FLORIDA SUMMER is in full swing when my mother gets her first smartphone. Palms sway and a fluorescent pool gleams beyond the porch where we sit, she trying to decipher her new gadget and me doing my best to be helpful without laughing.
“What the hell is this all about?” my mother says, showing me a short video clip from Instagram in which my friend stands beside a pool, wearing a bright smile and a black one-piece, décolleté bathing suit. In her hand, she’s holding a Solo cup inside an inflatable flamingo drink holder, and as the video plays on loop, her hand moves up and down repeatedly, as if toasting the viewer.
I can’t stop myself from laughing. “That’s a Boomerang,” I say. “It’s made with an app that lets you capture one motion and then repeats it over and over again.”
My mother looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. “What’s the point?”
“It’s supposed to be cute, I guess.”
“Really?” she says, mimicking my friend’s Boomerang with a wicked smile on her face, her wild curls bouncing as she exaggerates the movement.
I crack up. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Okay, okay. What about this?” she asks, holding up another photo of a girl I grew up with. Her mouth is in a pout and her face is painted with thick layers of makeup. “I don’t get it,” my mother continues, scrolling through pictures of the same woman making the same pouty face but with different makeup color schemes.
I take a closer look. “See,” I say, pointing to the hashtags below the picture. “She’s posting about the makeup.” I click on one of the hashtags to show my mother what I mean. “Other people who are into this makeup brand use the same hashtag and then they can see each other’s pictures.”
My mother stares as dozens of selfies load, each woman wearing matching frozen smiles and impeccable makeup. “But why?” “I don’t know!” I say, throwing my hands up. “Just unfollow her if you don’t want to see her posts anymore.”
“Unfollow? How do I do that?”
With a few clicks, I show my mother how it’s done.
“I don’t know why I was following her in the first place,” she says with a scowl.
“You must have followed her.” I laugh. “You can’t just follow someone by accident.”
My mother ignores me and continues scrolling through her Instagram feed. Around us, night falls fast. A cloak of humidity closes in and the chirp of frogs and insects grows louder.
“Who’s crossfitqueen? And why is this guy always posting pictures of his muscles? And what’s up with this lady?” She leans over to show me a grid of cake pictures.
“Some people are into baking,” I say with a shrug.
“I can see that,” my mother replies. “How do I unfollow again?”
I sigh. How to explain the world of selfies and hashtags to my mom? Looking at it from her perspective, as a newbie to social media, I can see how ridiculous and inane it all seems. And yet, social media is an indispensable part of many people’s lives, including my own.
WHILE MY MOTHER continues to dive deeper into the world of social media, commenting up a storm on Facebook photos and following strangers on Instagram, I have decided to move in the opposite direction.
A few months before showing my mother how to navigate Instagram, while on vacation in Iceland, my boyfriend proposed to me on a craggy shore overlooking the northern Atlantic. I said yes without hesitation. But despite the magic of the moment — the wind in our hair, the passion in my beloved’s eyes, the taste of salt on his lips — my thoughts quickly turned toward the next pressing question: how was I going to announce this on social media?
As innocuous as this thought was, I’d grown tired of social media’s constant presence in my life. After an anxiety-inducing presidential election, my use of social media had gone from mild to obsessive. My partner and I had been dating long-distance for the past year, relying on apps to keep our transatlantic love connection alive. What had once been a fun way to keep in touch with friends had turned into a full-on fixation. I decided it was time for a break. Why not get off social media for a year? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all of it.
I proposed my idea to my partner. We were on the cusp of moving to South America for a yearlong teaching gig. The timing would be perfect. “Think about it,” I said with a twinkle in my eye. “We can just be in Colombia — really be present, instead of living our lives on the internet.”
He jumped on board 100 percent and we set a date to start our experiment. But as the day drew nearer, I found that I got a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I thought about our social media sabbatical. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe I’d gotten carried away with the excitement of starting our new life. Not only was I going to be far from my friends and family, but I wouldn’t have social media to bridge the distance. Whose idea was this anyway?
My friends validated my fears. “How are you going to keep in touch with everyone?” they cried. “And how are we going to see pictures of your life?” The underlying question seemed to be this one: how will you survive without social media?
And hidden beneath my own reminders to them about my hiatus from social media was a deeper message: don’t forget about me. I’m still here, I wanted to say, even though you won’t happen upon my emo posts or rant-y tweets or doctored selfies.
It’s one thing to move to a new country, but an important aspect of our contemporary identity is still intact as long as we remain connected to the digital world. We can move across the globe or never leave our house, all the while remaining connected to our friends and family via social media.
