On the August afternoon that a white supremacist drove a car through a crowd of peaceful protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was perched on a bar stool in a café near my home, sipping a glass of rosé while reading a novel and daydreaming. It was one of those rare, near-perfect New York days when the light streamed through a wide-open window, training its beam on the notebook at the table next to me. There, a tutor worked through math lessons with a slightly frustrated adult student.
Jessi Hempel is Backchannel’s editorial director.
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At 2:52 p.m., a New York Times headline popped up on my phone. My stomach sank as I took in the image of the vehicle, a man just behind it with his feet up in the air, frozen in the moment before his torso smacked the ground. I texted my partner, a University of Virginia graduate, who was herself scrolling through her friends’ Instagram posts with horror. My eyes stung with anxious tears as I thought, not for the first time this year: Everything has changed now and we are all in trouble.
Around me, nothing had actually changed. The tutor was still disentangling math problems. The espresso machine ground beans, cut off, and then switched on again. I tried to return to my book, but gave up and dropped it in my bag. I clutched my wine, which had become more of a coping device than an afternoon treat, and scrolled through my Twitter feed. One person said there were more “bronies” gathered in Philadelphia for a convention than there were Nazis in Virginia. Retweet! Someone else criticized the president for not yet condemning the gathering. Retweet! Now the president was speaking and his words were being live-tweeted, with commentary. I switched to Instagram, to Facebook, even over to Slack to see if my colleagues were watching and maybe reaching out.
I knew I should turn my phone off, but I could not look away.
This is not how August goes—at least not my August. For the past five years, I’ve signed off all social media—essentially any messaging software to which I didn’t have access before 2007, when I got my first smartphone. My annual social media sabbatical has been reliably awesome; it’s an opportunity to notice the things I’ve lost in exchange for all the connections and productivity that social media has introduced to my life. It’s like Whole 30 for the internet—a radical diet change that at first leaves me feeling sick and lethargic, and then slowly returns me to health.
But this year, I skipped the cleanse. It just seemed, well, so 2013. That was the year technology detoxes crept into mainstream discourse. The New York Times profiled a camp where adults could disconnect from their gadgets. Fast Company ran a cover story entitled #Unplug in which the writer lived without the internet for 25 days. A 2013 survey from the estimable Pew Research Center revealed that 61 percent of Facebook’s US users had taken a break from the service for a period of several weeks or more.
In my quest to figure out why my annual exercise felt so irrelevant this year, I called up several people who’d similarly stepped off social media a few years back and blogged about the experience. I chatted with Liz Gross, a market insights manager and social media strategist from Madison, Wisconsin. Even five years ago, she explained, she still had an offline life and an online life. She mostly lived offline. “I needed to know what was going on online, but also attend to my life,” she says. Now, for most of us, that divide has disappeared. Our lives are powered, to a lesser or greater degree, by the internet. There is no offline.
Also, five years ago, social media was its own thing—a set of sites to which you could log on to share and read information posted by people you know. Today, that’s just the internet. Nearly every site and service becomes more valuable when you log in with your social handle. Social media has become a euphemism for a transaction between you and a company: You agree to provide your real identity to a company in exchange for a set of services that make the internet more useful. “You are the product,” Paul Jarvis reminds me. Jarvis is a designer and author who also blogged about his social media detox a few years back. He lives on a small island off the West Coast of Canada, a fact I didn’t realize until I accidentally called him at an ungodly hour of the morning. (Thankfully, he was a good sport.)
Jarvis describes a familiar experience to me: “It starts to feel like my existence is tied to social media, to a bunch of strangers validating me,” he says. “I live in the part of Canada with the fires. It makes the sunsets particularly beautiful right now. If I just sit and watch the sunset with my wife, that’s cool. But if I post it, I feel validated for going down to the ocean to watch the sunset. I don’t like that feeling.”
Both Jarvis and Gross treat the internet much differently than they did five years ago. Recently, Gross moved to her dream home, a place in the woods that has nearly every modern amenity—except broadband. Her internet connection is slow, a fact that forces moderation and, she thinks, makes her home life better. Jarvis uses social media sparingly. He’s not on Facebook. And when he’s working on a book, as he’s doing right now, he stays off the internet as much as possible.
As for me, I’ve found that independent of my cleanse, my own use of social media has changed substantially this year. I’m less drawn to Facebook, where all my real friends are stressed out about politics and all my pseudo friends are on vacation at the Four Seasons in Madagascar. I removed the app from my phone months ago, and haven’t missed it. But I doubt Facebook misses me, because I spend more time than ever using the services owned by it, like WhatsApp and Instagram. And I use my Facebook ID to log onto sites like Airbnb and the New York Times.
That brings me back to that afternoon in the coffee shop, when everything looked bleak and my anxiety peaked. The internet is so damn good at providing immediate information. As I flipped frantically from app to app, searching for news about the events in Charlottesville and trying to process it, I didn’t want information. I wanted connection. I was searching in the wrong place.
What we’re learning this year is that the internet, even with our identities embedded within it through social media, isn’t great at engendering connection—to other people or to ourselves. This is a different outcome than that envisioned by generations of optimists who painted the web as a tool we could use to find our “real” tribes—the people who share our interests and enthusiasms, as opposed to the people who just happened to live in our neighborhoods or be part of our families. In fact, in many instances, today’s internet may do just the opposite: It reinforces all the fears I have that everything has changed now and we are all in trouble.
I’m not urging anyone to tune out the news or retreat from current events. But the patterns of news consumption we’ve adopted—mostly reading in silence, engaged in monogamous relationships with our devices—pull us away from the people we’re actually with, and leave us more atomized and vulnerable.
The day after Charlottesville, my nerves fried, I went for a walk. I am not a religious person or someone who goes to church regularly, but I noticed that Sunday services were just about to begin at Saint John the Divine, the grand Episcopalian cathedral in Morningside Heights. So my partner and I slipped in, sat toward the back, and turned off our phones. The choir music was beautiful. The community of people around us was as diverse in appearance as the New York City blocks on which we live, where the Upper West Side bleeds into Harlem. A church leader spoke up about the Charlottesville events, urging love and tolerance. Halfway through, the congregation exchanged the Peace, and the people beside us, whom we didn’t know, shook our hands and welcomed us.
I don’t know if we’ll return, but that experience made me begin to catalogue the places in my life where I’m actually present with other people. They’re shrinking, even as my general anxiety is growing. I don’t need to attend to most of my errands any more, because services from Amazon to Chewy and Seamless deliver most of what I need. Even work is an opt-in environment where I can telecommute and Slack my colleagues as often as I go into an office. And of course, sitting in a coffee shop full of strangers when a national tragedy occurs, I’m much more likely to turn to my device for comfort than to turn to the math tutor next to me and tell her about what I’ve just read.
Every August, I make a point of reflecting deeply on my use of technology. This year, I’ve realized that coming to terms with my use of social media is not about moving away from the internet. It’s about finding new ways of moving toward people.