For one month, a radio producer sent his would-be social posts to a musician, and they became songs
by Sam Greenspan
Small, whole dried shrimp carpet this bus shelter.
Sandwich board outside the locally-championed
‘Adult gallery’ in the Uptown now advertising —
I heard these words sung by a man named Matt Farley, set to the tune of a sort of Texas waltz. At first I did not understand what I was listening to. But by the end of the song it was clear — unbeknownst to me, I had written those lyrics.
These were things I had tweeted. Or rather, things I would have tweeted if I hadn’t been not tweeting at the time.
Let me back up.
Track 1: Fist of the Arm (listen by clicking the speaker icon at right) ►
On December 31, 2014, I was sitting at a picnic table on the patio of Virgil’s Sea Room in San Francisco. As midnight approached, and the bartenders were handing out free shots of Fernet for the countdown, I was nervously giving last glances to the social media apps on my phone. At the stroke of midnight — after the complementary Fernet — I would delete all of them from my phone, and swear off all social media for the month of January 2015.
The inspiration came by way of the podcast Theory of Everything, specifically from a series that the show had run called “The Dislike Club.” At its start, host Benjamen Walker describes colliding on the street with someone whose gaze is glued to his smartphone. The man doesn’t even look up to correct his course.
That guy could have been me. I am guilty of roving the street like an ant, like a zombie. I knew it was getting bad when I caught myself taking out my phone and flipping through Instagram while waiting in line to buy a movie ticket. There had only been one person in front of me. I put the phone away when the teller called me up. It was about twelve seconds later.
Real life, it seemed, was constantly lived through the filter of a virtual one. Facebook-Twitter-Instagram had become the first thing I did upon waking, the last thing I did before going to sleep, and at pretty much all waking hours in between. Even when I was working on deadline, I would still compulsively check social media several times an hour (“several” is being generous to myself here). I could barely read a book or magazine or even watch TV without engaging elsewhere.
Social media was no longer enjoyable, but I felt powerless to stop using it. At some point I realized that there is a word for this kind of behavior: addiction.
I made it my New Year’s resolution to get clean. But I knew I would need help. And that’s when I reached out to a guy named Matt Farley.
Track 2: Overture to Social Media Detox ►
Matt Farley is an absurdly prolific musician from Danvers, Massachusetts. I had first heard about Matt on an episode of the podcast TLDR (now called Reply All). On the show, Matt told host PJ Vogt how, on the days when he writes music, he can record in the ballpark of 100 songs a day. He has recorded as about 70 different bands.
Matt’s music projects have songs with titles such as “The Freezer’s Broke (Gotta Eat All the Ice Cream),” recorded by The Hungry Food Band. Matt records songs about office supplies, transportation methods, and towns in Ohio (where he has never lived). Under the band name The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, Matt has put out ten albums of songs about poop, pee, and other bodily functions. (In the TLDR episode, Matt told the show’s host P.J. Vogt that he just finished his “Pet Sounds of poop songs,” which includes the surreal and all-too-catchy “Poop Into a Wormhole.”)
Then one day, Matt wrote a song about me. I’m a producer with the radio show and podcast 99% Invisible, of which Matt, it turns out, is a fan. Not only did he write a song for me, he wrote a song for each of my colleagues. The songs are moving and life-affirming — at least for the people whom they are about. For a song about my co-worker Katie Mingle, Matt croons: “Katie Mingle, you are wonderful / Katie Mingle, you’re the best person in the world.” Not the most innovative or ground-breaking lyrics, but still.
I thanked Matt for the songs, and we became friends on Twitter. I even commissioned some songs from him as holiday gifts for a few friends and family members. A song he wrote about my grandma made her cry with happiness; my mom, who lives with her, told me that grandma listens to her song everyday.
And so when I announced on Twitter that I would be doing a social media detox for the month of January, Matt and I came up with an idea: I would text him all the things that I would normally tweet (or post, or ‘gram), and he would use them as inspiration for a new album.
As Matt puts in “Overture to Social Media Detox”:
Instead of sharing a brilliant thought
With people who would never use it
He’s sharing that thought just with me
And I am turning it into music
(This string of texts between Greenspan and Farley became the song “Fist of the Arm.”)
So here was the setup: I had removed Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my phone, though I did not delete my accounts (because the ultimate goal was to return to them). I didn’t set up any blockers on my computer — I just refused to let myself go to those sites. And then I would text Matt whenever there was something I felt compelled to share.
There is something in me that is sympathetic to the notion of subjecting one’s body to difficulty in the pursuit of immaterial growth. This is not to say that I’m much for juice cleanses, meditation retreats, or asceticism in general (I’m not), though in recent years I’ve found myself fasting on Yom Kippur — not because I’m especially religious, but more because a one-day disruption feels like a low barrier to entry into a thousand-year-old tradition that seems to have gained traction. In fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve added difficulty to my Yom Kippur observance — the part of the day that I don’t spend in synagogue I’ve taken to going on really long walks alone. Last year I spent the time in between services walking about fourteen hilly miles of San Francisco, including a trip across the Golden Gate bridge and back, all on an empty stomach. I can’t say for sure if I learned anything from the experience, but I do remember the whitefish salad afterwards seemed especially nourishing.
