Last summer, I decided to stop using Twitter. I gave up YouTube as well as part of my own digital declutter in the fall, during the first session of Life of Focus.
Since it’s been several months since I’ve stopped using social media, I thought I would reflect on some of my experiences. It’s possible I might go back to some limited use at some point, but for now the benefits of being off-platform greatly outweigh the costs.
Still, I don’t want this essay to be misconstrued as some kind of permanent commitment. If you’re reading this years later and I’m no longer following this, there’s no contradiction. I merely thought I’d share some of my experiences now, while the transition is still relatively fresh.
I should note that while I’m not using social media personally these days, my business definitely does. I’m not typically the person doing the posting, but my team uses most the major platforms to hopefully convert more people to read the weekly newsletter or listen to the podcast.
Motivations for Going Off-Platform
I’m less antagonistic toward social media than my oft-collaborator Cal Newport. I think they’re potentially a vice, but they can also be really entertaining and have some worthwhile benefits. Thus I’m only speaking from my own experience, rather than offering a universal prescription.
My own impetus to switch off came from two places:
- First, the overall level of nastiness on platforms, particularly Twitter. I would often follow people for their academic or entrepreneurial expertise, only to find my feed was mostly full of culture-warring threads. At first I tried to diminish this through careful filters (removing tweets that mentioned “Trump” was a start), but I was beginning to feel a bit like Sisysphus by the end.
- Second, the additional time wasted beyond the “good” content. This was particularly true of YouTube. There’s a lot of really good content on YouTube, and I had many channels that I loved all their new videos: 3Blue1Brown, Historia Civilis and WW2 in Real Time were a few. But these showed up, at most, a couple times per week. The rest of the time my feed was full of stuff I probably didn’t need to watch.
I was also interested just to see what going off social media completely would do for my life. It was a much more positive change than I had expected, as the impulse to check social media declined considerably and I found alternatives to replace my previous information sources.
Off-Platform, Not Off the Internet
I still use the internet quite a bit, so my transition wasn’t toward a life of reading books by candlelight. Instead, I feel like my internet usage now is much closer to how it was when I began blogging—curated information sources rather than algorithmic feeds.
RSS remains an underrated technology. I follow a few dozen blogs and their articles let me get the echos of current Twitter discussion, without having to wade into the muck myself. Marginal Revolution is one I like, in particular, given Tyler Cowen’s voracious reading habits. (Feedly is good if you want to start with RSS.)
Much of my previous random YouTube watching time is now on online courses instead. While I have also been reading more as well, there are some times when I’d prefer to watch than read (say if I’m having a quick lunch by myself) and online classes fill the gap.
My phone use is now much more heavily skewed toward reading. These days it’s mostly my Kindle app and The New York Times. I still check my phone quite a bit, but I find that the fact that the news doesn’t refresh nearly so often means that I’m not “sucked in” nearly as much as before.
Recently I found out you can also follow YouTube channels via RSS, so this solves my previous dilemma about what to do with my favorite channels. Now I only get new updates from sources I’m actually subscribed to.
Benefits of Going Off Social Media
The transition away from social media was a lot easier than I had expected in the long-term. The short-term can be quite difficult because many of the habits to check are strongly reinforced. However, several months out I’m now wondering why I was fussing over it.
This raises, at least in my mind, the value of the argument that social media is a mild kind of addiction or compulsive behavior. If withdrawal seems hard in the short-term, but barely noticeable in the long-term, it seems unlikely to me that our collective social media use is entirely derived from us getting value from the activity.
Initially, a major benefit of cutting social media was reclaiming quite a bit of time. However, as replacement activities such as reading (or more constrained internet use) have filled up some of this, the time gap doesn’t seem salient any more. The opposite feeling—“How did I used to have time for this?”—is what I tend to feel now.
I think the anxiety-lowering effects of going off Twitter are more significant than the time savings. While I enjoyed the intellectual discussions, the overall hostility definitely made me more anxious. The feature of modern social media, where it becomes more appealing the more it makes you miserable, seems like its biggest flaw.
Not all platforms share this problem equally. YouTube and Reddit were largely time-wasters for me, rather than anxiety-provoking. Reddit does seem to have a lot of caustic discussion, but since you can choose which subreddits to follow, you can simply omit those talking about something you don’t care about. However, in the end, I found the intellectual caliber of conversations on Reddit was fairly low.
Why is Twitter smart and nasty, but Reddit is dull and fun? The choice to follow people rather than topics seems pivotal here. Twitter allows you to follow the smartest minds, but you get everything they’re interested in, not just their expertise. Reddit’s upvoting system instead gives a kind of intellectual populism where the majority opinion rules the day, but this tends not to be the most insightful analysis.
My verdict: following blogs via RSS is superior on both counts, even if it required more time to maintain and curate a blogroll.
What are the Downsides?
Right now the balance of pros-to-cons of ditching social media is definitely toward the “pro” for me. But I can comment on a few side-effects that I observed and have worked to mitigate:
- I did become a little less informed of current events. Part of me reactivating my NYTimes subscription was to counter the fact that I suddenly lost most of my breaking news. I’m somewhat ambivalent as to whether being constantly informed is a good thing, but it is something to note.
- I have found it harder to stay in contact with some friends. Before I had Twitter friends and some friends who mostly messaged me via Facebook. Because of my absence, I’m probably missing some communication. There may be some costs to this (especially for my business), but I suspect the long-run shift to deeper relationships with people offline is going to more than make up for it.
- RSS and newsletters need more active management. The advantage of algorithms is that they do all the work for you. They figure out what you like to read and watch and make sure you see it first. If you use RSS or get most of your content via email newsletters, you’re responsible for unsubscribing when the volume gets too high or the content irrelevant. I’ve been doing this for years, so this was easy for me, but it is an important factor to keep in mind.
People are now telling me about new social media services like Clubhouse and TikTok. No thank you.
I can’t rule out the possibility that there will be a new service that is worth it for me in the long-run (or existing services remove some of their toxicity). But, I’m doubtful. Not because it would be impossible, but just because it wouldn’t be as popular or profit-generating.
In the end, I’m optimistic about content online. There is a lot of good discussions, entertainment and educational materials and it’s getting better every year. But I think curating our own access to that content is probably better than allowing a company to do it for you.