When I was younger, I would stare at walls.
An empty white wall was non-distracting. It was a blank canvas, perfectly suited to play out whatever hair-brained idea or imaginative world I was concocting. I could sit there for 15 minutes, sometimes hours, flitting about in my own head. When I wasn’t staring into nothing, creating worlds in my head or contemplating what an eternity might actually be like, I was reading, or playing with legos, or composing music on any of the instruments I had decided to learn.
All in all, I had a pretty interesting life, in that I was able to create my own interest where I found it lacking.
And then I got Facebook.
Okay, it was more than that. It was satellite TV, it was the internet, it was a video game console.
Social media, however, may have the majority of the blame for the eventual obliteration of my childhood pastimes.
Technology has always been a double edge sword, and social media is just the most recent way I’ve cut myself. Before I tell you why I stopped playing with the sharp edges, however, I should tell you how something that I now find so clearly detrimental to my life became so pervasive in my daily routine.
Facebook was my first foray into the digital social scene way back in 2007. It seemed that suddenly everyone was connecting online in a new, intriguing way. And I wanted in.
Maybe it was the fact that offline, I was out of the loop. IRL, I had no L. My existence was mundane to anyone but me, and believe it or not I wasn’t in any popular circles in school. I had few friends, did not know the latest gossip or the most interesting stories, and it seemed that most of the world was perfectly fine with my personal status quo.
But I wanted more. I wanted to be recognized for an amazing skill or talent, or otherwise held in high esteem by my peers. I wanted to be invited into conversations in the hall instead of awkwardly standing outside a circle of students, pretending to be a part of a group that barely noticed I was there. I wanted to walk down the hall and feel known and wanted instead of ignored or simply tolerated.
Enter Facebook, where it didn’t really matter who you were, people wanted to be your friend. Deep down, I knew it was a numbers game (“I have 500 friends.” “I have a thousand.”) but I didn’t care because suddenly I was connecting with people. I had a window into my fellow high schooler’s lives. I didn’t really care what someone was eating, but I cared about knowing what they were eating. I felt like I knew them, and, because humans are incredibly good at projecting (or is that just me?), I felt known in return. Even just the illusion that people were paying attention to me had me hooked.
I started collecting friends like a November fridge collects holiday cards. 100. 300. 500. People I didn’t even like were my friends. Strangers who I maybe could have known were my friends (“Do you know…” “Probably!” *Click*). Soon, the thing I had once craved I now had in excess. My drug of choice was connection, and I leaned in to the addiction. If a good thing is good, more of a good thing is better. Of course, it wasn’t real connection, but it was real enough to me, in that moment, in that place. And so I survived high school, and entered college, an addict jonesing for a fix.
When you wrap your value up in the level of reaction people have to your latest on-the-fly half-thought, Over-thinking and his cousin Insecurity take up residence in your mind. After all, here it was: my chance to re-make myself. There’s a song by Brad Paisley (one of the few country artists I actually enjoy) with the chorus “I’m so much cooler online”, and this was my anthem. College was my chance to download my digital self into the real world. It’s human nature to protect our image, and only show the best parts of ourselves (and, I might add, the “best parts” are nearly always defined by what we are told or what we believe to be “best” as perceived by others). Facebook and other social medium platforms are a highlight reel of humanity’s ego, but try convincing your self-worth of that fact. I set out to mold myself into the person I played on the internet - after all, people “Liked” that version of me. Of course, this idea to remake myself was absurd, impossible, and extremely harmful.
Take a fat kid from the country with only a few good friends and a history of not being valued by his peers, and throw him into a brand new setting without any familiar faces. Now give him the mission to re-create himself in the mold of a fake persona he created in order to fulfill the perceived requirements of the world around him.
Again, that’s spelled a-n-x-i-e-t-y.
