Joshua Keel

Don't Drink the Water—It's a Cesspool

December 29, 2019

As you might know, I’m not a big fan of social media. Or rather, I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love how it democratizes the flow of information and allows everyone to have a voice. I hate what it does to people—how it makes our most arrogant, reactive, and hateful qualities come raging to the fore.

Many people have rightly called Twitter a cesspool, and after recently spending quite a bit of time there, I have to agree that it often is. I’m amazed at what people think is worth spending their words on, though I am often tempted to write inflammatory and unhelpful things myself, in the heat of the moment.

The fact that we can be semi-anonymous, combined with our thirst for attention and approval makes us capable of saying things we would never say offline. So as much as I love sharing what I care about and keeping up with the work of others, I’m also deeply aware that social media is not a place I need to spend a lot of time.

A few chapters into Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable, he mentions that he schedules his social media time. I think that’s a fantastic idea. You get 15-30 minutes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and you get it only when it’s time for that activity—not every 5 minutes, any time you get twitchy.

I haven’t yet implemented a social media schedule, but I aspire to it as the best way to get as many benefits from social media as possible, while keeping the demons at bay. I don’t go so far as Cal Newport, the computer scientist and writer of Deep Work, who has never had any social media accounts.

No, like Scott Young—a personal development writer who incidentally happens to be one of Cal’s friends and business partners—I think there’s enough value in social media that it’s worth finding a way to incorporate into your life, albeit with full awareness of its darker side.

It’s not just the big social sites that are making it harder to think clearly about anything, though. There is a huge downside to any information source that is constantly feeding you more, shoving it down your throat as if you were being prepared to become foie gras.

Medium and CNN are great examples of this kind of information dump, which now typifies our online experience. On CNN, it’s not enough to simply read a couple of news articles and have a sense of current events. No, you’ve got a seemingly endless stream of lurid articles to choose from, with clickbait headlines that tempt you into reading what turns out to be an utter waste of your time.

Medium’s home page presents a vast array of articles, all with eye-catching titles and images. You’re bombarded with one opinion after another on how to have a better relationship, or wake up early, or get 50 things done before breakfast.

It’s all maddening. By the time I’m three paragraphs in on a post, I’m getting bored, knowing there’s probably a more interesting article just a few clicks away. I flit from page to page, looking for a tiny hit of dopamine, that little high that keeps me coming back, over and over again.

The more I plug into the ‘net, the more scattered my attention seems to become. Increasingly, I find that the only escape is offline: a brisk walk, a good book, a conversation with another human, my face looking into theirs.

I don’t want to stay swimming in the online infinity pool of others’ ideas, of constant input into my life, which distracts me from hearing my own inner voice. I want freedom of thought, solitude—the things you can never get when you’re waiting for your next hit from the feed.

I’m just one of millions of humans struggling to cope with this new technological reality of always–on, instant information, updated incessantly, and always in your pocket. We’re not wired for this, and it’s starting to show.

Humanity is presented with a challenge our evolutionary programming has not prepared us for. We need to learn new ways of dealing with the flood of online content streaming into our devices each moment. We’ve got to figure out how to live well in an age where what feels easiest is to compulsively plug in—and check out.

I believe we can do the most good when we are most centered in ourselves and those closest to us—not tied to the news cycle, engaged in the latest Twitter fight, or worrying about the random opinions of other people on the Internet.

It’s a relief to unplug sometimes. I plan to do it more often; to carefully curate my time and attention so that I don’t waste my precious life. If the constant connection has got you down as well, I suggest findings ways to limit your time spent drinking from the cesspool.

Spend more time with old, dead people—books, in other words. Talk to your family. Call up old friends. Get some goddam hobbies. Live offline, with short periods of purposeful connectivity. Create something you can be proud of. Use the Internet for sharing rather than consuming.

With time and effort, we can find the best strategies for living wisely in this wonderful new world of tech, getting the most out of it while avoiding the pitfalls. If you’ve got any ideas, I’d love to hear them.