I’ve stopped using Facebook and Twitter for Lent. I thought this might prove difficult, given how easy it is to log in and spend time on them without really meaning to. But it’s not. Change the passwords to something random you can’t remember, don’t tell your browser, and remove anything from your phone that might push a notification into your pocket and make your ears burn.
Social media works by making you think that you need to be connected, need to be fighting off messages with a repost here, a witty comment there, a rebuttal there. But you don’t need this; you didn’t need it before you signed up for the sites, and it’s pretty easy to walk away from them without feeling too disconnected, as long as you can avoid the notifications. This blog and another couple of sites that I use still update Twitter and Facebook automatically, and I’m happy for my robotic voice to ping out into the ether without my knowing, sending you back here – my own website – if you choose to come. But I haven’t posted anything manually for two and a half weeks, and will have no difficulty at all maintaining that until Easter, or beyond if I decide to.
I’m not sure entirely what I was expecting from going partially offline, or why I decided to go ahead and do it. I’ve had pangs of guilt over occasionally checking Facebook at work, and have occasionally found myself feeling pretty unsatisfied despite the time I’ve just spent on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve also sometimes wondered what else I might be able to do with my time; I’ve used both sites pretty intensively for a few years now, and it’s easy to forget what we did before they contrived to grab a lot of my spare attention.
But I haven’t abandoned them to prevent myself wasting time. To procrastinate is something we do: a verb, not something that happens to us. The knowledge that one should be doing something else is what makes it a guilty pleasure, and therefore more tempting even than straightforward enjoyment. I have never found it hard to fritter away time, and I don’t need the internet to help me.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons not to use social media. The more persuasive ones focus on the vast quantities of data that we obligingly give to large and unaccountable companies. I generally buy into the idea that in exchange for all that data you’re gaining access to all sorts of useful things, but I only have to search through old folders on my computer to realise that it’s hard to control the proliferation of copies, and keeping one’s online footprint no larger than necessary is difficult when your every post leaves digital tracks somewhere in a distant data centre. It’s with that in mind that I recently deleted most of my photos from Facebook.
But none of those reasons were in my mind when I changed my passwords. There is no coherent plan, nor a long-term objective. If I want to, I will use social media again after Easter, and maybe as much as before. I can’t even remember ever having given up anything for Lent before. This was more like an itch I have been wanting to scratch, an experiment of sorts. Some time ago I decided I was going to leave these sites altogether. I never actually followed through with this. But the itch was still there.
What am I finding from my experiment? I’ve definitely noticed a few moments where I’ve taken in my surroundings rather than looking at my phone screen. This has been especially true on the bus, where my first instinct on sitting down has been to reach for my phone. Instead, sitting on the 44 the other day, the thought came to me that the London bus is a wonderful mobile balcony from which to watch the world, and I half-remembered part of a poem that my friend Kristin once showed me:
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
(An aside: of course, I wanted to go online to check whether I’d remembered it rightly (I hadn’t!), but I managed to resist temptation and do it when I got home. I don’t think I’d ever be able to, or would want to, stop using the internet for this kind of factual reference; it was the first thing about the digital age that really blew my mind, and it’s still the thing that most impresses me. I have always been obsessed by trivia, ever since I was a little boy.)
I am also reading more than I was reading before I stopped using Facebook and Twitter. Or rather, I’m reading more actively, and longer. By ‘actively’, I mean that I’m reading things I decided it would be interesting to read, rather than whatever was linked to most recently in today’s news feed. (It helps that I’ve joined a book group and also that I’ve been doing a lot of train travel lately!) I’m not sure I buy the argument that the internet lessens attention spans, but I’m absolutely certain that social media makes me a more passive reader, and passivity is as much of a problem if you’re gorging on telly as it is if you’re just spending time browsing others’ Facebook feeds.
A friend phoned me up the other day, to ask how I was doing, given that he hadn’t read anything from me on Facebook lately. This was an unexpected but genuine pleasure, and made me realise how often I rely on social media or email when actually talking to someone is just as nice. Likewise, talking to my parents on Sunday evening via internet video call, I had the pleasure, not available on the phone, of making silly faces at my young cousins and having silly faces made back at me. I wore a big smile for some time afterwards.
But I think the biggest gain over the last few weeks has been having more space in my routine. Not much – it’s not like I’m any less busy than I was. But without the phone telling me that this has been retweeted, or that someone else has commented on that, I have a slightly emptier head. Before, I think I saw notifications from social media as an important way of staying in touch. But that’s why they are so insidious. In fact, they are intrusions, a means by which a company (which wants you to log in and see advertisements) imposes its agenda on your day, sweetening the pill by feeding you news about your friends, or things that interest you. If you really want to know about these people and these matters, it’s easy to tell: you are active in doing so – picking up the phone, or writing, or whatever. If you follow these things passively, letting quantity substitute itself for quality, then perhaps it’s a sign that you’re not really all that interested?
Being active, following my interests rather than reaching for whatever entertainment is on the shelf, has always been something I thought was important, though sometimes I don’t manage to do it. I would rather actively find my own interests than choose, more or less passively, from what’s on offer. This was always my reason for never getting very much into watching television; the one year of my life when I did, I rapidly bored because so much of the programming is formulaic, repetitive, and essentially the same. And to find the activity that is going to hold my attention or the problem that needs solving, I need space for reflection. Social media, which compete for our attention like a persistent and demanding child, are the enemy of reflection.
So my social media strike has, in fact, been an excellent piece of purposeless loafing, buying me the space to remember other things that I liked doing and still do, but which I increasingly wasn’t getting around to because my agenda was determined elsewhere and my dreaming time was invaded. It’s in the quiet, in-betweeny moments that ideas come to us, a point really well made recently in a blog by the BBC correspondent Mark Easton.
One of the things I have always liked most about the rhythm of a weekly Quaker meeting is that it’s an hour of space in which I can just let things come to me – or not, if they’re not ready. Maybe the time we spend checking in and updating statuses could be filled with some worthwhile nothingness, too?