On this blog I’ve been fairly critical of social media. My reasons range from the distractions it causes to the toxicity over politics to the metrics-driven self-promotion to the encroachment on our privacy to the crushing sense of FOMO. And yet I have also been actively engaged in it, and this is a paradox I have always disliked. For all my criticism, I still kind of enjoy creating stories and laughing at funny reels. I kind of appreciate the thoughtful shares and even the occasional debate on FB (if it’s civil), and seeing life updates from my family and friends. There are also benefits to groups and lists that let you find inspiration (say, if you’re an artist), or to buy or exchange goods at little or no cost.
That changed last weekend while on a road trip with my kids to North Carolina, when I finally got around to listening to a podcast that’s been in my queue for months now: ‘Becoming a Digital Minimalist.’ In it, Brett McKay (who runs The Art of Manliness website) interviews Cal Newport, a professor of computer science who has written extensively on the effects of technology. The podcast was the most downloaded episode on Brett’s website last year.
I can see why. In listening to the conversation, I was persuaded once again that the bad elements of social media far outweigh even the best ones. But there is something else in the podcast, too. Newport paints an attractive portrait of rich, focused living outside of social media where your attention is less fragmented and you can more deeply engage with your hobbies and the people you love. While there are certainly good interactions to be had online, the fact is that we do not miss out that much by limiting them. One’s quality of life is more likely to improve by investing in longer-form creative pursuits and interpersonal relationships than by spreading oneself thin in sharing stories and “keeping up” with friends seldom seen in person anymore (caveats to this proposition below). It is a testament to the power and grip of social media that this simple realization does not compel more of us to take drastic action sooner.
It’s now been a week since I have deleted the apps, and I am still in the habit of taking pictures or videos which I think are artsy and clever, and then wondering what I am supposed to do with them. I find myself picking up my phone to check for new notifications, and feeling a twinge of regret when I am greeted by a blank screen. I feel the urge to re-download the apps just to check what’s going on. What’s the harm? It won’t take long.
That’s the rub, though, isn’t it? I’ve been conditioned, both by the makers of the apps and by my own conscious choices, to believe that scrolling through feeds and reels won’t take long; that it is the best way, if not the only way, to tell what’s happening “out there” and to engage with friends. The FOMO is real, and so is the pleasure of attention. The designers of the apps know that better than the rest of us.
On the other hand, I feel less rushed and distracted. I don’t have to think about how a picture or video is going to look as a story, and then spend so much time choosing the right music and filter for it. I don’t have to spend hours curating my online persona. Of course, if all I do with my extra free time is find a new digital distraction, like scrolling through the latest Hollywood gossip, I wouldn’t call that a win. But so far it’s been wonderful to feel a concrete sense of decompression and possibility.
One other thing I’ve come to recognize is that so much of what motivated me to post anything in the first place was not ultimately for the joy it brought to others or myself, but for the temporary highs I felt at being seen. Joy, in the sense I am using the word, is a feeling of satisfaction that lasts regardless of the attention one gets. The apps are simply not designed for this end in mind. Even if I am somehow able to post content mostly for the pleasure of it, irrespective of who notices or cares, I still harbor motives about boosting my reputation and proving my worth. Maybe that is not such an awful thing every once and while, but the apps want you far more than every once and a while, and so often what begins as a little indulgence becomes a time-consuming distraction.
To be clear, I won’t be off the apps altogether. The approach described in the podcast is to fast from the apps for a month so you have time to detox and re-evaluate your priorities. I’ll likely develop a routine where I can check the apps under specific conditions (fr example, only on my desktop, for set amounts of time, and for specific reasons). Meanwhile I’m basking in the extra mental freedom.