Leïla Slimani On Leaving Social Media
British Vogue, 2020
The acclaimed novelist shares how cutting ties with her social media accounts offered a new lease of life.
In her 1931 speech satirising the idea of the perfect wife defined by Victorian poet Coventry Patmore — pure, self-sacrificing, tirelessly charming while in constant service to others — Virginia Woolf slays Patmore’s The Angel in the House heroine. Feeling tormented and cornered by the patriarchy disguised as domestic bliss, Woolf acted out of self-preservation. Had she not liberated herself from such repression, she said, it’s the “angel” that would’ve ultimately killed her first, and as a writer, this was her duty.
“I think I did exactly the same thing, and I don’t only want to kill the ‘angel’ in the house, I want to kill the ‘angel’ on Instagram,” says French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani of her recent decision to terminate her social media accounts. “I want to kill the nice Leïla who is on Instagram and who is too afraid of not being liked. I think I have to kill her if I want to be a good person, a good citizen, and a good writer.”
To speak of murder in these circumstances might seem extreme, but the reality of the situation is just that. Social media networks like Facebook and Instagram aren’t just bottling up hefty chunks of our attention, they’re tampering with how people think, feel, and engage with one another. We have seen how this control can give way to mass manipulation. Take, for example, Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 presidential election, racist vitriol (something The Duchess of Sussex describes as “almost unsurvivable”), and psychological distress, considering the suicide rate among British teenagers has almost doubled in the last eight years. Yet we continue to accept it all in the name of likes. The situation is extreme, and it is, at times, a question of life or death. So severe action is required — especially for women.
Slimani is widely celebrated for her award-winning literary prowess in novels like Lullaby (known in French as Chanson Douce) and Adèle. She explains that in order to continue an authentic pursuit of this craft, she had to untangle her work from the addiction to external validation upon which social media companies capitalise. Just like Woolf, Slimani recognised that her purpose as a writer was under siege due to some peripheral, oppressive force in her life. The enemy here might’ve been an algorithm rather than an angel, but the threat to Slimani’s autonomy was just as grave. To protect herself and her ambition from the keyboard warriors and the powerful strangers on the other side of her screen, Slimani pulled the plug on her Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“As women, we are taught our whole lives to be nice, to be likeable, and to do things that people will appreciate,” she says. “But I became a free woman the day I decided that I don’t care that people might disagree with me and that sometimes I’m not a good woman, sometimes I’m not a good mother, sometimes I’m selfish, and sometimes I have ideas that are not the ideas of the majority.”
It is no coincidence that Slimani’s exit from social media happened in the wake of tragedy in France, where she now resides. In the days leading up to the gruesome death of history teacher Samuel Paty, it is believed that social media networks may have helped to motivate and enable Paty’s 18-year-old killer, who then claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter before being shot by police. He even managed to post a photo of his victim’s severed head, seen by some of the teacher’s pupils, before the account was suspended. As is often the case with the unfurling of news in the vacuum of the virtual world, the horrific incident was met with an urgent tumble of hashtags, quotes, and fleeting outrage. But being an upstanding civilian takes much more than that, Slimani asserts, and posting a sweet poem before simply moving on is not enough in response to the misinformation and hate speech running rampant across platforms she believes are inadequately monitored.
“As a feminist and a fighter for sexual rights in Morocco, social media helped me to fight for my ideas and to meet women all over the world and in my own country who decided to fight with me. I made a lot of friends as well, so I know that there are positive ways to use it and that it can even make revolutions possible,” she says earnestly, referencing the #MeToo movement as an example of the transformative change that can happen when civil society mobilises online. Her non-fiction book of essays Sex and Lies also explores the crucial role of social media in giving Moroccan women a platform to confront the topics they’ve been raised to avoid – including morality, sexual freedom, and abortion.
Despite the potential for good, Slimani believes these channels of communication as they currently exist are just too dangerous. As much as social media functions like a megaphone for malice, it also begets an attitude of complacency among its users. In a statement published on her personal Instagram account before it was deactivated, Slimani made it clear that her intention for leaving was political, writing: “I no longer want to endorse networks where hatred spreads without filter, where no surveillance exists, where it is the reign of impunity and demagoguery. And where their founders, in the offices in Silicon Valley, have no accountability.” She went on to condemn the banalisation of violence in the cyber realm, where bigots and fanatics manage to twist the concept of free speech to their advantage as the rest of us look on and do nothing. Slimani paired her message, rather politely, with an image of Jean d’Ormesson’s book Au Revoir et Merci, which translates to “Thank you, and goodbye.”
