Breaking the Internet

Two millennials in the digital age go dark

By Annabel Meschke and Susie Benitez
 

  Graphics by Grace Rogers

Graphics by Grace Rogers

 
 
 

We asked two brave souls to commit a rare, courageous act that can arguably be regarded as an act of rebellion to the current youth generation: break up with social media.  Instagram—the Barack to our Michelle, Twitter—the Justin to our Britney; I’ll wait for you to name a better duo. Our writers Annabel and Susie, however, were up to the task of logging out of social media for a week and inviting us into their eye-opening break from the Internet.

Annabel:

“Selfie royalty means keeping a watchful eye over my social media kingdom, guarding my palace from trolls and player haters, and being a benevolent selfie queen, always sharing my editing apps with my loyal subjects.”

In 2014, my senior year of high school, that is a real thing that real me really wrote as the quote I wanted to preserve for eternity in my yearbook, the little quip that was to accompany my photo in the senior superlative section. I was voted “selfie royalty,” which is something I rabidly campaigned for at the time but subconsciously hoped I’d outgrow. As social media has evolved and expanded, its grip on my psyche has grown tighter and the number of selfies and screenshots on my phone has increased in the thousands thanks to a plethora of platforms on which to post them and inordinate amount of iCloud storage in which to preserve them. My relationship with social media is currently undergoing a major remodeling now that I’ve finally kicked off my week-long hiatus. Before this weekend, I did not want to begin for fear of missing out on essential information pertaining to social functions. After the weekend, I did not want to miss the opportunity to post on Instagram for my best friend’s birthday. After that, I had no more excuses, and nothing left to face but my own anxiety.

Susie:

You normally quit something when it’s bad for you, right? When it’s just too much? You definitely don’t want to though, because it’s like, totally not bad? “It’s fun,” you say. “It’s harmless!” a little quieter this time. “I’m totally okay and this is not an addiction,” you say to yourself. Deep down you know it’s bad, and you have to stop, but like… it’s fine!

10:37 p.m.: You haven’t done any homework. “Who’s pictures are these? ‘Stockholm 2016?’ I’ve never been there before; who’s profile is this? Why are all the lights off? Is this drool?”

If there were a little narrator following my life, they’d pop in riiiight here and say:
 “Actually, it was not fine.”

Here’s a little about me: I love Instagram! I think it’s the best! Twitter’s hilarious! Facebook is… there! I’ve openly said that I would never be able to give up social media many, many times. It’s a part of who I am now. I like being in the know, up to date, “hip.” I love being the first to know, see, or hear something. I’m always checking, scrolling and refreshing. Always. But having your online presence become a part of your identity is a strange feeling. The sense that you can’t disconnect from the world inside your phone for fear that you’d miss something important is unsettling if you really stop and think about it. I’ve heard similar sentiments from others my age, but out of all the conversations I’ve had, how many people had I actually seen foregoing social media completely? Going “off the grid” and removing as much of their Internet footprint as possible? The idea had been in the back of my mind for some time, but when I was finally given the opportunity to jump headfirst into this forbidden sea of the unknown I took it without so much as a second thought.

Annabel:

Day 1:
Sitting in a coffee shop near my apartment, I aligned my notebooks and pens neatly next to my laptop, parallel. At the corner of the table for two I inhabited, my Americano sat, steaming. Next to it, the adorably miniature glass of whole milk I had asked for. It was picturesque, I thought. I grabbed my phone to post a photo of it, then realized I had shed my social media burden and forsaken my followers for an entire week. I subsequently realized that even my best, most loyal friends in the entire world could not care less about my coffee or the way the milk clouded up when I poured it in. This thought never occurred to me before when I publicized past coffees, and I was relieved at this small revelation. Baby steps. Note to self: no more coffee Snapchats. Even writing this and rereading it, I’m kicking myself for needing that moment of clarity. In my hour of need, I texted Susie. She reassured me that I’d actually benefit, in spite of my particularly aggressive resistance.


Day 2:
I underestimated the level at which I was using my phone as a social prop, a crutch to avoid making eye contact with people I know I might see on the street. Seeing a ghost from your past or a class friend whose name you don’t quite know from the other side of the street and then promptly investing your undivided attention in absolutely anyone’s Snapchat story is the oldest newest trick in the book, and I couldn’t do that. In order to exercise my putrefying mind as well as give myself a reason to look at my screen in times of mild social strain, I became the newest subscriber to the New York Times crossword. I was ready to come face to face with my own inadequacy when it comes to niche references and novel titles for a bargain price of $4.99 a month! What’s a “book?” I did not know, but I was sure to find out.

