Some rituals of the broken-hearted and life-crisic are well-known: You get a dramatic haircut, buy a flashy car, eat ice cream in isolation, have an age-incongruous fling, impulsively quit a job. And increasingly, “unplugging” from the internet is part of the rebooting process — sometimes to provide the solitude necessary to process the crisis, but just as frequently as an imperfect method for articulating unhappiness and assigning blame. When you’re feeling lonely, you disable Instagram to avoid other people’s party pictures. When work is overwhelming, you impulsively sign up for an off-the-grid yoga retreat. After a text fight with your boyfriend, you turn off your phone and toss it under the bed. But do you hate texting, or do you hate the people who text you? Do you hate email, or your job and the emails integral to it? Do you hate Facebook, or do you hate your life?
It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma. We have a tendency to blame technology-mediated problems on the technology itself, as though Pinterest created homemaker insecurity or Instagram created FOMO. And though technology can exacerbate any number of woes — maybe you hate your needy boyfriend because he texts too much — few crises occur exclusively online. And so, when someone announces “I need to unplug,” very often what they really mean is, “I need to escape a part of my life or psyche that is most visible to me when I see it online.” Self-hate gets projected onto the screen; turn the screen off and the feeling goes away, right?
Well, no. But the Band-Aid of Ludditism can provide temporary solace.
I have a friend whose Facebook quitting attempts align with feelings of inadequacy. “I think I use the internet as an escape and a numbing out,” she told me by Gchat, “and then I get frustrated and actually want to get shit done.” Quitting removes the temptation to waste time on Facebook, but it also holds a symbolic function. Since she associates Facebook with disengaged idling, quitting is like stabbing a voodoo doll made to represent personal qualities she fears: complacency and distractibility.
Exerting control in your online life can be a gesture toward regaining control offline: “My wife had started a new job, we had moved, I was teaching for the first time, and I was prepping for PhD comprehensive exams,” John told me via Twitter DM. “Leaving Facebook seems really trivial, but I needed to begin somewhere in order to impose structure on my life and find better balance. Also, therapy helped too :)”
Of course, abstaining from social media isn’t a de facto sign of distress; everyone has different thresholds for socialization, entertainment, and irritation. But I also know that when I’m feeling inadequate, my irritation with Facebook “humblebrags” skyrockets. During a moment of career uncertainty, I became certain that my computer screen was making me motion sick. The fact that technology-induced motion sickness is a real phenomenon — and the fact that I am prone to motion sickness — further confused my ability to separate cause from symptom. Meanwhile, an ex-boyfriend and I were locked in an email dance of death. Facing two internet-associated reckonings — one professional and one romantic — I concluded that the best survival tactic would be to travel to a place without electricity and stay there as long as possible, because technology is just so unnatural, humans are better off in isolation and darkness. While binge-eating. Alone. (If you love Twitter, and then you stop loving it, does that count as anhedonia?) It was an avoidance tactic, of course, but because I presented it as a response to the woes of modern technology, I was able to live in denial a little longer.
And then, the pièce de résistance: My friend Rachel Whitaker was at the time putting the final touches on her surreal short film Avery, Offline, about a blogger who develops an allergy to the internet at the exact moment that her boyfriend proposes with a meme. Rachel ties the genesis of the movie, which premieres now online (sorry, Avery), to her own romantic and workplace frustrations. A relationship heavy in digital communication fizzled (“ultimately there’s not too much intimacy” in swapping hyperlinks) while a frustrating job left her thinking, “If I have to fix another computer, I’m going to have an aneurysm.” But was technology to blame, or did it merely provide a visible record of the problems — a relationship lacking in intimacy and a job that didn’t fit?
Similarly, when New York Times writer Nick Bilton published back-to-back columns about the agony of using Facebook during his divorce and the importance of taking breaks from social media, I wondered if there were a causal link between the two. To find out, I messaged him on Facebook. “Absolutely,” he replied. “We have these drastically different lives that we live, and we act differently in all of them — work, significant other, friend groups, etc. — but they are all tied together through the internet. So when things go awry, the first thing we do is back away from the web to try to sort out what to do about it all.” This is why unplugging as a method for solving life’s woes can feel dramatic: It’s all or nothing.
In her late 20s, Karen discovered the all-or-nothing effect of social-media abstinence. After an ugly breakup and the death of her grandfather, social-media interactions suddenly seemed “very shallow and fake.” She was struggling, but her friends seemed unaware. “Meanwhile, my ex messaged me about every guy I was friends with." There seemed to be no upside to staying in the social network, so she quit.
But nine months later, friends and family members who lived in other cities started telling her they missed her. She realized she’d fallen out of touch, “and I did miss updates on all those people.” So she rejoined, and was surprised to discover that interactions she’d found alienating during her time of crisis had become enjoyable again. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I really like reading updates from this person I haven’t been friends with since second grade,’” she laughed.