Ceasing to Exist: Three Months in the Social Media Detox Ward

April 5, 2010 | 5 books mentioned 61 6 min read

coverWhen I was in my early-twenties, I made a new year’s resolution to stop looking at myself in the mirror so much.   It didn’t work, of course–what else can one do with a reflection besides look at it?   This year, in my late-twenties, I set a similar resolution: for four months, until April 1st, I would turn away from Facebook and Twitter.  I had grown bored, obsessed, bothered, even–I admit it–enamored with my reflection there.  And lord help me if I found myself at midnight yet again, drinking a glass a wine and scrolling through wedding photos of a friend of a friend of a friend, or, come morning, drinking a mug of coffee and vainly attempting to read and retweet one fascinating article after another.  J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured out his life with coffee spoons; I had begun to measure mine with status updates.

So I prepared my friends, my “friends,” and my followers (man, the way I kept track of my followers, you’d think I was a cult leader!), and on January 2nd, a loved one changed my passwords for me.  The whole internet seemed to collapse in a second, like the ocean knocking down an elaborate sand castle.  I suddenly had no access to the two sites I’d grown accustomed to checking over and over during the course of my day.  You see, I’m not internet savvy.  I don’t have an RSS reader, and I have no idea how one might procure such a thing.  Not that I want to.  I like visiting my favorite websites on a whim to see if there’s something new; it feels a little like Christmas, reaching into my stocking to see if there’s just one more piece of candy hidden in the toe.  The problem with Facebook and Twitter, I’ve realized, is that the Christmas stocking is infinite, and infinitely full.  There is always another piece of candy to claw at.  One piece is delicious, but one begets two, and three, and four, and, okay, five…it’s not long before you’ve made yourself sick.

The first week of my detox, I realized just how much I’d depended on those sites for community.  Aside from the classes I teach a few nights a week, I work from home.  Alone.   Without my beloved internet family, the silence was frightening. I began to spend more time on goodreads, and I sometimes got sucked into g-chat.  One night, exhausted from a day of reading and writing, I searched for entertainment online, and found The Bachelor.  Now I’m convinced there’s a patch of dead grass in my brain–it simply cannot be brought to life!

I also noticed how I kept a running Twitter feed in my head: Oh, not my crazy neighbors again!, and, Wow, has anyone read so-and-so’s novel? Someone suggested I keep these in a notebook, to be broadcast at a later date.  That might have been funny, but wasn’t the point of my detox to wrest myself away from this real-time cataloging of reactions, emotions, and experience?  I felt very much like Laurel Snyder did in her days away from the site.  In this Salon article, she sums up well the magnetism of Twitter (and, for me, the live update feed on Facebook as well):

Now I understand you don’t do things with Twitter. You become a part of it. That’s why it doesn’t work when people try to use it as a sporadic “marketing tool” or check in every three days. Twitter is unspooling in real time, and so what happened an hour ago is, well, in the past. Nobody will bother to read what you tweeted four hours ago any more than people at a get-together will overhear what happened before they got there. Like any party, if you duck in and out for a few minutes, you miss all the best parts.

The pain of missing “all the best parts” has been the hardest aspect of my detox.  I admit, when it was Doppelganger Week on Facebook, I felt downright bereft.  I wanted so badly to post as my profile picture a photo of Anthony Michael Hall circa Sixteen Candles! Or–wait–Chloe Sevigny in Kids!  Or wait…!  It felt like I was missing a class field trip to an amusement park.

I realized, too, how much news I was getting from Twitter.  I have never read the newspaper on a daily basis; I’d much rather listen to NPR, or read long-form magazine articles, or, as I did increasingly over the last year, get linked to news from people I follow online, journalists and novelists and poets who keep up with current events far better than I ever could.  A month into my detox, I was clueless–not just about the latest restaurant or movie, but about the new turn in the health care debate, for instance.  I’d felt like this once before, when my husband and I got rid of  cable, and effectively, television-watching.   The level of my family’s discourse often centers around the best new television commercials (I always wanted to be raised by professors, discussing Marxism and whatnot, but as my father would say, “People in hell want ice water.”)  In the post-television days, I remember feeling a vague alienation whenever these conversations began, my sister waxing poetic about the latest Volkswagen ad, everyone else nodding.   During my internet detox, I began to feel this way a lot, and not just with my family, but with my friends, too.  All conversations seemed to begin with, “Did you see on Facebook…”   I was suddenly an outsider, and I felt equal parts annoyed, superior and wistful.

coverAnd also relieved. In his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier decries the devaluation of individual thought and personhood in a Web 2.0 world.  He writes:

Personal reductivism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return.  Your real life is represented by a silly, phony set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an appropriate way.  Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes.

