It's All Too Stupid For Me
Why I'm Off Social Media, Reading Magazines, and Dumbing Down my Smartphone
“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” — Genesis 11:6
In 2008, I signed up for Facebook. In 2009, I joined Twitter.
Unlike much of today’s young people, I wouldn’t “join” the virtual social media world until I was already 18 years old.1
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Like the rest of the world, I was enthralled by the vision of bringing people together into community regardless of where they are in the world (which by the way, is still being communicated as a vision for Facebook from founder Mark Zuckerberg). It would become easier than ever to form friendships. Little did we know that what we were creating would reflect the fracturing within our own hearts and minds.
At the start, Facebook in particular seemed to really deliver on the promise. I loved keeping up with friends from college while I was back home, posting silly comments on their page, and at one point competing to see who could get the most “Friends on Facebook” by the end of a semester (I believe I lost that competition). Early on the idea for those of us who were writers was that social media accounts ought to serve as your “outposts” to attract and drive people towards what really mattered: your blog (what a time to be alive!).
Recently on a long drive home from some extensive travel, I switched on The Russell Moore show and listened to a fascinating conversation Dr. Moore had with Jonathan Haidt. By the end of their conversation, the fears and trepidations I had around social media (already percolating in my mind over the last few years) coalesced into a final determination: I’m done with this.
The argument from Jonathan Haidt is laid out in his article “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid (It’s Not a Phase):
The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.
The onus lies primarily in one place: social media. “Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people,” says Haidt. There is of course an extensive and worthwhile explanation in The Atlantic worthy of your time, but a key moment in the weakening of our society was the introduction of the “like” button and the ability to “retweet.”
Before 2009, Facebook had given users a simple timeline––a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom. This was often overwhelming in its volume, but it was an accurate reflection of what others were posting. That began to change in 2009, when Facebook offered users a way to publicly “like” posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the “Retweet” button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own “Share” button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.
One can’t blame those who invented it like Justin Rosenstein2, but the unintended consequences seem to far outweigh any positives you might find. And little has been done since his Tweets in 2017 encouraging tech and media industries to overcome “the distraction economy.”
I found myself “victim” of this distraction economy. I shudder to think of posting my iPhone screen-time usage. It was ugly. All of this weight pushed me to finally change. I could feel my mind freeing itself from the Vecna-like stranglehold it had on me.
With more and more robust conviction, I wanted to dedicate my time and energy on creating things that matter. Things of substance and of weight. Things that could even be consider powerful.
Things that are much longer than 140 characters or back and forth bickering that doesn’t ultimately matter.
However, I quickly realized that another attempt at simply “quitting” social media wasn’t going to be enough. I’ve done that in the past, and yet here I was again staring into the blue abyss and scrolling for the equivalent of a workday a week, destroying my mind.
As I approached the impending departure, I was reminded of the importance what Thomas Chalmers has called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” 3 Social media cannot simply go away from my life, but must be replace by a greater vision and affection for something else. I needed something to fill my imagination far greater than what Cal Newport has called the addictive slot machine I carried in my pocket.
I have been distraught and discouraged by not only what I see on social media, but both by how it makes me feel and with the way in which it makes me feel about other people. I find myself increasingly frustrated or angry, and much less curious.
So with that being said, I don’t want to bury the lede too much here:
I’m fully quitting social media for at least the next 30 days. And I just performed what can only be called a lobotomy on my phone. (See the video below for essentially what I’ve done to dumb my smart phone down).
Yes, But Are You Crazy?
I think everyone posts little notes like I did below on social media from time to time. I’m sick of it! I’m out of this forsaken hell-hole! This is going to fix my life.
They rapidly punch away at the iPhone apps. Yes, not just off the home screen. Gone for GOOD.
Then a few days later, like the addicts that we are, we return. Maybe we log in on our computer. Or Safari. For a moment.
The notifications are piled up. The dopamine hits.
And we’re back.
I appreciated the wisdom of Cal Newport in an interview with The Wall Street Journal about ignoring the thousands of “how-to-quit” articles and doing something simple:
Mr. Newport laments that everyone “writes the same article” with tips for turning off notifications or some such. “This is not working.” What people need, he thinks, is “a full-fledged philosophy” of how to use technology. About a year ago Mr. Newport invited his blog’s readers to participate in an experiment he called a “digital declutter.”
The prescription: Take a month off from all digital technologies you don’t absolutely have to use—including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even casual texting with friends. Spend the days figuring out what you’d like to do with your time. At the end of the experiment, resume technologies only to the extent that they’re the best way to accomplish something you value deeply. 4
What really bothers me personally isn’t just the “addiction”, the long and extended hours, and the distance from family and friends. It’s also been the utter lack of creativity I’ve experienced by being on social media.
I haven’t made anything recently. I just consume, consume, and consume. It’s time to return to creativity by focusing in on Substack and Mission & Margin Podcast on one side, and my own business and the culture I’m working to create on the other side. It also looks like changing my media diet in some dramatic ways beyond just eliminating the devastating affects of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms.
Five Print Magazines: My Major Media Diet Changes
I didn’t feel like stopping at just eliminating social media was the answer for me, since I could still find unhealthy modes of media consumption, especially on apps like News on my iPhone, or even tools like Google that try and throw me things it thinks I will enjoy. So I’m doing the following: slimmed down media consumption and focusing primarily on physically reading these materials on a weekly basis, versus being enslaved to the breaking news. Some of these are brand new to me, others I’ve already been a longtime subscriber to like The Economist but have not been fully engaged with due to the time sucking consequences of social media or nonsense news.
Here is what is hitting my mailbox the next 12 months:
The Wall Street Journal
The New Yorker
I am also subscribing to a number of newsletters on platforms like Substack that I’m excited to share in the future and a few local papers for immediate news and information about my state and town.
I’d love to hear reader feedback on other media that you believe is essential for consumption on a weekly or monthly basis.
And so, dear reader, I hope to find you again here on Substack or on the airwaves. You’ll find me searching for deep work, making more connections with family and friends, engaging in the analog social media efforts that still exist, and probably reading a magazine or digging through my enormous unread book pile.
I’m excited about this future. Will you be joining me?
I’ve since committed that my own children (mostly girls), will be following in my footsteps and will remain completely off of social media until at least age 18 (see the exceptionally disturbing article Facebook’s Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls for plenty of reasons why my wife and I have chosen this path).