In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains how our brains get hooked on social media:
When I stumbled across this quote in a newspaper article, I realized that willpower alone wasn’t going to be enough. And I finally understood why it was so hard to disconnect; why my brain formulated imaginary search queries and tweets even when I was miles away from a computer. Although I’d used it jokingly up until that point, it turned out that “addiction” was a wholly accurate term for my problem.
After 12,000 or so tweets, Twitter was taking over my life. I was compulsively checking my feed—from bed in the morning, in covert browser tabs at work, whenever and wherever I had a spare moment—and I didn’t like it.
So in the spirit of Tina Roth Eisenberg’s “Don’t complain, create” mantra, I decided it was time to do something constructive about my habit, instead of… um… moaning about it on Twitter. I was a social media junkie, and I needed to cut off my supply at the source. I devised a two part plan: to quit Twitter for a month, and invite people to talk with me by phone or Skype instead.
After announcing my intentions in a tweet, and posting a link on my blog that people could use to schedule a call, I shut the lid on my laptop, wondering if anyone would take me up on the offer.
Going Cold Turkey
At the start of my experiment I had deleted the Twitter app from all of my devices. The remaining weak spot, of course, was my web browser. So I went all out, and edited the hosts file on my Mac to block it from Twitter (and Facebook too, for good measure).
Once that was completely locked out, I started to feel withdrawal symptoms. There was a power outage at work, and I found myself wishing I could search Twitter for updates on the situation. Support requests to services I used, usually fired off in a quick tweet, became infuriatingly slow emails. And I remember spending one lunch time in particular really craving an aggregated news source that wasn’t a newspaper.
But by the start of my third week without Twitter, something clicked, and my brain seemed to switch into a slower gear. I banished electronics from my bedside and sat down for the first time in years to read books and listen to albums in their entirety. All without my fingers twitching for status updates.
It wasn’t completely plain sailing from this point though.
After one particularly tough day, I found myself manically tapping through Twitter, the same way you might binge on ice-cream or cookies. Yikes! The “Ship Your Enemies Glitter” website had been sold a week ago for $85k, and I had no idea! But when I shared the story at work, no one had heard about it yet. I realized that much of the “information” I was consuming on Twitter was pretty low in nutritional value.
Maybe I didn’t need to have my finger so on the pulse after all?
Hanging on the Telephone
Meanwhile, requests for telephone calls were coming in faster than expected, and after back-to-back calls on the first night, I cut the daily appointment slots to just one. As something of an introvert, talking on the phone is not something I often do by choice, so I was a little apprehensive about this part of the experiment.
On one call, I could hear the wind whistling somewhere in Texas as I talked with a fellow designer about the merits of this or that software. On another, I joked with someone just down the road in London, whilst his wife chuckled in the background.
Not everyone wanted to talk with video turned on, which was fine with me, but when someone asked if we could chat via instant messaging instead of talking, I realized something else; it was so easy to become distracted. Oftentimes, the person at the other end of the “conversation” was reduced to a closable browser window, and I could treat them like any other website which didn’t have my full attention.
A Communication Paradox
—”The Telephone,” Chambers Journal 76, 1899
Sounds familiar, right? From the telegraph, to the telephone, to the internet, communication at a distance (and the subsequent questioning of its psychological footprint) has long been a part of modern life.
So I don’t want to point a finger solely at Twitter here. And I’ll still be using it, albeit slightly less often, as part of my daily routine. But I am planning to set aside one afternoon a month for phone calls with my readers from now on. The thing I’d been worried about—the directness of the conversations—turned out to be the most refreshing difference from Twitter.
If Twitter compresses communication into uniform rectangles, telephone calls do the opposite. I felt like I could get a real sense of who people were, and what made them tick. I felt like I was connecting with real, live human beings again.
All this said though, my girlfriend caught me stealing late night glances at Twitter yesterday, and it made me feel like a jerk. For some reason I told her I was looking at myself in my phone’s camera as a joke, but either way, I’d been holding a mirror up to myself. Twitter isn’t addictive—I was just addicted to it.
How to break your social media habit:
- Set yourself a 30-day challenge. Decide what you want to quit for the month, and announce your intentions as publicly as possible: this will maximise accountability. (Ironically, Facebook and Twitter might be the best places to do this). Log your progress in a diary or spreadsheet: keeping a calendar where you X out each day is a great incentive to keep going. You can even set a fine to be paid to a charity any day that you stray off track: not too high, but enough to sting your wallet. (This worked wonders for me during a 30-day writing experiment).
- Keep your phone at a distance. A designated tray or shelf in your home (anywhere that isn’t your bedroom) will make it easier to stay disconnected.
- Don’t expect instant results. Even without visual cues from app notifications, the reward-seeking part of your brain takes a while to readjust.
- Swap social media activity for real life activities. Telephone calls, jogging with a friend, or perhaps some old-fashioned letter writing… anything which doesn’t involved a screen. (Calendly is great for scheduling calls).
- Put internet blinders on. Use an app like SelfControl or Freedom (Mac) or Cold Turkey (PC) to limit your access to the web.
It’s almost a week since I started using social media again (“using” being the operative word), and I can’t see myself reinstalling the Twitter or Facebook apps any time soon.
How about you?
Do you find yourself on social media more than you’d like? How do you fight the addiction?