My first year of college was tumultuous. I was on my own, exploring what it means to be an autonomous adult. I was in the second year of a relationship with my now wife, dating while living in the same city for the first time in our relationship. She had a chance to figure her shit out a year previous, and I was just starting on mine. She seemed to know her place in the world, and I was still trying to carve out my own. I was looking for new friends, and desperately trying to keep the ones I had already. I was trying to do well in classes, and also learn, which is not always the same thing. And I was working to ensure that nobody knew just how screwed up I was just below my skin.
It worked out alright. I got married to a supportive, loving wife. I found a circle of people who love me for who I am, who value me based on my worth as a person rather than my ability to perform or wear a particular skin. And I’m untangling 25 years of damaged psyche, because now I have the space and support system to do so and a therapist to show me which threads to pull. And I woke up one morning and realized “you know what, I think social media is killing me.”
I had been increasingly unhappy with Facebook in recent years. For one, they tailor their algorithm to put reaction-worthy content in front of you (read: what makes you angry/frustrated/sad?; what makes you likely to type up a six paragraph vitriolic response and spend more time with your eyes on the site feeding you adds based on your browsing history?). They literally engineer an addiction to their platform. Also, they don’t exist for you, the consumer - they may pretend to offer you a service but really they’re offering you as a service to advertisers. They turn your life into a commodity, and they don’t have any respect for your personal data.
The crux of it all, though, is the simple fact that Facebook offered me nothing of value. In fact, it generally increased my misery. I couldn’t stop my thumb from sliding along the screen, and the content just kept coming forever, constantly refreshing, but nothing I would see was life-enriching. I watched videos and read posts that did nothing but spark anger, and I would react by starting arguments that never actually came to a conclusion. I would debate for hours, bookending my days with political arguments and demeaning memes, internet trolls and the spread of infuriating lies about every subject imaginable. As a sidetone: just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s right, truth still matters, and facts should be supported by data or their not facts, they’re opinions. And opinions are assholes - everyone has them, and they produce nothing but noxious fumes and dung. Anyway, I digress. All of this led me to consider giving up Facebook entirely.
So one day I did.
I decided to stay logged out for 7 days to see how it affected me. I had already removed the app from my phone many months prior, and it drastically reduced my time on the site, which cut down the influence it had on me. I felt that my quality of life had increased considerably since, so going cold turkey would probably be more of the same, right? Of course, the minute I decided to avoid Facebook I reached for Twitter and Instagram to fill the void. Finding this unhelpful, my Facebook Fast promptly became a Social Media Fast.
It didn’t take long for me to experience a form of withdrawal. I have occasionally quit caffeine cold turkey on numerous occasions, and every time I end up with headaches. When I cut carbohydrates and refined sugar from my diet, I had what seemed like insatiable cravings, a foggy brain, and persistent headaches. When I cut the Infinite Scroll™ from my life, I had a similar experience, albeit less physiological. In times of boredom or awkwardness, my hand would reach for my phone. When I was trying to procrastinate (which is generally every 10 minutes or so for me), I would find myself opening a new browser tab every intent on navigating to Facebook or Reddit only to close it immediately.
After a few days, it became easier. Considerably easier. The less I had it, the less I wanted it. I didn’t miss social media at all.
And then a week after that I wanted nothing more than to sit on my phone all day and scroll through every feed, like every post, and start fights under every article. I would find myself staring at my phone, unsure of how it got in my hand or what I was supposed to do with it.
A week after that I stopped missing it again. That feeling has mostly stuck. My week long Facebook Fast morphed into a 55 day avoidance of all social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit being my other platforms of choice). I survived it. In fact, I’ve thrived.
I stayed connected to the people most important to me through face-to-face contact, messaging services, and phone calls. I renewed my love for RSS feeds and tailored my ingestion of news and information to the things I actually care about from the people/companies/writers I actually want to hear from. I set up Google alerts for topics I care about (most recently the social unrest and government oppression in Nicaragua, a country I fell in love with 6 years ago). I tune in to NPR occasionally to fill in the holes.
