Thirty-one days ago, when I was preparing for my first social media-free month in a decade, I thought I knew what I was getting into. Having quit Facebook some time ago, I had some idea what to expect. Because I enjoyed Twitter, in particular, and relied on it for work, going cold turkey would be hard, I figured, but it would all be worth it if it allowed me to establish a healthier relationship with social media.
I was wrong in two ways. First, it wasn't particularly hard. Second, I'm no longer sure there is such a thing as a healthy relationship with social media. Not for me, anyway.
I'm a fan of New Year's resolutions. Some of my past ones have included finishing a book proposal, meditating every day, and giving up meat. One month in, abstaining from social media has been both the easiest to stick with and the most immediately gratifying of any resolution I've ever made. I'm astonished, and a little terrified, at how much it's improved my life.
Since I signed off Facebook--I mostly gave it up over a year ago and formally deactivated my account last fall--"social media," for me, has basically meant Twitter and Instagram. (I use a few other nominally social services, like Strava, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, but I don't really consider them social media per se, and I'm comfortable with their place in my life.) Instagram is the second most popular social app after Facebook, but I've never been all that into it.
Twitter's another story. It's made for someone like me: I'm a professional news junkie, I enjoy getting into arguments, I'm a world-class procrastinator, and I love showing off how clever I think I am. I've been a moderate to heavy user since I first joined in July 2009, but my Twitter consumption spiked after the 2016 presidential election, when I, like a lot of people, suddenly found myself painfully addicted to breaking-news updates. It ballooned again as I cut Facebook out of my life, my daily Twitter sessions expanding to fill all the time I'd been spending there and then some.
That all this came at a cost was obvious enough. But it took quitting for me to appreciate just what a cost--to read the full itemized bill of all the ways Twitter was subtracting from my life. First, the time. On a typical day, I'd spend anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour reading tweets and writing my own; on days when insanity in Washington or internet feeding frenzies got me particularly riled up, that might be two hours.
Do you have an extra hour or two a day to spare? I sure don't. Of course, it never felt like an hour or two, broken up as it was into a few minutes at a time, scattered here and there throughout the day (and evening, and night). But getting that time back made it immediately apparent how very much time it was. For the first couple weeks, I almost didn't know what to do with it all. I took mid-day naps. I watched movies on my exercise bike. I revived my ambition to meditate, scheduling my sessions for first thing in the morning--the time I'd usually settle in at my laptop with a cup of coffee and catch up with the East Coast's tweets.
(New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo says meditation is what helps him "survive the brain-dissolving internet." For me, it worked in the other direction: I had to get away from the internet to meditate.)
I still procrastinated, but I procrastinated by reading articles instead of tweets. Tweets fool your brain: Because they're only 280 characters each, it feels like less of an indulgence to take a break by skimming a few than to read that 3,000-word feature you bookmarked. But an article has an end; a Twitter feed doesn't. "Skimming a few tweets" easily becomes "scrolling and refreshing mindlessly until I realize the sun has gone down and I'm sitting in the dark with a full bladder."
The quality of my thought changed as well. I was already aware of how much Twitter had the ability to influence my mood: After the election, I made a conscious decision to stop reading tweets close to bedtime. I had spent one too many nights staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, composing the perfect cutting @-reply to someone who'd made the mistake of being Wrong On The Internet on my watch.
What I hadn't noticed was how much Twitter influenced not just how I felt but what I thought about--the extent to which I allowed whatever people on Twitter were worked up about on any given day to become what I got worked up about, too, even if it was something I'd never particularly cared about the past. I'd see a bunch of tweets about the trending controversy du jour, about which I hadn't heard anything yet, shrug and move on, then, somehow, an hour later, find myself having an opinion on it that I just had to share.
The absence of this dynamic struck me last week after teenage boys from a Catholic high school in Kentucky were caught on camera in confrontations with other groups of protesters at an anti-abortion rally. Normally, I'm more Extremely Online, as they say, than my wife, but this time she had to tell me what was going on. Hearing about it second-hand this way, rather than via outraged retweets of viral videos, the whole thing sounded a little confusing and less than the sum of its parts, as indeed it turned out to be. Doubtless someone had done something that deserved to be condemned, but it just didn't strike me as worth my while to care about.
Since being on top of new developments in certain areas is my job, I had worried a bit that being off Twitter would make me worse at it. In a new study of 3,000 Facebook users, members of an experimental group who agreed to deactivate their accounts for a month performed somewhat worse than the control group on a quiz designed to test factual knowledge of recent news events. (They did report an improvement in mood and show a decrease in political polarization, as well as feeling they had vastly more time to spend talking to friends and watching TV.)
I didn't find myself falling out of the loop. For one thing, while I stayed logged out of Twitter itself, I did allow myself to look at Nuzzel, an app that shows you the news stories the people you follow are sharing most that day. But I also found that many news stories are better understood with a bit of distance. Paying attention to hourly rather than daily updates is as likely to leave you less informed than more; just look at that big Buzzfeed scoop on Robert Mueller and Michael Cohen, which seemed like it was going to change everything--until it didn't, leaving initial journalistic reactions to it looking breathless and silly.
Throw in the vast improvement in productivity and concentration and it's clear going Twitter-free made me better at my job. And no wonder. Self-improvement guru Cal Newport says a capacity for "deep work" is the most important ability knowledge workers bring to their jobs. He advises quitting social media, believing its benefits are mostly illusory: "If you only focus on possible advantages, you'll end up, like so many of us today, with a digital life that's so cluttered with thrumming, shiny knots of distraction pulling at our attention and manipulating our moods that we end up a shell of our potential."
That's not to say it was completely without cost. I want people to read the things I write and give me feedback. For journalists who do what I do, Twitter is where most of that happens. I also thought of a few decent jokes I would've liked to share.
But as the weeks went by, I began to interrogate that impulse to share whatever was in my head. Social media feeds on insecurity: We see other people tweeting their droll observations, cute babies, and stunning vacation photos and we want them to know we also have all those things. But when I thought about it, I realized the people I actually envied aren't the ones who use social media to make their lives seem amazing. They're the ones who don't use it at all. What are they doing with their days that's so absorbing they don't even care what's happening on Twitter? I want me some of that.
And what's to stop me? We say social media is an addiction, but really it's more of a reflex. It takes a while for the impulse to extinguish, but there's no real pain of withdrawal. When my fingers navigate me of their own accord to my Twitter feed, only to bring up the log-in page, I sit there blinking for a moment, thinking, Why did I do that? Then I go on with my day.
Going forward, I'll probably maintain some limited Twitter presence as a way of getting my best work in front of people. Maybe I'll even tweet the very occasional observation. But as a daily habit, I'm done. The tradeoffs are just too overwhelming. It turns out there's really only one downside of quitting Twitter, and social media in general: the frustration that comes from not being able to tell everyone on there how much better their lives would be if they just logged off.