There’s no better time than the new year to take on a long-planned, never-realized personal improvement project. Flush and gouty from the holidays, you watch the old, bad year recede in your rearview mirror like particularly gruesome roadkill, and think: This year, I’m going to fix it. Maybe you’re doing a “Drynuary,” or going on a diet, or cutting toxic relationships out of your life. Personally, I’m going to get ripped, read Moby-Dick, be nicer to my parents, write a novel, and win a Pulitzer. Maybe all at once!
But first, I’m going to fix my social media diet.
For people who spend their lives on the internet, as professionals or as interested amateurs, 2015 seemed like a particularly bad year for social media. (Smash cut to: Me saying the same thing about social media in 2014, 2013, and 2012.) “The Internet now seems to be on constant boil,” the Times’ Farhad Manjoo wrote in December. “Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11.”
If you feel this way, there are a bunch of strategies for fixing it: You could throw your phone in the trash, or you could throw your phone in the street, or you could even throw your phone in a lake. And I fully support you if that’s what’s healthiest for you.
Or maybe you don’t feel this way at all: Your social feeds are sources of vital information, sophisticated humor, and intellectual debate; you have a degree of self-control that allows you to dip in and out at will. In which case, well, you’re a liar, but you sound like a happy liar, so I won’t bug you.
But maybe using Twitter used to be fun and interesting, and now is like being a mind-reader at a Klan meeting. Or maybe Facebook used to be engaging and useful, and now it feels like a Xeroxed newsletter some guy handed you outside a health-food store. In that case, you don’t need to go off the grid. You just need to cleanse. Here’s a five-point plan.
Delete social-media apps from your phone and desktop. Delete any bookmarks you have. Close any pinned tabs. Want to check Twitter on your phone? Fine. You’ll need to open your phone’s browser. Want to look at Facebook photos? You’ll have to type the URL into your address bar. Day one is about making access marginally more difficult. Eventually, you’ll download the apps back onto your phone. Till then, you’ll be giving yourself an opportunity to use that nervous energy and twitchy thumb for something else.
Limit yourself to one hour total social media use, across desktop and mobile. Are you sure you want to waste ten minutes of your social-media time scrolling through vacation photographs of the weird guy from your freshman dorm who was into juggling? Do you really need to take 20 minutes picking a fight on Twitter? Now that we’ve made access more difficult, let’s also make it more intentional. Even if you just want to go on Facebook to kill time, you should make sure you’re killing time the way you want.
Unfollow all non-humans. On Facebook, Twitter*, and Instagram, reduce yourself to three, and only three, non-human pages to follow, each: Good, smart, well-run feeds. (Like, say, New York’s.) You’ll see the good stuff from other pages thanks to your friends, and you’ll eliminate the depressing anxiety that emanates from the particularly thirsty, and very rarely useful, brand accounts online. In particular, use Facebook’s feed settings (from the arrow in the upper right of a post) to hide posts with links specific pages or news outlets: If you have a friend who you generally like but can’t seem to stop sharing bad “Occupy Democrats” memes, you can lose those without losing your friend.
*We’ll make an exception for Twitter bots.
Prune your feeds. Once you’ve eliminated the non-humans, it’s time to eliminate the humans. There are many schools of thought, here. Some people on Twitter unfollow everyone at once. That seems like overkill, but it’s the right attitude: Be brutal. My suggestion is to use your allotted social-media hour to scroll down your feed and Marie Kondo your shit. If a person doesn’t give you joy, unfollow them. If you’re worried about them noticing on Twitter, mute them instead. Remind yourself constantly that it is okay if you don’t see every tweet or update from every person. Facebook’s News Feed likes to serve up posts from people whose profiles we look at or whose updates we spend time on. But this doesn’t account for the fact that we tend to look at the profiles of trainwrecks we barely remember — people we don’t necessarily want to see in our feed. Unfollow them, now. You will not miss them.
Change your profile picture. You’ve been using that one for too long.
Delete your tweets (optional). There are a couple schools of thought on this: Some people don’t understand why you’d publish something you’d later delete, and some people have only ever published things they wish they could later delete. Twitter — punchy, ephemeral, public — is better for the latter category of person if they know that their tossed-off jokes and thoughts won’t (necessarily) form one part of a public record against them; it makes the service feel more fun and chatty and less desperately self-promotional. I like the somewhat sketchy-looking “Tweetdelete,” which automatically deletes my Tweets every two weeks. Others prefer to do it all in one go. Either way, you get to start your year off really fresh.