I’ve managed to stay connected to most of the important things even while disconnecting from social media, and I’m struggling with the idea of ever going back. Perhaps life would be simpler if I just cut ties completely.
The challenge now is to determine what life looks like moving forward. Of all the sites I cut out, I miss Twitter the most. I feel too disconnected from news and pop culture without it. I also miss the connection to helpful people and services that it provided for me. I’ll go back, because it’s actually a useful tool in my life. The same goes for Reddit, now that I’ve been able to reset my procrastination threshold. The real trick is going to be using these tools without falling back into the trap of letting them control my time and my emotion. But here I am prattling on without actually telling you how my life has improved. I mentioned that I thrived without social media, but what does that look like?
I’m more productive.
Even in the little moments, I'm getting more done. Of course, productivity is not the only thing that matters in life. We like to pursue it like it’s the end goal, but it’s not. Productivity is a tool to move you toward the end goal. For me that end goal is enjoying my life and the people in it. When I get sucked into the Infinite Scroll™, staring at nothing but unable to actually break myself away from the screen, it tends to create a problem with getting tasks done. Mix that with the fact that I’m a rampant procrastinator and you can see how simple things like dishes, laundry, and other household things go by the wayside pretty quickly. Every one of my commitments, relationships, personal goals, or hobbies would get ignored because I wanted to win an endless argument or craft the perfect post to gain the affection pseudo-friends, or put an end to thousand year old debates or decades old policy arguments.
I would look up to find myself with three days of important and urgent tasks that needed to be completed in a single day after work and before sleep.
When our friends invited us out for drinks I’d have to decline so I could stay home and finish work. Or worse, I accepted the invite and spent the entire eventing feeling anxious about the tasks that weren’t being completed. I would watch the minutes tick by, lost forever to the deep dark hole of The Past where they would forever reside, unable to be useful but always ready to taunt and shame.
When my wife wanted to spend time together, I “compromised” by watching a movie with her while writing a blog post for a client, which makes for an unhappy wife and a garbage blog post. Our quality time together also found its way to the unusable pit of The Past.
Since quitting social media cold turkey, the dishes have been done on time more frequently, the laundry has been washed, dried, and folded more often than not, and I have executed writing jobs within set deadlines, delivering quality work on time. I used to scroll Twitter, now I blow through my Spanish Duolingo lessons. In the past month I’ve surpassed two years of work in that app, and have a better handle on the Spanish language than I thought I could. I’m not fluent, not even conversationally, but I’m getting there. And it’s accomplishing another goal of mine (become poly-lingual), or at least getting me a significant way down the path.
I’ve read more books. I furthered my education in web development. I have worked more at work.
The void that social media left in my day has been replaced with a thing called “getting things done”, and I don’t have a desire to see that change anytime soon.
I seem to have an easier time creating my own happiness when I’m not tuned into every human’s feelings about every single terrible thing going on every minute of every day. You see, the world is pretty ugly in a lot of ways, but it’s not all trash all the time. However, I tend to think it is because I have a funnel that takes all the worst parts from everywhere and puts them right in front of me in real time. And it’s not even just bad things - there’s just to much information available these days. I’m not equipped to process the sheer amount of noise that comes through my various social media platforms.
Here are some things that disappeared from my life when social media did, or at least were greatly reduced:
Flashes of anger every ten minutes at something dumb a celebrity or politician said.
An ever-growing sadness that the world has lost it’s humanity for good.
A constant undercurrent of rage.
Some of my greatest afflictions have been greatly reduced by cutting out social media. Why? Because Facebook isn’t constantly showing me things that cause me to “react” anymore. Because Twitter isn’t letting me read the ill-formed opinions of hundreds of people collected into a single thread via hashtag. Because instagram isn’t showing me how much more fun everyone is having, or how much better they look. I’m learning what it means to be free from information overload, judgement, comparison, and anger.
