Thirty months ago, at the beginning of 2016, I exited Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, deleting apps on my phone and decoupling myself from social media cold turkey. A key driver was that I could not stand the increasingly hostile language, rising levels of anger and personalized animosity invading my digital world with the advent of the current broken Presidency. The experience had a slightly disturbing effect. I would fondle my device mournfully at times, reminding myself like a mantra that, yes, it’s a remarkable and powerful tool and perfect for reaching out, but not for really staying connected. Yet, I’d stare at my 40 or 50 app icons wondering which could pacify an appetite I knew no digital instrument could satisfy: intimacy of the kind that actually only occurs with the investment of patience, curiosity, understanding and time.
The intensity of my craving suggested classic withdrawal of the addict’s sort. I had embraced the excitement pushed by device and app marketers to sell the high-concept notion of instant, evergreen connection. I had believed for a long, deluded moment that time spent on my digital device qualified as living a life.
As long as I can remember, I’ve beat the drum about how thick-bonded relationships – those forged in extended face-to-face contact, mutual interests and shared values – form the basis for personal empathy, political alignment and social cohesion. Yet I had willingly allowed my mind the transitory, shallow fellow-feeling that came of hustling likes for my photos and philosophical musings, retweets of my clever postings, a LinkedIn network bigger than anyone else’s. One good result of my diversion into the digital desert was a new appreciation for how tough it must feel for anyone else contemplating detachment from social media’s powerful puff and tout.
If the fascination grips others like it riveted me, my hope for others is that they might at least exchange a temporary period of discomfort for the promise of release from social media’s addictive power. My phone-twiddling wish, I realized over time, was that opening an app could bring me the instant gratification a child enjoys at summoning a make-believe friend. If I can imagine it, it will always be there for me, a child believes. My grown-up task – the trade-off for situating myself more accurately in reality – is to find and forge relationships that last.
I think that I’ve fought back successfully for the moment against the temptation to devote a significant part of my existence, and a consequential bite of my time, to a medium that’s niche wide and meme deep. For now, I’ve got enough distance to keep reasonably at bay the media market pushers knifing into a good slice of our privacy, pocketbooks and personal relationships. Perhaps I’m still delusional. I’ve only been in this space a short time. But I’ll take missing the hype for what I find to be a more authentic feeling of being knit to real people.