In the fall of 2019, I read Anne Helen Peterson’s piece on Millennial burnout. The article shed new light on the static state of my life. For two out of nearly three years at my job, I had been saying I would quit any minute now; “find a general practitioner” had been sitting on my to-do list for about as long. Peterson’s article led me to consider that my media consumption habits had eroded the quality of my mind. Although, it was hard to put my finger on how, exactly, I was not doing well. My life was fine; great, in fact. With a full time, adequately paid job, place to call home, good health, and an excellent support system, I had a lot more than I needed and somewhat more than I wanted. I was just unsettled. An existential crisis had been riding my ass relentlessly for three years.
Sometimes I think Millennials had the best childhood; it started at dial-up and ended with smart phones. Growing up in the 2000’s, my friends and I cyber-bullied with MySpace Top 8's, sent grainy nudes, flirted, stalked, and genuinely shook with laughter at memes all of us now cringe at (looking at you, Your ECards). By the time we stopped cutting our own bangs and learned how to do our eyebrows, cameras and social media had caught up to capture our transformations. Mind followed body; we were now old enough to vote. Women’s Studies 101 had those fingers flying, telling off your conservative uncle on Facebook with one hand and liking your bff’s throwback post with the other. Twitter morphed from comedy constrained by 140 characters to my main news source post-college. Over the years, a mindless hunger grew in the pit of my heart; I could not get enough breaking news. I thought it was thrill that rose up inside of me, to know the world’s business as the story broke. Now I think it was a pitiful desire for control, like I could combat Trumps actions and climate change and white supremacy simply by knowing about it and liking a Tweet.
By the fall of 2019, my brain felt rewired by technology. Humans aren’t supposed to have this many options available to them; our technology has evolved past our capacity. I suspected that I needed to slow down and take time to dig into things to rid myself of existential depression. I wanted to give my brain complex topics to mull over, instead of a new one every five minutes.
Also, I could not stop thinking about cephalopods. Octopuses have neurons in their eight arms; their limbs think, in addition to their brain. Nearly their entire bodies take in information and process it at the source. Octopuses put their intelligence to good use, operating as masters of disguise and escape, causing problems for aquariums all over the world. They also only live for about three to five years, deteriorating rapidly. Cells that could change their color, pattern, and texture in mere seconds turn the heather pallor of death and slough off, dust to dust. As my own brain turned to ashes, too light for me to gather, I thought perhaps the way octopuses consume and process information with almost their entire bodies leads to over-stimulation, short lives, and deaths akin to spontaneous combustion.
So, I set the goal of one year, zero social media. From using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram daily to not once in 2020. An hour before midnight, December 31st, 2019, I logged out and deleted all of the apps off of my phone. I also purged myself of Buzzfeed and generally tried to not look at tweets or social media posts that came up in articles.
I didn’t feel longing or loss right away, but I did have to immediately readjust to boredom. Not that I didn’t feel bored pre-media purge. Sometimes my timelines would dry up and I’d desperately refresh them for crumbs of content. There’s also the idle boredom that comes from scrolling. Before my cleanse, I didn’t really feel anything when I saw a funny tweet. I’m a very physically oriented person. I know I’m excited because my heart races. There’s a head high that accompanies joy. I cry hot tears out of just frustration. Social media doesn’t bring me any of that, or “wholesome” short videos, nor listicles or binge watching into utter numbness. Without social media, I felt the type of boredom that harkened back to childhood. The kind where you started cleaning your room out of pure ennui. This time though, my room was already clean, so I turned to my life. Of course, I cannot contribute all of my 2020 accomplishments to erasing social media from my life, but on paper, I accomplished a lot. Over the course of the year, I got a new job and began it during the first few weeks of quarantine. I spent at least one evening a week teaching myself how to paint. I read 126 books, novellas and graphic novels. I applied to grad school. I self-published a novel. Oh, I got a GP.
Socially, it was really tough. My social life feels like a wash if I’m not regularly making new friends or catching up with old ones. There would be moments where all my friends were on their phones and I was staring at them or the wall. Sometimes, I would just open my phone and look at the weather app like “hm, looks like Sunday we have a 30% chance of rain.” I thought my life had slowed down a lot and then quarantine hit, turning my air into Jell-O. I was staying in one place. Spending regular quality time with about four people. To my delight, they grew in my heart, like the Grinch, by tenfold sizes. I cared what they thought and how they felt. Not just cared, but that became my life with little else to focus on or worry about. Investing more and more thoughtfully in my relationships was the most rewarding part of the entire experience. I would have been satisfied if growing closer to my friends and loved ones was all I gained from 2020.
Without social media, one of the biggest changes was figuring out how to get news. There was a point this summer when I resorted to listening to a police scanner app and looking for YouTube videos because there was a profound lack of coverage of the protests in Chicago sparked by the death of George Floyd. I switched from getting news from tweets and journalists I followed to reading actual newspaper articles. I highly recommend the experience of reading an article and forming your own opinions and questions first, instead of reading opinions on social media and then only maybe reading an article on the subject. I’m being 30% snarky and 70% sincere.
