What it looks like to leave social media
“I love people thinking I'm dead.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about logging off. I’ve done a few month-long stints in which I completely leave social media, but I always have to come crawling back because I literally write about the internet. It’s hard to square my two beliefs: that the internet is the future (or honestly, the present) of creativity and culture, but also that it’s causing active damage to my mental health and I’d be happier without it.
So I’m trying to figure out how to resist in place. I don’t go on Twitter on the weekends and haven’t for about a year now, and I recently turned off push notifications for everything but iMessage and Venmo. Today I ordered an actual alarm clock so I can keep my phone in a different room overnight. I would like the experience of being online to be something I opt in to, but to learn a bit more about how to do that, I decided to chat with someone I know who opted totally out.
Maureen is my friend from college who is now a teacher in Montana. She’s also the first person I know to have deleted their Facebook, in around 2015, and shortly after her Instagram and Twitter. We would do our catching up IRL, going on trips to Ireland and Iceland and visiting each other for weekends at a time. Then Covid hit, and suddenly I hadn’t talked to Maureen for six months. She literally had Covid and I had no idea, because she was long gone from the platforms the rest of my community used as placeholders for real life.
We reconnected recently, at the same time that I’m getting more intentional about reversing some of the damage social media has inflicted on me. I wanted to hear about how and why she left, and what her life looks like on a day to day basis without any of the things that are so intrinsic to mine. Below is our conversation, lightly trimmed and edited for clarity. —Kate
Did you get off social media all at once or was it little by little?
It was little by little, but I'd also argue in a sense it was all at once. I realized when we were in college how quickly Facebook made me stressed out. I was constantly like, “Okay, am I doing the right thing? Am I presenting the correct way? Are other people presenting the correct way?” I didn't understand why people were enjoying it.
I feel like I have a little bit of a leg up on a lot of people in that regard because I didn't have the internet growing up and also I think that I had this very interesting structure to my life. From a very young age when my parents' business would open in the summertime, I would disappear for four months [to work there] and then that would happen in college too. And I was like, “God, I'm so much happier when I'm gone and I don't have to worry about all this stuff.”
So I had to do the Facebook deletion thing, and then I just stopped posting on everything else. When we graduated from college, I posted a couple of times [on Instagram] because it felt kind of obligatory. I felt like I had to be like, “Okay, just so you know, I'm in Ireland right now or just so you know, I live in Missoula now or I live in Portland now.” Then I very quickly was like, oh, nobody cares. And also, I don't care. I love people thinking I'm dead.
I want to leave social media so badly and I'm fighting with this fear that is: If I'm not on social media, what proof is there that I exist? And to me that feels really mind-fucky, but it sounds like to you that's freedom.
I just as much as you had that feeling. I used to thrive so much on feedback. I'm still a feedback person and it's something we're working on in therapy. But my feedback now is like, does the teacher down the hall [like me]? Not to be too hippy-dippy but I am becoming such a champion of being anti social media in general, because I do think it's doing very bad things. This isn't novel. I'm not coming up with some crazy theory that nobody's thought of before, but it is wild to me that it is so damaging and people are still participating with such reckless abandon.
For me it’s that I’ve been so heavily conditioned over the years that now it’s like, if I have accomplished something or seen something it's not real until I've shared it. It's not real until I've done a digital action. I can't just look at something and appreciate it. And this sounds like such a silly question, but without Instagram, do you still like, take a picture if something looks nice?
That's really interesting because I actually think that after I stopped using public platforms like that, I started taking more photos because I wasn't looking at the way that other people were presenting things and being self-critical. I was so much less of a photo taker because it felt like I would take a photo and I would look at your photos and be like, “Those are beautiful. This person is so good at constructing their narratives and I've never had that ability.”
Now the idea of taking photos of things is so much less pressure-filled because I'm like, nobody's going to see this. This is just for me and my partner and a friend. My phone became so full that I had to buy extra data and purge, because I was taking so many photos of little things.
Instagram just rolled out a new feature where you can hide likes. Was that ever something you struggled with?
Even now I don't get the likes. I don't understand it. I understand the feedback that I would get when people would like my things. I very much felt that drug. But the liking of other people's stuff is something that I still don't understand because it is not saving it anywhere for you, so what are you trying to give?
Let's say your friend posted something and you go, “I want to like this because I want to give them the feedback that someone liked this.” I think that's an endless loop of like, you post the thing, I'll like the thing, you'll feel good from the thing. And then I'll post a thing, you'll like the thing, and then I'll feel good.
