I Left Social Media for a Week. This is What Happened.
Last Thursday morning, I knew with certainty it was coming. Tired, irritable, moody; I shlepped out of bed 2 hours later than I had originally planned and looked at my face in the mirror. My eyes peered back with a glazed tint of emptiness; my skin, flat and pale; my thoughts, cutting. “Pathetic. Sloppy. Worthless.” There had been an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach for the past 2 weeks, a nausea I was becoming familiar with. “Here we go again,” I thought— my second annual visit from depression was impending.
There are plenty of tools I turn to before a mild episode turns serious: sleep, exercise, vitamin D, a natural supplement called 5-HTP. But this time, I knew I had to try something different. I had to make a lifestyle and behavioral change.
I’ve often wondered about the affect technology has on our moods and sense of well-being. We’re social creatures by nature with a thirst for information. Today, there’s no shortage of content to consume, and there’s more people to share it with than ever. Some could argue the digital age is what the industrial era was to the men who build America. Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg are the new Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan. Technology is our new infrastructure. It has evolved the way we communicate; it propels capitalism and our global economy; it is exploited and manipulated along the way. It has fundamentally changed everything, including the way the human brain is wired.
The evolution of the technology sector brings significant improvements to our quality of life. Today, we can escape from our desks and work from anywhere. Mothers and fathers can office from home, allowing us to create stronger bonds within our families. We can preform tasks in half the time, and if we use it wisely, that extra time is ours to spend pursuing more fulfilling objectives. Exotic travel. Training for marathons. Volunteering. Socializing. We have more time to enjoy life, thanks to technology.
Then there’s mass media. And more specifically, mobile media. The newest trillion dollar industry is built to cater to a more efficient world, expanding seamlessly into the time and space where leisure once lived. Their products are designed to act as our fifth limb– to pull at our pleasure sensors– encouraging maximum usage and consumption of content. Delectable, juicy, uselessly tasty content. As a result, mass media filters into our lives through the devices we rely on to make a living.
That’s where it get complicated for me. You are most likely reading this during your coffee break, during the time you could have spent playing with your dog, or calling your mom. My livelihood exists within this mobile media space. It’s where I’ve built W&D, it’s how I’ve connected with readers and followers, it’s where clients find me, it’s where I share inspiration and essays like this one. It’s also where I spend the majority of my own leisure time.
Given the increased frequency of my depressive states and ADD diagnosis, the writing is on the wall. I needed to look closely at my media consumption and technology usage. It’s affecting my health and it’s affecting my life. I needed to figure out why the simple act of sharing a beautiful moment on Instagram had become damaging to my health. If I redesign my living room, or put together a lovely meal, or maybe I’m seeing the world in PERFECT LIGHT, is it the same experience without thousands of “likes” from perfect strangers? Why was I feeling compelled to share every clever thought I had on Twitter? What had Wit & Delight become? What did it mean to me?
So last Thursday, I deleted the apps Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Vine— the forms of social media I abuse most (even though I don’t actively post to all of them)— from my phone and started a mood journal. After a moment of quiet contemplation, like a nervous tick, I thought, “I should tweet about this.”
The three days that followed were terrible. My mood worsened and I became more lethargic. My thoughts were shaming and I began to question taking a career path that requires I stay active on social media. I shamed myself for not pursuing a career of substance and contribution. I wasn’t using the extra time for constructive activities; I was feeling sorry for myself. I missed communicating with the people I follow. I missed sharing my disconnected thoughts on Twitter. At my lowest point, I just wanted to sign on to Facebook to read status updates from people who think the Onion is a real news outlet. I missed the feeling of tumbling down the internet’s rabbit hole at 3am, just like any good addict misses their drug of choice. The question I was left to answer was this: If I don’t share my life on social media, does Wit & Delight exist?