Feeling refreshed by all this love, blooming wildly inside of me, I finally found the answer to the question that weighed on me for years, why don’t I feel like myself? One day in December, 2020, I realized that I had been suffering from what I’m coining as trauma-induced nihilism. It took a full eleven months off of social media to find my answer. From 2016 — 2017, I spent a year working at a legal aid. Cases of domestic violence, housing crises, and public benefits crossed my desk and mind. Towards the end of my tenure, I started having nightmares and had to take a break from domestic violence cases. Those cases also sparked buried feelings about my own experiences with poverty and abuse. This weight followed me everywhere I went, not letting me take other peoples’ problems seriously. After mustering up the professional calm required to look a father of two in the eyes and having to tell him there was nothing we could do for him, I could not go home and listen with an ounce of compassion to my white, college-educated boyfriend complain about his well-paying job. The worst part was actually leaving that job for one more cushy, a position in fundraising. I felt impotent without my hands on someone’s actual life.
The pandemic and working from home exacerbated the silence I had always dreaded, afraid of the rabbit holes I could spin down if I was alone for too long. There were periods of grief, bitter loneliness, weakness, defeat. I was rejected, by people and by publishers. The world burned in a multitude of ways and I did not have enough water to throw on it and still quench my own thirst. This time, though, I was fine. I was better than fine by the end of the year. I could feel myself calming down, giving myself time to make decisions that felt good. I’ve been working on my hot temper for years, as well as trying to be more vulnerable. I have multiple examples of succeeding in these areas and this time I took a moment to feel proud. I wrote about these moments in my diary because it was such a marked change from the year before. It was also infinitely easier to strike a balance between work, leisure, and activism when I wasn’t reading about every ill known to man once an hour. Scrolling through other peoples thoughts for a certain of number of hours every day is taking away from being generous to your own.
One thing I can certainly attribute to not using social media is that I feel like I got my opinion back. Without the pressure of coming up with a hot take for every single days news, and not hearing other peoples, I got to do the work. I think a lot of people, especially white people, jump to “ally” or “woke” without doing the actual work because they can easily read and parrot other peoples opinions all day long. On a small scale, god, it is so cringey to watch non-Black Gen Z kids speak in AAVE. On a large scale, racism, sexism, homophobia are clearly not just boomer ills.
When you are performing for your followers, the span of topics that you feel pressured to talk about is unrealistic. You cannot have a full time job, social life, hobbies, and be able to have keen, well-informed takes on the next Supreme Court decision, problematic celebs, local and state politics, environmental racism, and what a shit show WW84 was. Since everyone can have a take and make it public, we forget and overshadow that a lot of the people who have an elegant opinion on these topics worked years, perhaps decades, to get there. They laid the groundwork by learning in their careers, hobbies, or years of schooling. It’s not fair of other people to expect you to comment on the Capitol coup in real time instead of tweeting a picture of your lunch; it’s especially not fair to expect this of your self. I’d like to posit that current events jokes and takes and commentary are as vain as a Facetuned selfie. You’re begging people to look at you, people who don’t care.
I dreaded returning to social media but knew it must be done, because of my own vain desires (yes, I wanted to know who slid into my quarantine DM’s), and to mark this time, measure my success. Many people I follow are posting the same things into the same abyss. There are moments where I’m back at it, my thumbs constantly dragging across my screen to refresh my feed. 2021 me, though, has perspective. I know the power of social media with regard to activism but I can almost promise you, you are not a part of that. We’re just perpetuating virtual capitalism, doomscrolling dollars into rich peoples pockets by obsessing and liking and creating and advertising so much content that billionaires need do nothing to survive. It greatly lessened my own feelings of futility to stop tweeting and retweeting combative, snarky, and defeatist comments. What time in your life, before social media consumed it, did you so constantly feel defeated?
There are very few genuine moments of vulnerability on the internet; they’re all a commodity and over-consumption will likely lead you to undervalue your own intimate moments, or skip feeling them entirely in favor of immediately figuring out how to frame them to your followers. It’s cool that celebrities are opening up about, say, miscarriages, but can you say in good faith that they’re doing anything for the quotidian events of your life? Your middle-aged male gyno isn’t reading Chrissy Teigen’s op-ed and becoming more compassionate towards you. While she sells cookbooks to become even more unnecessarily rich, you’re too afraid or too lazy to speak up to people in your own life. Your boss isn’t going to stop perpetuating systemic racism because he saw a tweet you helped make viral, but your voice could help your Black or female co-worker. You can certainly do both, but are you?
I did miss my friends faces, their voices and jokes, their babies first steps. I can’t expect them to text me every update about their new haircut or something fun they tried for dinner; that’s not the world we live in anymore. I’m so excited to see those people and moments now with regularity. I’m working on stripping my accounts down to be a timeline of people I care about. Love, joy, that sense that you’re home, I spent a year with those feelings fully as moments to live in instead of episodes on my story. Once again, the stakes of my life feel high, nihilism tempered to healthy levels. I am no longer afraid I will crumble from the onslaught of a bright blue glow. It’s like my heart got put back in my body, ready to beat for the little things like it did when I was a kid. Maybe when I’m done editing this, I’ll find my crush’s number in the phone book and see if he’s home.