One of the seemingly worst features iPhone added in 2018 was Screen Time, which records how much you use your phone. It breaks down what you’re using it for — productivity, social networking, games — even down to the specific apps.
I learned that I’ve spent, on average, about four hours a day on my phone, with nearly half on social media. Before that, I was willfully ignorant and happily reached for my phone during down time — in line for coffee or between emails — lurking, liking and posting. For me, that willful ignorance was a psychic barrier between joyful excess and existential regret.
Perhaps I could just shrug it off as part of my routine and accept that we’re living in a mediated world. But a nagging voice in my head not only keeps a handy list of all the other things I could do during that time but also says I’m somehow becoming dumber for it.
More than anything, Screen Time has encouraged me to take an accounting of what I post and why. Because I can’t spend 14 hours a week on social media and simultaneously garner insights into its practice, I’ve dedicated myself to a month-long social media diet. I’d already deleted Facebook, and felt the wiser for it, but I’ve become semi-addicted to both Twitter and Instagram. Regardless, I deleted them both.
In an accounting of what I liked, lurked on and posted, it is mostly food and drinks. That makes sense, as my job is food and drink. I operate bars (including, ironically, one of the most Instagrammable ones in Washington), write about spirits and cocktails, and spend a lot of time thinking about the subject. Whether scrolling through @Scotch_Trooper (a photographer’s Instagram feed in which he poses Star Wars action figures with bottles of Scotch) or posting pictures of artfully lined canelés, I have an excuse: research and promotion. But that’s not the only reason I do it.
Food and drink are highly shareable. Not only is eating something we do often — generally three times a day — it encompasses many of the reasons we engage social media.
Posting these pictures is a creative act. We practically become food stylists when the first plate hits the table, grabbing candles and bottles as backdrops, insisting everyone keep their hands off. I spent an enormous amount of time getting the right lighting for asparagus on a butcher block. That post was generously liked, too.
For many of us, these reflections build community. There used to be message boards, blogs and word of mouth, but, before my diet, I got a lot of information from people’s feeds. And they can get the same from mine. We share comments and messages, acting like people socializing in the town square, talking about the newest and latest trends. The comments and messages are brief but still meaningful.
Also, food and drink communicate our values. We can show people what we believe is important. That might be healthful, sustainable or organic food, or that might be body positivity. A brief statement or picture can arouse similar sentiments in others and encourage new behaviors. I’m now certain that natural wine is better for you than its counterpart. It has more antioxidants. I learned that on social media.
In other words, food and drink resonate because they are imbued with meaning. When we discuss culture, we often start with food, so social media is just another way of sharing those cultural moments. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of “The Physiology of Taste,” once said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” That could easily be changed to “Tell me what you post . . .”
There’s a negative side, too.
By posting food and drink pictures, we’ve become graceless sheep with hungry cameras. The constant interruptions at meals, the obsession with style over substance, the repetitive posts that are more mimicry than meaning: All speak less to creativity than a charmless pastiche of our worst behaviors.
We’re amplifying and compounding social issues, too. Citing examples such as waifish women in bikinis scarfing monster hamburgers and the hashtag #foodporn, some have vilified social media as a scourge that favors sexualized images and false pretenses. What could convey a message of hope and inclusivity exacerbates society’s divisions with new forms of sexism and classism.
We put only our best selves on display, which creates an exchange that is shallow and harmful to our self-images. The act of being creative, sharing information, reinforcing our affiliations and identities, projecting our moral values in the world is routed by the essentially superficial nature of the medium.
I’m guilty of much of all that. So many times when I have posted a picture of food, the reality of whether it was good or not and the details of the conversation, company and setting were lost. And I knew it looked good but was unattainable to most.
Yet in this calculus between good and bad, I think I can find a way to include social media in my life. I’ve just had to step back and try to better understand its role. In my first week of reducing my screen time, I noticed a few things immediately:
First, using social media has become a reflex. I’m aware of Facebook’s surging likes, Twitter’s truncated statements and Instagram’s endless supply of images whether or not I look at them. It creates a tick that makes you automatically reach for your phone, search for the app’s icon and, then, as if waking from a dream, realize what you’re doing. This happened a few times after I first deleted my apps — I was suddenly holding my phone and swiping without intent. It’s strange to think that the siren call of overstuffed sandwiches and witty retorts is driving your unconscious mind, but it is.
Second, I’m not as hungry all the time. It seems obvious in retrospect, but one side effect of not constantly looking at food is that you don’t want as much food. There’s actually science behind this. Psychologist Charles Spence, author of “Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating,” wrote in the journal Brain and Cognition in 2016 that merely looking at food can have the effect of releasing gastric juices, essentially preparing us to eat. You want to lose weight? A social media diet could help.
Third, it turns out that I don’t actually care about the latest this or that. Part of my work is staying on top of trends, but instead of frantic searches that can consume hours of my time, I’m reading Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” In a way, that gives me an entirely different take on what I create.
Last, I have, indeed, gained time to do other things: 30 percent more, to be precise. I still reach for my phone, but instead of looking at Twitter or Instagram, I read more articles and play online chess. Not spending as much time on social media has freed me to do, well, whatever I want. Right now I’m missing all the posts you liked, even the one that promotes this article, and the one about where you ate last night, as you will miss the sandwich with avocado, lettuce and tomato that I had.
Is giving up social media making me any smarter? No. I’m as dumb as ever. But the simple act of thinking through how and why I use social media and the benefits I’ve gained are worth it.
When my social media diet ends soon, I’ll miss one more thing: the simple act of sitting down, pausing, hands unoccupied, with absolutely nothing to do.
Brown is a cocktail and spirits writer, spirits judge and bar owner in the District.