Social media has been a big part of my life for half my life. It doesn’t seem to be working as well for me as it once did. Now what?
I took a month break from social media in June. I’ve been using social media in various forms for more than thirty years, beginning with Usenet and online services in 1989, and then moving on to Twitter and Facebook in the late 2000s.
There has been positive value to all of this. I’ve made a couple of real-life friends. It provides social connectivity, which is important because I’ve been working from a home office since 1992, and I’m an introvert by nature, so it’s easy for me to fall into isolation.
But I no longer liked what social media was doing to my brain. It felt like a large portion of my daily energy was spent doing something that was not bringing me any value and was adding stress to my life.
So I took June off.
Or, to me more precise, I drastically cut back, with strict limitations about how and why I used social media.
I was inspired by reading the book “Digital Minimalism,” by Cal Newport, where he talks about the value of unplugging from social media for a month to do a brain reset, and using the time to fill your life with activities that are more important to you. I started reading the book on a whim, found I enjoyed it, and decided to take the digital reset on a whim as well. That’s odd for me—usually that’s the kind of decision I would take a while to think over.
If you’re someone who thinks you spend too much time on social media, or playing games, or otherwise staring at screens for non-work purposes, I recommend Newport’s book to you.
I immediately found it impractical to cut myself off from Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. It’s like going without electricity. Within hours of my social media fast, I found I wanted to look up some pieces of information on one of those sites.
Also, I manage the social media presence for the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club—we’re not very active on social media, but I couldn’t just walk away from that for a month.
And I use LinkedIn for work.
So I quickly evolved a rule for myself, without giving it much thought. I followed that rule throughout the month, even though I was only able to articulate the rule in words at the end of the month.
This was the rule
I would only use Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit for specific purpose—to look something up, or post a tweet for the Democratic club. I’d get on, do the thing that I set out to do, and then get off.
When I was on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, I would not be there to check replies or scroll the feeds. That leads to hours spent all day doing that. That’s precisely what I was trying to get away from.
Normally, I also participate in one or two online forums and several Discord and Slack servers. I cut those out entirely, except for one online forum run by a real life personal friend.
Looking at the preceding paragraphs underscores to me how much social media I do. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, three or four Discord and Slack servers and a couple of online forums. No wonder I feel like social media has colonized my brain.
My June social media detox overlapped with a trip out of town that Julie took alone, to take care of family business in Ohio. She was out of town mid-May to mid-June, and I had the house to myself. Just me and the dog and cats for a month.
So what was the outcome?
I missed social media. My social media detox felt like quitting smoking. I missed those little jolts of pleasure when I posted something, or when I read something interesting or funny, or when I got a like or reply.
Like smoking, I found that I enjoyed social media some of the time—that first cigarette with coffee in the morning, or after I’d gone a long time without being able to smoke. But like smoking, I found I was often doing it out of habit, and felt bad while I was doing it. And the times I was doing it out of habit, and not actually enjoying it, may have been more frequent than the times I actually enjoy social media.
Smoking often felt shameful to me, and unpleasant, but I did it because I craved it. Social media activity has never been that bad for me, but it can be somewhat similar, particularly when it’s late at night and I should be getting up to go to bed but instead I’m just staring at the goddamn screen, dragging down with my finger to refresh.
During my break, I wrote a few blog posts, which was nice. The were inconsequential—reactions to TV shows and books I’ve been reading. But creative writing is something I’ve done less and less of over the years. It used to be important to me. And I feel like getting started doing that again is a positive feedback loop. An inconsequential blog post about a TV show today might become something more consequential tomorrow.
During my break, my brain did feel calmer.
I was more productive. Not by orders of magnitude, but a few percentage points. That’s something.
And then, in the final week of the month, I found I really missed one part of my social media activity, the part where I read articles and share links to them, often accompanied by excerpts and summaries. A big value I get from that is the additional thinking about what I’ve read. I also do it it with videos and podcast episodes. But mainly I do it with articles.
I started doing those brief write-ups again in my final week of my social media detox. But I did not post them. I just queued them up as drafts, and posted them the first week in July, when my social media detox was over.
And then July 1 hit and I spent a big part of the day catching up on my old social channels. And that was nice.