Abnegation brings the promise of enlightenment — but mostly what it brings you is hassle. When you choose to ascend the mountain, your chances of finding a guru at the top are pretty slim, and the chances of becoming the guru yourself on the way up aren’t much better. Mostly you get exercise. And of course, the view — a view, which in this case, comes with a soundtrack.
Here’s a bit about what it looks (and sounds) like from here.
Track 3: Lunch with Sean ►
Within 48 hours of the detox, Facebook had sent out a search party in the form of an email telling me about my friends’ updates, how many messages I had in my inbox, how many outstanding friend requests, how many likes, how many pokes. To me this was alarming because it meant that 48 hours off of Facebook was enough of an aberration in my activity on the site that Facebook was already wondering what had happened to me. How much time did I normally spend on the site per day? I wasn’t even sure.
I tried forwarding the email to Matt, thinking it could inspiration for a song. But as soon as I did, the email vanished. It wasn’t in my sent folder, and wasn’t in my inbox or trash. Did Facebook feel embarrassed about me sharing their level of concern for my absence?
Counterintuitively, the self-destructing message only strengthened my resolve to not check Facebook. I was curious to see how desperate the messages would get if I didn’t check in. I would get two more auto-destruct messages over the course of the detox. I was able to screen-grab one before it disappeared, and of course, Matt wrote a song about it.
Track 4: Greenspan’s Tempted ►
Being off of Facebook was a bit of a revelation. For the first time in more than ten years, I had the freedom to idly wonder what ever happened to so-and-so from high school and just not know, and not fall down an internet rabbit hole. As hokey as this sounds, I did feel more grounded in the present moment.
Twitter sent out a couple of similar search-party messages, though they seemed less heavy-handed and they did not vanish upon their forwarding. Nor did they diminish my longing for Twitter, which I found myself really missing. I felt cut off from the constant ebb and flow of communication with friends and people whom I admire.
Instagram was in some ways the hardest, though, because it affected my behavior the most directly. For the past year or so I’ve been running a project called 2 Miles of Telegraph, wherein I photograph the same two mile stretch of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland every day as I walk to work. Not having access to Instagram made me take way fewer pictures — and not taking pictures actually made me less observant on my walks. I didn’t like that.
Social media or not, my phone would still be the first thing I’d reach for in the morning, and I’d still find myself idly thumbing through it throughout the day. I checked my email a lot more, played more games, and sometimes would just stare blankly at the hole in the home screen where the apps used to be.
But as hard as all of that was, Matt Farley, for his part, served the perfect social media stand in. Nearly every day I would text Matt some kind of quip or observation or photo, and Matt would always write back right away — which, for some reason, I hadn’t expected. In some ways, it was better than social media; I would send out some thought into the world, and get some kind of validation back immediately.
Of course, some of the functionality I had come to expect was still missing, as Matt sings:
There’s more detoxing left to do
He’s not nearly over it
Cause when he looked down at my text
He thought that he should favorite it.
But then, right at the very end of the month, something strange happened: the social media impulse flatlined. I stopped thinking about quippy things to tweet, stopped wondering what was going on the the twittersphere, stopped feeling remiss about not becoming Facebook friends with people I met.
At the same time, my texts to Matt began to wane. It was like the part of my brain that thinks about communication in that specific way was powering down. I had become complacent in the everyday boredom of existence. And I didn’t find this an altogether good thing.
Because I realized: social media is actually pretty great. The reason that I had become addicted to it is because it’s fun, and it can improve your life. The presence of an audience — no matter how tiny or imaginary — can make your small thoughts feel important and meaningful. And without filling little pockets of time with communication and connection, you’re left facing the perpetual onslaught of the present moment. You’re just waiting in line to buy a movie ticket, or lying in bed avoiding getting up in the morning, or actually just continuing to work even when you want a break to do something — anything — else.
Or as Matt sums up: “It’s really not so hot / being alone with your thoughts”
Track 5: Surprise Ending ►
Since February 1, I’ve been back on social media. I’m not as active as I had been, mostly as a way of keeping sharp the skill of stepping away when I need to. Twitter and Instagram are back on my phone, though I decided to leave Facebook off. I’ve also gotten more selective about what I tweet, as if I had achieved a certain calibration for Matt that I hadn’t yet achieved for the world at large. Put another way:
I was gonna text you something
But then I remembered
That I could just tweet it
But then I didn’t
Track 6: February 1 ►
Matt Farley, true to his word, did put out an album of all the stupid stuff I wrote to him over the month of January. There are songs that are just him singing random stuff that I sent him without any context. Some are dumb, 140-ish-character jokes, many of which are compiled in the song “Jokes!” My favorites, though, are the songs where Matt wrote himself in as a character.
In my head, it plays out as musical theatre: Matt and I at opposite ends of the stage, me sending over larger-than-life word balloons, and him bursting into song. Dancing iPhones and Twitter birds and LOLcats fill out the proscenium. I imagine it like RENT for the modern era, except instead of being about the horror of AIDS and gentrification it’s about productivity and not spending too much time on your smartphone.
I eagerly await this new development. Until then, I’ll be tweeting.