Susie:

Hot take: Instagram ISN’T necessary.
I’m the first to tell you how much I love Instagram. I think it’s the perfect balance of beautiful, inspirational, and engaging content (and some other stuff). You can find literally anything you want on Instagram. (Example, I seek out more pictures of people’s journals than anything else.) But after a few days without what I thought was my favorite social media app, I realized I actually didn’t need it at all. I didn’t even miss it, which was my biggest surprise. There were the whispers of “did you see her story?” or “look what he just posted” throughout the week, but they didn’t phase me much, or really even interest me, to be completely honest. “Do I hate my friends?” I thought anxiously. “There’s no way!” But actually, I don’t think I needed to see their lunch.

Annabel:

Day 3:
The New York Times crossword app has a feature that helps you cheat, and I spent this day trying to be an honest participant. I failed when it came to clues like “Aquaman’s favorite rap group” and “Candy ass?” but I felt my brain flexing. Soon, I would reach a higher level of consciousness and be able to condescend my peers with finesse! I prided myself on silently embarking on this quest to better my intelligence and deepen my understanding of the popular imagination.

Day 4:
I realize how funny it is that I often use social media to excuse things that I listen to publicly on Spotify. For example, this weekend I had a major Mamma Mia movie soundtrack renaissance and nobody besides the people who follow my Spotify account know about it and I can’t even joke on Instagram that I’m listening to it ironically so I just had to love it alone.

Day 5:
I ate a few pickles and laughed about my urge to share it on social media. Reflected on why I was so amused by my consumption of dills.


Susie:

There are… other websites?
Initially, my biggest fear was that I thought I would be totally adrift in the world without my portal into what’s going on. My main source for breaking news and current events has always been Twitter, and without it I feared I would be completely left behind. But then, on day three, it hit me. Sitting at work taking what I assure you was a very well-deserved break, I checked my email. Lo and behold, I had a newsletter in my inbox! It from a website, filled with articles... that I could read. Just for clarification, reading isn’t what this realization is about, but it took this little email to help me remember that the Internet isn’t just comprised of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If I wanted to find out current events I could go to a website and find it myself. I began taking the time that I would have otherwise spent scrolling on various indiscriminate newsfeeds to read more compelling articles, watch more interesting (and sometimes educational) videos, and just spend more of my time on the internet consuming things that I actually wanted to, rather than whatever just appeared in front of my eyes.

You can’t immediately access information on any person that you see. On the very first day of my week-long hiatus, my friend and I were sitting in class. “Where’s he from?” I asked her, in reference to another classmate at the other end of the table. Instinctively, I reached for my phone, but by the time I unlocked it, I realized I had nowhere to go. It was then that I realized that a new demand has risen from the unlimited cache of personal information that so many of us voluntarily publish. There is this compulsion, dare I say borderline obsession, with finding out everything you can about a person, even without any person-to-person interaction taking place. Just because I knew his name, didn’t mean I could access anything I wanted from him. Or anyone for that matter.

This was easily my biggest realization.

As the days went on, I kept running into this. The urge definitely subsided but it didn’t completely go away. I just went about it differently. On day four my boyfriend was telling me about a kid in his class this time. “What does he look like?” I asked, trying to create a framework in any way possible. “I don’t know, tall and thin? Dark hair? Glasses? Kinda like you!” I guess I’d just have to take his word for it.

Annabel:

Day 6: I made it to the end of the day and broke. My week without social media was cut short because I was tired and impatient and a piece of millennial trash (I’m actually technically Gen Z but for the sake of more relatable self loathing I’ll don the former label)! First thing I did was check all of the Snapchats I’d missed. There weren’t many, but seeing the screen filled with notifications was such a relief. I realized how deeply we rely on social media to maintain a wide range of shallow social interactions in order to feel constantly connected.

Although I struggled to complete the week, I am proud of how I managed. Besides the first day jitters, I was shockingly calm about the process, excited to get back in touch with myself and spend less time looking at a screen, especially because my vision is terrible. I got a chance to reflect a lot on the role that social media plays in my anxiety and can now rejoin the landscape using a safely distant approach. Snuggling into bed and quietly scrolling through everyone else’s days helped me forget about the worries of my own, sending my brain into a pseudo-meditative stupor and exhausting my eyes.

During my week as an outsider, I got a lot more work done, I went to bed earlier, and I asked my friends what they were doing way more often. Seeing other people's lives unfold on your phone does not equate to caring, and I was surprisingly kept afloat by checking in with my friends and populating my lock screen with texts to make plans. CNN notifications kept me abreast of breaking news, which helped me feel in the know on a much larger scale. I was relieved to return because my anxiety about missing out was subdued, but I missed the calm isolation. I will continue to try my best at the New York Times crosswords, but I’ll still need help with the Sunday one.

Susie:

Once my week was up, I actually wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back. I felt myself developing what had the potential to be some great habits. I was learning more (albeit accidentally), procrastinating less, and having more meaningful interactions with those around me. I became more aware of how many of my waking hours were spent in front of a screen. I have things to do and people to see! So when it finally was time to go back, I made sure to only check up on the important things that had happened in my absence, then get back to my life. It ended up taking three hours and I was subsequently late to class because of it. Old habits die hard, I guess!