The unliked life: How long can you stay off of social media?

By Caitlin Kelly

I recently took a week-long break from blogging here, the longest since I started this in July 2009.

I got a lot done in real life, mostly work-related, with a few meetings with new contacts and possible clients.

It was an interesting experience to turn away from the putative gaze, and potential approval, of Broadside’s readers. I know that some bloggers like to post every day. I just don’t have that much to say.

More to the point, I try hard to maintain a balance between my life online and my life…in real life.

Social media is ubiquitous, and for some wholly addictive. We all like a hug, even if it’s virtual. We all like an  ego-stroke, and getting dozens, or hundreds?

How can that be a bad thing?

I still prefer being liked in person — last week over half-price cocktails with my friend Pam, trading notes about high-end travel with a new client, wooing a local PR agency, hanging out with my husband.

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...
English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a fascinating/sad story from Bloomberg Businessweek about a camp created for adults who need to digitally de-tox:

It’s Digital Detox, a three-day retreat at Shambhalah Ranch in Northern California for people who feel addicted to their gadgets. For 72 hours, the 11 participants, who’ve paid from $595 for a twin bed to $1,400 for a suite, eat vegan food, practice yoga, swim in a nearby creek, take long walks in the woods, and keep a journal about being offline. (Typewriters are available for anyone not used to longhand.)
The ranch is two-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco, so most guests come from the Bay Area, although a few have flown in from Seattle and New York. They’re here for a variety of reasons—bad breakups, career
troubles—but there’s one thing everyone has in common: They’re driven to distraction by the Internet.

Isn’t everyone? Checking e-mail in the bathroom and sleeping with your cell phone by your bed are now
considered normal. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2007 only 58 percent of people used their phones to text; last year it was 80 percent. More than half of all cell phone users have smartphones,
giving them Internet access all the time. As a result, the number of hours Americans spend collectively online has almost doubled since 2010, according to ComScore (SCOR), a digital analytics company. Teens and twentysomethings are the most wired. In 2011, Diana Rehling and Wendy Bjorklund, communications professors at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, surveyed their undergraduates and found that the average college student checks Facebook 20 times an hour.

Twenty times an hour?

This is just…sad.

There was a time when being with other people meant actually being in the same room — and that meant possibly having to walk, run, bike, fly, cab, drive or climb to access their companionship.

You know, make an effort.

We also used to live lives that we decided were intrinsically satisfying or they were not. We didn’t spend hours seeking the approval of thousands, possibly millions, of strangers — people who we’ll never meet or have coffee with or visit when they are in the hospital or attend their wedding or graduation.

There is genuine affection on-line, I know — but I wonder how many of us now do things now just to see how much they are “liked”.

Much as I enjoy social media, I’m old-fashioned enough to want to be in the same physical space as the people who “like” me and want to hear, first-hand, what I’m up to and how I really feel. There are many things I’ll never post here or on Facebook, where my “friends” include several high-level professional contacts for whom a brave, competent face remains key.

To me, face to face “liking” is truly intimate — like the seven-hour (!) meal at Spice Market that Niva and I shared when she came to New York and we finally put faces — and lots of laughter — to our names for the first time. (She writes the Riding Bitch blog.)

We had a blast.

It was much more fun than endlessly hitting a “like” button.



56 thoughts on “The unliked life: How long can you stay off of social media?

  1. I admit it. I’m a little addicted to this electronic world. I don’t check 20 times an hour, but I do find that when I get uncomfortable about something, I often whip out my phone and check in on email and blogs (I could be more connected). Once upon a time, I might scratch my head or yawn. Now I find out what I missed in the last 15 minutes. Pathetic, I know, but not as much as some! It’d probably be a better idea to directly address the original discomfort (I’m working on it!).

    1. Thanks for your comment…and candor. I think it’s becoming a very common habit…maybe a quick and easy source of comfort, as cigarettes were (and still are) for some people.

      I’m old-fashioned enough I usually carry a book or a few magazines or newspaper. I spend so much time at the computer already that I crave breaks from it whenever possible. I also work alone at home, so my preference is for face to face interaction as well.

