Tech

Making the Disconnection

The internet is amazing, but there’s a whole wide world beyond it.

Illustration by Dylan.

Illustration by Dylan.

Ironically, it’s only on the internet that you, like 24,000 strangers before you, can watch the following perfect, fan-made video collage for the Le Tigre song “Get Off the Internet.” It features clips from The Simpsons; Girl, Interrupted, and Lady Gaga videos, with a healthy sprinkling of LOLCats. It’s basically Tumblr in music video form.

After replaying this thing twice (OK, or three times…OK, four), you might wonder, But, Le Tigre, whyyyyyy would I want to get off this magic online carpet ride? The internet has everything. And so, so much of it.

But, as I’ve learned, spending too much time on even the best parts of the internet can be a bit destructive, or at least numbing, though. All the time I’m spending with video collages set to Le Tigre songs, photo essays of Cara Delevigne goofing around, or blog posts about Mad Men conspiracy theories is time I’m not spending having new experiences of my own.

My name is Joe, and I’m not not an internet-aholic. It’s OK, it’s for work—mostly. I write and edit a news website, and to find things to write about, I’m basically required to read and watch things online all day, checking Twitter from when I wake up until I go to bed, while simultaneously blogging, tracking Facebook, emailing ideas (and animal pictures) back and forth with a dozen friends and co-workers, and skimming tons of other sites to know what my internet peers expect me to OMG LOVE, get outraged at, or #BAN or #CANCEL on any given day. When I’m done with my official work hours, I have time to check my favorite music blogs, Tumblrs, and Instagrams, because what did Kylie wear to Kim’s wedding? It’s a full-time job and a full-time hobby. Maybe you know the feeling.

How did this happen? As a kid, I dreamed that one day I would spend all my time goofing around on the internet for money. In third grade, in the late ’90s, I made a recommendation to my school’s computer teacher about investing in fast DSL internet for the computer lab instead of the room’s sluggish dial-up. “We have it at home,” I said. “It’s so worth it.” My teacher was not amused. At the ripe old age of eight, I was already internet-spoiled and -obsessed.

A few years later, when I was in sixth grade, the “family” desktop computer found its way from the family room to my bedroom, since I used it more than anyone else and “needed it for homework.” How else was I going to stay up all night memorizing Outkast lyrics—the discovery that they were all online was amazing—and studying the full range of the naked people on the internet? (It’s endless, yay/ew.) On message boards, I researched music and how to talk to girls, and then told my friends about it all on AIM…until like 3 AM.

In college, I started a Blogspot to write about music, and, earnest and overwritten as it was, that blog eventually helped me land an internship at SPIN. In the magazine’s Midtown office, surrounded by blown-up versions of my favorite covers, I sat at a computer all day, talking to my bosses over chat. And every once in a while, when I wasn’t too busy entering album release dates into the editorial calendar or transcribing other people’s interviews, I got to write music news posts for the website. This was the future. This was my future! I couldn’t get enough.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life tied to the internet’s constantly expanding stream of information, but, recently, I’ve begun to feel burned out by social media arguments and the negativity in comment threads. As much joy as the internet brings me, after five years straight of 9-to-5 computer time, it’s also become a huge source of stress and social anxiety. I think about the comedian Chelsea Peretti’s tweet about Twitter (haha, I know) every single day:

It feels especially resonant when I’m just so sick of hearing everyone’s thoughts on every little thing that I’m left unable to even imagine sharing my own ideas on the latest controversial song lyric or TV episode or whatever. The avalanche of opinions and arcane personal details can leave me feeling alienated from and bitter about anyone who’s not.

Last year, my internet anxiety had hit a peak. I found myself refreshing Twitter and Instagram 80 times an hour, and I felt like that poor french bulldog on YouTube who can’t roll over, rocking back and forth in place while someone else watches me and laughs.

Then I remembered that puppies are real and you can actually touch them. I used the internet’s unbeatable search functions to find an animal shelter that allows volunteers to walk the dogs housed there. As I strolled around the waterfront with Zeus, a 78-pound mutt, I felt suddenly lighter. It’s hard to care what mean commenters think when you’re watching a furry tail wag.

Now, I make an effort to avoid the internet’s cycle of negativity by limiting my social media presence as best I can, hoping no one ever gets sick of my ideas and experiences. I regulate how much time I spend in front of a monitor by always keeping an eye on the clock, or, when my self-control is lacking, with apps like Freedom. When I feel internet fatigue coming on, I go outside to research a story, play softball, show off a new sweatshirt, hug my friends, or dance. Sometimes, I don’t even bring my cellphone. (But most of the time I do.) Seeing someone face-to-face, instead of just staring at their avatar, can remind me how funny they are when they’ve got more than 140 characters to work with, and that people are more than just their social media accounts, even if they have good ones. Being “liked” online by a big group of people, most of them strangers, is both harder to maintain and less satisfying than being just plain liked by people I know, and whom I don’t have to constantly prove myself to. Follower counts become meaningless in the flesh. And things that seem so major on a screen, like toxic comment threads, basically cease to exist as soon as I step away.

You can—and should—let go when online living starts to be too much. You can get started by checking out Pixie’s great piece on dealing with internet burnout. And the next time you feel yourself getting sucked into the quicksand of blog posts, Twitter wars, and Tumblr likes, make it all disappear, at least temporarily, by rollerblading down a hill, dribbling a basketball alone on the sidewalk, sitting on your stoop and staring off into space. You don’t even have to go outside! As I learned by walking Zeus, a cool thing about the internet is that it’s full of ideas about how to get offline. (Rookie happens to have plenty of these for you: See here, here, and here.)