But the order is reversed when you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site.  You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence.  But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends.

I agree with Lanier here, though once your profile is set up, you can be quite creative.  Many of my online friends are writers and artists, and the content they generate is by turns smart, funny, and distinct.   If their status updates generate information for advertisers, well, then, fine.  I’d rather “The Man” try to sell me novels and nice pens, rather than tires and thigh-masters.  But Lanier makes a good point when he says,  “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.”   I’m not my Facebook profile, nor am I a series of Twitter updates.  And the time I spend on these sites means I have less time to write fiction and converse with people in person, two things that make me feel most alive in the world.

At the opening of his book, Lanier suggests a few ways to use the internet to promote individual expression.  Spend time developing your narrative voice online.  (Check.)  Don’t post anonymously. (Check–well, most of the time.)  And, in a doozy of a sentence, he  suggests that Twitter-users stop describing “trivial external events… to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would describe a machine.”   Amen to that.

covercoverThe problem of the internet–its power, and the way it’s changing how we live our lives–is a big topic these days.    There’s The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your In-Box by John Freeman, and, forthcoming, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  The internet age is so young that we’re worried, and intrigued, by how it will shape us–we simply have no idea.  The single most fascinating aspect of my detox was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about it.  Almost everyone I spoke to said, “I wish I could do that!”  Then they got this strained look in their eyes that meant, The internet is ruining my life! When I assured them a detox was easy to do, they weren’t convinced.  Or they said, “Okay, yes, next month. I’ll try it.”  And then they wouldn’t.  It saddened me to see all these people, chained to their online lives, posting flattering  photos of themselves, “liking” a funny status update, posting or retweeting a link. It’s a never-ending race to remind others that we’re here, that we exist.  It reminds me of when I used to do dance routines and little plays for my mom.  “Look!”  I’d yell every few seconds.  “You’re NOT watching! Look!”  It gets exhausting.  And it’s not really living.

So here we are.  It’s now past April 1st, and I haven’t ended the detox.  The truth is, I don’t miss the two sites much.   These days, I feel no pull whatsoever toward Twitter, despite the number of fabulous people there.  In my mind, it’s a crowded elevator where everyone’s talking over one another.  They’re all saying interesting things, but who can keep track?  Part of me is afraid to return to Facebook. Will it exert the power over me that it used to?  I want to return, and I want to show restraint.  And if I can’t, I will have to detach once again.  That might be fine.  Since January, I’ve enjoyed the injection of mystery and privacy into the world.  I don’t need to broadcast my life on a daily basis.  If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, “How are you?” will be genuine, and that will feel good.

[Image credit: Marcos Zerene]

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Thanks for that lively article, Edan. After much nervous contemplation about it in the past year, I still haven’t joined either Facebook or Twitter, and now I know that I won’t!

  2. Dropped out for a week thanks to you–it’s been coming for a while, though. I’ve realized that so much of the time that used to go to reading, like over my morning coffee, is now spent on Facebook or other random internet browsing. So we’ll start with a week, then keep going.

  3. Agreed! I deactivated my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts two weeks ago, and am enjoying it. More than just being tired of the banal status updates, I was annoyed at my repetitive, obsessive checking of the Twitter feed. Anonymity and privacy is underrated.

  4. Without FB I’d be stuck obsessively checking the weather and my clean inbox over and over. My addiction is to the entire laptop…it seems to join my every activity lately. I feel this compulsive need to see if the midnight show of KickAss at the ArcLight is selling, to check BoingBoing for new posts, to Google anything and everything. And, like I said, looking up the unchanging weather every 30 minutes or so. Maybe I need to get on the wagon for a bit!

  5. Interestingly, around the same time you did this I fell in love and …fell off twitter for months. I’m even having trouble keeping up my blog. But I do love both Twitter and FB for the capacity to crowd-source things like where to stay and where to eat, and I do feel closer to friends and relatives at a distance—email can be so cumbersome to respond to, whereas the passive connectivity of FB means they feel more like a part of my daily life than they would otherwise.

    Anyway, you’re missed, but I’m glad I get to read you over here.

  6. I suppose it is no surprise to you that I heard of this article by way of a retweet of a twitter post. That, unfortunately, is the great gaping hole in your plan: without those sites you say you don’t need, there would be no one here to read your thoughts on it. Of course, I agreed with you 100%, but then, that’s the gaping hole in my thinking too.