On Sunday, the clouds parted and my mind started to clear. I didn’t reach for my phone. Instead, I made my first batch of homemade ricotta and blueberry balsamic ice cream for a dinner we were hosting earlier in the week. I started a loaf of no-knead bread for the smattering of crostini we’d serve and looked into wine pairings. That afternoon, I began our bathroom makeover, selected light fixtures and picked out wallpaper. I napped with our puppy and played in the leaves. We went on walks. Instead of wasting hours watching HGTV and flipping through Twitter, I listened to the classical radio station, read the book on my night stand and flipped through old holiday issues of Gourmet before falling asleep at 10:30. When I woke up, I had more energy and clarity than I had in years. I began to remember what it was like pre-Instagram, when I’d spend all day doing the things that delighted me without posting an entry in my visual diary.
The little experiment did shed light on my reliance on social media, and in many ways, my mood is just as affected by other distractions on my phone and computer. I’m feeling much better, but I’m still at risk of slipping to another depressive state. All that aside, the process ended up being surprisingly cyclical. I was reminded that my social media footprint was created to promote self-discovery, and that doesn’t have to change, because Wit & Delight existed before it’s content reached millions. It’s a point of view and a filter; it’s my leisure, my creative laboratory, my outlet. Somehow along the way, I forgot to take the time to savor and process these moments myself, and for my little family. Wit & Delight is a part of me– a real, live, human being. A real life that I live, and will continue to live, should I decide to part with social media for good.
Plenty of people navigate the mobile media world with ease and grace. Plenty of people have unhealthy relationships with mass media and technology. The point of sharing my experiment is to discuss the link between social sharing and our mental well-being, and to raise questions about the relationship and reliance on our digital footprint. How real and impactful is an online persona? Does this mean it is essential to become more human in the digital world? If yes, how do we do it with authenticity, care, and purpose? Is curating a hyper-idealized, editorial version of yourself just another way of catfishing your followers? How do we be more human without disclosing too much of ourselves? Or, will be have to find new ways to cope with our connectedness in order to keep up with an increasingly digital environment?
I’m not sure how to answer these questions yet, but they’ve got me heading in the right direction. After all, it’s not about how other people are using social media, it’s about setting our own boundaries. Given all the new questions I’m left pondering, I did come up with a few learnings from the week off line:
1. Presence is important. It is a requirement for self-awareness. It requires paying attention, not being the center of attention.
2. Pleasure and privacy are to be taken seriously.
3. Social media itself isn’t really the problem, it’s how you use it.
4. A performance for an audience of one can be just as impactful as one for the masses.
5. I’m happiest living between the crinkled pages of Gourmet Magazine, head in the clouds, heart in the kitchen.
In closing, I wanted to share a little excerpt from “Letters to a Young Artist”, by Anna Deavere Smith.
“Presence is not the same as attracting attention. It’s not a gimmick, it’s not a brand. I said previously that presence was about “grabbing the light.” No. It’s about finding the light and being a part of it. These days, I believe the light might just be in the audience, with the public, in the world, among the possibilities of “us” as human beings rather than in the language of “self.”
Tomorrow morning, Wit & Delight goes “on line” again. On Friday, I’m heading to Savannah with Joe for a little bit of work and a little bit of pleasure. You’ll see instagrams and tweets along the way. We’ll share pleasures and discoveries. There will be wit; there will be delight. Most importantly, there will be moments left undocumented for the sake of finding the light, being in the audience, and getting outside ourselves. Here’s to less media and a more thoughtful way of being social.
Thank you– as always– for allowing this space to be a safe one for me to explore and experiment.
Your Brain on Computers, Matt Mitchell (NYT)
“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.” That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”
The Coolest Girl You Know Probably Uses a Flip Phone, Chiara Atik (Matter)
“No, Judith doesn’t Instagram. She doesn’t Venmo or tweet either. Somehow, she is able to flirt with boys without using an arsenal of Emojis. If someone needs to reach her, they can call her or send a text-only SMS. If she’s around, she’ll get back to you, but sometimes, she’s just not around.”
How to be a Human Being on the Internet, Rachel Hills (What Rachel Did Next)
“But on the internet, there’s not really a graceful way to bow out – at least, not without making a big “I’M LEAVING THE INTERNETS” scene. And then… what if you wanted to come back a couple of weeks later?”
On Self-Respect, Joan Didion (Slouching Toward Bethlehem)
“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses.”
PS: If you can’t laugh at this, you’re taking your Instagram page too seriously.