And since I have more time for the things I need to do, I have more time for the things I enjoy. So there’s also just more opportunity for happiness to be experienced. I’ve traded reading Facebook posts for reading books again. Instead of writing Tweets, I’m writing fiction, and blog posts, and poetry. Instead of watching life through someone’s highlight reel, I’m starting to live mine again. I’m actively participating in life instead of passively experiencing it.
It’s actually one of my goals this year: I want to be bored more.
Boredom is the gateway that leads to breakthroughs.
Boredom breeds creativity. Boredom creates, and repairs, and sustains.
A bored mind is incredible, because a brain does not like to be bored and so it actively seeks to escape the boredom. Weeks ago, I opened my phone and scrolled through Twitter to escape boredom. In an attempt to avoid a thirty second or 5 minute lull, I would enter the Infinite Scroll™. And then of course I would scroll for much longer than that, utterly distracted from the original task at hand. Or I’d get stuck in a pointless argument or exchange. Instead of a serene, fertile ground in which to cultivate creativity, my mind was overrun with noxious weeds. Thoughts were nearly bursting out of my head, but had no space to form, and stretch, and grow.
When I was a child staring at walls, I was creating stories and worlds and ideas. I was making connections throughout my day, between what I read and what I lived. I was coming up with the next LEGO spaceship design and then building it. Boredom has birthed the best writing ideas I’ve ever had, the ones that I get excited about and seem to come from somewhere not quite “me.” They come to me when I’m driving down the highway in silence or walking around the block without headphones or companions. The most genius resolutions for problems in my life have come from the same place. It’s almost like your brain is saying “well, I have to be on, and if you’re not going to give me stuff to consume I guess I have to make it, and oh, I also found the solution to that software bug you were mulling over in your mind, and I fixed the 17 plot holes in the novel you’ve been avoiding for the past 11 months, and you should probably do that thing your wife asked you to do a day ago…you know, the thing I filed away in the archives so we could pay attention to that stranger’s Facebook comments more closely.”
I’m happy to be bored again. It’s given me more ideas for writing in the past month than I had all last year, and the year before that. While I constantly find myself fighting a scarcity mindset (What if I’ve said everything I have to say? What if I only have a few good stories in me, and I’ve told them? What if the words run dry forever?), I’ve now found the antidote and it is not doing it better or trying harder it is simply letting myself be slightly uncomfortable through awkward encounters or boredom in the checkout line. I’m actually seeing the world instead of being slightly aware of it through my peripheral vision as I stare at a smart phone. You can’t write about life if you’re not actually seeing what’s happening in yours.
Remove the shackles of social media, and you’ll find you’re more efficient, thoughtful, mindful, and creative than you ever thought you could be.
Social Media is stealing your time from you, and that’s honestly the only real thing of value you have control over, because it affects your relationships, your passions, and your overall enjoyment of life. We get a finite number of minutes in a day, and we get to choose how that time is spent. When we choose to waste time scrolling and “socializing” online (hint: it’s not actually social) it impacts our ability to spend quality time with the people we love doing the things we enjoy.
I have realized how invasive Facebook and Twitter have been in my daily life, and how much they have controlled to my emotional state. They have infiltrated every aspect of my life.
Social Media hasn’t necessarily created a rift in my relationships first hand, but to say it hasn’t had its grubby hands all over them is a lie. Instead of connecting me more deeply, it has stunted my closest relationships and traded it all in for superficial, overwhelming knowledge of a thousand strangers.
It has stolen joy from my life.
It has increased my negative self-talk and anxiety.
It has exacerbated my sensitivity to perceived judgement, and enabled me to declare my own judgement on others.
It has negatively impacted my creativity.
So, I’ve decided to drastically reduce my time spent on Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram, and I’m going to avoid Facebook like the plague. It’s going to leave a void in my life, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to fill that void with good, productive, happy things; things that contribute to my joy, and enrich my life.
I’ve established that for me, most social media does not.