On the internet, controversies, hot topics, and large-scale conversations come and go. Someone will always be articulating the exact thing you wanted to say, and someone else will always be wrong, whether you’re there to correct them or not. You can read it all when you get back. Or you can not! In a race that no one can win, it feels really good to occasionally just stopping running. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pet a dog. ♦

16 Comments

  • Chloe22 June 5th, 2014 3:44 PM

    I love, love, LOVE this! I became disenchanted with the internet once I started taking correspondence courses (homeschooled y’all), which meant taking classes and doing homework and taking tests ALL ON THE COMPUTER. I think i associate any use of a computer with taking a midterm now :(
    http://www.criticallycouture.blogspot.com/

  • Iris June 5th, 2014 4:53 PM

    I completely know what you mean about being unable to form or even know your own opinions about something topical after being on the internet for too long. It’s tiring. Thanks for this, it was really interesting! And now I need to go pet a dog, which I don’t have easy access to unfortunately :(

  • Bex_cygnet June 5th, 2014 8:33 PM

    The freedom app link connects to a page that doesn’t exist? Where can I find it? Nice article- made me think, as you can tell from the question!

  • RatioRae June 5th, 2014 11:08 PM

    I haven’t been using my laptop for a few weeks now (typing this on iPod), at first I was like “I CAN’T SURVIVE” but now I’m totally chill with it, and I do things that I used to do before I became so obsessed with the Internet and it’s been really liberating.

    http://thegirlwhodrankstars.blogspot.com

  • smells-like-teen-angst June 5th, 2014 11:46 PM

    Joe, you always write such interesting and thought provoking pieces. This one is extra interesting and thought provoking.

  • avisanti June 6th, 2014 12:30 AM

    I just deactivated my twitter account after reading this article. Lately I just have been so irritated with everything and everyone online but I can’t seem to get away from it. Like I’m so annoyed at all the senseless “I’m so bored!” tweets but I keep checking Twitter every five minutes. -_-

    Anyway, maybe this short break from social media is just what I need.

  • karish June 6th, 2014 7:23 AM

    brilliant post! i am i complete agreement and now off to cuddle my dog x

    karisemily.blogspot.ie

  • cole123 June 6th, 2014 12:21 PM

    I totally agree with this! It really does become tiring and staring at a screen for hours everyday can’t be beneficial to anyone. Within the past year I have been trying to cut back on the time I spend on the computer. I started to notice that I was losing what felt like my own creativity and opinions from over-use of the internet. I mean, when you’re bombarded with content from millions of people all over the world every second of the day (most of it being stupid and a complete waste of time), you don’t get time to just be in your own head. I find that actually kinda scary because, although the internet is entertaining, we should be spending more time off line then on.

  • sans.sheriff June 6th, 2014 12:49 PM

    great post– social media especially can be very draining, and there’s a lot of pressure to be up to date on everything.
    but really when you take a step back and don’t go online for a while, you don’t necessarily feel like you’re missing out

    http://www.thismoxy.com/

  • Rea June 6th, 2014 2:19 PM

    B-b-but the internet is one of the reasons I took a degree in computer science! I just realized I’ve been using the internet for ten years now – that’s half of my life – and now I feel uneasy about it. :/

    PS: I did have other reasons when I chose my degree. I did.
    PPS: I come from a small Southeast Asian town. Connecting to the internet used to be very, very expensive, and sloooooow.
    PPPS: I believe I was the one of the first kids in school to have internet at home back then. (I was the first in my class.) I felt _cool_ about it.

    http://misseduniverse.blogspot.com/

  • alesssurprise June 6th, 2014 5:40 PM

    wow

  • erinxo June 7th, 2014 12:04 AM

    I have a major case of internet burnout. I’m addicted but I’m over it. It’s almost like I use it out of habit. I want myself and the world to be woken up and to live again instead of just living for scrolling and typing.

  • kimchi June 7th, 2014 7:32 AM

    Since the start of this year I haven’t been able to get wired internet at my house (screw you Tony Abbott). Needless to say, this year has been challenging. While this situation has been extremely infuriating, it has also been extremely awesome. While everyone else is getting burned out, I have not had enough contact with the internet for that to happen. I have been starved of the internet. I have had to seek out creative ways to access it, and when I do get it, I don’t waste my time with things that aren’t important to me. These past few months I have come to love the internet more than ever because I have had such restricted contact with it. I didn’t disconnect by choice, but the result has been the same.

    http://glitterous-clitoris.blogspot.com.au/

  • amelia3 June 8th, 2014 2:24 PM

    This is awesome. I’m going outside…

  • Sparkie June 10th, 2014 6:16 AM

    That Chelsea Peretti tweet really resonates with me somehow. I tend to get tired of people because of what they post online although IRL I love them to bits. Sometimes it’s just too much, twitter and all those other social media can be amazing tools and I find facebook very helpful to stay in touch with my friends who live miles and miles away but it can also suck the fun out of your friendships. There isn’t much to talk about if you tweet about every detail of your life 24/7. There isn’t any mystery anymore anyone can know pretty much anything about you if they scroll for long enough. I remember when I was a kid how we would come back from holiday and we all had these amazing adventures to share with one another, I miss those times.