The only time I will ever look at Instagram these days is if I go, “Oh, you know what? I do want to know who Kourtney Kardashian is dating. I'll look her up really quick.” And I go, “Wow, Travis Barker, what a wild world.” And that is it. But what is weird is [Instagram] says Kourtney Kardashian has three million likes on this picture. Sometimes it'll be somebody that I know. It'll say like, “Hey, do you remember so-and-so? They liked this.” Like, in what world is that making you feel good to like this photo of a person that you do not know who does not give a shit that you liked their photo? All you are doing is upping their numbers that are arbitrary.
Well my question is—and I do kind of feel like I’m talking to you like you’re a horse or something—how did you even find out Kourtney Kardashian is dating someone if you’re not on social media?
So what's funny is I miss a lot of stuff. I don't even just miss trashy pop culture. I was in a conversation with my boyfriend and his friends. We were out getting a drink and somebody commented something about the boat that had jammed itself in the Suez Canal. And I was like, “What are we talking about?” And they were like, “The boat that's jammed in the Suez Canal.” And I was like, “I know the Suez Canal, was this like a historical moment?” And they're like, “No, it's there right now costing the world billions of dollars a day.” And I was like, “I didn't know this.” Something that really entrenched itself in me during Trump's presidency was people saying stuff like, “If you're not informed, you're not fighting.” But the Suez Canal thing was such a good experience for me in that I was like, now I know about the boat being jammed and I'm very stressed about it and I cannot help the people on the boat. I went two whole weeks without having this information and it doesn't matter. Of course I want to be informed, but I also don't think we all need to know everything at all times.
That anxiety about needing to know and speak out about everything that’s happening has manifested in these informative Instagram graphics that are often oversimplified and more so a way to absolve yourself of that scrutiny. It became so much of a joke that people made a fake one about the Suez Canal, which is a situation we literally couldn’t help.
People acted like I had said I'm not voting in the election because my vote doesn't matter. That's not a feeling that I have at all. I very much inform myself about elections, local, all of them. But the fact I didn't know about the boat was apparently very bad. So I looked into the boat and then I had to stop looking into it cause I was so stressed out about the person who crashed the boat and how he potentially was responsible for all of this money. I was like, this is too much information.
But I know for a fact you’re up to date on what, like, Taylor Swift is doing. How do you find out when she drops a new album?
So this is the beauty of the world that I am cultivating for myself. It is only what can fit in my head of my interests. Taylor Swift is one of my interests, so I will be sitting and I'll be listening to her music and I'll go, “I wonder if Taylor Swift has anything coming soon.” I have to seek it out which is such a beautiful thing—I feel like I sound like I collect crystals and charge them in the moonlight.
Do you ever idly spend time on the internet? What are you consuming if not that?
The internet is so funny for me because there's nothing to look at. I'll check and see if Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn are still together. If something comes up that I feel like I missed, I'll go check it out. But the news that I will get, I will get through reading the paper. After Biden won the election, I would just Google Trump all day long just to make sure something [bad] hadn't happened. And then I was like, I can't do this. It's going to be okay. I just have to stop. And then it felt a lot better. I do listen to two podcasts by the same people, You're Wrong About and Maintenance Phase.
Some of the things you’ve said make me think of Bo Burnham’s recent special, Inside, when he comments that Gen Z is going to be suffering from widespread personality disorders in a few years thanks to their phones. Even as a Millennial, I very much have a mental illness rooted in toxic thinking facilitated by social media. How I feel about my body and my work and my personality is entirely through the lens of how I imagine I’m being perceived by strangers online.
When we graduated from college, making decisions for me was a crippling thing. Even though I was not presenting myself on social media, everybody was and I was consuming it. And so therefore when I made my decisions, I do believe there was a little voice in the back of my head that was going, “What would people think of this? Is this something that would look good when you reach the point that you feel like you want to start Instagramming?” I'm sure there are other people out there like me who went, “Whoa, I can see the way that this is damaging and I gotta back out or I'm fucked.” I don't know if other people will come to that realization later or if they just don't feel it.
I feel lucky in the sense that I am aware that it's a problem. I can recognize it has done damage. I also recognize it's damage that can be undone because I have made things better in small ways. But social media tricks you into thinking your presence carries more weight than it does so you can’t leave. But once you spend even just a week off a platform you thought you could never leave, you realize the sky hasn’t fallen, you’re still here, and none of the things happening on that platform matter to your actual, tangible life.
I think that real things are happening online, but the way that I think of it is like, there's a party happening. And the party is really bad, a lot of the time. So I could go to this party that I know that I'm going to have a terrible time at, or I can wait for all the other parties that I do have a good time at. Like, yes, I'm missing a party. There's something happening. I'm missing stuff. But there are some parties you don't want to go to.
You can find Maureen…nowhere.