A year ago, I did a fast from Social Media. From July 2015 until the end of September I went without Facebook, Reddit, Slashdot, Twitter, and Hacker News.
I never really did much of a post mortem for the project.
There is a lot of very interesting writing going on these days about the topic of social media and information overload. We see bottomless bowls of information designed to operate like skinner boxes while providing little real value. The age of distraction. Which has a direct effect on our ability to concentrate. And a nagging feeling that the internet has gone from a wonderful, magical, freeing community, to another platform for solidifying traditional power and mainstream culture. Maybe this is why I find myself hanging out on freenode late at night these days argueing with other aging weirdos.
Others who have tried to cut themselves off from the internet reported finding a
sudden abundance of free time. Yet, as they went along they simply found other
ways to procrastinate. Eventually returning to their previous level of
productivity. Maybe the new distraction was more meaningful. Or maybe it wasn’t.
But it does reveal that a great deal of your productive hours are really a measurement of your own willpower.
I found a similar effect. The first month was filled with an abundance of free time. My day job became that much more productive. My evenings had much more time for reading. Then two things began to slowly fade in (1) I began to cheat on the fast. Slowly Reddit slipped in. A quick peak at Facebook. (2) I began to find that my productivity gains slowly faded, filled instead with just idle distraction. If I wasn’t distracted by Reddit, then I was at least distracted by a sudden urge to organize my pens or muddle through my day planner.
Here is the thing that I found most interesting. Facebook really wasn’t that bad of a culprate. It was easy to cut Facebook out. It was easy to start reading Facebook again. Facebook was, ultimately, still rather useful with regards to keeping up on the lives of friends and family. My major gripe with Facebook a year ago was the sheer amount of promoted content. The feed was full top to bottom with clickbait articles and random nonsenses being shared endlessly. It made me miss the endless parades of baby pictures. Yet, it seems someone at Facebook realized that this was bad for business and started to turn the ship around. There is still random promoted content on the feed. But I am happy to say that I am starting to see more and more content contributed by friends. Which leads me to being willing to keep Facebook around for yet another year.
News aggregators though? Sheer evil. Might as well be a slot machine for internet addicts. Every refresh of Reddit brings up new articles, memes, and comments. Hacker News and Slashdot are at least a little more professionally orientated but they too form a kind of bottomless bowl. Once you take a hit of Reddit, an hour or two is gone instantly.
Post fast, I realized that Reddit just had to go. Hacker News and Slashdot were managable. I’ve weened myself down to only reading Reddit on the phone when I truly, truly have nothing better to do. The common demoninator on Reddit today is the absolute bottom of the barrel. The shilling is through the roof. There isn’t a post that doesn’t have some viral web marketer squatting on it trying to hawk their wares. The last thread I read was some stupid joke about balding dominated by comments sounding eerily like ad copy, promoting this or that product to bring back your hair.
Which brings me to the amazingness that is the RSS feeder. RSS turns the relationship of the news aggregator upside down. Rather than the news aggregator pushing news to me. The mob, or more likely an army of marketers, deciding what news ought to be read. I can instead pull the news to me. I get to decide the writers who I will read. The topics to be read.
This breaks the addictive quality of the new aggregator, but also allows me to stop wasting time reading low-quality comments and low-quality posts. I can focus my attention on particular publishesr, such as NPR, BBC, or local newspapers like the Jackson Hole News & Guide and the Silver City Daily Press. I can pull in international feeds like L’actualite and Le Monde. I can also focus my attention on a particular author like Will Wheaton, Stephen Fry or Brad Warner. I can create huge collections of slowly updated blogs that post long form essays once or twice a year or faster blogs that publish once or twice a day. I can pull in writers on esoteric topics that interest me like Rust development, Zen, Asian History, Anime, or Roleplaying. I can even add Slashdot and Hacker News – get the article prepackaged without the temptation to waste time wallowing about in the comments.
Essentially, I very quickly found myself thinking more and more about the types of things that I read online, the topics that interested me, and seeking out a diverse selection of the best writers in those topics. I stopped browsing whatever popped up in front of me. It became a much more intentional relationship with the media.
Round #2 of the Social Media Fast
My thoughts are, to do this again. Make it an annual thing. No social media for three months! August. September. October. Which will be great. I’ll miss all of the election nonsense. Read the articles on my RSS feed. Make my own call on the whole business.
The sites that are verboten:
- Hacker News
And any other site that has characteristics that resemble any of these sites.
StackOverflow gets a pass. I can’t do my job without StackOverflow.
But let’s take this one step further this year. Google has gone evil. So let’s cut out google.com as well and switch to Duck Duck Go or Qwant for my search engine. I’m still giving the various other google products a pass: e-mail, docs, drive. Those I, unfortunately need for work. But I can intentionally choose to try using a different search engine for three months.