When an editor proposed a challenge to quit social media for 30 consecutive days, I tossed my hat in the ring with a cavalier, “Make it 40.” To be clear, I dig social media. With social media, art is accessible and democratic, and used effectively, it uniquely ties us to persons of interest we might never otherwise encounter in the wild. On the other hand, the cons of quitting social media seem steeped in melodrama. Can social media really be as addictive as cigarettes, like some say it is?
“We are in the business of relaxing people who are tense and providing a pick up for people who are bored or depressed. The human needs that our product fills will not go away. Thus, the only real threat to our business is that society will find other means of satisfying those needs,” reads an internal memo from tobacco company, Philip Morris, in 1970. Fast forward several decades... Oh, hey, Instagram.
They say the first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting you have a problem. I brazenly glazed over that part with the assurance that my personal social accounts were a complete disconnect from real life. Indeed, I was slightly bummed at the prospect of not watching multi-hyphenate artist Caroline Vreeland eat carbs in real-time on Snapchat (internet gold), and I knew I would miss being spoon-fed inspiration by my favorite tastemakers on Instagram. Mostly, however, checking the river of posts was a chore, and I thought going off social platforms would be a relief. So, I took on the assignment with the staunch goal of penning an essay on the triviality of social media. I wanted proof my social media addiction wasn’t all that real. This is not that essay. Here's what happens when you quit social media, or at least what happened to me.
To quit social media, on a random Monday night in June I quietly toggled my profile to private mode, set a calendar alarm for the end of my digital Lent, and told no one. My first week off-grid, I ping-ponged between restlessness and relief. Note: I did not announce my departure, nor did I delete my social apps from my phone. I merely logged out and consolidated them into a folder, which may have been a bad idea. Knowing all those platforms were there for the taking made the withdrawals more visceral. On the first day, I discovered my hand had a muscle memory. Every time I picked up my phone, my thumb instinctively flicked over to where the Instagram icon used to rest—now a lonesome little void.
Two days into my digital cleanse, I began to ask dramatic existential questions: What is the nature of human connection? Is happiness only real when shared? Can one truly share an experience? Can a tangible metric be prescribed to an intangible feeling? Most of all, I wondered why I went to the proverbial, social media-free river. The answer I landed on: Mood state inducers. For inspiration, I’d at-reply a photographer or fine artist whose aesthetic I vibe with. When I needed an intellectual boost, I’d hit up NASA’s JPL feed. There came a day where I shamefully admitted to myself I’d been digesting most hard news via The Wall Street Journal’s Snapchat. My brain was conditioned to both document and hunt—ad infinitum.
Week one, I binged on text messages. I sent photos and videos individually and en masse. When I found myself texting a video of fireworks (when was the last time you saw a compelling iPhone shot of fireworks?), the real addiction surfaced. It wasn’t localized to checking feeds; it was more about this constant need to document life in real-time. I related to everything as a photo op.
I then vowed to forgo photography on my smartphone altogether. I went to the most Instagrammed place in Los Angeles sans camera: The Infinity Room at The Broad Museum. I traveled. I got a new tattoo, all the while documenting zero. I replaced photography with actual storytelling. I felt like Dorothy in Technicolor Oz.
Cut off from social media, I still felt the itch; my platforms were a phantom limb, and I missed show-and-tell. So strong was my urge to share, like, and comment, I took things analog. I kept art books and poetry at my desk, anything that was easily digestible. One morning, I physically printed out a photo from the internet, walked up to a co-worker, showed it to her, and asked for a comment.
As I continued my social media detox, I grew increasingly aware of what I was contributing to the online conversation. I had Lucinda Williams’s “I Changed the Locks” stuck in my head for weeks. The lyrics go: “I changed the lock on my front door so you can't see me anymore… I changed the kind of clothes I wear so you can't find me anywhere. And you can't spot me in a crowd, and you can't call my name out loud…” Instead of bothering with the locks and the makeover, now we just A) unfollow, and B) blast out a string of posts on multiple platforms that roundly assert life is different now, and it’s totally way better. But since I wasn't partaking in social media, it felt authentic to have a bad day and process it without the use of a "Simpsons" still that appropriately correlated to my disappointment. Happiness was still real, even unshared.
