Last summer, one of my best friends went on a vacation to France. Her pictures were spectacular—horseback riding in a field of flowers with a gorgeous mountain backdrop, well-angled selfies at a fancy wine tasting, traipsing through cobblestone streets and cathedrals. I was jealous. When she got back, I called her right away to get the full scoop. “What an amazing trip!” I said. “Tell me everything.” But to my surprise, she burst into tears. As it turns out, the trip was not at all what she expected. She fought bitterly with her family and was miserably sick the whole time. As I listened to her sob with disappointment, I tried to get a grip on my own shock. From the looks of her photos, her time in France was a picturesque, envy-inducing, happiness-oozing success. How could it be possible that the reality was so far from the dazzling images on my news feed?
Two weeks later, I decided to take a yearlong sabbatical from social media. Not only was I feeling frazzled after an intense presidential election that had riveted me to social media like never before, but I realized that I had been using one platform or another religiously for the last 16 years of my life. It was time for a break, and I was eager to see what my life would look like without a stage to put it on display.
Immediately after announcing my decision to my friends and followers, I regretted it. I’m no influencer or Snapchat celebrity, but I was still terrified that my little online world would forget about me, especially since I’d timed the experiment with a teaching stint abroad. Unfortunately, my fiancé made sure that I stuck to my word.
Contrary to what I expected, the world did not forget about me in the 12 months I was off social media. Not completely, anyway.
To my surprise, getting off of social media brought my friends closer to me, not further as I had feared. Without social media to assure my friends that I was alive and well, they had to put in a bit more effort to find out what was actually going on in my life. But they did it. Not all of my friends, to be sure, but more than I’d expected. And I certainly hadn’t expected people to come out of the woodwork—friends I hadn’t seen since high school, for example, shooting me an email to ask how my family fared in the latest Florida hurricane or sending me a photo of their newborn. Getting off of social media for a whole year did not sever my social ties; in fact, it made them stronger.
My personalized communication with people—even my closest friends—actually increased. A few months into my social media sabbatical, I found that I was having more intimate, one-on-one conversations than I did when I was keeping in touch via my neverending newsfeeds. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. By design, social media, though it fosters a kind of familiarity, does not encourage intimacy, given that users mainly communicate with large groups of people as if we’re standing on our own soapbox or wielding a megaphone. Reading Facebook posts and Twitter rants had become my status quo for communication; I hadn’t realized how impersonal all of it actually was.
I have a hunch that seeing people enact their lives on social media makes us feel as though we’re closer to them than we actually are. It’s keeping in touch without any of the legwork. We know about the kid they just had, or the sandwich they just ate, or the trip they just took—but do we actually know anything about the emotional landscape of that person’s life? Perhaps friendships in social media feeds are more distant that they appear.
With social media, it’s so easy to feel as though you’re always up to date and you know exactly what’s going on in other people’s lives. Our curiosity gets dampened by the overabundance of information spewing at us from the many social media feeds we check countless times each day. It’s as if we’re never away from people because we’re constantly being updated via social media. When we get together in real life or on the phone, what is there left to share?
What my sabbatical from social media has helped me understand is that I mostly have the perception that I’m up to date on my friends’ lives. Or rather, that I’m up to date on a version of their lives. The truth is, when we mainly encounter people through social media, we’re only scratching the surface. For example, we don’t think we need to call our friend who often goes through depressive spells in the winter because she seems to be doing so well from the looks of her Instagram account. Little do we know, she needs our friendship and support now more than ever. The façade of positivity that we social media affords us gets in the way once again.
Without the sense of knowingness provided by social media, I noticed my friends exhibiting a curiosity about my life that was not there before, and vice versa. This became most clear to me when a good friend asked me during a long-distance phone call—what does your life look like right now? I was touched by her question and I realized that it isn’t one that we ask each other enough. I don’t know about you, but I usually think I know what people’s lives look like from the pictures they post online, not always thinking about and realizing how selective and limited these photos are. My life couldn’t be observed by accident on the internet, and here was my friend asking for a glimpse.
Without social media facilitating communication, I couldn’t just be a bystander and wait to feel connected to people by way of their posts and pictures. Instead, if I wondered how a friend was doing in her new job or how a colleague was managing a tough health crisis, I felt more compelled to reach out. I requested photos from a far-flung friend of her adorable toddler and asked another friend to send me videos of her new puppy. In the absence of social media, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to come across information by accident, so I had to be intentional about seeking it.
Likewise, I couldn’t dispose of my thoughts and send them off into the ether without a clear intention about who I wanted to be on the receiving end of my message. Without my soapbox to stand on, I couldn’t announce that I was having a bad day to all 1,455 of my friends in hopes of finding consolation. Instead, I had to think about which singular person to speak to about my troubles. In doing so, I had the opportunity to connect meaningfully with a friend, which gave me more satisfaction than receiving dozens of hearts and emojis online.
The same was true about reading an article I loved or watching a great TED talk. Without a news feed to throw it on, I had to think about who this article or video would resonate with which in turn made me think more deeply about why it even resonated with me. I still fed my impulses to share—feelings, entertainment, news—but I had to be more intentional about it.
