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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetJuly 19, 2023

My year off social media

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Twelve months ago Madeleine Holden went cold turkey from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and all other social media. This is how it went.

I’ve been trying to kick my Twitter habit for years. Instagram never had much hold over me – the wall-to-wall ads and saccharine tone aren’t my cup of tea – and I’ve barely used Facebook in ages, but Twitter had its hooks in me until the bitter end. My addiction survived multiple rounds of little hacks and tricks, like entrusting my password to a friend and deleting the app from my phone. By autumn 2022, I was still logging in for my daily punishment. 

I told myself the same stories lots of users do, especially writers. “I’m staying connected to the conversation,” I’d think, on my 60th full minute of chuckling at Bean Dad memes. “I’m networking,” I’d tell myself, as I clicked the heart on a take about trauma by a freelancer I last worked with six years ago. “This is really sharpening my politics,” I’d decide, waist deep in a thread by an asocial teenager about how real communism has never been tried.

Afterwards, I’d feel disgusted, guilty and agitated; vowing, as I slammed down my laptop lid with the social media equivalent of post-nut clarity, that I’d quit for good. Twenty minutes later I’d be typing “tw…” into an open tab. 

Who knows how long I’d have carried on like that if I never got pregnant. But seeing the sonogram at 37 weeks, my daughter’s rosebud lips and broad nose already visible, I was struck by terrible visions. My daughter wailing in a too-full nappy as I scrolled with dead eyes. Missing her first smile because I was busy generating a Hotline Bling meme or raging at a Reply Guy. Distractedly mumbling that “it do be like that sometimes” as she ran to me with a scraped knee and tear-streaked face. It was hideous. After that, I went cold turkey.

The Reply Guys can’t get to you here (Photo: Madeleine Holden)

The first thing I noticed was that I had hardly anyone’s phone number any more. Whole ecosystems of connection depended on the niche in which they thrived: most of my conversations with editors and sources were on Twitter, old friends congregated on Instagram, and family were all on Facebook. If you’re not careful, that alone can suck you back in. Once or twice I had to log back in to DM someone I had no other way of contacting, but I was disciplined enough to bypass my feeds and notifications entirely. I made a point of contacting people by more direct means, ie phone calls, email, text or Messenger, which I allowed myself to keep on the technicality that it’s more of a communication app than social media platform. (That’s how they get you.)

This was the real boon of my social media break: I actually communicated with people I care about. The great lie of social media is that it “connects” you, but what it really does is pen everyone off into little silos, announcing your ~professional news~ and nagging thoughts and strident political convictions to whatever distracted segment of your audience happens to be scrolling by at the time. You feel like you’re “catching everyone up on your life” and “taking a stand”, but you’re a hog screaming, and it’s actually really lonely. It turns out calling a friend to whole-heartedly congratulate them on their engagement is way more meaningful than adding the 200th semi-anonymous Like to their Facebook announcement. Turning off the ceaseless chattering of social media really distils which voices you’d love to hear. 

Another thing I realised was how easy it is to simply swap social media scrolling for an equally noxious timesuck, like YouTube or obsessive news consumption. Certain Substacks are essentially just Twitter by proxy, rehashing the daily discourse and trivial controversies of that site, so I quietly unsubscribed. The point of leaving social media wasn’t to swap one online cesspool for another; it was to finally read Dostoevsky, meditate for hours and closely watch the metamorphosis of my beautiful infant daughter.

I wanted to make some self-deprecating joke here about what a pipe dream that ended up being, but the truth is, that’s pretty much exactly how I spent my time. I read dozens of great novels I’d been guiltily pretending to understand references to for years. My meditation app tells me I averaged 12 hours of practice a week, an amount that astounds me given I was also raising a baby. I took my daughter to the playground, rain or shine, and watched her play with her little baby friends, shoving their chubby hands in each other’s mouths while I chinwagged with their parents. My phone stayed in my pocket.

There’s lots of time for new hobbies, like big game fishing, when you quit social media (Photo: Madeleine Holden)

I don’t say all that to brag (much), but to highlight the crippling waste a bad social media habit involves. At the peak of my Twitter addiction, I was pissing away hours each day, trying to craft quippy little sentences that were some impossible mix of incisive, funny, and offensive to nobody. The punishment for a bad tweet was intense abuse from strangers, and the reward for a good tweet was intense abuse from strangers, so even after I finally logged off for the day I still felt like shit.

My intellect was dulling, too. I’d find myself not just texting and talking but thinking in stock online phrases. “It me,” I’d muse to myself, Disaster Girl flashing in my mind, “but that’s none of my business.” Teenage Americanisms bubbling in the brain of a Pākehā adult. It was all a bit… cringe.

I convinced myself I was learning something from the bored missives of all the other 20- and 30-somethings wasting the prime of their lives online, ignoring the actual books by actual geniuses on my shelf to read people called @chiefqueef and @stalinsweetie say the same four things about capitalism and emotional labour and billionaires and men. All of this would feel thrilling for a few minutes and then miserable for hours, and I did it for years.

I don’t want to pretend that all I did for the past 12 months was underline passages from The Idiot and transcend normal waking consciousness. It was, as any parent can understand, a brutally hard year, with some truly low ebbs. But I can’t imagine how much harder raising a baby would have been if my brain was also full of Twitter sludge. Being off social media wasn’t a hardship, it was a breath of fresh air. 

I’ve done shorter social media breaks before, but a year off has solidified my conviction that these sites aren’t worth the upsides. Social media does “keep you across the conversation”, but the conversation is a babbling cacophony of thousands of voices all somehow converging on the same six phrases every day. Social media does “connect” you, but often just to rude strangers, inane celebrities and perennially clueless brand accounts. Social media does help you “keep in touch”, but it’s no substitute for actually touching things, like baby cheeks, book pages or glossy leaves. Please, please remind me of this if you catch me relapsing.

Keep going!