      1. sthrendyle

        Yes to all of that. I have been shutting down Facebook during work hours (maybe one peek a day, er, hour!) Yes, you can be quite productive if you do! I do not get Twitter and I don’t know that it would help my business…

      1. Well, I can safely say I am not addicted at all. And concerning the phone, I currently have a Nokia 6900 I think it’s called, so I can’t use the Internet on it. All the mobiles I ever had were older ones. Maybe addicted people should try these as they can keep in touch with whom ever they need and not have the possibility of going online.

        Great post anyway!

      2. Thanks. I have an older phone I keep for its very small and effective keyboard, which I do use for email when I am away from the computer. But I try to use it only for fairly urgent business.

  2. Yeah, I can understand the problem. People are so addicted to their devices they record a whole concert for the sake of watching it again and again…then they realize they didn’t see the concert at all.
    Personally I can stay off my devices for long periods of time if I need or even want to…but as a student with classes and what-not, it’s kind of difficult to find those times.

    1. A friend recently posted that people are now going into museums and art galleries — snapping a photo with their phone or Ipad and moving to the next object or painting — but not even stopping to actually look at anything.

      It’s appalling. It’s very sad.

      1. The Fine Bros. on YouTube did a video on this not too long ago. It kind of exposed how young people see the cell phone phenomena and confronted them with some of the things they do now. It’s funny, but actually kind of eye-opening.

  3. I hate how the concepts `like` and `friend` have been changed and diminished by social media.
    But doesn`t it show all the more clearly how fundamental that need to feel connected, belonging and loved is? While, ironically. of course, tearing us away from being truly connected and loved in the real world and in any real sense.
    Facebook drives me nuts. My life is not enhanced by knowing the mind numbing mundane details of someone else`s.
    But blog…now, that`s a whole different social media that just has me hooked by all its splendours.
    A week off? I salute you. Me, I need that weeklong internet free bootcamp.

    1. It is ironic, isn’t it? I think FB, etc. fill a real need (and one I really value) by connecting us to people we just cannot see because they are living very far away — I get “likes” there from pals in Austria, L.A., Bhutan, Britain — and I am in NY. So I do really value that.

      It was very freeing to not blog for a week. I enjoy it but it is very time-consuming as each post gets a minimum of 3-8 revisions before I post it.

  4. I think for younger people, “like” hunting on social media is a reflection of their general approval-seeking orientation. It’s just what kids do. I use social media as a kind of news-service for the most part, so that I get to see snaps of the kids growing up that I otherwise wouldn’t see very much, or find out when the book finally got published. It just kind of helps me keep a toe in people’s lives when I’m very busy or they’re too far away for face-time. So, I suppose it’s more about maintaining a wide circle of acquaintances, although I do use it to keep in touch with friends also–like one friend I’ve never met in person who lives in Poland, or the many friends here in India that I couldn’t necessarily afford to call. It’s enormously comforting to have it here in India. It makes me think I can go anywhere and still have that circle of support, and I think it’s helpful in helping me maintain that sense of balance of the new and the familiar.

    1. Good point. I have mixed feelings about people who substitute “likes” for true intimacy. But I can see that staying connected emotionally while physically far away is very appealing.

      Have you left L.A. for India?

      1. Oh, yes, I’ve been here three weeks. 🙂 I actually sleep at night and stay awake all day lately.

        I think the “likes” aren’t a substitute for real intimacy–it’s a smaller kind of connection. It’s perhaps more like small talk at a party. The problem arises if that’s all you have, or if small-talk is taking time and energy away from your more substantial relationships. But I’ve also seen how my social media-based friendships have progressed in the same way as any other relationship. Over time, I find myself paying more attention to their status updates. I am more genuinely interested in what’s going on in their lives and want to hear more.

      2. Is this the Big Move? If so, congrats…

        I take your point. I do find it interesting what I learn about people I don’t know very well on Facebook through their updates and photos.

