There was a day in 2013 where I impulsively deleted all of my social media accounts. Upon the release of Spike Jonze’s sentient digital romance opus, Her, the idea of getting the hierarchy of human needs met by a computer freaked me out to the Nth degree. An hour after exiting the theater, I suspended every account I owned. A year later, assuaged by friends, I dipped a toe back in the online water via the launch of a new Instagram handle. My voyeuristic fixation on the idea of real life parading as a filtered work of art remained intact. I had come to view social platforms as theater-in-the-round—a live performance based loosely on true events.
My new feed routinely featured photos of myself jumping on hotel room beds or swimming in pools I do not own. It was reborn as a branded aesthetic. When an editor challenge to ghost from social media completely for 30 consecutive days was proposed at our offices, I tossed my hat in the ring with a cavalier: “Make it 40.”
I quietly toggled my profile to private mode on a random Monday night in June, set a calendar alarm for the end of my digital Lent, and told no one. The first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting you have a problem. I brazenly glazed over that part with the assurance my personal social accounts were a complete disconnect from real life. Indeed, I was slightly bummed at the prospect of not watching Caroline Vreeland eat carbs in real time on Snapchat (internet gold). I knew I would miss being spoon-fed inspiration by my favorite tastemakers on Instagram. Mostly, I thought going off social platforms would be a relief. Checking the river of posts was a chore. I took on the assignment with the staunch goal of penning an essay on the triviality of social media. I wanted proof the addiction wasn’t all that real. This is not that essay.
The following is a quote from an internal Philip Morris memo from 1970 on the tobacco industry’s brand ethos: “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.” Oh, hey, Instagram. Step right up.
To be clear, I dig social media. It makes art accessible and democratic. Used effectively, platforms uniquely chord us to persons of interest we might never otherwise encounter in the wild. It's an all-access pass. People love an all-access pass. These were the pros. The cons seemed steeped in melodrama. Could one really be addicted to a phone? Addiction meant surrendering personal power. I felt in control.
My first week off-grid 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. The discipline of knowing all those platforms were there for the taking made the withdrawals more visceral. Day one, 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 cleanse, I was asking dramatic existential questions like 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 river. The answer I landed on? Mood state inducers. I had beats to walk. For inspiration, I’d @ a photographer or fine artist with vibes on tap (more to come on filling that gap in phase two). When in need of 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.
My platforms were a phantom limb. Cut off, I still felt the itch. 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.
Week one, I binged on text messages. I do mean binge. It was like traffic being funneled onto a side street when the highway is closed off. I sent photos and videos individually and en mass. When I found myself texting a video of a firework (ask yourself when the last time you saw a compelling iPhone shot of a firework—exactly), the real addiction surfaced. It wasn’t localized to checking feeds; it was in documenting life. I related to everything as a photo op. I then vowed to forgo photography on my smartphone altogether. Fireworks were the kill switch.
I immediately 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.
Social media is so ubiquitously ingrained into our communication patterns that it’s inescapable. The number of times friends took to visual aids to provide a pitch deck to accompany even the simplest of stories was unreal. I was constantly saying, “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 feed. “Is Natalie still in Berlin?” Allow me to inquire directly.
I grew increasingly aware of what I was contributing to the social media 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…” and so on and so forth. 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. Living well digitally is the best revenge. 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.
The three-week mark was when I started to really jones for an update. I had a vague memory of something that pacified the empty silence in between moments of boredom. That thing rarely occurred to me as social media. Admittedly, I missed the imitation of life. Stories online were novellas I picked up when I wanted and put down at will. The bar was open 24/7, 365.
I had assumed without the distraction of social media, my days would be more focused, more introspective. This was not the case. The 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. I accepted watching what my friends were “doing” via their 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 TV show that got canceled. That girl in my “story” was just some character I played sometimes. It was a digital out-of-body experience.
There were two phrases that reverberated like a Greek chorus over the course of my 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. 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.
The oft-noted unfulfilled desire 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 is readily available. Give it a whirl. Your brain will recalibrate to other means of distraction—and fast. #trust.
Remember when you’d get a roll of film back from the developer only to find 8 out of 10 photos were awful? That was disappointing circa 1998, was it not? Scroll through your camera roll. The ratio is still alive and well. I’m personally hoarding an insane number of images (over 10,000) 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, this sentence was uttered in earnest: “How do you not know J— ran into D— in Italy?!” Take a minute for the absurdity to land. Why should I know who's running into whom in Naples? Time was, when you saw a buddy after a prolonged absence, you’d ask them what they’d been up to. This courtesy allows one to cherry pick from amongst a list of stories, selecting tales the present company will favor most. Hanging out with friends is now akin to being at a rock show where you know the band’s full back catalogue. Everyone is shouting out requests. It’s very shut up and play the hits. Being that I was off social media entirely, all my moods and stories (inane and exotic alike) were vaulted. That felt good. Instagram had not run away with the narrative. They were mine to tell.
I drew a self-portrait when I was in my early 20s. It was a strange little watercolor with exaggerated cartoonish features, dark eyes, and a bit of a moody, forlorn intensity. A friend saw it and said, “God, that drawing looks more like you than you do.” It’s true that sometimes a rendition can feel more like a thing than the thing itself. Art imitates life. Life imitates art. A photo can conjure a feeling. Expressionism can be transcendent.
It was not until I got back online that I had a bird’s-eye view of my takeaway from this experiment. In the end, the biggest cleanse ended up not in sharing, but in the documenting of life. Gone was the compulsion to record. Sharing is human. It’s powerful. It's true we are more connected than ever. The question is, what are you sharing? Art or illusion, or both? Are you generous? Are you listening? Are you present, or are you looking around?
In retrospect, the posts on my feed shared a handful of themes. They were all targeted at moments of gratitude (people I loved), nostalgia (people I missed), or defiance. I was puppeteering the perception of my life, mostly for my own benefit. Digital bravado quieted the self-doubt and anxiety. They were obvious little foils.
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.” “Yeah, what do you need your phone for?” I didn’t even react. I just turned it off. Then I sat around a table with two friends talking about life and love and things we’d done. In the end, being offline felt like staying home from a party where nothing really happened. If I changed my mind about that, I could just deep-scroll later.
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