For the month of May I time-traveled back to 2007, when social media platforms were still just websites you visited. I removed Facebook, Twitter and Reddit from my phone. Throughout the month, if I wanted to use those platforms I had to log in manually at my desk.
This decision came after experiencing a through-the-looking-glass moment while listening to an interview with Tristan Harris, former “design ethicist” at Google. I had always known it was easy to waste time on social media, but I hadn’t quite understood how engineered our social media habits are.
The big services are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, particularly our need for frequent signals of approval from others: thumbs-up, gold stars and hearts. These small hits of pleasure are enough to keep us checking in early and often, so that our attention can be sold to advertisers. That is the business model. (More here: How Billionaires Stole My Mind)
I didn’t want to quit outright, as many people have. I just wanted to get away from the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. I didn’t want them in my pocket. I didn’t want to find myself swiping through them without having decided to. I wanted them to return to what they used to be: fun websites you may or may not visit on a given day.
What I learned
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was nothing difficult about not using these services once they were off my phone. I didn’t miss them, but I did find myself, many times a day, taking my phone out and absently swiping through it. This impulse usually came at moments when there was some waiting to do: when food was heating in the microwave, when a friend had departed to the bathroom, or even when a website was loading slowly on my laptop.
By Day 6 my phone had become a much less interesting object. I took it out much less often, and spent little time on it whenever I did. The absent-minded swiping impulse, whenever it still happened, became a reminder to either get to whatever responsibility I was avoiding, to wait mindfully, or to read a book or an article. (I made good use of an app called Pocket, which stores online articles for later reading offline.)
Whenever I did log on to Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit, I found them quite boring, and even kind of repulsive. This is how I put it in my log:
…after taking even a little time away from these platforms, whenever I check in I can’t help but see them as repositories for stray feelings, and energy that we don’t want to spend on anything consequential. They seem like places to go when you’re bored, or when you’re actively avoiding the thing you know you should be doing. I know a lot of this feeling is pure projection—I have certainly used these platforms that way.
Since the experiment began, I’ve felt an abundance of time. Part of this is the 45 or 90 minutes I’m no longer spending frivolously online every day, but it’s mostly that I’m no longer constantly recovering from interruptions. I stay with offline activities for longer stretches, and become immersed in them more easily. An hour seems like a longer unit of time now.
Social media was serving, at least for me, as a sponge that wicks up any stray attention—and with it, time—and then keeps drawing more of both until you consciously break away from it. And of course it does—unlike reading, working, physical activity, or real-life socializing, social media is an activity that takes no effort. It doesn’t require any confidence, resolve, or intention, and doesn’t entail any risk.
Essentially, I had removed the easiest way to spend time from a long list of possibilities, so that all that’s left are activities that require at least a little commitment and resolve. I’m reading more, walking more, socializing more, and working without so much self-prodding. I feel freer than ever to do these things, because there’s no ultra-easy competitor undercutting them. And there’s all this new time.
Facebook knows you have better things to do
It was around Day 9 that the most telling thing happened: Facebook noticed my absence. When you stop posting things, eventually the stream of notifications dries up, because there’s nothing for people to Like or reply to. Typically I would log in and see no notifications, quickly scan my news feed, and close it up.
One day, I was surprised to find a few notifications. My first thought was that somebody commented on, or liked, some old photo or post of mine.
But nobody did. I was being shown a new kind of notification: “Check out Jim’s comment on his photo” or “Jane commented on her status” as though someone else using Facebook is something I ought to be notified about.
These contrived notifications were the “Emperor wears no clothes” moment for me. It became obvious then that Facebook knows its users have better things to do, and quietly hopes they don’t notice how little they get out of it. It knows that most of the value it delivers is on the level of lab-rat food pellets: small, scheduled hits of gratification we’ve learned to expect many times a day. Facebook hasn’t been about its original purpose—keeping in touch with friends we might otherwise drift away from—since the mid-2000s, when:
- we had many fewer ways to keep in touch
- Facebook made no money
- we hadn’t yet discovered that maintaining hundreds of superficial online relationships doesn’t really enrich our lives
“Notification gratification” isn’t all people get out of Facebook, of course—we do want to see our friends’ photos (sometimes), and cute animal videos aren’t unwelcome once they’re playing in front of us. But those things aren’t persistent enough incentives to keep users checking Facebook multiple times a day—it shouldn’t need to be said, but Facebook’s customers aren’t its 1.3 billion daily users, but its five million advertisers. The little number in the red circle is the first place our eyes go when the page loads. It’s the reason we come back so frequently, and the reason advertisers are willing to pay what they do.
Do I really take my phone out of my pocket while I’m waiting in line somewhere because I’m suddenly struck by an urge to see my friend’s vacation photos? No, it’s because I’ve learned that in my pocket there is an ever-renewing promise of a small reward: someone may have mentioned me, or liked something I said. If, after that, I go on to peruse photos and articles and short diatribes, that’s merely incidental.
Even my beloved Instagram is jumping the shark. There are increasingly more ads, and now they’ve begun to jumble up the feed chronologically, so that you see your friends’ posts from throughout the week—a picture from ten minutes ago, then one from six days ago, then one from eight hours ago, and so on. Ostensibly this is for “bringing users the experience they want” even though Instagram’s users unequivocally do not want this and still have no option to turn it off.
What this unwanted change really does is ensure a steadier stream of waiting notifications, as users’ posts are dripped out to followers over the course of a week, instead of spiking immediately and dropping off quickly. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for a billion dollars.
So social media has kind of lost me, or at least its 2017 version has. I’m not quitting these services, but I remain committed to using them 2007-style: deliberately rather than reactively. I’ll use them to share things I think people will want to see, to get in touch with people when there are no better methods, to send and receive invitations to real-life events, and to see what people are up to when I consciously decide to see what people are up to.
But I’m done using them as an unwitting Pavlovian dog. They’re off my phone for good, I’ve deleted the quick-launch icons in my desktop browser, and I’m prepared to memorize passwords again. In spite of all of Facebook and Twitter’s attempts to make it difficult, I’m going to use them like websites.