Adjusting to life Back Online
Plus my ship log from Life Offline
My holiday break was fairly chaotic in a way that is entirely typical for a holiday break with children. I saw friends, carted kids around, and spent time with extended family (and several additional young children). A wind storm blew a few trees down near our driveway, so we spent time cutting up the wood, moving branches, stacking logs. We cleaned before hosting and then we cleaned after hosting. Kinetic sand delighted the younger members of the household and kinetic sanded the adults. I oversaw the kids zooming around in their Christmas jeep hoping my 8YO’s ability to teach my 3YO how to drive was strong. I cooked, folded laundry, and tried to practice patience when I really would’ve preferred not to. (Say, when the toddler grabbed the bag of bread and ran through the house screaming about it not being the “right bread” and scattered crumbs all over the freshly vacuumed floor).
I also went through several piles of stuff that had been living on the landing leading up to our attic for months (years?). Brett reorganized the medicine/toilet paper/dog leash/mask closet. I knit. I read. I listened to podcasts. I ran.
What I didn’t do - not even once - was open Instagram or Twitter. I checked my email maybe three times.
I’ve written both here and here about my ongoing relationship with social media (as The Bachelor franchise likes to say, it’s been a journey!), but I find myself coming away with new insights every time I take a break longer than one or two days (which I try to do every weekend).
This time around, the first feeling to settle in around my bones was one of shrinkage, which initially sounds like a negative feeling to register, right? Who wants to shrink? It turns out, I really enjoy a little bit of shrinkage! Almost immediately, my focus and perspective started to shift. When I’m online (by which I mean checking Instagram, email, and Twitter multiple times a day), I find that my brain activity reflects the constant on and off motions. As I drift off to sleep, I unconsciously comb through my day for tweet-worthy material I might use the following day. During waking hours, I find myself unconsciously scanning my surroundings for objects or scenes that might translate into shareable “content.” It is very hard to feel fully off of social media if you were on it an hour before.
Even if I’m not actively scrolling, my brain, to some extent, is always online. It is always somewhere else while simultaneously trying to be here and now.
But life lived off of social media (by which I mean real life by which I mean life) is less frenetic; it is smaller, quieter. Less of my headspace is used up considering how to phrase something or how to crop something or whether or not something is witty or whether or not something is appropriately sincere. Less of my concentration is frittered away on checking, checking, checking to see how many hearts have piled up.
Off of social media, I am able to write for longer periods of time. I am able to read for longer periods of time. I am able to think for longer periods of time. I am more easily able to simply be. As a chronic over-thinker, second-guesser, and over-analyzer, life off of social media is incontrovertibly easier and more comfortable.
Along with my general worldview, another tangible difference between life On and life Off was in my morning routine. Typically, I make myself a cup of tea, and immediately flip open my laptop. I start with email (most manageable and least overwhelming), then move onto Twitter (midpoint), and finish with Instagram (least manageable and most overwhelming). Throughout it all, I text.
During the break, my tea habits stayed the same and I was just as surly with my children, but I used my computer to play Wordle. Then Spelling Bee. Then, if I was still in caffeination mode, the crossword. And that was it. For the day.
Because I had placed such clear limits on my computer usage, I was never in danger of being dragged into some unexpected corner of the internet. I entered spaces which never changed. Wordle was incapable of leading me down a google rabbit hole, and Spelling Bee never made me feel inferior or jealous, and the crossword sure as hell didn’t give me FOMO. So from the jump, my equilibrium had more of a fighting chance at staying - equal?
And this equilibrium - this feeling of existing in one time and space - persisted throughout the day. I didn’t reflexively open my laptop after a run. I didn’t bring my phone into the bathroom with me. I didn’t scroll while waiting for chicken nuggets to finish baking. I didn’t wonder how many people had liked my tweet. I didn’t check Instagram every couple hours to see if anyone had DMed me in response to my stories. My mind was released from the energy of waiting. Waiting for dopamine hits in the forms of likes, sure, but also waiting for the dull thud of disappointment when whatever I had released into the virtual ether had fallen flat or failed to resonate.
I should say that no part of me misses social media when I take these breaks. We all collectively acknowledge how social media provides fleeting moments of validation, but I do not miss being validated in such a way. I never think to myself, “Gosh what’s happening with Rudy Jude?” “Is Hannah from BF currently pirouetting?” “Is that person I met a party three years ago having the best NYE ever?” or even “I’d be having a better time right now if 312 strangers had “liked” a photo on the internet.” All of these people and wonderings are released from my mind, my body, my life.
As Tuesday, January 3rd approached (my kids didn’t have school on Monday, January 2nd), I felt tangible dread start to build. And then the day came. The day to go Back Online.
Email wasn’t so bad. I was able to get in and out relatively quickly. Twitter was ok. I did a quick scan and logged off. But as I opened up Instagram and took stock of the number of hearts and messages, I felt something sludgy rise up in my gut and into my chest. I felt my energy drain. I felt physically dispirited.
There was nothing surprising or disappointing or upsetting waiting for me on Instagram. On the contrary, I had received some lovely messages during the break. The sentiments of the messages made me smile. But it was the act of logging on itself, of seeing the rows of purple-circled faces multiply on top of the app. So many people’s stories waiting to be viewed. So many people’s lives waiting to be consumed. It’s hard to describe why it made me so blue, but the inexorableness of it all knocked the wind out of me. No matter how many breaks I take, all the noise, the consumption, the output, the input, it will keep going on and on and on and on. So much energy expended from so many individuals being poured into - what?
I’m now fully Back Online. I find myself writing, reading, or doing other immersive brain work in little 45 minute chunks, maybe less, before I find my brain wandering, wondering, and then, ultimately compulsively checking. For what?
Ultimately, of course, I’m fine. I will keep trying to utilize social media when it feels necessary or useful, and I’ll keep trying to fight the scroll. I think my purpose in writing this essay was to try and express the differences (for me, anyway) of participating in the attention economy and not participating in it. I also wanted to express some genuine grief for the fact that so many of us don’t have the choice to opt out entirely. Even when we know—in our bodies, minds, and souls—that life offline can be quieter, happier, freer. It’s the knowing, I guess, that hurts.
Less Gloomy Musings
Momfluenced got its first review! They think I’m funny (I know this because the review says I have “a sense of humor” so it’s official).
I was absolutely delighted to talk to Publisher’s Weekly about Momfluenced and allllll the things. It’s behind a paywall, but the headline is perfect.
So many great responses to this tweet (social media isn’t all bad!)
Read this while staring at my phone after a child woke me up at 5am so YES TO EVERYTHING. I loved being offline over the holiday break. It's a necessary evil and sometimes even great, but I'd love not to so reflexively reach for it when I'm online. It's such a tricky balance to figure out.