When my dad connected our family computer to the Internet in 1992, all I saw were green letters on a black screen. He tried to explain what was so amazing about the Internet: “You can find out what the weather is like in Beijing,” he said. “Or you can download ‘The Apology of Socrates’ for free. The entire text!”
It is still pretty cool that “The Apology of Socrates” is available to anyone with an Internet connection, but, in 1992, I was 15 and allergic to my father’s enthusiasms. Then I found out that you could talk to people online. Actual people. I began posting to CompuServe’s student forum. I made wonderful friends, one of whom became my first love.
I still remember that summer as the Summer of CompuServe. If anything happened in my real-world existence, I do not recall it. I was no longer really living in the soulless suburbs of Orlando. I was a resident of the Internet.
In the decades since, I’ve lived in a lot of places, but mostly I’ve lived online. My brother, Hank, and I have made a YouTube video series since 2007; we now produce a wide variety of online educational videos on subjects ranging from the U.S. health-care system to quantum mechanics to “The Great Gatsby.” I have millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. Without the Internet and my public presence there, my novel “The Fault in Our Stars” would never have become as successful as it did. So many good people are doing so many good things on the social Internet, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunities my online life has given me and the new perspectives it has shown me.
Over the past few years, I found myself looking at my phone hundreds of times per day. I was constantly checking — refreshing and refreshing, as if something truly fresh were just over the horizon.
The companies competing for our attention have built algorithms that are incredibly good at capturing and holding that attention. Netflix has said “consumer screen time” is its most important metric; YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and many other companies all worship at the altar of growing session length. Ultimately, these algorithms are not incentivized to show us accurate information, or information that helps us to lead fulfilling lives.
And at some point last year, I began to feel I could no longer effectively regulate the amount of time I spent on the social Internet, or the quality of my experience there. So I decided to take a year off.
For my computer, I installed a Chrome extension called StayFocusd that has a “nuclear option” through which you can prevent access to certain websites. I turned off the ones that occupied most of my attention: Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Twitter. On my phone, I used the Screen Time app to block access to Web browsers, the App Store and all my attention-grabbing apps.
Now, my phone still does a lot of things — it can hail rides, order food, predict the weather, check in for flights and take high-resolution photographs. Also, it’s a phone. It’s basically a magic wand — just a magic wand that can no longer tell me how people feel about President Trump serving McDonald’s to college athletes.
I had noticed over the past couple of years that my attention had become more fractured. I found it harder to lose myself in a book, for instance, without feeling the urge to check my phone or open my laptop. But I did not realize, until after abandoning my social Internet, how often I would answer the first hint of boredom or stasis by going to Reddit. Or Facebook. Or Twitter.
A month in, I am happier. Or at least less anxious. One of the weird things about social media for me is that it tends to make me feel very itchy in a way that only social media can scratch. Turning it off has mostly cured that itch. Also, while I spend less time looking at the news, I think I’m better informed. I have a much better idea, for instance, of what’s going on in Yemen than I did a month ago.
Lastly, I’m getting bored more often. Don’t get me wrong: Boredom is unpleasant. But if I can let myself be bored, then I find myself having, like, thoughts. And because I can’t share those thoughts on Twitter, they are well and truly mine, which is surprisingly wonderful.
That noted, leaving my social Internet hasn’t exactly been the magical experience I’d hoped for. For one thing, I miss it more than I expected to. I miss reading funny Reddit threads on soccer. I miss the feeling of camaraderie on Twitter. But the bigger issue — and maybe I should’ve seen this coming — is that simply eliminating certain social media platforms in my life doesn’t fix much.
It doesn’t unfracture my attention or make my information diet inherently healthier, because it turns out that there are lots of other websites that are happy to feed without nourishing and to distract without enriching. Not being able to access any websites on my phone has been very helpful for me, but I need the Internet on my computer for work.
And more to the point, the Internet is not ultimately the problem. My Internet is the problem. For my Internet to change, I need to change. There will be no simple panacea, but I am going to stay off social media for the rest of the year. I don’t know that I recommend it in general, but I think it is necessary for me. I need to discover more of what lies on the other side of boredom.