What happens when a digital editor gives up social media for 40 days?
So there I was, sitting on the sofa at 8:30pm on Shrove Tuesday, ploughing my way through lemon and sugar-crusted pancakes, and my wife asked the question: “What are you giving up for Lent?”
We listed the obvious choices: alcohol, chocolate, takeaways. Then she looked at me with a wry smile: “Why don’t you give up social media?”.
I laughed. The idea was preposterous. Firstly I’m not religious, and I never normally observed Lent, even though we often talked about things we would give up, much like New Year’s resolutions. Secondly, I had convinced myself that my job meant I had to be on Twitter 24/7, and always engaged with Facebook or checking Instagram. There was simply no way I could comprehend working without access to the platforms. I had to be part of the conversation.
Or did I? I was freelancing and much of my work had been writing rather than digital consultancy. And, even for the latter, surely nothing interesting was going to happen on the platforms in the next 40 days. In such an event, I gave myself a get out: I would allow myself access if there was a big news story either professionally, which I had to work on – i.e. beer, pubs etc – or personally, a terrorist attack.
So there I was, deleting the apps and going for it. This would be my biggest digital detox since I decided I would never use MSN messenger again as a teenager.
The first day was inevitably the hardest. It was impossible to watch the news and not feel able to comment on social media. Across the day, there were two or three stories I normally would have said something about, or taken to Twitter to see what others were saying about it.
This was when I became disturbingly aware of the echo chamber of Twitter. The desire was to justify my own position and actively seek out the positions of those I disliked either to rant against them or to support and RT those I liked.
It is a very odd compulsion. I was always aware of this strange urge on a theoretical level, but it wasn’t until actually being disconnected I felt it deeply. And it felt utterly ridiculous.
This biological ‘urge’ was extremely worrying, and unexpected. I suppose it also explains how social media has been so successful, against a backdrop of broadly negative stories and the creation of trolling. I really had a bottom-of-the-gut desire to tweet.
I guess this is what you might call the ‘deep gut desire’ of the personality avatars, represented in the social accounts of Katie Hopkins, Jack Monroe, (now banned) Milo Yiannopoulos, James Delingpole and, of course, Tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump: the truly bizarre, compulsive literary phenomenons of the twenty first century. But they are simply driven by a digital version of Hyde Park’s Speakers' Corner – a need to shout their angry, chaotic hymns of hate. In the past, a few people would walk past this park corner, and stop for a few minutes. Maybe a tourist would take a photo of them. Now millions listen. I’m still not sure we have fully absorbed this fact.
There is no filter to the quality of this debate. Previously, the publishing industry and newspapers were gatekeepers of the entire conversation. Now they are seen as part of the problem by many in the online world. It has become acceptable to use the most extreme forms of language and discourse on these platforms. We live in a world where the leader of the most powerful country takes to Twitter in order to defend his position.
It wasn’t until I returned to the platforms that I realised the full visceral nature of it. The #nofilter used on Instagram is probably more applicable to Twitter. Anything goes, and childish mudslinging is integral to the debate. Words are said by people who have millions of followers which would never be allowed in a ‘mainstream media’ brand. Until the social media platforms begin to act like publishers and filter the noise, unfortunately this will continue. And surely that is a very bad thing.
One of the joys of the first week was removing this tide of stupid, un-informed, anti-intellectual hate from my daily life. I was refreshed and positive. As I consumed the news through TV broadcast journalism and newspaper apps, I had this strange sense of silence and peacefulness. But oddly also a feeling that something was wrong - an emptiness.
This was that realisation I wasn’t part of the social ‘conversation’. I was just consuming, and in something of an ivory tower. In the first few days, the urge to join the conversation was still deep in my gut. Interestingly, it was short lived, as by the end of the week, I had stopped caring.
I also applied various techniques to remove the remainder of the longing.
One: Did my view really matter? Was I adding anything worthwhile to the ‘debate’? Was there really even a debate in the first place, or just an echo chamber of the left, liberals and right agreeing to their own views and justifying their own positions? And did that really ‘matter’ anyway?
The second technique I undertook in week two. It was the best technique. It’s what I called half-jokingly ‘cultural reverse’. This involved consciously using social media ‘time’ to read, write, draw, do any activity which might be considered vaguely useful or to the betterment of my human existence or experience.
My preference was to read novels. This was probably my favourite activity in the whole world, but one I had found myself oddly doing less and less as social media consumption had taken over my life. I selected several books and simply picked them up when I would normally be on social media.
The result was I consumed five books during Lent. It was a joyous end-goal to the social media experiment and one I would recommend to anyone worried about the amount of time they spend on such platforms, especially freelance journalists and bloggers, where it can become all-consuming.
The second element was family time. Not just social media, but no phone, at all. I felt so much more engaged with my children and it made me realise that what is going on just beyond the edge of my phone screen is a thousand times more satisfying, fun, entertaining and wonderful. It’s an obvious fact, but one we disturbingly ignore.
In the next fortnight I did have to break my ‘embargo’ twice — both times due to work and not wanting to appear rude. I didn’t have to download the apps, just go on the mobile sites and quickly RT and send out a response to another tweet. I knew this might happen, and it was inevitable due to my job role.
The interesting part was I felt no desire to quickly flick through my timeline or ‘explore’. The detox had definitely changed the hard wiring in my brain. It was a beautiful realisation, and proof of concept to some extent. The detox ‘works’.
Then the Westminster terrorist attack happened. Such an incident is where Twitter comes into its own. But I made a conscious choice to ignore it. I watched broadcast news instead, which adequately kept me abreast of developments and filtered out the horrible social noise. Sky News did at the beginning show some of the images of the attack on Twitter – a terrible mistake, in my opinion – but the Beeb was its usual dependable self.
I didn’t feel I had missed out anything from not monitoring social channels. But, having said that, if I had been in London on the day, I would have taken to Twitter for sure. It did illustrate its need to me, and why it can be such an important news and communications channel. Sadly, one day a big attack or event will happen, and I feel sure that Twitter will be a vital tool for everyone. I haven’t lost faith in its ability to perform a more literal social duty.
On my return to social media, I’ve now set out a few basic rules. Oddly, the first one seems counterintuitive: turning on social media notifications on my phone. This will reduce my time on platforms because I will only drop in and out when people are directly engaging with me. It creates efficiency and stops the constant scroll.
Secondly, I will strategise my use: replying directly to work-related topics and issues as well as personal ones. I will also avoid big political issues altogether. They are just an echo chamber of irrelevant and inane chatter. No one cares about your view unless you are an academic/expert/truly informed. We must all realise this fact and allow for a hierarchy of views. Experts do know things, although some online would not subscribe to that opinion.
Thirdly, I will turn off my phone in the evenings. Some pubs and food outlets have already started creating signal blockers to prevent phone use. One bar has even created a locker system, handing in your phone on arrival. Hopefully this is the beginning of a life/tech balance debate.
Silence is indeed golden. I have rediscovered that. And I urge everyone else to do so as well. Next time you get angry at Trump or Katie Hopkins or some other brainless moron, just put the phone down. I did.
Finding balance is crucial. It is what I had lost and what I regained by the end of Lent.
It was #winning.