Without social media, I lost my window into media trends. I’ve never been very up-to-date on what’s hot when it comes to television shows and movies, but I’m passionate about certain aspects of pop culture, like anything having to do with Beyonce, reggaeton, and Roxane Gay. Luckily, one of my best friends is a pop culture junkie and frequently updates me on which new podcasts are worth listening to and what bands are hot right now. When a short story went viral, this friend sent it to me by e-mail, knowing that I’d be interested—and surprised—to learn that literature was making headlines.
During that year I was also missing out on my connections with fellow writers. I’d found a supportive and inspiring community of women writers on social media who celebrated each others success and helped each other get a leg up in the world of publishing, but I didn’t have the same kind of access to this community while I was on my sabbatical. This definitely posed a challenge career-wise, since many connections and opportunities were shared in these online groups. But once again, I found comfort in reaching out to fellow writers personally and, as a result, deepened relationships that might have otherwise remained superficial.
My friend Carmen and I got into the habit of sending voice messages back and forth, usually centered on the trials and triumphs of teaching—her in a public elementary school in South Florida, myself in a public university in South America. Although we were a world apart, we could still share our experiences with one another, and most importantly, make each other laugh. I came to appreciate the closeness offered by the sound of my dear friend’s voice—in a message directed only to me! This new paradigm allowed us to build intimacy such that it was actually hard to believe how far I’d moved away from something so simple—communication that was personalized, open-hearted, and trusting.
Instead of engaging in the solitary act of scrolling through social media, I used my sabbatical as a way to connect deeper with my sister. She had insider knowledge that I didn’t have and from time to time I’d wheedle her into catching me up on the juicy news: who had bought a ridiculously gaudy mansion, publicly denounced their husband during an ugly divorce, or quit their job in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. When she caught me scrolling through the news feed on my Venmo account, she poked fun of me for using it as my only access to the world of social media.
When I found out through my mother that one of my childhood friends was pregnant, I reached out right away and congratulated her in a personal message—something I might not have done if I had come across her baby announcement post while scrolling through my news feed. As it turns out, she and I were both far from home at the time and dealing with big life changes. After not being in touch for several years, I was delighted to discover that we still shared a common ground on which to stand on. We talked about the ways our lives had evolved as we grew into adults, and how they were similar and different from the lives we’d imagined when we played dress-up as children. I’m not convinced that this meaningful exchange would have happened while I was still on social media. I would have most certainly left an effusive, emoji-ful comment—one of dozens—on her baby announcement post, but our communication would have probably ended there.
During my social media sabbatical, I’m sure there’s a lot that I’ve missed—memes, live childbirth videos of people I barely know, Twitter catfights, unfortunate cases of oversharing, heartfelt tributes, etc. Fortunately, I have found bliss in my ignorance. On the other hand, there are plenty of important things that I didn’t miss. When my friend’s dad was diagnosed with cancer, she sent an email to our group of former college roommates. When another friend got pregnant, I didn’t find out by scrolling through Instagram; she called to share the good news. Being off social media hasn’t meant that I’m left completely in the dark. On the contrary, it’s made me realize that my most importahint friendships don’t depend on social media to survive.
Without a doubt, I am acutely aware of the powerful tool that is no longer at my fingertips. When I was still active on social media, I often used my network to crowdsource information about where to get the best massage in town and what mysterious plant was growing in my backyard. In many ways, it pays to be a part of a global village. I’ve found places to crash when I was a cash-strapped vagabond. I’ve been alerted to free giveaways when my friends were cleaning house. I’ve even gotten jobs through connections forged on social media. But the most extreme example of crowdsourcing coming to my rescue happened just as I was gearing up to start my social media sabbatical. A family crisis meant that we had to find a good home for my father’s dog, a spritely but elderly Belgian Malinois, or put her to sleep. In this difficult search, social media became my savior. By posting pictures and heartfelt messages on my accounts, I was able to connect with a group of people who are passionate about rescuing Belgian Malinois dogs. I do not want to think about what would have happened to our beloved pet if we hadn’t found this amazing and widespread network of strangers to lean on.
Unfortunately, there was one important event that I did miss as a result of my social media sabbatical—the passing of a good friend. Her death, obituary, and memorial service information were all posted to her Facebook page. Not being in touch with her family meant that I was left in the dark until I became concerned about her lack of responses to my text messages. Finally, I sent her an email and received a response from her husband, who gave me the news. It was weeks after her passing and I was heartbroken that I’d missed the memorial and the chance to mourn with her community. It was strange to have believed that she was alive for several weeks after her death, especially since unknowingness has become so rare in our world of live streaming, real-time updates, and incessant access to information.
Being off of social media has made me rethink my dependency on these networks for communication, entertainment, news, and friendship. In the end, the way we use tools is up to us. It would be great if social media could be a useful tool without also being a crutch When social media felt less like a tool and more like a lifestyle, I decided it was time for a break.
Once my sabbatical was over, I had a big decision to make: to reactivate or not to reactivate. In the end, I decided to return to the world of social media, but my relationship to my feeds was vastly different than it had been before the sabbatical. I no longer used it as my main source of keeping in touch with my people; instead, it has become a tool for getting involved in my community and engaging as a citizen.