Seeking out notifications

I deactivated instagram last week. I don’t quite remember why. I think someone had told me a few days prior that instagram could be deactivated. For some reason, I wasn’t aware and immediately was intrigued.

In the last year, I’ve started deleting the instagram app from my phone. One week, I deleted Instagram and the News app from my phone only to see a 40% reduction in time spent staring at my device. I was baffled at how such small changes could result in such big results.

I’ve noticed something odd having removed Instagram and the News app though. I now manually look up news.google.com on my phone at least once per day. I scroll through, open articles, and read the few that catch my attention. Despite completely disconnecting work from my phone (no email, no slack, no WordPress app), I am now checking in more after my workday has ended. At first, I excused it as wanting to check in with my colleagues in different timezones. On deeper reflection, the truth was I was seeking out notifications.

Why would I do that? I wasn’t quite sure at first. It’s been hard without social media. As with the last time I was fully “off the social grid” 4-5 years ago, I’m already taking less pictures and experiencing the world differently. I’m reaching out to friends over text more often. I’m calling people. And apparently I’m seeking out a notifications fix! Sigh.

I don’t think I am getting anything special in particular from social media. It’s an attention fix and a connector. Having less time for social media has given me an absurd amount of time to read. This has worked to my advantage as the few newsletter like subscriptions I have suddenly have become wonderful gifts in my inbox — like a light in the dark. I follow Om Malik and something he shared recently resonated deeply with me:

His comments reminded me of a recent study I came across, which is tangentially related to Bob’s observations. Samuel P. L. Veissière and Moriah Stendel, two researchers from McGill University in Canada, argue that our collective smartphone addiction is not an antisocial phenomenon, but part of humans’ social disposition to connect and engage with others. “Specifically,” they write, “we argue that mobile technology addiction is driven by the human urge to connect with people, and the related necessity to be seen, heard, thought about, guided, and monitored by others, that reaches deep in our social brains and far in our evolutionary past.”

It made me a bit relieved and helped me realize that this urge is one that could be redirected to scratch that same social itch in a way that felt more like me. How can I use Instagram in a way that feels right to me? How can I “hack” the tool for my own means to connect? Before I deactivated my account, I was already marching down that new path having unfollowed about 300 people. If I can’t make it work for me, what are my alternatives?

In a way, this is when I’m most proud to work for Automattic and on products like WordPress.com. I don’t find WordPress.com addicting. If I do hear people talk about hours wasted, it’s because they are so excited about an idea that they just want their site to work and got frustrated in the process. It’s a different kind of wasted time and one that we’re actively working to resolve.

For now, I’m frankly still detoxing. Detoxing from social media feels like going through waves of grief almost with a bit of shame and disappointment thrown in before accepting the fact that I’m wired as a social being. Captions for images pop through my head. Pictures I could take and share frame my vision as I navigate the world. I don’t know if I will return this time. If I do, I want to do it thoughtfully and with a plan that will likely involve following a very select group of individuals, timeboxing how much time I can spend each day, and moving any conversations that happen over the messenger into text/email. In the meantime, I’m remembering the deeper reasoning behind why I’m seeking out notifications. It’s not the notifications I want, it’s the connection with another person. That desire is a beautiful thing to protect and hold sacred rather than to throw out alongside my social media accounts.

P.S. The trickiest part of this is finding a way to keep in touch and connect with a generation plugged into these mediums. It feels similar to not wanting to drink but the societally acceptable way to hang seems to be at a bar/brewery. Slowly but surely I’m finding those seeking new ways to connect though. Right now, it’s mainly come in the form of actual pen pals (the handwritten kind) and virtual pen pals (aka massive text messages or emails once or twice/month). I’m experimenting with it all and it’s not always pretty. My heart aches with feelings of disconnection from those deeply embedded on social media yet impossible to reach in other ways (yes, many people like this exist). The only platform you can truly view without an account seems to be Twitter and even then you get obnoxious nudges to create an account. Choosing to step away from social media can feel like moving cities and removing the chance of happenstance run-ins with people you might dearly know/love. It’s so much more work to do one to one communication over one to many.

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