Social media is so ubiquitously ingrained into our communication patterns, it’s inescapable. The number of times friends took to visual aids to accompany even the simplest of stories was unreal, to which I would reply, “I do not need to see the post.” Crying emoji-laden texts rolled in daily from friends saying, “Come back to social media.” It was flattering and odd. From my perspective, my interactions were more frequent and more real without a digital surrogate. If I wanted to know what someone was up to, I texted them directly instead of checking a social feed. “Is Natalie still in Berlin?” Allow me to inquire directly.
I started to really jones for an update at the three-week mark. Admittedly, I missed the imitation of life. Stories online were novellas I picked up when I wanted and put down at will. Put another way, the bar was open 24/7, 365.
I assumed without the distraction of social media, my days would be more focused and introspective. This was not the case. The urge for distraction only got louder. I merely altered the means to the cure. Instead of a feed, I flipped through books—same high, different drug. My brain still needed a hit of fresh stimuli every few hours. At the same time, I realized that watching what my friends were “doing” via their social feeds wasn’t an actual substitute for human contact. What does voyeurism really teach you about a person? The memory of my own feed felt like a canceled TV show; that girl in my “story” was just some character I played sometimes. It was a digital out-of-body experience.
There were two phrases my friends told me that reverberated like a Greek chorus over the course of 40 days: “I love you without a phone,” and “I wish I could quit social media.” Meeting friends for dinner only to be swiftly complimented on how engaging and present I was felt like a punch to the gut, and maybe the turning point I needed. It killed me that my most treasured confidants had not felt the full weight of my undivided attention with a phone on the table. It had never occurred to me to afford the device that much power. I wanted to be a generous listener. That became priority one.
On a different thread, the oft-noted yet unfulfilled desire by others to get off social media threw me. People get downright jealous when you’re off the merry-go-round. If you’re feeling a tinge of blackout envy, allow me to offer you this: That option, though much easier said than done as I was learning, is readily available.
Remember when you’d get a roll of film back from the developer only to find eight out of 10 photos were awful? That was disappointing circa 1998, was it not? Yet scroll through your cell phone camera roll, and the ratio is still alive and well. Personally, I’m hoarding over 10,000 images on my phone. My memories have a hard drive, and I sometimes relate to my iPhone as an appendage.
Dinner parties were by far the most surreal experience of all. Without fail, I was the lone wolf at the table with zero advance press on the comings and goings of other guests. At one such gathering, for example, someone uttered in earnest, “How do you not know J—ran into D—in Italy?!” Why should I know who's running into whom in Naples? These days, it seems like hanging out with friends is now akin to being at a rock show where you know the band’s full back catalog. Everyone is shouting out requests. It’s very shut up and play the hits. Being that I was off social media entirely, I vaulted all my moods and stories and that felt good. Instagram had not run away with the narrative. Instead, the narrative was mine to tell.
My final night off, I set an alarm at midnight to check Instagram. I was with a couple of friends when my iPhone buzzed. I quietly logged into my accounts. I’m not sure how much time passed before my friend interrupted with a “Hey, where’d you go?” “Sorry, I’m online for the first time in over a month,” I said, to which they replied, “Yeah, what do you need your phone for?” And with that, I turned it off and refocused my attention on my two friends. We sat around a table and talked about life and love and things we’d done.
After 40 days sans social media, being offline felt like staying home from a party where nothing really happened. In the end, the biggest cleanse ended up not in sharing, but in the constant documenting of life. After 40 days, gone was the compulsion to record. Yet, other habits still linger. Sharing is human, and it's powerful. It's true we are more connected than ever. If I ever feel the urge to post on social media, the questions I now ask myself are: What are you sharing? Art or illusion, or both? Are you generous? Are you listening? Are you present, or are you looking around? Plus, I could just deep-scroll later, after IRL time with my friends.