We Used to Live Like This

Reflections on social media, politics, and discourse from a news junkie that (temporarily) logged off

I am, you might say, Online. By that I mean two things:

1) I check social media many times a day, including shortly after I wake up, and sometimes right before sleep. It has taken up residence in my mind, affecting the way I write and think.

2) I am aware of, interested by, and a participant in internet culture. I care about the discourse. I have seen many “distracted boyfriend” memes — even made a few — and if you scoff at that normie-ish example, consider that a majority of the U.S. population doesn’t know what it is, especially not without seeing it.

I am a person of the internet. Far from the most Online — there’s a long tail — but enough.

Two weeks ago, I logged off. Not completely off the grid — still checking email and sports scores, still streaming TV — but I shut off notifications, and haven’t opened Twitter or Facebook at all, not even to see if anyone messaged me (sorry to anyone who has and is waiting for an answer). When’s the last time you went a day without checking your favorite social media site, let alone two weeks?

I’m a news junkie — my main corner of the internet is political Twitter — but I’ve studiously avoided it, which is my longest break ever. For me, The New York Times and breakfast have gone together since middle school.

It’s weird. I feel cut off, both more isolated and more relaxed. Things have happened in the world, things I’d usually care about, but I don’t know about them, and haven’t reacted. I’m less actively worried about societal forces beyond my control, which is less stressful, but I don’t think I’m wrong to worry about, for example, anti-democracy efforts at home and abroad. Maybe public expressions of concern contribute, in their small way, to shifting public sentiment, which leads to change.

Or maybe not. Maybe social media is expression for the sake of expression, or vanity, or a way to process thoughts. Maybe posting has no impact on the world beyond the ephemeral reactions of those who see it and learn something, laugh, get angry, or just feel less alone.

Most people don’t engage with the news every day. Some don’t follow it at all. And before the mid-2000s, no one walked around with the internet in their pocket, bombarding their brains with a churning stream of commentary from friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, people you knew in high school, people you admire, and people you very much do not.

I’m Out

I hadn’t planned on logging off, but I was really tired one morning and didn’t feel like checking, and then figured it had been so long since I skipped more than a day that I should keep it going.

Part was pandemic-related burnout. Part was tiredness (my kids are 5 and 2, and the younger one energetically walks into my room at 5:20 almost every morning). A bit, I think, was Mare of Easttown, which got me thinking about my children and my parents, and what really matters (I’ve never experienced tragedy like that, thank God, but as Aristotle said, the purpose of drama is to give the audience an approximation of the feelings without having to go through the experience). And part was the discourse itself.

Two topics had gotten especially unproductive, even for Twitter: 

1. The COVID “lab leak theory,” which seemingly flipped from definitely no to probably yes despite no significant change in available evidence, with conversations devolving into context-lacking criticism about who was too dismissive of speculation last year.

2. The January 6 Capitol attack, which a large majority of Americans recognized as crossing democracy’s biggest red line, before lying about, defending, or at least downplaying it — and the lies about the 2020 election that drove it — became a litmus test for the Republican Party.

I didn’t check the news before publishing this, so these comments might be dated. I’d guess some details have changed, but the underlying forces haven’t, such that it looks like the same never-ending fight to people who don’t closely follow politics.

That oxymoronic combination of constant churn and stubborn stasis describes a lot of the online experience.

The Difference

Days 2 and 3 took some effort, but after that it got easier, though I still thought about it and had to resist the impulse a few times. Which sounds like breaking an addiction.

It was most apparent in the moments when I’d pull out my phone for a quick check — in the bathroom, after a meeting, etc. — or while waiting for something. Sort of like how former smokers miss the routine as much as the nicotine.

Standing in line at the supermarket, sitting in a doctor’s office — these things are boring. Human beings used to wait, and be bored. Now we pull out our pocket computers.

Maybe “bored” is the wrong word, since scrolling through social media can be boring too, especially if you’ve done it a lot and algorithms are feeding you things you’ve already seen. “Under-stimulated” might fit better. But “under” isn’t quite right either, because it implies you’re not getting enough. Either way, it’s less.

We’ve probably lost something by shrinking these low stimulus moments, when our minds would wander or we’d observe our surroundings. Doctors’ offices had magazines, supermarket checkout lines have tabloid covers, but that’s not the same as an endless, constantly updating scroll, curated by and for you.

While logged off, I’ve had more moments of boredom — an hour watching my five-year-old at the park when he doesn’t want or need active supervision goes by slower — but I haven’t been more creative or profound or anything like that. Maybe that’s just me, or maybe it needed more time. Or maybe social media isn’t better/worse, just different, and worries about overstimulation and lack of boredom are a 21st century version of worries about rock & roll, hip hop, and video games. A lot of human development comes from dialogue, not isolation.

