In December 2017, Bryce Gordon was a 20-year-old college student in Bellingham, Washington, when he realized he needed to radically change how he lived his life. He was spending way too much time online.
Most days, he’d return from classes to his apartment, crack open his laptop, and spend the rest of his evening on the internet, browsing Twitter, 4chan, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Sometimes he woke up in the morning still wearing his clothes from the day before, his laptop screen the only source of light in his bedroom. He stopped folding laundry or cooking himself meals. He’d been living like this for years.
“I was doing very poorly in school, neglecting tons of responsibilities and necessities in life,” Gordon says. “I had all these ideas of a life I wanted to lead, but I wasn’t doing it. I started to think more about how that might have to do with my use of the internet.”
That month, he conducted a Google search for “internet addiction, reddit.” The first result that came up: a subreddit community called NoSurf.
A growing awareness of the harmful influence that the internet, and especially social media, has on our lives is fueling a movement to reexamine how we interact with technology. A brave new world of constant connectivity is now our collective soma, complete with troubling psychosomatic conditions: loss of sleep, numbing of creativity, an inability to look others in the eye. In a widely read article in the Atlantic — titled “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?” — sociologist Jean Twenge noted a correlation between depression and internet use, especially among younger users. People born between 1995 and 2012, she wrote, have been shaped by smartphones and social media, whose twin rise “has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever.”
Perhaps no one has been more out front on the topic than Tristan Harris, a disaffected ex-Google product manager who founded the nonprofit Time Well Spent (since renamed the Center for Humane Technology). The titans of the tech industry, Harris said in 2017, are “taking away our agency… to live the lives that we want.”
But years before the steady drumbeat of techno-anxiety, there was NoSurf.
Launched as a subreddit in 2011, NoSurf quickly became home to a growing group of strangers with one thing in common: They all thought the internet was having an adverse, uncontrollable effect on their lives and were looking for mutual commiseration — and help. The irony in turning to a social media site to explore the roots of his problem wasn’t lost on Gordon, but reading posts from the NoSurf community left him feeling reassured that his internet use wasn’t just a personal failing.
“Many people reported the same symptoms I had: difficulties with memory, extreme difficulty concentrating, and feeling unable to stop scrolling through these infinite feeds,” he says.
Thanks to the growing skepticism of technology, NoSurf membership exploded in 2018, from 10,000 people “rewiring” — a popular phrase among NoSurfers — to more than 26,000. It has even sprung a companion website, NoSurf.org, and a manifesto that calls for freedom from absentminded distraction and a connection with real people rather than “pixels on a screen.”
“We just try to steer people away from mindless browsing, where you’re just scrolling through without any real intention,” says Nikhin Kochath, a subreddit moderator and creator of NoSurf.org.
Spreading that message far and wide is the next step for Kochath and his band of conscientious objectors in order to convince more people that avoiding the passive parts of the internet should be a mainstream proposition, not a fringe subculture. The next step, Kochath says, is to take NoSurf offline: create chapters of members across the United States that would connect people face-to-face in real-life meetups. Just one problem: To do that, Kochath expects he’ll need about 100,000 members to join NoSurf, an online community connected by the very force it’s fighting.