  5. sthrendyle

    I thought that social media camp story was a hoax or urban myth. A lot of people were addicted to political (and topical) chat rooms but no one ever saw saw those as a problem. The “like” button was sheer genius. I think it has more to do with boredom.

  6. I’ve always thought there will be a natural saturation point. Beyond a limit, people are likely to give up trying so hard all the time. Once, a few of my friends, including myself, went on a trip to the forest. The guy entrusted with bringing the camera forgot to do it. Most of the group got disillusioned because they’d have to take photos on their inferior mobile cameras, and eventually the entire trip got spoiled. The reason? They wanted to have great photos to share on facebook. Letting our friends know we enjoyed our trip seemed to have become more important than actually enjoying it. This article reminded me of that.

  7. My favorite thing in the world lately is when I “accidentally” leave my phone at home (and I don’t even have a smart phone but I still have limited internet access). I have noticed that I am much too dependent on my laptop however and sometimes I force myself to step away from technology for a while. Yesterday I had a lovely lunch with a woman I met at a writing conference last year. It was one of the best afternoons I’ve had in a while.

    I have to remember that. Life behind a screen isn’t as rewarding as . . . well . . . life.

    1. Hey, good to hear from you again!

      So true. I now sked into every week a few “real life” meetings — I have two in a row this Thursday — or it starts to feel far too isolating. I also suspect it’s helping to spur some pretty feral behavior when people can simply click away from others or issues they find tedious or annoying. In the real world, we have to face and manage a lot more complexity.

      1. I’m beginning to think the ability for people to hide behind anonymity through technology is one of the biggest challenges to our society. A friend of mine who posted a GORGEOUS historical photo of a Japanese pearl diver breast-feeding on Facebook was flagged as “pornographic” and is under review. How does someone justify doing this? Because they can. Sigh.

      2. Wow. That’s a little nuts.

        On the other hand, I am very aware that every word I produce online under my name (comments, FB, etc) are all findable by someone and potentially something to use against me. I don’t worry about it but I think more people need to be aware of this: public, permanent…not a great combination. (see: Snapchat.)

  8. I have a blog, myself, and don’t post things on it very often, but I do read a handful, like yours, and make unobtrusive comments. Kind of like Marshal McCluhan, I see a qualitative difference between blogging and the other, low-attention-span, social media. Not to judge. My problem with them (facebook, twitter, etc.) is they remind me too much of junior high (middle school . . . for you age impaired.) I guess this stuff is here to stay, and the trick is, or will be, to integrate it all into our “real” lives rather than replace our real lives with it. But look at the phrase “get a life,” used disparagingly so often in the “early days” of chat rooms–we knew all this instinctively, right from the start, even as we proliferated the problem.
    PS: I liked Instagram, but I think that was because I mistakenly thought it was primarily for showing off cool little pictures rather than documenting our lives (some more.)

    1. I agree. I use Facebook to share news and photos, and enjoy it. I enjoy keeping up with my friends there, as many of them live very very far away and I’m lucky to see them even once a year; it’s FB or nothing, really.

      Blogs are a totally different thing for me (and thanks for making time to come here!)

      The whole frenzy of documenting your life only to share it immediately is worrying to me. What will anyone remember if they were not present in that moment and with others?

      I recently read (!????) that someone took a “selfie” at a funeral. I may need to vomit…

      1. Re: “selfie at a funeral,” this is one of the stranger ripples in our new online society–is it really OK to leave a “remembrance” on a funeral home’s web site? Or use email to send condolences? There is this line, and I have sort of crossed it myself, never sure what to do. I know something is wrong when I hesitate to put anything in the subject line, as that would somehow lend legitimacy to something that doesn’t deserve it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe one or two generations from now this won’t even raise an eyebrow, but I think some of it borders on distaste. This, and everything you and everyone has written about, above, has to do with this idea that we have all this internet “stuff,” much of it being crammed down our throats, but we’re not quite sure what to do with it yet. It’s my hope that some, or even much, of it gets tossed aside as useless or stupid, as the Internet grows up.

