Back in 2012, I quit the internet for a year. Between May 2012 and May 2013, I didn’t use the internet or ask people to use the internet for me. To make it extra hard, I didn’t use text messaging either.
In a nutshell, I wanted to discover how many of my problems in life (lack of productivity, constant distraction, a sense running as fast as I could just to keep up) were the internet’s fault, and how many of those problems were just my own inherent faults.
Spoiler: it was mostly just me.
But if you’ve been following all the recent Facebook drama or you can’t stand the culture of Twitter discourse or you feel like the Instagram algorithm is harmful to your well-being and you’ve decided that you need to make a statement by quitting something, I might be able to offer some advice.
You’re standing in line. You’re sitting down to poop. You’re waiting for the train. You just woke up. You’re about to go to sleep. You’re waiting for a commercial break to finish. It’s not even a commercial break; you just got antsy. You’re bored during a conversation. You’re not bored during a conversation; you just wanted to check something real quick.
You pull out your phone for whatever reason.
What app do you open? And why?
The first question is easy: for me, personally, it’s Twitter. For many other people, it’s Instagram or Facebook.
But the “why” question is harder to answer. There’s a great Why’d You Push That Button?episode that explores how app developers try to create a reward loop to incentivize you to keep checking back. For instance, I check Twitter because someone might’ve read one of my articles and liked it. Or, at the very least, someone might’ve liked one of my tweets or followed me or retweeted me. I’m searching for praise.
What’s messed up about it is I can check Twitter, see nothing new, put my phone in my pocket, and 15 seconds later, I’ll pull my phone out once more to look at Twitter again. It’s a little sick, to be honest.
So, let’s say Facebook is your app of choice. And I’m just going to assume you’re as hooked as I am. What are you going to do every 15 seconds with your thumbs if you quit?
I’m going to humbly suggest, based on personal experience, that you try boredom.
Boredom is a complicated thing. And most people are desperate to avoid it. It turns out that smartphones full of social network apps are a great antidote.
But if you choose to replace your go-to app, whatever it may be, with nothing, you can push through the discomfort of boredom, and you might find something cool on the other side.
Boredom is a dissatisfaction with what you’re doing. If you allow yourself to be bored for just a little bit, you can use that free brain power to decide what you actually want to do. Like, what will make you feel good in the long run, instead of what will make you feel good for the next 15 seconds.
You can use boredom as an alert that you might be living life on auto-pilot, instead of doing what’s actually important to you.
Boredom was seriously one of the best parts of my year without the internet. I eventually discovered new ways to waste time and fill the boredom void, and that kind of ruined everything. But for a few glorious months back in 2012, boredom was my guide to getting shit done and living right.
Without Facebook, or your own social network of choice, it’s very easy to not only be lonely but to actually feel lonely.
The solution is simple: reach out to people. Ask people to meet up. Talk to people on the phone. Text more, and reply to text messages instead of ignoring them. Express concern and interest in other people’s lives with words instead of only Likes and faves and reaction emoji.
Just kidding. I mean, I do believe that doing those things is the correct antidote to loneliness. But loneliness, both the subjective feeling and the objective reality, never seems that simple to solve.
When I was off the internet, I had some of my best interpersonal successes in life. People said I was “intense” to talk to because I was so undistracted. I got to know family members and some close friends better than I ever had.
But simultaneously, I lost friends and ended up very alone.
What’s up with that?
Well, let’s just be honest with ourselves. The internet is where people are. If your friends are heavy Facebook users, and you quit Facebook, it’s a little bit like if your friends all hang out at a certain bar and you stop going there.
When I was off the internet, I didn’t have any serious blow-ups or falling outs with my friends. I just sort of fell out of step with them.
Here’s an example: let’s say a big new movie is coming out. It’s called Super Cape People. When the trailer hits, maybe one of your friends shares it on Facebook with a comment: “Omg I can’t wait for this.” A few of your other friends with similar tastes chime in. Maybe a dozen other conversations on social media sprout up over the following six months. By the time the movie comes out, you’re pretty sure who you know that wants to see this movie. Maybe you’re even in a Facebook Messenger group of buddies that obsesses over the Super Cape franchise.
But even if you just make midnight screening plans over plain old text message, you have all the social networking context to know who to include. You also know that your friend Jeff is on vacation so maybe you all agree to wait two days to see it with Jeff.
