An Unsolicited Digital Commentary
I said goodbye to mainstream social media a long time ago.
If you’ve stumbled into this article, it’s likely that you hear statements like the one above fairly often. I’d like to say that the more time I spend talking to people about this subject, the more people I find have converted from an ‘active’ to ‘recovering’ user status.
At First, Facebook Seemed Like An Over-Hyped Fad
I started using Facebook shortly after it opened up to anyone with an email address, sometime around 2006–07. I was in middle-school then, and while I wasn’t convinced after my initial exposure (one of my earliest blog posts was about my first experience with Facebook, and why it wasn’t for me), I was eventually gripped by the throat and pulled into the social cesspool — an exciting new world full of information I didn’t need to know, shared by people I didn’t know very well, if at all.
As time went on, I’d be an early adopter of new social sites that popped up here and there. The new technology was exciting, allowed for new discoveries, expanded insights, and really opened up my social network throughout my time in high school and college. (Not to mention all the time it allowed me to waste!)
I’ve always enjoyed writing, and while I’ve done my best to purge the interwebs of my historical pieces, I found that social networks were a great way to get my ideas out there. Social networks gave me proverbial street corners from which I could ‘shout’ and get quick and dirty feedback on whatever happened to be flowing from my fingertips that night.
As time went on and life’s stakes got higher (marriage, big moves, real jobs, first kid, first home, etc.), I couldn’t help but notice what social media enabled people to do — both the good and the bad — and the patterns of said behavior across those platforms that had real implications for life outside the web. Compound that with all of the privacy and security policies that never seemed to change for the benefit of the end-users, and I began to grow weary of big-name social platforms and the information/attention economy their built on.
A few years ago, I decided I’d had enough, and tried to leave social media and many other online digital communities/tools cold-turkey. A few different resources online (JustDelete.Me and Articles Like This One) allowed me to remember and find all of the social accounts that I had opened over the years, and close them one-by-one. The accounts I closed spanned from anywhere from Instagram to Foursquare. The process also included hunting down a lot of outdated digital tools and retail sites (JustDelete.Me was especially useful for this), and contacting support to have my account deleted. It’s a lot of work, but I felt a lot better about my online presence when I was through with it.
The Payoff Is Real
The months to follow taught me some valuable lessons:
- You’ll find more effective, meaningful ways to keep up with the people who matter to you most, and those relationships will deepen with persistent intentionality.
- You won’t miss ‘keeping up’ with 98% of your online contacts, and those same people typically don’t miss ‘keeping up’ with you. Eliminating the noise is relieving, and introduces a more natural pace back into life’s social interactions.
- There are far more companies out there with your personal information than you remember, and most of them care about protecting it far less than you do.
- Certain tools, used responsibly, do add value — but it is the exception, and definitely not the rule.
Above all the others, I found #1 to be the most surprising, yet valuable lesson this exercise had to offer. While it took time to transition, I found myself texting, calling and emailing people I actually wanted to keep up with. Guess what? They texted, called and emailed me back. You might say, “That seems like a lot more work than keeping up with people on my Facebook timeline,” and you’re right. It is — but the benefit far outweighs the burden…
Consider this: Your information, photos, and ideas are communicated to the people who should be seeing them, providing more privacy and richer relationships as you build trust through your direct, meaningful communication. Put differently, select people become active participants in your life, rather than bystanders and passive participants. Also, your life is enriched due to a lack of FOMO over experiences, and general quality-of-life. You free up the bandwidth to focus on your own experiences and enjoy them to the fullest, and you no longer feel the need to compare yourself to facades your peers put up online. The latter is not likely something most are doing intentionally, but it is the natural by-product of the social pressure most users feel due to typical human behavior curated by the algorithm gods.
Getting Started On the Digital Minimalism Journey
As of late, I’ve heard a lot of (well-deserved) hype about Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism. I gave it a read a month or so after it was published, and was amazed at how clearly he spoke to so much of what I’ve experienced in the past, while offering straightforward, actionable steps to assist in sorting out what’s valuable and what’s not.
Newport defines “Digital Minimalism” as:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
The insights in the book are timeless (at least, looking forward), and the steps that he outlines are helpful for anyone looking to start their own Digital Minimalism journey.