Taking a Sabbath
Years ago, I read an article by an Orthodox Jewish man who works in the tech industry, and he talked about the value of the Sabbath. He and his family are completely modern; they have phones and iPads and the kids play games and they subscribe to streaming video services. But they switch all that off, Friday evening to Saturday evening, sunset to sunset. He said they find that during a hectic week, sometimes they yearn for the break of Sabbath, and that’s part of the whole reason they observe Sabbath.
But sometimes (he said) during Sabbath, they get fidgety and yearn for it all to be over and return to their phones and other screens—and that (he said) was part of the value of Sabbath too. To make you pause and appreciate the benefits of modern life.
And now here we are at the end of July, and I have resumed all my old social media habits—good and bad.
Another thing that’s resumed for me: Insomnia. I slept pretty well in June, and into the first week of July, but over the past couple of weeks I’ve been waking up in the very early morning—3 or 4 am, and one time 1 am—which has been a problem for me in the past couple of years. I suspect the culprit here is screen time—when I’m in bed getting ready to sleep, I scroll through Reddit and Tumblr, looking at memes and TikTok videos and midcentury ads and catalog photos and other found media.
So I think I need to pull back from social media again. Not cut it off entirely as I did in June, but put fences around my use.
Many years ago, I put fences around TV, and the habit has stuck with me. In the evening, we watch the news over dinner, and then around 8:30-9:30 pm we watch one show, usually 45 minutes to an hour, and then that’s it for TV for me most days. Every month or two, we’ll do a movie or a few episodes back-to-back on a weekend night.
I think I need to do something similar with social media. I scroll the feeds and check replies at fixed times, and then I’m not doing that anymore.
Also, no more bedtime screen time, which will drastically reduce my meme and found-media sharing. The world will just have to live with that loss.
I’m also finding less satisfaction in the link-sharing that I used to do multiple times a day—finding an article, summarizing it, posting the link to social. A lot of that seems pointless to me now. I’m doing less of it, unless there’s something I really want to think through, express, or fix in my mind by writing it out.
I do not expect the result of my change will be dramatically life-changing, but I think I’ll feel better and get a little more done. Maybe even get out more and socialize in person, which is something I need to do more of. It will be an incremental change. And incremental change can be a big deal—we, as a society, undervalue incremental change.
For much of my life I defined myself as a writer and a journalist. When that stopped working for me, I poured a lot of energy into social media. I defined myself by my social media presence to an extent that, taking a step back, seems ridiculous.
Social media doesn’t seem to be working for me anymore. So now what? Writing will always be a big part of my life; it is how I communicate best. (Look! I’m doing it right now!) But beyond that I don’t know.
Everybody who has read this series loves it … except me. I tried this book once before two years ago, and bounced off it. This time I liked it. I guess I was in the right mood for it this time around. I’ll read the next book in the series, but it probably won’t be the next book I read.
The main character of this series, Murderbot, is a security robot, built with machine and organic components, that has hacked its own governor module and could mass-murder everybody if it wanted to, but would rather just do its job protecting humans, and watch entertainment feeds. “As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure,” Murderbot explains.
Murderbot’s job is to protect a team of a half-dozen researchers exploring a new planet. It’s a pretty easy gig at first, leaving plenty of time for entertainment feeds. But the job gets serious when the team is threatened by a murderous entity, and Murderbot has to reluctantly get to work.
I liked Murderbot’s voice, their dry wit and laid-back attitude. They find interaction with conventional humans to be excruciating, and far prefer to spend their time with fictional people on the entertainment feeds.
The book’s strengths were enough—this time around—to carry me through things I didn’t like about it. There were only a half dozen characters, and they were hard to tell apart, other than Murderbot herself and the mission leader, Dr. Mensah. Most of the activity takes place either inside a base or in a small vehicle. So even though there was an entire planet to play on, the story seems claustrophobic, like one of those Doctor Who episodes where they drop in on a remote research base or stranded spaceship that’s in danger. Those sorts of episodes seem to be popular with the fans, because the show does so many of them, but they have never been my favorites.
At the end of this book, which is the first in the series, there is an indication that Murderbot is about to explore the wider universe. I hope that’s the way it goes.
When we brought Minnie home from adoption in 2013 as a four month old pup, she was terrified, and she retreated to a big wingback chair in the kitchen, where she felt reasonably safe and from which vantage point she could keep an eye on much of the house. That chair has continued to be her favorite place.
