Monday, February 11, 2013

Unplugging: Meditations on Breaking up with the Internet

Snowshoeing Coal Basin, across the street from home
To drive from Seattle to the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado takes about 18 hours if you do it straight through—in a normal car. However, in a 14-foot Uhaul van hauling a loaded auto trailer and climbing mountain passes at a rip-roaring 40mph, the trip takes closer to 30 hours. And when the Uhaul place takes two hours to rent you your auto trailer the morning you need to leave, and when heavy night time fog swallows your vehicle whole, and when said Uhaul van comes with no CD player, no tape deck, no auxiliary port, and an AM/FM radio that offers few stations deep in the mountains…well, let’s just say that Steve and I had a lot of time on the road for conversations two weekends ago.

Among them was a discussion of the merits, or lack thereof, of Facebook.

Who hasn’t fantasized about quitting Facebook? I know I have. The wasted time scrolling glazed-eyed through my Newsfeed, the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) or uncomfortable jealousy that can ensue when perusing evidence of others’ adventures, the reality that while some posts can indeed introduce us to great ideas or articles or images or quotes, the vast majority do not.

I once heard the analogy that comparing your life to someone else’s based on Facebook is like comparing your own backstage to someone else’s highlights reel. Most of us can probably relate to this—the occasional twinges of inadequacy or insecurity when we look at other people’s lives from the outsides. If I had a dime for every time one of my college classmates (or really, any of my twentysomething friends) has posted on Facebook about what a failure our fellow class of ‘08 Oberlin alum Lena Dunham has made them feel like…well, I’d be a wealthy young lady indeed.

Most of us have probably contributed to this ourselves, too. We don’t intend to—after all, we’re trying to paint a nice life as much for ourselves as for the audience of our friends, family, and acquaintances. What we choose to share on Facebook is not false, nor even necessarily an exaggeration: people do get happily engaged, they take beautiful trips, they have cute babies, they land dream jobs, they wake up and feel genuinely blessed and grateful to be alive—and they absolutely deserve to be able to tell the world about it.

But I think it’s important to stay aware of how the details we broadcast about our lives are inevitably selective ones. As Steve articulated so well on the road that night, those details are often different, more carefully chosen, than the ones we might share in a one-on-one chat with a close friend—just as details were carefully chosen for mass email updates before there was Facebook, the way Christmas letters were before mass emails, and the way grandmothers were before Christmas letters.

It’s a fine line, though! Sharing our lives with each other online can serve great purposes. We can inspire one other, build communities, have dialogues about meaningful issues, stay current on the lives of friends we might otherwise lose touch with.

Indeed, there are plenty of such legitimate things for which I have enjoyed using Facebook. For one, getting my current job. I wouldn’t be in Colorado now if Trail Runner hadn’t posted on their Facebook page that they were looking for an assistant editor. Two, being a part of the trail running community. I met 95% of my trail running friends in Washington through the Seattle Mountain Running Facebook group. We used Facebook to coordinate runs with each other—so even at 5 a.m. on a cold, snowy Friday morning, I was able to find people to run up Mt. Si with me before work. Our Facebook group helped me feel part of a team in what’s essentially an individual sport, and fed me a steady stream of inspiration to hit the trails and live life to the fullest. Three, Facebook has made me feel less far away from my mom—who lives eight time zones away from me, across the Atlantic Ocean—because she can stay up on my day-to-day life. She sees pictures of the adventures I go on, gets notified when I update my blog, can trade comments back and forth with the friends I’ve made in my adult life.

Every time I’ve ever entertained the thought of quitting Facebook, my ego immediately protests: ‘That’s some crazy talk!’ I have fears: the fear of disappearing from people’s radar screens, the fear of being lonely, the fear of feeling out of touch, the fear that no one will read my blog if I don’t let them know on Facebook when I’ve written something on it. Will I still feel like a real person if I’m not on Facebook? It sounds ridiculous to ask this, but I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind; someone tell me I’m not the only one.

But after giving all my fears a little air to breathe…I feel pangs of excitement. I consider how much negativity Facebook has brought into my life. Ironically, it’s often made me feel farther away than ever from people I love. I know for a fact it’s done the same to many of them, at least upon occasion—I don’t have time to call or write a friend of mine across the country (or world), but I have time to make a Facebook album? That doesn’t feel good for anyone—and many of us are guilty of making someone in our life, at some point, feel less important to us than Facebook.

I often lament that I’m not in as good of touch with important people in my life as I’d like to be. You all know who you are; I could be better. It’s not that I don’t have time to sit down for an hour and write a long, meaningful letter to you; it’s that I’m throwing away that time Liking things instead, telling myself that logging on to FB helps me “unwind.” Where my mind came up with this propaganda, I have no idea.

