When CNN reporter Brian Stelter tried losing weight in 2010 by tweeting everything he ate, he ran into a few challenges. It's hard to be consistent in reporting your failures in addition to your successes when you're trying to change. Stelter took long absences from tweeting about his diet, but finding he'd built a following, he kept going back to Twitter. He lost 90 pounds that year.
Stelter's approach at the time was somewhat of a novel idea. Five years later, being that open on social media about a major life change is just what people do. If you're someone who shares personal information on the internet, you're probably going to talk about your efforts to lose weight, stop drinking, or -- as in my case -- quit smoking. And if you're not, maybe you should, because posting can make a big difference. Take it from me.
I've quit smoking several times in the five years since I picked up the habit. I'll realize cigarettes don't agree with my biology (I have asthma, for godssakes!), chuck my pack of Pall Malls or whatever in the nearest trash bin, stay away from cigarettes for a few months, then get mildly stressed out about something that doesn't really matter and bum a cigarette or buy a pack.
During a bout of bronchitis in November, the realization that smoking didn't actually make me feel good hit me again and I decided give quitting another try. On day zero, I felt like venting and had no one to talk to, so I posted my frustration on Facebook: "Goodbye cigarettes. Again and again and again."
The idea wasn't to post frequently about quitting. The idea was simply that when folks couldn't pick up the phone or text back, I'd post. Because people have lives and jobs that obviously preclude them from being available by phone at all odd hours of the day or night to listen to their friends vent about nicotine withdrawal, I ended up posting a lot.
"24 hours. No cigarette. I might die," read a Nov. 16 Facebook status. "(Expletive) i want a cigarette (frowny face)," on Nov. 20. "Nicotine withdrawal has taken me from like a 3 to an 8 on the paranoia scale," on Dec. 1. Tweets were similar.
The more I posted, the more people responded. The level of engagement was surprising. What felt like self-indulgence was apparently relatable. People shared their own tips for quitting and coping with the change in lifestyle.
"weirdest part for me was def the social changes--no smoking to pass time, no excuses to get out of conversations or lurk outside at parties, etc, but now i'm really good at waiting and lurking so have heart," wrote a friend from college in a Dec. 2 comment.
They posted comments about wishing others would quit.
"I'm proud of you!! I have family members I SO wish would do what you are doing," wrote a former coworker in a comment Dec. 1. "They seem to wait for "the right time," and life is stressful... don't give up!"
Now more than a month into quitting, I'm past the point of suffering major cravings and no longer feel the need to post about cigarettes and nicotine on the regular. This most recent attempt at quitting was frankly pretty easy as far as attempts go. The more often you quit, the easier it gets each time. Plus I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where I can count on one hand the number of my acquaintances who smoke. Temptation is pretty minimal.
Relative ease of quitting aside, posting about quitting has helped. My posts drew a supportive audience. Feedback was immediate. Posting forced me to go "on the record" about quitting; to fall off the wagon would mean admitting my weakness to basically everyone I knew. Still, anyone considering publicly quitting smoking or making a similar life change should be aware that there are potential drawbacks to posting about it online.
Social media consultant Amy Vernon warns you could be opening yourself up to internet trolls who belittle your efforts, "but you get that in real life, too." Mostly she finds people are nice towards others working to make a positive change in their lives. The greater risk, she says, is feeling as though you've failed if you relapse after publicly sharing your efforts.
"My biggest advice would really be just to be open about the good and the bad if you're going to choose to publicly quit smoking or drinking or quit drugs or whatever," says Vernon. "You'll find both more support and more accountability in that way."
There's also a privacy trade off: If your employer or insurer picks up on a post that you're quitting and they weren't aware you'd been smoking, that could be an issue. Vernon says insurers aren't combing social media too thoroughly at this point, but that they may in the future. Privacy is a moot point for me -- if anyone had wanted to know I'd struggled with smoking, the info was out there before November. There are pictures on Facebook of me smoking. Coworkers, friends and family all know.
The real damage of that sort of public representation of oneself as a smoker isn't that other people might find out, but that it reinforces an image of yourself as a smoker. Posting on social media gives you a chance to start rewriting that self image, sort of like faking it until you make it. Once you say something publicly, you set a certain expectation that you then feel a pressure to meet. Sometimes change starts from the outside.