At night, after I’ve brushed my teeth and washed up for bed, I come out in the kitchen, and find Minnie in her chair. I give her a few little pieces of turkey before putting her to bed. When she hears me fussing around in the refrigerator, she jumps down off the chair and comes over.
The other night she seemed to be struggling to get up from the chair. Concerned, I watched her as she pushed and squirmed to get to her feet. I could not figure out what was going on. She fell off the chair rather than jumping down, and landed with a thump on her belly. Holy shit, I thought. Did she have a stroke? And she got her legs under her and got up and shook herself.
I realized she had gotten her collar somehow tangled up in the upholstery, which prevented her at first from standing up and jumping down. The collar had come loose when she landed.
Minnie was fine immediately. I expect I’ll recover from the emotional strain in a few weeks.
Bosch: Legacy continues the TV series Bosch, which ran multiple seasons on Amazon Prime, starring Titus Welliver as LAPD Det. Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch. In Bosch: Legacy, Harry has gotten fed up with the police department, retired, and gone into business as a private detective. Meanwhile, Bosch’s daughter, Maddy, is now starting out on patrol, fresh out of the police department.
The show isn’t as good as the original, but I like it. The original had a broader range of characters, and richer exploration of the geography of Los Angeles. The new series seems like it’s hitting a lot of cliches. One character is a hipster computer hacker who always wears hats, and who functions as a universal exposition machine.
The series has moved to the FreeVee network, which is a part of Amazon Prime. Even though we’re paying for Amazon Prime, FreeVee requires us to sit through commercials, with a little countdown clock in the corner. Ripoff! Amazon Prime? More like Amazon CRIME—amirite?!!
Earlier this year, we watched a few episodes of The Rockford Files, a classic private detective series from the 1970s, starting James Garner. The series also appears on FreeVee. The commercials are even more annoying on this one—they don’t even appear in the original show’s commercial breaks, they just pop up smack in the middle of scenes.
I wouldn’t mind commercials in The Rockford Files if they were the original 70s commercials.
Julie was out of town for a month, and I rewatched the first couple of seasons of “The Office” and “M*A*S*H.”
When people talk about a classic old comedy, they will often say, “You couldn’t make that today!” These people are referring to the comedy’s offensiveness to contemporary sensibilities. Primarily racism and sexism.
I have often been skeptical of that statement—but boy you could not make either “The Office” or “M*A*S*H” today.
I’m a few episodes into Season 3 of The Office and a big part of every episode is Michael Scott saying and doing appallingly sexist and racist things.
I’m a couple of episodes into the second season of MASH (I’m not going to type those asterisks anymore). In the pilot episode, Hawkeye and Trapper just straight-up grab nurses and grope them, and it’s portrayed as good fun. This continues through the first season, though it steadily declines. Radar likes to peek into the nurses’ shower. The first half of the first season is hard to watch. But I pushed through.
There’s also a Black surgeon in the tent with Hawkey and Trapper, nicknamed Spearchucker. He disappears midway through the first season.
The podcast said that in the 60s and 70s, the left began to adopt those jokes as a way of mocking racism and sexism. That’s exactly why that surgeon was nicknamed Spearchucker—he’s not a stereotype. He’s a good surgeon and a full member of the gang.
Later, the political right picked up those jokes. The left said the right adopted those jokes because the right was racist and sexist. The right said they were mocking the left’s heightened sensitivity to racism and sexism.
Regardless, racist and sexist jokes went through a period of a couple of decades when they often were acceptable in pop culture, which leans left. Then they weren’t, leaving shows like MASH and The Office looking awkward.
Decoder Ring places the racist/sexist humor transition in the 80s, with the “Truly Tasteless Jokes” series of novelty books.
However, the leftist view of racist/sexist humor is still going strong in the mid-2000s, in “The Office,” where Michael Scott is ridiculous.
A few more observations about MASH
Spearchucker disappears from the show midway through the first season, apparently because the writers don’t know what to do with him, leaving only one other recurring, very minor, Black character, the nurse Ginger. There are almost no Asian characters—odd for a show set in Korea.