Facebook doesn’t relax me; it makes me anxious. Like Nicholas Carr wrote in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, social media makes me feel like a rat running around a maze, pressing little levers in hopes of triggering a moment of pleasure—the fleeting high of someone commenting on a status or Liking a photo. Facebook has made me virtually incapable of sitting still or taking a walk or waking up in the morning without feeling tempted to pull out my iPhone and check my Newsfeed, hope for those exhilarating little red numbers next to my friend requests, my inbox, my notifications. I’ve checked Facebook in bed, during dinner with friends, during work meetings, in the bathroom at bars, while in traffic (I’m particularly ashamed to admit that one, but I’m being candid here), while hiking in the woods, and plenty of other places I no longer want to interrupt with technology.

As Steve and I drove farther and farther away from the bustle of the city, deeper into the quiet of the mountains, and the more we talked about all this, the stronger my conviction: my life would be better off without Facebook.

But, I’m not going to up and quit today. First of all, I’m writing this blog entry from our new home in a tiny mountain town, where we have no cell phone reception or Internet—so even if I wanted to quit Facebook right here and right now, I couldn’t. This blog entry is being composed in archaic Microsoft Word, and will benefit from fresh eyes in the morning before I drive into town for work and broadcast it to the world.

Second of all, my desire to let go of Facebook does not mean I want to give the world a hasty, impulsive peace-out. I don’t want to disconnect; if anything, I want to reconnect. I want to make my interactions more meaningful, more personal, more…joyful, even. And that will take some planning.

Third of all, I actually use Facebook a fair amount in my working life now—to help manage the Trail Runner Facebook page, to track down photos or contact information for stories, to stay on top of buzz in the greater trail running community.

So while my fantasy of quitting Facebook altogether is louder than ever, I’m still not sure it’s realistic (yet). What I do feel is realistic, however, is drastically changing my habits with it—beginning with the fact that Steve and I have no plans to get Internet in our home. If we want the Internet, we can pay six dollars (still roughly less than or at least equal to the cost of gas to drive into town) for a 24-hour block of it—which we plan to do perhaps once a week. It's more expensive than offering to chip in for and share our neighbors' wi-fi, but we figure we'll be more likely to succeed in unplugging if the temptation isn't omnipresent.

These disconnected evenings have been a fascinating experiment indeed. After a few stubborn clues in Friday’s crossword had us stumped, we might have been tempted to Google the answers we needed. Alas, there was no Google to consult. So we took a walk and came back to it with fresh eyes—and our brains, able to come up with many of the answers that had previously eluded us, undoubtedly got a better workout because of it.

Is it necessary for everything in our lives to be so instantaneous after all? Is the state of not knowing something knowable a state we can learn to be patient with? I forget; I went for a snowy road run after work one day last week, and reached for my laptop when I got back to map my run online and calculate the distance I’d covered. But did it really matter that I didn’t know exactly how many miles I’d run?

When I got home from my run to find an empty house, I wanted to text Steve to see where he was, but of course, I couldn’t. Was it the end of the world to not know where he was, or when he’d be home? Of course not; I survived. And I thoroughly enjoyed the old-fashioned flutter of excitement in my stomach every time I heard the crunch of car tires on the snow outside, wondering if it might be him. I relished my eagerness to swap stories about each other’s days—of which we knew nothing about, because we hadn’t called, texted, emailed, or posted on Facebook all day long.

So, if my friends far away don’t see full albums of photos of my day-to-day life, will we perhaps have more to talk about and more to share with each other when we do catch up? I sure hope so. I will still write and share photos occasionally on my blog, but I won’t use it as an excuse to not also write or call those I love. I especially want to be more conscious of not painting slanted images of my life on my blog. At the risk of getting uncomfortably personal, I hope I can give a fair and balanced report of my life here.

A final note: the last thing I want this entry to be is a high-and-mighty, holier-than-thou declaration of my rejection of social media and the Internet. I don’t think either is evil, or that everyone would necessarily be better off without them. But here, now, withdrawal from daily use of the Internet in my free time—and in particular, of Facebook—feels like the right move. Drop me a line at with your phone number, email address and/or home address, and a note on how you’d best like to connect with me. 


Bonus Reading


  1. So true Yitka. It's refreshing to get back to the old school way of life and relinquish the darting eyes of internet addiction. The virtual rat race...keep up the real writing, I love your blog.

    Heather Bilyeu

    1. A belated thanks for the comment, Heather :) It's been a fascinating experiment so far!

  2. I actually truly love Facebook. To me, people's outdoor photos don't come off as bragging, but as inspiration for me to get off the couch/explore a new place.

    I'm also a total introvert who hates talking on the phone or hanging out just to hang out, but Facebook allows me to stay up-to-date with my friends anyway.

    That said, it drives me crazy that every time I have a spare moment, I pick up my phone and check Facebook for updates. I'm going on vacation soon where I won't have free data coverage, so that should cut me off cold turkey. ;)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful input. It's definitely a mixed bag. Sometimes I'm really grateful for the role social media can play in my life, helping me stay connected to people I love ... but exercising moderation definitely helps fend off some of the more frustrating aspects of it.

      Enjoy your Facebook-free vacation!