“I wanted to say thank you because I have had beautiful experiences on social media, so I didn’t want to leave in too negative of a way,” Slimani says to me. “But the truth is if I was in the street and seeing a person being insulted and beaten by someone, would I just cross the street and go away? That’s what I don’t like [about social media]. We accept the idea that people can hate and say very vile and violent things. ”
Sadly, Slimani is no stranger to the harassment, racism, and threats of rape and death that come with being a public figure on the internet these days. She deleted her Twitter account years ago after a sleepless night spent drenched in sweat, fearing for her life over comments she’d made about Ramadan. Speaking out on social media is a particularly precarious endeavour for women of colour who are often expected to remain loyal to marginalised communities, regardless of how they feel about what’s happening within them. As a writer, it’s Slimani’s job to think critically about the country, religion, and society to which she belongs, but voicing any sort of unfavourable opinion to that end is seen as a betrayal (“They hate you for that,” she says), and an invitation for acrimony — as if withstanding the discrimination and abuse of merely existing online as a non-white woman isn’t hard enough already. Even Slimani’s well-deserved win of France’s famed literary award, the Prix Goncourt, was not immune to Twitter’s relentless bitterness. “I had a lot of insults on Twitter of people saying ‘Oh, what a shame that it’s an Arab who’s winning the most prestigious French prize,’ and ‘She’s not even going to drink a glass of wine [to celebrate] tonight because she’s a Muslim.’ That kind of crap,” the author recalls.
As we talk on the phone, Slimani is with her two children in the countryside where she’s enjoying exposing them to real social experiences. Revered for an unabashed depiction of motherhood in her writing, Slimani’s own approach to raising her children is similarly honest. “I won’t lie to them and tell them that being a free person is easy and nice and beautiful all the time, because that’s not true. Being free is something difficult, and you have to be able to lose things, to be misunderstood, and to be alone,” she reveals to me, adding, “but better alone than with bad people.”
With this emphasis on individuality, Slimani touches on one of social media’s most nefarious consequences: the dismantling of our democratic systems at the hands of Big Tech. In Jaron Lanier’s book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — a poignant manifesto considering the author himself is the inventor of virtual reality — he details the financial incentive these firms have in grouping like-minded individuals together. As engagement spirals out of control with rapt commenters rallying around each biased post and heartfelt diatribe, advertising revenue soars at an equal pace. Meanwhile, internauts are becoming blind to the existence of opposing perspectives, allowing for intolerance and tribalism to thrive. Lanier cautions against this pack mentality fuelled by the business models of companies such as Facebook, especially as it pertains to the health of democracy. “It might sound like a contradiction at first, but it isn’t,” Lanier writes. “Collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals.”
Right after my conversation with Slimani, high-profile executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were assembled in front of the United States Senate’s Commerce Committee to answer questions about their content moderation policies, antitrust risks, and voting interference. As the current state of the US election confirms, the relationship between social media use and politics cannot be ignored. “What we are seeing today is algorithms that are working to put you with people who think the same as you, but a real democracy should be the exact opposite,” Slimani points out.
Slimani is not the first author to (quite literally) take a page out of Lanier’s book and opt for life off social media, and she won’t be the last. Zadie Smith has famously avoided Twitter and Instagram, and writers including Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton have addressed the impact of these platforms on their mental health on their popular podcast, The High Low. In a recent episode, Sykes spoke of a panel she participated in at the Cheltenham Literary Festival alongside fellow writer Otegha Uwagba. When asked what they’d change about social media today, Sykes suggested the removal of “all the sexy features that make it so addictive,” while Uwagba advocated for the erasure of social media entirely. For Slimani, the answer lies in accountability and reform — if only people understood the cumulative power they have in demanding it.
I ask Slimani whether she is sacrificing professional perks such as the option to promote her work and connect with her audience on a personal level, but she doesn’t seem concerned. “I think people want to think like that. They want to think that it’s an obligation to be on social media, and I’m not sure that’s true. But if it is true, that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to change certain things about it,” she responds. “I am more a product myself on social media than I am a woman who’s able to do marketing for her books.”
So far, Slimani is doing just fine after killing her accounts along with the person she feared she was becoming on them. She’s got more time to dedicate to cooking, reading books, building Legos with her children, and other simple pleasures that are exclusive to the real world. When applauded for her bravery by the friends and colleagues who’ve reached out since Slimani quit, she can’t help but laugh. “Why do they use the word ‘brave’ for leaving social media? It’s nothing, you just click on two buttons and that’s it!”
As the saying goes, if it was easy, anyone could do it. Still, for those of us who comply with the label of “follower” on Instagram, perhaps it’s about time we consider taking Slimani’s lead.