I couldn’t help but wonder: who would I be without this digital version of myself?
AT A READING I attended, the Norwegian writer Karl Knausgaard was asked about his views on social media. He declared from the podium that “Twitter is hell.” He put Facebook in the same category. “Presenting the self as an image,” he said, “that is the opposite of what I’m trying to do.” He went on to say that “identity is a story” and that his purpose as a writer is to “dissolve the image.” Knausgaard advised the audience to “destroy the identity that you have, crush it and create something new.”
I’ve been creating a digital persona for half of my life. Over the last sixteen years, I’ve crafted an online identity, presenting myself as an easily digestible profile page that is readily available to all who know me and many who don’t. I signed up for my first LiveJournal account when I was around fourteen. This was during the MySpace era, and while I also maintained a MySpace profile, LiveJournal was my platform of choice. It was a digital world where entire arguments, conversations, friendships, and love connections could occur online.
Like most of my high school friends, I spent hours painstakingly tweaking and perfecting my journal’s design. I posted photos, personal news, mundane anecdotes, sappy song lyrics, angsty rants, ambiguous messages about unrequited love, inside jokes, daily observations, lists of goals, inspirational quotes. I joined groups for people who liked traveling or obsessing over boys with shaggy hair. Through these groups, I made “friends” with other users around the country, following their lives on their page, exchanging comments and likes on their posts. Missteps were easy to make, though; every post had to be carefully crafted to convey a level of “with it”-ness. There was a fine line between being an active user and posting so much that you were deemed overeager and therefore uncool.
What was the object of this game? To be liked. To have friends. To be seen. To be cool. To be understood. To leave your mark. To make a statement. To be heard. To have more followers. To get the most likes and comments on our posts.
Sixteen years later, little has changed. Although my LiveJournal is long defunct, the need to maintain an online persona remains. These days, my platform of choice is Facebook. I’ve been a user since it first began as a network connecting students at a limited number of New England Ivy League schools. Along with many of my high school classmates, I waited with impatience for my new email address from the college where I’d be matriculating in the fall. This was the key necessary to unlock the vault of secrets that was “The Facebook,” as it was then known. With its handsome mascot watching over users from the left corner of the page, all of my friends longed to be a part of this elite club.
It’s been twelve years since I joined Facebook. I’ve grown up with the darn thing. It’s been with me through many milestones: the incomparable college years, my nebulous twenties, my first job, graduate school, the 2016 election. Together, we’ve weathered a lot of storms. Until my social media sabbatical began, I’d probably checked it nearly every single day of my life for the previous dozen years.
When I first signed up for a Facebook account, there was no news feed. My wall was a static field that friends could alter with written messages and silly designs made from backslashes and arrows. But Facebook has become a dynamic, living thing that we interact with entirely differently today than before. You can see who is actively online. Your news feed is updated incessantly with the latest posts by your friends, family members, acquaintances, and any advertisers that Facebook has deemed of interest to you. Your main page has a news reel on the right side, often updated with the most clickbait-worthy titles. While there were no instant messaging or video capabilities back in the early days, now you can watch live videos of your friends or favorite musicians, engaging with them in real time. There are millions of ways to interact with others on Facebook, even without posting or liking a single thing.
What started out as a way for me to express myself and communicate with a community of friends near and far, known and unknown, has since transformed into something far more complex. Social media has become the way that I participate in my democracy, the way that I inform myself, the way that I find inspiration, the way that I find out about great music, books, ideas, and podcasts, and the way that I receive a steady transfusion of contemporary media.
As my social media sabbatical drew near, I wondered: how will I stay current? And what will happen if I don’t? Will I die of boredom without a stream of clickbait Buzzfeed articles and politically charged memes? Will the world end if I don’t stay abreast of pop culture? Or will something else take the place of social media as my window into the world?
THE FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” started before I even deactivated my social media accounts. As I began to wean myself off of social media, I found myself preemptively missing all the things I loved about these platforms: the fun times memorialized in pictures, the sometimes-meaningful and oftentimes-banal life updates, the lighthearted memes, the sense of community that I got from scrolling through my feeds.
I had not expected my FOMO to extend to events that I actually attended. For example, a few months after I’d deactivated my accounts, I attended the wedding of a friend from college, knowing that my social media absence meant that I was missing out on a barrage of photos that would be posted later. Although I had gone to the wedding itself, I still felt left out because I couldn’t participate in the memory-making that occurred online after the fact. To avoid this feeling, during a birthday weekend at the beach, I made a friend save her Snapchats and send them to me by email. Does this count as cheating? Perhaps. Being off of social media also means missing out on the opportunity to relive experiences online by sharing pictures and videos with our community, where the experiences are enhanced by filters and the memory-making continues through commenting.
