I woke up yesterday at 8:15 a.m. and instinctively reached for my MacBook. I checked my emails and how many people had liked the article I wrote yesterday, on which someone had commented that they wanted me to kill myself. I climbed out of bed, showered, brushed my teeth, and made a cup of tea — though not before checking social media again and sending my girlfriend a meme.
At my desk, I spent half an hour scrolling through my Facebook feed, skimming information I have little interest in, like someone with a life sentence reluctantly reading every book in the prison library. Someone I went to school with (we never spoke then, never would now) is getting married. I read a think piece about effective time management, and three pointless articles: an egg exploded in a microwave, a woman lost weight for her wedding, and someone was arrested for punching a police horse. It’s now nearly 11:15 a.m., and nothing in this vortex of irrelevance has helped me pay my rent.
Social media sucks the productivity out of me like this every day, half my time consumed by digital procrastination. I need the internet to work, of course. But my rampant web use doesn’t feel healthy, and certainly isn’t productive. As I write this, I have 27 browser tabs open and only four are related to my work. None of these tools help users to manage their time effectively — quite the reverse.
I’m aware I may have an “addictive personality,” and can be excessive with anything from drugs to Netflix and Pringles. I’m also aware that this susceptibility can be channelled in a positive way; I knew someone who was addicted to crack but got clean, and subsequently became addicted to library books — taking out the maximum amount before borrowing his wife’s library card to get his next hit.
So I decided to quit social media for a month, and when I felt the urge to login, I’d read a book instead. It could be glorious, I decided. It had to be better than where I was.
Day Two: By the second day of my experiment, I’d noticed my muscle memory urging me to type Facebook.com into my browser, like an athlete with a body finely tuned to perform the same motor movement over and over again. This “social media twitch” happened progressively less throughout the month, and every time I felt it, I picked up a book. There were links to social media embedded in a lot of the digital articles I read, and that was hard. Now I know how recovering alcoholics feel when they walk past their local bar every day.
Day Six: Facebook’s omnipotent algorithm had noted my absence, and began to send ever more desperate emails to try to lure me back in.
Day Eight: Facebook had emailed me five times to tell me I had 135 notifications. It felt like inappropriate behavior from an ex-partner, maybe grounds for a restraining order? My cursor hovered over the login; I yearned to see who had sent me friend requests. My mind started to suggest I could have just one look, and then restart the experiment tomorrow, but I resisted, shut my laptop, and picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
There are some reports of people feeling lonely and isolated when they quit social media. I live with 20 other people, so I always have someone to talk to. But I did feel “out of the loop” when it came to some conversations.
Day 12: I was having dinner with my girlfriend and her friends. Despite the fact that, in the U.K., our politicians were taking part in a historic Brexit vote at that very moment — a national tragedy likely to damage our economy for decades — the hot topic of conversation was the stock image of an egg that had amassed over 50 million “likes” on Instagram. It broke the record for “likes” on a single post, previously held by Kylie Jenner.
“Simon doesn’t know about any of this,” said my girlfriend, helpfully, “because he’s taking a break from social media.” I politely nod while considering how many cultural reference points I would miss if I continued my abstinence indefinitely. Could I still write about youth culture, or would I be too out of the loop?
In the past, national TV moments — the Super Bowl’s halftime show, the police pursuit of O.J. Simpson, and Nixon’s resignation speech — used to wield such cultural capital that everyone was talking about them the next day. Now, it’s memes and viral videos and Twitter threads that generate a much more fragmented discourse. I might not have been following some conversations but, hey, I was on my fourth book by then. It seemed worth it.
Day 18: I imagine what the trolls have been posting about my latest article. They probably still wish me dead, but I almost miss their hateful bile; I’ve always enjoyed the writer-troll relationship in a perverse, self-flagellating kind of way. I miss them with the kind of begrudging affection a child might feel for an older sibling who bullies them. When I write for a few hours in the afternoon, I feel sharp and focused. My work is punctuated only by checking for updates on the Brexit catastrophe. Things are looking up (for me, not for the U.K.).
While I did manage to reduce my procrastination, I didn’t totally eliminate it. My ever-creative brain found new ways to distract itself, seeking solace in stranger corners of the web that I found boring before — like using Google Translate to learn funny phrases and saying them to my Spanish housemates.
But nothing is as much of a compulsive time sink as social media. Facebook is my biggest problem, perhaps because I’ve been using it for more than a decade. It’s useful for keeping in touch with people on the other side of the world, and for listings of exhibitions and gigs and club nights — but it’s very hard to isolate these from all the flotsam and jetsam of the news feed.
Stripped back to essentials, Facebook is really a direct contact marketing agency. Facebook’s executives line their pockets with advertising dollars that are generated by our attention. But our attention is one of our most precious resources. I resent being manipulated and my attention diverted away from my work, my personal development, my personal success.
By the end of the month, my social media twitch had almost completely gone, and I’d read five books and three magazines. I no longer ached for a social media dopamine hit first thing in the morning. In fact, my laptop had stayed in my backpack overnight, meaning the quality of my sleep improved because I wasn’t staying up until 2 a.m. watching ludicrous YouTube videos about dead celebrities who are supposedly still alive.