But while it may not be better, it’s definitely slower. When you follow the news closely, and especially when you discuss it online, it feels like everything is happening to you. Not just you, of course, but still it feels personal, prompting thoughts and emotional reactions, like how fans feel they lost when their team loses. Logging off turned it from something I’m dealing with to not my problem.

I dismantled the gazebo in our backyard (came with the house, we never used it, took up too much space). I listened to albums I hadn’t played in a while (when did I subscribe to all these podcasts?) I read fiction for the first time in ages (Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennet, which I liked a lot, and recommend to anyone who likes fantasy or sci-fi). I’ve followed the NBA playoffs more closely (my favorite sports event, even if the Knicks first appearance in 8 years was a flop).

I’ve been more present with my family, not distracted by something I just read, or composing a tweet in my head.

Finding yourself with more time after quitting is another thing that sounds like addiction. Then again, that’d be true of any hobby. The line between activity and addiction is blurry, and while I do feel a degree of compulsion with Twitter, I don’t exhibit signs of a problem. My internet habit hasn’t caused me to mess up at my job, lie about what I’m doing, or anything like that. Maybe it’s different for others.

Interestingly, I don’t miss the part that’s supposed to be — was designed to be — addictive: likes, shares, and other positive feedback that releases bits of dopamine. Don’t get me wrong, when my articles or tweets are well received, that feels good. But the only time I mind the absence is when something I post gets little attention. Logged off, I don’t find myself craving those dopamine hits. Maybe that’s specific to me, or a sign that I have enough good things in my life that I don’t need it. Or maybe it says something more general about the addictive element of social media. I don’t know.

I don’t miss the culture war BS, and the amplification of individual minutiae to levels of civilizational importance. I don’t miss the trolling, language manipulation, and bad faith. I don’t miss seeing people lie, including to themselves, in the name of partisanship, nor seeing uninsightful, boorish, insipid, asinine articles and tweets do well (wait, people actually like this?)

But I do miss being well informed, and sometimes ahead of mainstream news in a way you can get only from Twitter and a few other places (e.g. Reddit). I miss exposure to a wide variety of perspectives, to thoughts that didn’t occur to me — some quite insightful or clever — and positions with which I disagree. I miss processing the world with people who like talking about current events as much as I do.

And I miss writing. Sort of. Like many writers, I often don’t like writing, except in the rare times it’s really flowing, but almost always like having written, crafting something and putting it out into the world (though I’m sure the quality varies).

If I haven’t published anything in a while, I get an itch, one that goes away only after a piece goes up. That also sounds like addiction, but the (mostly) positive kind, one that often gets called “drive.” I feel more negatively about myself if I haven’t accomplished anything in a while, which could be taken too far, but is probably better than the alternative.

Taking down the gazebo scratched that itch — I accomplished something this week! — but tweeting doesn’t. It’s ephemeral, more like a conversation than an article; as close to impermanent as something saved and searchable can be.

And it’s work. At least for me. (I’m not sure about people who read but never write, or who toss up any thought that pops into their head). I usually think and edit before posting to get the wording right, avoid giving anyone the wrong impression, preempt unwarranted criticism, and get under the character limit. Not everything I post is good, but it’s better than the version I didn’t post.

It feels like work, but not accomplishment. If I spend a lot of time on Twitter, I end the day feeling neither productive nor relaxed.

But it’s been good for my career. More people engage with my ideas because of Twitter. Arc Digital gets a lot of its traffic from Twitter. I’ve done more media appearances because people found me on Twitter. Some writers I’ve admired for years now know who I am.

Logging off has been good for my mental health, but I’m going to log back on. For one, I wrote this and want to share it. But I’m also diving back into the news, even though it’ll sometimes stress me out, because concerning things are happening, and ignorance-is-bliss is not for me.

So this is when I’m supposed to say I’ll find a better balance, which is obvious advice—reading fiction before bed, rather than news or Twitter, seems like a good idea — and of limited value, because I don’t think I can do this a little. (There’s the language of addiction again). If I’m aware of the news, I’ll want to know details, and want to comment. If I see things on social media, I will think about and react to them. For me, at least, it’s basically all or nothing.

Going with nothing would not only cut off online relationships built over years — relationships that, though based on something that toes the line between shared interest and shared addiction, are healthier than friendships based primarily on doing drugs together — it’d also feel like quitting. Like conceding the information space to bad actors. Like letting the proverbial terrorists win. And that point holds even if my comments are an eyedropper in an ocean, and there’s a distinct possibility nothing I say has significant impact on anything.

Maybe it’d be better if social media didn’t exist. But it does. Given that, I’d rather be in than out.