Barely into the second season, Margaret Houlihan is already a great character. Hawkeye and Trapper are awful to her and Frank. Frank deserves it, but she does not. She’s a great nurse, courageous, and fierce, and has latched onto Frank because she’s terribly lonely. She knows he’s a simp, but he’s all she has. I think Loretta Swit already knows all this in the first season, and is playing the character that way. As I recall from later seasons (which I have not seen since the 80s), the writers eventually catch up.
Loretta Swit was a hell of a good character actress. There’s one great scene where she does a talent show with Hawkeye, Trapper, and Radar. She stands in front, screeching the lyrics to a song—you can’t call it singing—and dancing energetically and gracelessly, with a big grin on her face. She is obviously having such a great time that she is a joy to watch. It’s a good gag, and good characterization for Margaret, hinting that she’s more than just a martinet.
Gary Burghoff is a talented jazz drummer in real life. In one otherwise forgettable storyline, he takes the drums when a band comes to entertain at the camp, and proceeds to wail on them for a couple of minutes. He’s really very good.
Some great character actors appear as guests in that first season of MASH: Jack Soo, famous for “Barney Miller” and “Flower Drum Song;” Leslie Nielsen; Ron Howard, still billed as Ronny; and Sorrell Booke, who later appeared as Boss Hogg in “Dukes of Hazzard.”
Around 1990, I read a newspaper article talking about how the show had been considered a classic while it aired, but the young people then weren’t watching it in reruns. One young person interviewed for the article said the characters were always talking about how terrible war is, but the characters all seem to be having a great time. There is a lot of truth to that.
Larry Linville played Frank Burns brilliantly. I recall interviews with the other cast, particularly Loretta Swit, talking about how Linville was completely the opposite of his character—intelligent, kind, well-read, and he loved to discuss ideas. Linville left MASH after the first few seasons; he reportedly felt the character had become one-dimensional and that Linville had taken Frank as far as he could go. As I recall, Linville was typecast as a weasel after MASH. He died in 2000.
McLean Stevenson, who played Col. Blake, also left MASH early in the series run. He reportedly felt the cast was disrespected by the studio, and didn’t like the way the show had evolved to make Alan Alda the star. Stevenson wanted to be the star of his own show, and he achieved that goal, four times. Every show was badly reviewed, and failed. His name became a joke in entertainment journalism, as did the title of one of his failed sitcoms, “Hello, Larry.” That’s a shame, because Stevenson proved himself on MASH to be a talented comedic actor—look at his goofy moves in the Loretta Swit clip above—and capable of the dramatic moments MASH required.
Another reason you couldn’t make MASH today: Americans love war and the military now. The military is the only institution Americans support and have faith in.
A few more observations about The Office
A superfan of the show told me that Michael Scott’s character changes, and becomes more sympathetic, after the third season. That’s kind of how I remember the show too. We can already see inklings of this by the first few episodes of the third season, which is how far I’ve rewatched. He’s legitimately a great salesman. In glimpses when he leaves the toxic workplace environment, the toxicness drains from him and he becomes a nice guy. His encounter with Jan—which happens almost entirely offscreen—comes across as sweet and tender in descriptions.
Pam and Jim are as sweet as I remember them from my first viewing of The Office. Jim twice goes over the line with Pam, but he’s genuinely sorry. Unlike that dastard Roy.
As “The Office” progresses through S2 and S3, we see Jim and Pam becoming protective of Michael Scott. He’s still horrible, but he’s their horrible little brother. They like him, despite everything.
For an interesting theory about The Office, see here:
The author divides corporate workplaces into sociopaths, who run things, clueless middle management, and losers at the bottom of the hierarchy who actually do the work. Jan and later Ryan are sociopaths, Michael Scott is clueless, and the entire rest of the staff are losers. Including Jim and Pam
A third show I watched while Julie was out of town: “Severance,” on Apple TV, a science fiction drama about a workgroup of four people at a company where they erase your memory every day when you come in to work, and every day when you leave. Your work self only remembers your work life and knows nothing about what you do outside of work, and your out-of-work self knows nothing about what you do when you go into the office.
As with “Mad Men,” the visual design of “Severance” plays as prominent a role as the acting and writing—the sets and props in particular.
“Severance” is brilliant.
You could make a case that all three shows I watched in Julie’s absence were workplace comedies and dramas. But if you want to argue MASH is a workplace show, then pretty much every drama and comedy on TV is either a workplace show or a family show. I don’t know if I’m prepared to go to that extreme.