The main steps he outlines are declutter, evaluation, and reintroduction. I’ll skim the surface of each to give you a taste of the process he walks through in the second half of the book.
1. Declutter your digital life
This means putting aside any non-essential digital product (site, software, etc.) for 30 days to give yourself some space and take a leave from the mania that so often plays a part in defining online correspondence.
…it’s a mistake to think of the digital declutter as only a detox experience. The goal is not to simply give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life. The detoxing is merely a step that supports this transformation.
— Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
2. Evaluate during digital sobriety
Setting everything aside for a time gives users space to look at all of the tools available to them, and evaluate which ones provide real value, and which ones belong in the waste bin.
Consider our above example about following your cousin’s baby pictures on Instagram. We noted that this activity might be tentatively justified by the fact that you deeply value family. But the relevant follow-up question is whether browsing Instagram photos is the best way to support this value. On some reflection, the answer is probably no. Something as simple as actually calling this cousin once a month or so would probably prove significantly more effective in maintaining this bond.
— Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
3. Responsibly reintroduce digital tools with real value
Tools with real value are those that align with and support your personal values and goals. This set of tools will look different for everyone, and the reintroduction of a tool doesn’t mean the way it’s used should be the same as before. In order to be successful, this step has an important pre-requisite: That you have defined your values.
The Minimalist Technology Screen: To allow an optional technology back into your life at the end of the digital declutter, it must:
 Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
 Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).
 Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.
— Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
All-in-all, if you’re very ever wondered what your life would look like were you to change your relationship with all things digital, the book provides a helpful framework in which you can operate to give it the old college try.
Some (Hopefully) Helpful Tidbits
If you’re already considering taking the leap into this exciting voyage, here are some tidbits you might find helpful (from my experience, anyway).
- Set good boundaries for yourself and notify those close to you. This will help you remain accountable in your digital minimalism journey, and will also set proper expectations to promote meaningful communication with the people who matter in your life.
- Re-familiarize yourself with calls and emails. Calling someone is the quintessential method of communication for both urgent and meaningful conversations. Email, conversely, is the quintessential method for non-urgent communication that may need thought or action before response. They’re arguably the only two essential methods of communication for today’s layperson.
My Reintroduction Step
Even though I had previously been off of social media for quite some time, I decided to do my own digital detox, evaluation and reintroduction per the process outlined in Digital Minimalism.
What I found after my digital detox and evaluation is that there are a couple of digital tools that do add true value to my life — value I’d be hard-pressed to find with a reasonable amount of effort elsewhere. Here are tools that were once set aside, but have been responsibly reintroduced back into my daily or weekly routines.
Todoist— Task tracking at its finest. It keeps lists manageable, and out of my head.
Notion.so — A very flexible productivity platform that provides a digital organization space driven by databases. Fantastic for reading lists, web clipping, recipes, home project tracking, and the like.
Kindle App — I love reading, and when I don’t have my Kindle on me, this is a great alternative to opening up social media or browsing news websites.
WordPress — I have to publish somewhere!
Twitter — I used to have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. Before reading Digital Minimalism, I had been off the juice for a long time. After reading the book, my eyes were opened to the value it could actually unlock if used responsibly. Now, I use it only to follow people, products, or organizations in my industry/trade, plus authors of books I’ve enjoyed. The experience is a change of night and day, as now I have a way to keep up with the latest developments in my industry/trade, and a way to connect with people I would not be able to connect with (realistically) over a phone call or email.
HeReadsTruth — The app is way easier to take along study books, and pairs well with the ESV Study Bible I use on my Kindle & Kindle App.
Remember: Digital minimalism isn’t necessarily about using technology less, it’s about using less technology more intentionally and in ways that best support your values.
Don’t be afraid to step away from tech for a month and re-evaluate the way you’re using the plethora of tools that are available to you. If you have a significant other, ask them to do it with you. This makes the journey much easier, especially if there are online tools you use together. You’ll thank yourself after the first week or two.
Lastly, when you do set new boundaries for old tools, put in the effort to respect those boundaries so that you can live life to the fullest and keep tech in its proper place in your life. Ask others to do the same, and do your best to make those transitions as easy as possible for those whom your choices may have some kind of ripple effect.
Best of luck to you as you make your digital habits healthier one step at a time!