuable commodity. Companies like Facebook spend huge quantities nurturing it, studying it, and finally monopolizing it.

If you’re an expat, look around you. Where are you? Colombia? Nicaragua? Belize? China? Europe? Think about the time you’ve spent exploring your new home. It’s probably been very enjoyable, but I guarantee you have more to learn – and you won’t learn it on Facebook. Every minute you spend on social media is a minute you don’t spend with the people around you, walking into town, trying to cook a local recipe. Not only does Facebook serve as an international conduit for inflammatory political news, it’s also a barrier between you and true immersion in your surroundings.

When I was a university student in Mexico back in 2010, I was always excited at the end of classes to go out to a local bar, meet up with friends, just do something is this new, thrilling place. I was honestly shocked by the number of my friends who, during their free time, preferred to sit on campus Skyping with friends and family back home. I would think, “You’re in Mexico (or Colombia, Germany, France, etc)! Not Michigan.” It made so little sense to me. Sure, keeping in touch is important, but every night? Each hour spent talking to people back home was an hour not spent in Mexico. How can you say you really love your new home if you spend so much time looking back to where you came from?

This was before Facebook became what it is now, and the problem has compounded several times over since then. Now it’s not just conversation, though there is that too. It’s reading articles, seeing people’s posts, advertisements, and everything else that comes out of that rabbit hole. Until fairly recently, I too was caught in that trap. My attention monopolized. I don’t feel so bad about it, because someone spent millions, if not billions of dollars to become that good at snaring people’s attention. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to remain complacent once the trap is exposed.

For me, the decision to leave social media came after a night at my wife’s family’s house. We go there pretty often with the kids. My wife told me I should hang out with her cousins, that we’d get along. When I told her I’d just spent hours with her cousins, she said, “No, you just spent hours on your phone arguing about who-knows-what. Why do you waste your time like that?” For some reason, it just hit me then how much time I was truly wasting. Why would I have ever thought my posts would change the political landscape? Sure, I got plenty of likes, good comments, maybe a couple of shares. But none of that matters. They’re sort of like earning Accomplishments in video games. They’re specifically designed to give you that rush of satisfaction, convincing you that you did something meaningful, so that you’ll keep playing.

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But how do likes on a social media post compare to real-life experiences? Particularly, how do they compare to the totally new and unique experiences you can have living in a new country? Quite simply, they don’t. Again, Facebook’s own research shows that people who spend a lot of time scrolling their News Feed become less happy. Yet research shows that people who travel tend to be happier than those who don’t. So the crux of all this, the central question is: Are you really living abroad if you spend a lot of time on social media? Arguably, social media will give you the same experience no matter where you are. It doesn’t matter. It’s sort of like McDonald’s. Sure, there are slight differences from country to country, but it’s the same food. The same ingredients, same business practices, same “comfort” that has been relentlessly refined and engineered to make you feel at home.

But if you’re an expat, that shouldn’t be home anymore. For me, in Nicaragua, comfort food is cheese curd with tortilla, bean soup, grilled pork, grass-fed beef. That’s where the experience is. The less time I spend with Nicaraguan people doing Nicaraguan things, the less it matters where I am. For those of us who have moved abroad, it’s obvious we decided that it matters very much where we are. We wouldn’t have made the effort to move abroad otherwise, right? So why would we then tie ourselves so tightly to life back home? Why should I care if Pittsburgh is a sanctuary city or if it isn’t? The more things like that I let go, the more new things I can take in while I’m here in Nicaragua.Consumer Resource Guide

What I see on social media has very little effect on what I see in my daily life here. For most expats, I imagine that’s true as well. I have come to the realization that the more time I spend on social media, the less I am an expat in many senses. For instance, I help my wife manage a small hotel here in Nicaragua and was blocked on Facebook awhile ago by a fellow American expat who manages a hotel here. Why? Because of a political disagreement. Now, doesn’t it seem like two Americans living in Nicaragua, who both work in the tourism industry and write about it, should have a lot of things in common? That we could probably share some good experiences? I think so. Yet here we are, thousands of miles away, being separated by political opinions that have zero bearing on our life abroad.

So please, for yourself as an expat, pick up your phone and delete the Facebook app. Make it so you have to enter the password manually to log in on your browser. If you do get on Facebook, check the time. There are apps that measure or limit the time you spend on social media. Download one. As you see the hours pile up, imagine what you could be doing with that time. I live about half an hour from the beach here, so if I spend two hours on Facebook in a day, those two hours could have been spent driving to the beach, eating lunch, taking a swim, and driving back. Wow, does that sound better than listening to what Omarosa has to say. If you’re going to let something monopolize your valuable attention, let it be the exciting new country you now call home. So, did you see what Trump said this morning? I know I didn’t.

Joe Duchene

Joe Duchene A writer and marketing consultant, Joseph Duchene currently lives and works in Nicaragua. The road that led him there included stints as a political operative, credit specialist, and blogger. After being trained by Google as part of a partnership program, Joseph has begun offering seminars and consulting to small businesses that want to improve their online marketing efforts. His main areas of interest are politics, technology, and development, giving him a unique perspective on his new home in Central America. Joseph can be contacted by email at mercadeo.joe@gmail.com with consulting inquiries, questions, or just to chat about Nicaragua.

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