I recently quit all of my social media, cold turkey -- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of it. I was walking down a very busy 9th Avenue on my way to work one day, and I came to the astounding realization that I hadn't looked up from my Facebook feed for 10 blocks. Only my peripheral vision had kept me from bumping into the oncoming throng of people or from being hit by a car on the crosswalk. That, and as I waited for my order at Juice Generation, I felt an intense nervousness -- actual physical discomfort -- at waiting there without an activity and could only calm the sudden wave of anxiety by compulsively scrolling through various feeds, taking all and nothing in.
I knew in that moment I had a problem, as serious and legitimate as someone battling any other kind of addiction, because I was using my phone to mask the very real fear that I am not enough. First of all, it hasn't been easy. I saw an ad for Alan Thicke's new sitcom that the TV network actually had the gall to title Unusually Thicke, and I yearned, oh-so-achingly, to jump onto Facebook to inquire as to whether anyone else noticed this particular gem of pop culture deliciousness. I felt so alone in my bemusement that I had to resort to texting my best friend, so at least I could post on our own private "wall" to be reminded that I was alive. In fact, every time that I have an amusing thought or a question I'd love to pose to the world, I have to suppress my knee-jerk instinct to sum it up in 160 characters and eagerly await the approval that comes ticking in.
The same goes for my iPhone camera, which was consistently poised to capture any number of images -- a sunset (look at me, I'm artistic!), a city-scape (look at me, I'm urban!), a group of friends (look at me, I'm popular!), a marquee (look at me, I'm successful!), a selfie (look at me, I'm sexy/handsome/cute/self aware/lonely!). A friend and I recently debated over the creative validity of Instagram. After all, one does have the option to crop, edit and filter in a fashion that verges on self-expression. But as the weeks have gone by, what I know for myself is that self-expression played only a small part in my desire to share these images. What I really wanted was to prove my significance without doing or saying anything, well, significant.
Here's what I've noticed changing in my experience of each technologically-depleted day.
My thoughts have become more complex. I don't let myself off the hook by unleashing a spontaneous thought out into the world nor does it become diluted by the equally spontaneous responses of other people. My ideas marinate in my brain and take on a texture. They roll around and reveal themselves sometimes to be contradictory, or deeper, and always more personal. They make me want to have a conversation.
I'm having an easier time looking into people's eyes -- I don't know, maybe because I'm getting more practice doing it.
I was at a party and a group of us were having a hard time remembering the name of that movie that won the Oscar. You know, the one about the Iraq war that Kathryn Bigelow directed (no, not Zero Dark Thirty with the redhead, the one before it with the guy). Shockingly, none of us had our cell phone's Google-search function on hand, and we stood around grasping for titles. It was frustrating and funny, and we ended up having a great time failing together. We never did come up with the right name, and it made me think, "What's more important -- the information or the process of seeking it out?"
I'm beginning to care a lot less about the official opinions of our "opinion makers" and tend to rely a lot more on my own. I had the extreme privilege of attending Audra McDonald's opening night performance of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill on Broadway last Sunday. It was an incredible experience, not only seeing the show, but taking my mother, who was in town for the weekend. Before my self-imposed embargo, I would probably have taken my phone out at the opening night party to surreptitiously read the New York Times review. In fact, three people at my table did just that, their glowing faces hovering over their screens. Audra was five feet away in the most stunning dress, and all of a sudden it struck me as hilarious, these people had the rare chance to celebrate this incredible performer in the flesh but chose to check on what someone they have never met thought of the show. I still haven't read the review, and I legitimately don't care to. I had my experience, and how sad that I've deprived myself of so many previous ones by running directly to a website to tell me what to think. Let me disclaim here: Many people reading this may believe they can have their own opinion and simultaneously know someone else's, and I believe that they are completely justified. But notice how once a movie has been released, you'll begin to hear the same sound bites and observations from a multitude of various people. It's called group think, as inevitable as it is, and I will admit here and now to be an often participant of such a phenomenon. But I would prefer now to start letting the producers and the ad men sift through the reviews and concentrate a little more on maintaining the purity of my own experience.
I'm also not taking many pictures. I wonder if I'll regret this shift in my golden years as I scroll through the memories and notice a steep drop off in the mid 30s; and then again, maybe I won't. I love a photo album just as much as anyone, and if I end up having kids, I can guarantee you things will swiftly change as I document their every little move. But if I really think about a time in the past -- an era, an event, a relationship, a family member, a play, a school year -- I realize I don't need a visual. I remember the feeling of these times far more than I do the look. I'm trying now to memorize the feeling of a New York sunset over the Hudson as opposed to busying myself with capturing the perfect angle and composition on my phone and then adding a filter to make it look all the more romantic to people who weren't there. There is a quieter romance in trusting that you can hold on to it all on your own.
Let me further disclaim: I am fully aware of the irony that my instinct here is to reflect upon my experience on a blog and of the possible perceived hypocrisy of using a form of social media to criticize my own use of social media. And allow me to be clear in saying that I don't criticize social media itself. The Internet is an incredible force. It provides us with information, resources and connections that have changed the world in vastly important and beneficial ways. The potential for news to be disseminated quickly and efficiently, the opportunity for education to reach the masses and even the chance to look up your high school sweetheart to discover whether he's gained any weight or has a wife -- they're all valuable. I also don't know what I would do without the astonishing access we now have to music and can't quite believe that we used to carry around paper maps on our way to unknown destinations.
What I know about my own personal relationship to the screen in my pocket is that I grew dependent, not on the access to information or the potential for connection, but to the very empty promise of validation. I chose to use my various accounts as a chance to display and impress. I had lost my own personal sense of self, thought and observation and asked a bunch of strangers or acquaintances to make me feel better about myself.
I am keenly aware, in this moment, of the fact that there must be part of me putting these thoughts out into the world asking for the same kind of validation -- the impulse to "share" in the hope that you "like" it. The difference here, and I believe I'm being authentic in differentiating things, is that I had a really good time writing this, and prior to now, I've been pretty miserable posting and sharing and liking and commenting. This feels like the real me speaking, and I'm excited to share him. The ultimate difference is that I won't have any idea who reads this, nor will I know if you tweeted it or posted it. I'm releasing these thoughts without the expectation of your approval. And if, eventually, I run into you on the street, and you happen to mention that you read this, what better way to connect about it, than eyeball-to-eyeball?
I do look forward to the day when I sign back onto Facebook to check in with my friends or read an interesting article -- even to watch a viral cat video or two. But I won't be back until I do the work -- the slow, scary, painstaking work of accepting the silence that awaits us all.