  7. @mrG (“Without those sites you say you don’t need, there would be no one here to read your thoughts on it.”) Not necessarily: I’m not on Twitter, and am an infrequent Facebook user (post a comment or update maybe once every 2 weeks) but I came across this article the way I usually do: by checking one of my favorite sites. Which can still become a distraction; but limiting your online media time to a few favorites, at least primarily, sets a sort of boundary to the field – and insures that your screentime will be thought-provoking and not filled with, say, hours of looking at funny cat videos. I agree with Edan: like most pleasures, it’s a question of moderation in the form of self-regulation.

  8. Although social networking has benefited my life as a writer more than it has damaged it, I am trying to keep a balance. I now have one internet-free day a week, and that seems to be working fine. Like everything in life (food, sex, sleep), it’s all about balance.

  9. I agree that it is all about balance. I am a journalist so use twitter as a news feed and to find things I might not normally read (such as this article) – but don’t use it outside work. I have never joined, and will never join Facebook, because I have the old-fashioned idea that you should make an effort to keep in touch with friends you care about.

  10. I really had to laugh at the gravity with which the idea of cutting out Facebook and Twitter for a few months was treated in this article (the “collapse” of the internet, the “strained look” in the eyes of almost everyone the author spoke to about it)—as if it were real deprivation.
    I keep my number of Facebook friends low, and I enjoy reading about their creative accomplishments and inspirations; I’ve learned about new and obscure music, videos and articles; I find out about the best parties and nightclubs that they frequent and/or promote; and I am genuinely happy for the ones who have married and had children and share pictures of their loved ones.
    I’m not addicted to Facebook nor Twitter, but I appreciate it for what it is: it’s a celebration of the moments we want to share.
    It’s fine as long as you don’t let it siphon off your valuable time to the point that you need to go cold turkey to remember that it should enhance your social life, not substitute for it. But such is the sad, empty world of the technologically privileged, I suppose.

  11. I am probably at the old end of the demographic here. I am 67. I’ve certainly had my share of addictions (some took years of active overcoming), not-constructive distractions or abused distractions in my life. But now, now, I am so care-taking of my time. TV is gone, movies are here and I make them count. Will my eyesight hold up? I am hoping to live to 90 and take very good care. The Millions “manifesto” struck a chord–not wasting time on vapid (other adjectives also) when I could be reading insightful. I do enjoy some light reading–the last few years the Scandinavian mystery writers fill that niche. So Edan, I think it’s a good thing. Not to presume on how you should do it–but maybe a withdrawal diary? What fills that space, what would you like to fill that space. Rest and remembering are good things to do. Good luck.

  12. Lovely article/post. Re. “If I run into you at the grocery store, the question, “How are you?” will be genuine, and that will feel good” – I can only agree. I enjoy blogging (mostly) though have so far avoided Facebook and Twitter and am fairly sure I’ll continue to avoid it – I like your analogy that it’s like a crowded elevator and everyone is talking over each other. I don’t like crowds or elevators, so that rights me off. For me, despite the undoubted benefits to having an on-line life, social media is essentially, if not necessarily, shallow and vacuous. A hello in a grocery store is so much more meaningful and, dare I say it, profound.

  13. I quit facebook during the month of February and it was hard, especially at first. In the month that I’ve been back, I’ve realized the key my fb portion control: I check in a few times a day and see what my friends are up to but I typically don’t post status updates myself now. I might once a week because when I do then I find myself obsessively wondering if anyone has liked what I wrote or responded at all. I guess others posts feel genuine to me but my own posts feel like the “LOOKIT” thing you described so well.

    (an old Peanuts cartoon has Charlie Brown yelling at the red haired girl, “I’M LOOKITING!!”)

    Thanks for a great article.

  14. Don’t go back. I quit Facebook last fall. Best decision I made in a while. There are much better timesinks, ones that don’t drain every second of your attention while not really providing anything real.

  15. Has anyone successfully used FB or Twitter for business? Any good stories?

    I have hundreds of people on FB and over 1000 following on Twitter. The exchanges can be entertaining but I have yet to derive anything meaningful from it.

    When I first got on FB, I used it to see how my old girlfriends compared. Once that little game was over it went back to the typical 3 round e-mail exchanges to catch up on decades of lost time with friends. Now there is a small core of 20+ people that I keep in constant contact with. About the same before FB.

    I do not feel the need to put up pictures of my kids, quite frankly it scares me. Also, it is very interesting to see how others boast about every little trip or thing they buy. Updating your status to tell me you just “put down new hard wood floors” is not why I joined a social media network.

