The Purge: What happens when you unfollow everyone on the Internet
Just before the New Year, I decided to do an experiment. I wanted to see if I could change how I use the Internet, and perhaps, from there, find better ways to run my business, connect with humans and improve my craft.
Like many of us, almost every minute I have by myself is spent with a screen in my face. When I wake up in the morning. When I’m eating breakfast. When I’m sitting on Muni or in an Uber. While I’m editing photos or killing time before a meeting.
Totaling up that time, I’d guess I am consuming Internet things about four hours a day — and I just take pictures for a living. For those of us whose careers depend on being on a computer all day, it could be worse.
It’s easy to claim these hours of Internet binging as productive. We need to keep our business emails in check. We need to maintain social connections with as many people as possible. We need to fill our brains with inspiration, news and longreads.
Yet at the same time, many of us don’t feel like we have time to do everything we need to master our jobs, maintain our friendships and generally improve ourselves. This doesn’t make much sense.
What if we made more active decisions about how we spent our Internet time? If we weren’t bogged down maintaining our inboxes and social networks, who would we set out to meet or get to know better? If we weren’t so busy clicking links or browsing photos in our feeds, what would we choose to study or learn more about? If we spent these hours differently, what would happen?
I was curious to find out for myself.
So, one night while I was sitting in bed, I un-followed everyone on the Internet.
Why unfollow everyone on the Internet? Why not just delete apps from my phone?
I wanted to make a change that was very hard to reverse. If I simply deleted apps from my phone, I had a feeling I’d be back where I started as soon as I reinstalled them. In order to create new habits, I needed to completely destroy my old ones and start from scratch.
What does “unfollow everyone on the Internet” even mean?
For the purposes of my little experiment, I defined my Internet as the networks that I found myself constantly using during the day, and that I tended to pass off as “productive” (consuming news + content, networking, collecting photo inspiration). For me, this was Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. I chose not to include Facebook because, while I do use it as my archive for every life event of the last ten years, I do not use it much during the day and do not think of it as productive activity.
How long is this experiment supposed to last?
I didn’t know when I’d start re-following people again. Maybe it would be immediately, maybe it would be months. All I knew is I wanted to see what happened to my behavior when I removed my Internet world from my life.
I felt like I’d murdered something beautiful.
I was really attached to the feeds I’d curated on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. With Twitter in particular — over the years I had slowly crafted a collection of creatives, techies, journalists and more, constantly pumping my feed with great content. I loved the community I had there. I felt like I stomped it all into the ground, and that sucked.
I was scared that people would notice and be offended.
Some people probably were. My Instagram follower count declined within hours of me making the purge, enough for me to notice. Perhaps some folks constantly monitor their recent un-follows and immediately un-followed back in a huff of retaliation. Oh well. Two people so far have noticed and reached out to ask if I’m okay. Funny times we live in, eh?
I still couldn’t stop checking my feeds.
I found myself checking my empty feeds out of habit. Several times a day, I’d pick up my phone and without looking, hit one of the apps, look at the feed, remember “Oh right, there is NOTHING HERE,” and put the phone back down. It’s amazing how deeply app checking has become engrained in my muscle memory. THE ADDICTION IS REAL. (Eventually I stopped.)
I used Facebook more.
I needed to scratch the itch somehow. Still didn’t feel productive.
Sharing things made me feel awful.
I don’t know how Beyonce does it. I’ve popped into my feeds a few times to post something, be it an article I loved or some sort of announcement I really wanted to share, but sharing things into an empty space suddenly felt selfish and horrible. Why should I expect anyone to want what I have to share when I want none of theirs?
That said, one pro of these horrible feelings is it’s forced me to sit and think about whether what I post is really valuable to people vs. valuable to just me. The higher the value, the lower the guilt when I post. I will try to apply this rule from now on.
One Week Later
MY BRAIN IS CURED.
Within a week, the noise of a million links and avatars in my brain was gone, and I didn’t miss it. I felt like I could focus on one thing at a time and think complete thoughts. I could think clearly about my priorities and no longer felt like I was drowning in tasks and distractions.
My work efficiency skyrocketed.
For me, I have photoshoot days and admin days. I’ve never loved admin days, because they involve me sitting behind a computer and answering emails, writing invoices and editing photos, and the admin pile never seems to go away.
There’s a couple of reasons for this.
- I finally have the clarity of mind to list and prioritize tasks based on what I think is best for my business. (This is way different from spending hours reacting to other people’s messages to your inboxes and calling it a productive day.)
- Now that I’m not constantly checking my Internet feeds between emails and tasks, what used to take me about 6 hours now takes me about 2. I’m finishing task lists that used to take me a week in about two days.
I felt like I had several extra hours in every day.
With those extra hours I was able to do tackle projects I previously felt like I had no time for. I exercised more (~10 more hours/month), saw my friends more (~10 more hours/month), purged/organized my entire apartment (~15 hours), learned how to use some fancy new photo lighting equipment(~10 hours), rebuilt my entire website and portfolio (~20 hours) and wrote (and rewrote and rewrote) this post (~10 hours).
That’s a lot of hours.
I felt like an extrovert again.
We’re among the first generations expected to maintain connections with every single person we’ve ever met, thanks to the Internet. The weight of our swollen social networks can be super stressful, let alone a distraction from knowing who you want to focus your time on.
No longer feeling like I had hundreds of relationships to figure out how to maintain, I felt like I had room in my life for new people, and had new energy to go out and meet them.
I’ve started making active decisions.
Now that I’ve de-cluttered my brain and given myself space to think, I have been able to sit down and make active decisions about what I want to do with my time. Dream clients I want to pursue. People I want to meet or reconnect with. Conferences I’d like to attend. Projects I’d like to start. Skills I want to improve upon.
It feels like I’ve finally found the right way to grow my business, connect with humans and improve my craft.
One Month Later
It’s the end of January, and I’ve had the highest productivity, lowest stress and most free time of any month ever.
I’ve gotten really into how my life is running without Interweb distractions, but I will probably start following people back soon. Or I may wait another few months to make sure my new habits are set. Who knows. Either way, when I do rebuild I’ll be doing it slowly and carefully. And I’ll probably purge it all again next year.
I read a book recently called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo (in a few hours, thanks to no Internetting!) — while it’s most definitely a book about tidying up your shit, it’s based on some foundations of thought that could easily be applied to many areas of life, including the web.
In her book, she details the importance of the purging process and its importance in effective tidying.
How do you decide what to purge? Marie has specific instructions: hold an item, carefully consider it, and ask yourself “does this bring me joy?” If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, nix it.
Seriously. That’s it. If it doesn’t, no reason to have it around.
Even if an item once brought you joy but no longer holds the same positive effect, you are to nix it, but not without taking the time to thank it for bringing you joy at the time you acquired it, as well as helping you build preferences for the future. With the things you keep, you create a home for them where they will always been seen and appreciated.
As time changes, the things you choose to keep will change too.
Experimenting with how you use the Internet is no new thing. Take Jeffrey Kalmikoff’s Instagram experiment or Lane Wood’s no-phone experiment, both based on (or causing) revelations that their Internet time could be spent differently.
With these experiments as well as mine, some may consider the learnings incredibly helpful and relatable, and some may find them useless and self-important.
I certainly can’t claim that my little experiment will be helpful to everyone, but I do hope that it can help a few folks create (and re-create and re-create) an Internet that is way better for you.
Thanks to Blam, Liz, Kate, Micah and Martin for reviewing my many drafts of this post.