Without social media, you can’t broadcast your interests and availability to your friends. You have to do it in pieces. You need to hang out with people or talk to them on the phone or at least text them to let them know that you love all things Super Cape and drop heavy hints that you’ll be crushed if your friends see it without you.
And what if your friends don’t like phone calls? And what if they forget you quit Facebook when they send out a party invite? And what if your appointed liaison to all Facebook drama becomes tired of being your social networking sherpa?
After a while, if you miss enough parties and are absent enough friend group outings, your friends might assume you aren’t interested.
Sadly, I’m speaking from experience. I’m not trying to scare you away from quitting Facebook. I’m just letting you know that you’ll have to be very proactive to stay in touch with the people you care about.
I wasn’t, and it sucked.
Of course, your friends aren’t the only people using the internet. The internet is a marvelous megaphone. You can speak to anyone or everyone. If you’re super popular on Instagram, and you quit Instagram, you’re silencing your loudest voice. You’re limiting your reach. It almost feels like self-censorship. You set out to protest Facebook, but you’re only hurting yourself, right?
I don’t know. Maybe. This one is complicated.
When I was off the internet, I started a band. While I’ve always been interested in music, and I’ve been in bands before, there was something freeing about being off the internet, creativity-wise. I stopped comparing myself to the best possible version of the thing I was doing. Instead, I just asked myself: “Do I like this?” If I liked it, then I did it. I didn’t feel silenced; I felt free.
This has been freeing in other parts of my life as well. When I was comparing myself to everyone on the internet, I was afraid of programming, math, skateboarding, philosophy, and writing fiction. For each of those activities, I could point to a million people better than me.
I doubt this is debilitating for everyone, but for a long time, I allowed these worldwide comparisons to keep me away from things I was interested in because I knew I couldn’t be great at them.
I think the fear of “de-platforming” yourself gives Facebook and Twitter too much credit, and it also doesn’t give enough credit to what’s actually valuable about your voice and particular set of skills.
Just think about it: would you, given the choice, rather use your words to encourage someone you love or to win a Twitter debate? Are your talents more valuable to your friends and family or to the global economy?
Twitter virality is famously hard to engineer. Facebook makes you pay to actually reach your “audience.” Instagram will always work best for people who only show their most beautiful side.
But your friends love it when you sing at karaoke, no matter what you sound like. And your mom doesn’t doxx you when you disagree with her about politics. She might even change your mind, or you might change hers.
The impact you can have on the people close to you can be just as great, or greater, than the impact you can have on the “world” through your internet voice. Possibly not in quantity, but certainly in quality.
Does that kind of make sense?
Hey, I’m not saying you’re going to crack. But you might return to Facebook after a week or month or year away. It might be in a moment of weakness, or it might be something you do deliberately after careful consideration of the pros and cons.
People ask me if I’d consider leaving the internet again. I always say “no way.” Not that I regret my year off the internet. I just feel like I learned the lessons I needed to learn, and the immense positives of the internet — even the weird and scary places like Facebook — outweigh the cons.
One thing I always tell people, and it’s something I wish I did a better job of putting into practice, is to “keep it small.”
It’s a reference to Fahrenheit 451, which is a book I read when I was off the internet, but it’s is also now a hip cultural reference because there’s a Michael B. Jordan movie coming out.
In the sci-fi world of Fahrenheit 451, everyone has these immersive TV rooms. Every wall of the room is a screen. And then they watch TV all the time. It sounds pretty fun, to be honest.
But, also, they burn books. So something isn’t quite right with this society.
When the protagonist meets an outlaw book collector, he’s surprised to discover the collector has a TV. It’s hidden behind a picture frame.
“I like to keep it small,” the collector explains.
Just because you use Facebook doesn’t mean it has to dominate your life. There are ways to “keep it small.” You can reduce Facebook’s ability to gather data on you. You can take the app off your phone. You can block yourself from using it during certain hours of the day. Despite the enormous efforts by internet giants to influence your life and control your behaviors, they haven’t won yet. You still have some power in this relationship.
In summary: book burning is wrong, Michal B. Jordan is possibly my favorite actor on the planet, and if anyone would like to watch his new movie with me it premieres in May on HBOand so let’s start planning this viewing party now. I will bring the chips and perhaps some beverages. Please respond to this invite even if you can’t make it. Thanks! See you there.
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