    There is a value to social media networks but you spend so much time cutting through the noise it almost works against you.

  16. I deleted my twitter and facebook accounts around the same time, in January, and called it social media suicide. I had heard about the suicide sites, but by the time I got on them, they had already been blocked by twitter and facebook. So I deleted all entries, friends, photos, by hand. It was hard. Hard to see all of that love and attention go away. But I did it, because
    I knew I was addicted. And
    I don’t want facebook and twitter to have the rights to my information.
    And I don’t want to spend all of my time on there. I realized that I was in a certain mood when i would check facebook and twitter, the mood of “doing something half-heartedly” or “wanting to waste time.”

    Since I got off these sites, I’ve written 40,000 words of my book, 35,000 words on my blog, created an e-newsletter or three, created 6 new paintings, started writing letters to my relatives (which has brought me such joy) created an ebook about how to get more freelance clients, made 10 slideshow presentations to help people find jobs or fundraise better, and started making an online game to teach people how to fundraise. I’ve made three websites too. And I’ve progressed towards my dream of selling iced tea to people in Austin Texas.

    I have gotten so much done, and I feel like a better person for having committed facebook suicide. I encourage anyone who wants to have a greater impact on the world to do it.


    Full disclosure:
    I have made a new, professional twitter account that I check once a day, during the week, to post my new blog entry.

  17. I often forget about Facebook for a few days at a time and spend no more than a combined total of a half hour a day or so on Twitter, and I enjoy both places. I do sometimes think about deleting from both sites, though — or, more to the point: I sometimes wish I had the luxury of deleting from both places.

    But if you’re promoting a book, deleting your social media accounts is a terrible idea. I’ve booked a lot of events via Twitter contacts, and I don’t like to think of how few people would come to my readings if I weren’t constantly talking to readers and broadcasting my events on these sites.

  18. Facebook is annoying. I have been on Facebook for over a year and it is ok. Great way to share family photos and stories. The key is to keep your network small and easy to manage. Once you let in people you do not know, you are subject to pointless ads and stories.

    Facebook is about “ME”. Most people cannot handle seeing a low number on their account so they end up being friends with anyone to get a cool looking popular number. I find most of the information worthless. Farmville, Mob Wars etc.. etc…

    The internet is young but I expect a facebook killer application to come along soon. Also, Facebook is upsetting people with its privacy rights. If you want to keep anything safe and secure, just keep it off the internet. Sad but true.

  19. This article is fantastic!!! Thank you for sharing your detox experience. One thing I think about, on top of these issues you brought up, is the way that reading other people’s blogs affects my own creativity. I’m a writer and photographer, and while I often claim to follow other artists blogs in order to find inspiration, I often leave feeling insecure and left out of the internet loop of artists. I’m sure some of this has to do with my own personal issues of insecurity, but as soon as I mention this to fellow bloggers, I’m immediately met with resounding agreement and similar frustration.

    While I do often find inspiration from fellow online artists, I often end up recreating the things they have produced. I, as well, want to read and exercise restraint. Perhaps I’m headed to my own detox, of the RSS variety. Who knows…It might end up clearing out my head a bit and allowing me to produce something original.

  20. Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Getting all this feedback means I never have to return to Facebook or Twitter ever again. I exist!

  21. I’ve done the same thing last week, in part to Nicholas Carr’s blog and MGMT’s new song “Flash Delirium” which encourages you to “stab your Facebook”. I only wish more of my friends and family would join me in the real world, but like you said, they all make the same damn excuses.

  22. Loved the article, Edan. I feel some of the same pressures — or rather, all of them. The noise online is deafening, and my contribution to it, at least, is ego-based. My detox starts on July 3rd when I leave on the tour. But I’m trying to take it a step further. No Twitter or Facebook, but no computers or television, either. Just books and thinking. And bicycles.

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  24. Excellent article! I have been doing a bit of hand-wringing over the last few weeks about reducing my online activities and presence. Your well-written piece provides all the intellectual, and quasi-emotional, support I need to flip the switch into the off position.

    One question, though. Did you inform friends and “followers” of your impending departure or did you just leave?


  25. I’ve been off FB since July 1 and guess what I’ve been doing? Reading voraciously…like I used to before SM took over my life (including your book, Edan! Which was incredibly compelling). Anyway, I miss it the way I might miss being at a great party but not enough to go back. I deleted my account and the people who love me and are my friends are still in my life. In fact, we talk on the phone and share our real lives. I don’t know if you are still “off” but I’m thinking about leaving Twitter too. Merry Christmas!

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