      2. Well, as Pogo once said — “the Internet” is us! Right? Until or unless we each set our own boundaries of behavior — and I’m fine looking like a stuffy old fart if I err on the side of polite overkill (i.e. a condolence card sent via snail mail). I treasure the small (and shrinking) collection of cards from friends, mentees, my husband that I can touch and look through…a bunch of pixels on a screen just don’t do it for me.

        But maybe I’m a dinosaur. Rawwwr. 🙂

  9. Phil

    I hit the like button for this post. I wonder what sort of irony that says about it all…

    I totally agree about the constant din and distraction of the internet. I usually disconnect months at a time, and find it is quite productive in my other endeavors. I come here to play. When it becomes too much like work, well, why bother?

    1. Thanks! 🙂

      It’s a challenge. I work alone at home, no pets, no kids, no one (quite literally) to speak to all day, until I call someone or email them or leave my apartment…which then means I am not working and making $$$. So I tend to be very focused and very lonely! Thus…dicking around on Facebook as a break and some connection. I am forcing myself more to take one full day off a week (weekday) to cut down this isolation and meet more people in face to face meetings.

      I enjoy the Net but often find it more useful for work than for play.

  10. There is a generation gap here, and that gap really starts (in my opinion) with the beginning of facebook. I have had a facebook account since their very beginnings, when it was limited to a few colleges around the country. I have always used it more as a “smart” rolodex–keeping tabs on people, occasionally posting a comment for a friend’s consumption, or to share pictures with family. I have since used it as a means to connect with people when I travel–dropping a fellow alum a line and letting them know I was in town, to, as you say, be liked in person. I was in grad school then–and not the target audience for facebook.

    Yet my sister, who is a decade younger than me, is constantly posting, tweeting and texting. I once had to text her at the Thanksgiving table to rejoin the family, drawing her ire for the rest of the week. As far as facebook goes, I find that that the ancient Roman Horace had summed it up: “There is moderation in everything.” It seems to me that anyone doing anything 20 times an hour has an addictive personality.

    Last comment, my last boss was addicted to Twitter. He convinced our employer that tweeting was good PR. We hired two social media personnel to tweet out to our 2000-person membership. I did some math on a cocktail napkin, and figured that my boss was tweeting 20 minutes an hour over the course of a workday. To paraphrase Bill Maher on this point, it turns out that most people do not have anything interesting to say (let alone 20 minutes per hour.)

    I have head some “gurus” lump blogging into the social media pile, but I think this medium stands alone, for obvious reasons.

    1. Interesting you were so early an adopter…I had my writer’s website up in 1995, long long before anyone else was doing it.

      Wow. Texting sis at the table. OUCH. Hardly unusual these days.

      I was ordered, literally, to start blogging in June 2009 by my then agent (to build my audience/brand/platform.) It’s turned out to be a lot of fun and quite successful but I went into it kicking and screaming.

      Now everyone insists I tweet. ugh. yes, I get why. I really do. But I suspect you, like me, actually prefer life beyond a glowing screen…books, film, walks, dinners with real people in the same room, art, live music…I also doubt that ANYONE is that interesting. (Even if they think they are and millions of followers seems to suggest this to them.)

      I am having a tough enough time these days focusing on just reading a book (that is new and unsettling) instead of shorter stuff. Not a good sign.

  11. Such a great post, Caitlin. I admit, I have a love/hate relationship with my phone, Facebook and all social media, honestly. I recognize its importance and appreciate the connectivity, but also find most people post about nonsense, it’s terribly distracting, and the need to “share” is out of control. The other week I went to an event with a bunch of friends and they had their noses in their phones the whole time instead of talking. Ugh!

    Perhaps not coincidentally, my ability to focus has greatly diminished in the past couple of years. It used to be grief, but now it’s something else. It went away when I was in Vermont (where I turned my phone off for almost a month), and the desert (where I didn’t have Wi-Fi). I often turn my phone off while writing, but can still find it hard to concentrate. I think it’s great that you shut things off too. It seems like that’s the only way to get anything done!

