Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
I started this year talking about a daily practice that’s made me feel more connected, content, and attentive: writing a daily haiku that makes me take note of the world each day. I’m still enjoying that practice: With all the rain in California, today’s haiku is: “So much depends/ on wet plum blossoms/ in my red wheelbarrow.”
Now I’m working on another centering strategy: Taking a deep social media unplug. Despite the fact that I’m a writer, in a field with nonstop pressure to share, craft and amplify, I recently got off all platforms for two months. Instead of using social media, I talked to artist friends about it as a concept — why we use it, how it affects us and what boundaries we need. These conversations helped me savor a deeper engagement with one-on-one friendships and my lived community.
I felt a delightful freedom from the pressure to document my life and was more attuned to what really matters to me.
To back up: There were many reasons for me to take a social media sabbatical. Time online was making me bored, anxious and grumpy. I was falling down attention rabbit holes, scrolling for boots when I actually wanted to play Uno with my kids. I was buying stuff I can’t afford, didn’t need and didn’t even desire.
I was a fraudulent environmentalist, leaving a trail of plastic packaging behind me. I noticed a connection between the garbage-y levels of my attention span and the physical garbage I was creating. It felt bad.
Other things disquieted me as well: the general tenor of rage. The strange woman or bot who began trolling me, leaving hateful posts. I felt vulnerable and exposed to random fury: you might go online to like someone’s new baby and suddenly be swept up in the day’s melee, like being slammed into rush hour traffic.
Finally, I noticed upsetting perception gulfs between my awareness of people’s avatar selves and their real ones. Once, having read of a friend’s mother’s death — movingly detailed in social media posts — I saw that same friend in real life and somehow did not process that she was still grieving.
Conversely, I ran into a friend who seemed happy online, but realized quickly after talking to her in person that she was actually in a very dark place. I felt that my time on social media was moving me further away from human experiences.
During my months off, I spoke to maybe 10 artists, some of whom wanted to be named and some of whom didn’t. I also spoke to Carmella Guiol, a digital health educator based in Durham, North Carolina, who said she is struck by the enormous social media fatigue and exhaustion many people (and particularly young people) share.
Guiol has been interviewing college students as part of her work. “Social media is really cutting into their lives,” she said. “They feel like it’s this pressure that takes away from the time to actually live.”
My conversations turned up similar themes. Despite the pernicious pressure to be “seen” and “liked,” most people I talked to shared their sense that the constant pressure to perform their lives for the algorithm had become alarming and stale.
Some people had left social platforms entirely. (“It felt as addictive as alcohol,” said a poet in recovery from both alcohol and Twitter.) Another, writer Thaisa Frank, reported having been relieved to have had a concussion: She stopped using social media and rediscovered the attention span to read books.
Anyone I talked to who used social media regularly with any degree of happiness had set strong boundaries. Guiol took a full year off, before returning, partly to share her work. Now she wears a watch (which means she doesn’t check her phone for the time), uses an alarm clock in the bedroom and doesn’t keep apps on her phone. She talked about going on platforms only with a distinct errand in mind — “join a new moms group” or “post an item for sale.”
She also talked about taking time offline to engage hard but necessary questions: What is a community? What art practices do you need to honor? What feeds your spirit?
Tiffany Shlain, a visual artist and author of the book “24/6,” talked to me about her decades-long practice of taking a weekly 24-hour tech-Shabbat, or day off screens, in which she “could host a beautiful meal, and journal in her notebook, and allow her creativity to come back in.”
Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who has felt exhausted and burned by “people who are mean as hell,” felt he was constantly trying to sidestep what he called “his unpaid internship on social media” — that is, the labor of curating personhood in algorithmic space.
Zapruder also harbored doubts about the future of social media, noting: “It’s not really about whether or not I or any one of us thinks we can handle it, it’s about whether or not it’s a force that actually spreads violence and discord.” Now he uses social only during certain hours, and only to amplify work he cares about.
I’m writing this article while off any platforms. I got a lot of good writing done these past months. I savored a lot of tender moments, too. Eventually, I will tiptoe online, and, yes, probably post this article to social media. Later this summer and fall I’ll be launching projects and I do plan to share them. I’m excited about some good work I’ve gotten to do and I want to hear from friends I might otherwise miss.
But I report that it’s good to unplug, and I’ll do it again, maybe for longer. In the beginning, I worried about feeling I would be missing out. I did not.
In the first few days off, I noticed that the moments I would have reached for social media were the moments when in the old days, I would have reached for a cigarette. For those times, I put a book of poems in my bag instead. I’d text friends. I spent two hours each week volunteering in my favorite community garden (but didn’t photograph it). I savored and cultivated something which nobody has figured out how to monetize: A sense of private delight. Indeed, I felt a new sense of private wonder.
Here’s a phrase that came to me somewhere during my time off: You have a real life, not an advertisement for a life. I wonder if there’s a way to go back online with more intention, less passivity. As Guiol put it, to “think about who is using who.”
I don’t want to be an algorithm zombie. It’s not good for me or for the world. I think of the early video artists, like Nam June Paik, who were able to use technology for art, but also somehow kept reminding us that we, the fragile human, are here, and we can and should disrupt the machine.
One of the best conversations during my time offline was with the poet Julia Guez, who wrote a beautiful book of poems called “The Certain Body,” about illness in the body, and in the civic body, too. There’s a poem in her book keep I thinking about, called “Still Life with Insufficient iCloud Storage.”
This poem imagines the cloud which carries our online personae as a real cloud, which, for better or worse, has to hold all we send to it, before raining it down again. Somehow I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that image. That poor cloud, full of our rage, raining it elsewhere, raining it back down on us once again.
Often, in these past hard years, many of us have sat doomscrolling. There’s been a lot of reason to seek community online, and there’s also been a lot of reason to grieve and rage and despair. It’s been easy to forget the joys and challenges of making community in real space. And it’s been easy to forget that at the other end of these portals, which often seem faceless, there are still real people, real human needs.
If I go back online, I only want to post and share what I would want to rain down on me, or a friend, or on the neighbor who one code calls me to love like a self.
After Covid, Guez went on tour with her book. She was reading poems about some of the things that sometimes inflame us on social media — police violence, Covid, our own grief — but she was sharing them in rooms and libraries and bookstores. “Afterwards, there was space to hug, to weep,” she told me. “And that was amazing.”
Guez, by the way, had some of the best rules for social media use of anyone I talked to. “Never in the morning, never in bed, never before bed, never in the bedroom,” she told me. “Mostly on the train, in order to find out other people’s good news, and amplify it, and sometimes to then to write a letter or actually call a friend who you’ve seen post something and check in on them.”
I love those rules. When I go back online, I’m going to use them too. For now, in the spirit of amplifying voices we love, I share Guez’s poem. Maybe you’ll love it too.