Nearly at the end of my one-year sabbatical, I’m still getting used to the feeling of being out of the loop. Not only do I miss out on the process of documenting our collective memory, but I don’t have a say in that documentation either. Not having a social media presence does not negate other people’s ability to post pictures or information about me online, but at least being on social media meant that I could be vigilant about which pictures were posted with me in them. Now, someone could post a photo of me picking my nose and I’d be none the wiser. When an old friend from high school reached out after learning that my father was very ill, I wondered how she’d found out. As it turns out, since my sister is still on social media, my family business is still fodder for the feed.
I couldn’t help but wonder: who would I be without this digital version of myself?
After over a decade and a half of using these platforms, I’ve grown attached to the act of participating. I’m accustomed to sharing funny observations or interesting articles with my community. Before my sabbatical, I would scroll through my vacation pictures and contemplate which ones to include in a post and what caption to write in tandem. Now those photographs stay on my hard drive and never make it out into the world, besides a few that I might email to my mom or a close friend. Without a platform to share them on, they never have a second life beyond my camera.
I’m not alone in my sharing addiction. Research shows that sharing information about ourselves fires up the pleasure centers in our brain. How we share that information differs by platform. Twitter, for example, only allows users a limited number of characters with which to express themselves. Instagram deals exclusively in images. Facebook combines images, texts, videos, and articles, allowing users to craft a persona from a variety of media. LiveJournal, on the other hand, required more thought. You could work on a draft of your post before making it public, a function that has become less common on contemporary social media platforms. In fact, the newest social media platforms don’t encourage much reflection at all. Snapchat was the first to develop disappearing images — anything uploaded by the users vanishes within a set period of time — and the technique has been mimicked by both Instagram and Facebook. The impulse to share can still be sated without a commitment to longevity. Perhaps this kind of ephemeral sharing is closer to the way we share with one another in real life.
Although I knew that I’d miss out on a lot of things by quitting social media for a year, I assumed the bulk of it would be political memes and engagement announcements. It never occurred to me that I would miss out on important life events, until I learned that a friend of mine had passed away — three weeks after the fact. When she didn’t answer several of my messages, I decided to reach out by email, and that’s when her partner replied and shared the news of her death. We didn’t have many friends in common and I wasn’t close to her family, so there was no one to inform me of what had happened. The family had shared the obituary and the information about her memorial on her Facebook page, but, obviously, I’d never received the message.
I was in complete shock that I had believed her to be alive during those three weeks when she was in fact already gone. In an age of Amazon Alexa and predictive text, this feeling of unknowing was deeply unsettling and wholly unfamiliar. My first reaction was to reactivate my Facebook account and go straight to her profile. I felt an urge to connect with the deceased, as well as with the community of people who shared my loss. I clicked through all of her photographs, read every message posted to her wall after her passing, and added my own sentimental note, albeit belated. But my social media sabbatical had deprived me of the chance to mourn her death communally.
THE ADDICTIVE NATURE of social media is undeniable but it should not be surprising. Tech companies employ engineers, strategists, and principles from the casino gambling industry in order to make their platforms more addictive. Even worse than the theft of our time and productivity, though, is the research that shows how this addiction affects our ability to empathize with others. According to digital media strategist Allison Graham, social media makes us unsocial and increases depression. What are we searching for each time we touch, swipe, or tap our phones — the estimated 2,617 times a day we do so?
And yet, the power of social media as a communication tool is obvious. I have spoken to artists and activists who say that they could never have achieved success in their work without social media. These platforms allow them to share their messages, products, art, and ideas with a large audience — for free. They amplify the reach of “word of mouth,” resulting in viral videos, worldwide movements, and successful online businesses.
Although I’ve been an active social media user for half of my life, I’ve never capitalized on my digital persona. But the entrepreneurial potential is definitely there, for those who want to harness it. Ask a classroom of kids what they want to be when they grow up and I promise you that more than one will say they want to be a Snapchat star. Some families supplement their income by crafting popular YouTube channels. Who knew that quitting your job to live in a van and document your Instagram-worthy adventures could pay the bills?
On the other hand, the power of social media can be used against its unsuspecting users. For example, it is believed that law enforcement agents used social media to monitor and track Standing Rock water protectors. And the innocuous LiveJournal from my youth has had quite a colorful history since the early 2000s: around the time that American teens gave up LiveJournal for Facebook, LiveJournal became the dominant platform for Russians to exercise free speech and criticize their government. Since its servers were hosted in the United States, the Kremlin could not access personal data about its users or prosecute dissenters. But when LiveJournal was purchased by a Russian media company and its servers were relocated to Russia, many prominent bloggers were imprisoned; some have even disappeared.