    1. Thanks!

      There has been a lot written recently about how tech overuse is (scary) rewiring our brain circuitry so we cannot focus as easily for long periods. Which is an even stronger argument for turning it OFF (and bravo to you for so doing!) as often and for as long as possible.

      I love the quick connections. But when I was lying in a hospital bed for three days after my hip replacement I was very deeply touched by my friend with two small kids who drove a good 45 minutes to sit at my bedside for a bit. That is friendship. That takes time and energy. If we fail to develop the muscles of true intimacy, how will we suddenly find them when we most need them from one another?

      1. Ah, what a great last thought/question, and so true. And what a beautiful story about your friend making that journey to see you after your surgery. That really IS friendship.

        I have a friend with whom I exchange postcards on a regular basis. We also email, call and FB each other, but the cards are a fun (old fashioned) way of communicating that we both really appreciate.

        Regarding tech overuse… I’m going to make evern MORE effort to turn things off. I hate the idea of my brain being rewired!

      2. The lovely postcard of Chagall you sent to me is framed on our hallway wall — one of the first things I see as soon as I open the door. 🙂

        Friendship, love, loyalty — is action not merely words. I’m driving a ton of surgical supplies into Brooklyn this week for an editor friend about to have hip replacement…we’re not that close at all, but this is point of being there for people. It takes effort sometimes, which is why so many people disappear when you really need them most (which you might have experienced with Kaz.)

      3. Aww, I love to hear that about the Chagall postcard! And yes, I did experience that with Kaz to an extent. It was very interesting who stepped up and who didn’t, and when. I’m sure your editor friend will really appreciate your driving into Brooklyn with those supplies. Frienship, love and loyalty indeed.

  12. I really appreciate this thoughtful discussion. I’m a newly self-published writer who enjoys blogging but remains averse to the great social media tide that seems to be sweeping away whatever little free time is left available. If there was I’d be like you and reach for that half-read book wasting away on the shelf. I’m still looking for away to get more involved in social media without it becoming a force that can no longer be tamed.

    1. Thanks! And thanks for making time to read and comment…the more voices, the better the conversation.

      All we have in our life is time. It is snatched away from us too soon. I treasure every minute, so “wasting” it on cat memes seems insane to me.

  13. I completely get your point. Sometimes, I feel so hooked into the Internet that I want to just go cold turkey and walk away for a few weeks. I should probably do that some time soon. (He says as he clicks “post” again.)

  14. This post makes me feel like a relic from another era…like I’m stuck in the early 1990s. I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. Of course I blog, but the social media aspect of blogging is secondary to the fact that it’s a neat, searchable, multimedia way to journal.

    1. It depends what you need to accomplish professionally — in my world, as a journalist/writer, I have to be visible all the time, so not tweeting put me at a very distinct disadvantage in this regard. One reason I blog three times a week is to ensure my blog (as it does) remains tops of the Google rank for my name.

  15. Steven C Threndyle

    Social media takes up all the time that we used to spend sending out SASEs and photocopying ‘clips’ at Kinko’s. People in our industry continue to get laid off, are underpaid (nothing new, there) and … so, flash forward to my 70s, living out of a van in Mexico, getting my Old Age Security checks sent to me, and working online while I surf the waves and ride my bike into town for beans, rice, fruit, tortillas, and chicken… hmm…

    1. That actually sounds very appealing….my van will probably be parked nearby. 🙂

      But, yes, this business is a disaster area right now. I’ve begun to insist on the highest rates possible (still lower than they were in 2008) and look for as much non-journalism work as I can.

  16. Liked, of course. It is such an easy route to validation. There are days when that’s helpful, but probably mostly it isn’t. I did take a week off the internet last summer, it felt weird. I suppose knowing there’s an addiction (and work issues) is a tad saner than not knowing. Delighted to have stumbled on your blog, an unexpected bonus from the pressing yesterday…

    1. That’s a great way to put it…Validation of what, though? One’s politics? One’s prose? It’s pleasant to be liked, but it’s professionally helpful to know what is working — and what is not.

      Thanks! Congrats on being FPed.

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