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kottke.org posts about Swarm

My social media fast

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2017

Last week (approx. May 7-14), I stopped using social media for an entire week. I logged out of all the sites and deleted the apps from my phone. I didn’t so much as peek at Instagram, which is, with Twitter and old-school Flickr, probably my favorite online service of all time. I used Twitter as minimally as I could, for work only.1 I didn’t check in anywhere on Swarm. No Facebook. As much as I could, I didn’t use my phone. I left it at home when I went to the grocery store. I didn’t play any games on it. I left it across the room when I went to bed and when I worked.

Many people have given up social media and written about it — the digital equivalent of the “Why I’m Leaving New York” essay — but since I didn’t write about leaving New York, I’m going to do this instead.

I used to be very good about using my phone and social media appropriately. More than a decade of working on kottke.org taught me how to not be online when I wasn’t working (for the most part). I tried super hard not to use my phone at all around my kids and if I was out with friends, my phone stayed in my pocket.2

Almost a year ago, after 13+ years in the city, I moved from lower Manhattan3 to rural Vermont. It’s beautiful here. I live in a house in the country surrounded by horse pasture and there’s great skiing in the winter. The nearest town is only five minutes away by car; it has a two-screen movie theater, a handful of restaurants (none of which are typically open after 10pm), two grocery stores, but nowhere to get a proper donut, sushi, or bowl of ramen. (The nearest ramen is an hour’s drive away.) While I was writing this post yesterday afternoon, the power in my house went out and didn’t come back on for three hours, forcing a delay in publication. It’s been difficult to meet people. Folks here are nice, but they mostly remind me of the people in the small town I grew up in (aka why I moved to the city in the first place). I work from home at a desk in my bedroom and some days, the only beings I’ll talk to are Siri, my landlord’s horses, and some days, my kids and their mom.

Social media, mostly through my phone, has been an important way for me to stay connected with friends and goings on in the wider world. But lately I’d noticed an obsessiveness, an addiction really, that I didn’t like once I became fully aware of it. When I wasn’t working, I was on my phone, refreshing Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook repeatedly in an endless series, like a little old lady at Caesar’s Palace working several slot machines at the same time. And I couldn’t stop it — my phone was in my hand even when I was trying to concentrate on my kids, watching a movie, or reading a book. So, I quit for a week to see what would happen. It’s not a super-long time period, but here’s what I noticed:

- Once I’d set my mind to it, it was pretty easy to go cold turkey. Perhaps my Twitter usage and keeping up with the news for kottke.org acted as a nicotine patch, but I don’t think so. Instagram was the toughest to stay away from, but I didn’t crack once.

- As the week went on, it was more and more evident that it wasn’t so much social media as the phone that was the problem. Even now, a few days after the conclusion of my experiment, I’m leaving my phone at home when I go out or across the room when I’m doing something. I’m going to try hard to keep this up.

- Buuuut, when you have kids, there is no such thing as giving up your phone. There’s always the potential call from their school or their mom or their doctor or another parent regarding a playdate or or or. I spend enough time online at my computer for work that I could mostly do without my phone, but with kids, that’s not really an option.

- Not a single person noticed that I had stopped using social media. (Not enough to tell me anyway.) Perhaps if it had been two weeks? For me, this reinforced that social media is actually not a good way to “stay connected with friends”. Social media aggregates interactions between loved ones so that you get industrialized communication rather than personal connection. No one really notices if a particular person goes missing because they’re just one interchangeable node in a network.

- My no-social week, for a variety of reasons, was probably the shittiest week I’d had in more than a year. Total emotional mess. Being off social media didn’t make it any better, but I doubt it made it worse. Overall, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t subjecting my friends and followers to self-subtweets and emo Instagram Stories…I was already scoring enough own goals without social media’s help.

- So, what did I do instead? I wish I could say that I had loads of extra free time that I used to learn Spanish, clean my house, catch up with old friends, cook delicious meals, and finish a couple work projects. Perhaps if shittiest week ever hadn’t been happening, I would have done some of that. Still, I did end up going to bed early every night, read a couple books, and had more time for work and dealing with kid drama.

After the week was up, I greedily checked in on Instagram and Facebook to see what I had missed. Nothing much, of course. Since then, I’ve been checking them a bit less. When I am on, I’ve been faving and commenting more in an attempt to be a little more active in connecting. I unfollowed some accounts I realized I didn’t care that much about and followed others I’ve been curious to check out. Swarm I check a lot less, about once a day — there was a lot of FOMO going on when I saw friends checked in at cool places in NYC or on vacations in Europe. And I’m only checking in when I go someplace novel, just to keep a log of where I’ve been…that’s always fun to look back on.

Mostly, I’ve resolved to use my phone less. Being on my phone was my fidget spinner…this thing that I would do when there was nothing else to do or that I would use to delay going to bed or delay getting out of bed in the morning. Going forward, I’m going to be more mindful about its use. If nothing else, my hands and thumbs might start feeling better.

  1. Yeah, I did not stop using Twitter. Ideally I would have, but Twitter is a huge source of information for this here website and I couldn’t afford to give it up without ditching work for a week, which I did not want to do because I wanted to maintain my normal schedule. But I didn’t look at Twitter on my phone, didn’t reply to or fave any tweets, muted some non-news/link accounts I follow, and limited my usage to “business hours”.

  1. Still one of my favorite tweets is from Scott Simpson: “My new standard of cool: when I’m hanging out with you, I never see your phone ever ever ever.”

  1. Haha, you’re getting a mini leaving NYC essay anyway. Suckers!