I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE backing away from social media. Surf the web and you’ll find blogs, books, and TED talks about the benefits of getting off the social media hamster wheel. The writer Neil Gaiman went on a six-month social media sabbatical in order to reacquaint himself with boredom, the place where, according to him, all new ideas are born. Other artists and entertainers have done the same. But what is most interesting to me is the response from the tech engineers who created this phenomenon. A 2017 report in The Guardian profiles several “Silicon Valley heretics” who went from designing these products to challenging them. The tech executive who designed Facebook’s “like” button, for instance, has compared Snapchat to heroin and has set up a parental-control feature on his phone that restricts his ability to download apps. Two former Google employees have founded an advocacy group called Time Well Spent that aims to encourage big tech companies to think more ethically about the products they make.
One of my friends, Jay, has boycotted Facebook and Instagram in an effort to engage in conscious consumption. When she buys organic and fair-trade products, she uses her buying power to support companies whose values are in line with hers. Her time and energy are equally valuable resources and she doesn’t want to spend them on social media platforms that she believes further disadvantage the oppressed. For example, Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has blocked several women for posting “Men are trash” messages, categorizing it as hate speech. In the meantime, the company has done little to curtail illegal gun sales from happening on its sites. Jay also dumped Facebook because she believes that the 2016 presidential election would have had a different outcome if it weren’t for the social media site, and she wasn’t alone: in the third quarter of 2017, Facebook lost one million North American users.
Since giving up social media, Jay says that her self-confidence has increased and her anxiety has diminished. For a long time, she says, social media acted as an emotional balm, masking the true feeling of isolation that lay beneath the surface. She realizes that social media was her way of grasping at connection but that what she received was only the shadow of what she was searching for. Now, whenever she feels the impulse to check Facebook or Instagram, she uses it as a reminder to do something meaningful: take a walk, make art, or reach out to a friend.
AFTER ALL THESE YEARS spent crafting my digital world, editing out the ugly and highlighting the desirable, it’s heartening to learn that I can still live a fulfilling life without staging it on social media platforms. As an extroverted, creative person, I sometimes miss the ability to express myself in this multimedia way. But I don’t miss the low-level performance anxiety that was constantly buzzing in my mind — an anxiety that I didn’t even know I had until I embarked on this experiment. I’ve always been attuned to what other people think about me, and social media intensified that self-consciousness. On Facebook or Twitter, someone is always watching and, perhaps, judging you.
This sabbatical has made me realize how much mental and emotional energy was wrapped up in my pursuit of perfection — outwardly apparent perfection. On social media, I could be the perfect friend who never forgets birthdays, the writer who displays her accomplishments, the jet-setter who keeps fit and stays happy and has a great social life and an abundant garden and an attentive boyfriend. I could be the perfect illusion of a woman who “has it all.” Now I no longer spend my time carefully curating and fabricating that illusion.
Many people who have quit Facebook or social media liken it to getting off of a drug. It has lodged itself in our lives in deep-seated ways. Getting off of social media has made me realize how pervasive the addiction had been for me. The impersonal interactions I was having on its platforms had taken the place of deeper, more meaningful interactions — with art, with knowledge, with entertainment, with democracy, with activism, with friendships. I turned to social media with the desire to connect, but what I got was only the impression of connection and community, not the real deal.
Every action on social media necessitates a reaction. When do we cross the line from acting authentically to acting in anticipation of the reaction? Without social media, I don’t have any of the external indicators by which I’ve learned to validate myself over the years, such as “likes” or “shares.” I still crave the dopamine hits that I used to get from being seen and liked on social media, and I still find ways to waste time online. But, in the way that a liquid fast gives our digestion a break from solid foods, this twelvemonth social media sabbatical has given me a chance to step away from something that I engaged with every single day and reflect on that relationship.
In a way, I live my life more for myself now, not for my friends or followers. I’ve been freed from the pressure of always thinking in the back of my mind, “How will I turn this into something Instagram-worthy?” Now that my focus has shifted, I have more mental and emotional space for less photogenic — but no less important — aspects of my life: cultivating a healthy relationship with my partner, learning the delicate balance of caretaking, creating a space for personal and spiritual growth. I live my life less “out loud.” Because I’m not always thinking about how best to display the performance of my life online, I can wholeheartedly experience the beauty and pain and ordinariness of each moment — without an audience. O