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​I’ve Spent 10,000 Hours on Social Media. Zuckerberg, I’d Like a Refund.

​Why I Quit Social Media: Part 2

​September 22, 2019 | 10-min read

​*Read Part 1 of this series here

***


​​I’ve spent 10,000 hours on social media.

How did I arrive at his wholly unscientific number?

Let’s say, for the decade that I used it, I spent an average of three hours per day on social media. That’s 10,950 hours.

When I joined in 2006, I was certainly on Facebook less than three hours a day. But there were also years I was on it more. There was college, with homework to avoid and endless new friends to creep on, and then as a journalist, my job required me to monitor my own social media accounts and the company’s.

Anyone with an office job knows the hours you can while away on Facebook at a desk.

And of course, the commutes. After I graduated from college and moved to Chicago, I had a 40-minute train ride each way to work. If you watch others on public transport, you’ll see the signature thumb-flick, thumb-flick, wait let me pull that back down and look at it a second longer, thumb-flick, thumb-flick ad infinitum.

And let’s add in the time lost to push notifications — the 25 minutes it takes you to refocus on your task after you’ve been interrupted [1]. Those certainly add up, as well as the minutes spent obsessively checking for new Likes and comments throughout the day after posting something new.

I’m also including all the hours when I wasn’t actually thumb-to-screen, but that I spent rehearsing social media in my head. I wrote in Part I of this series that heavy social media use led me to look at my life as mine-able content for Facebook.

So is my three hours per day accurate? It sounds like a lot, but the average American still watches a full 5 hours of TV a day [2].

There is a part of me horrified that my estimate of 10,000 hours lost to social media might be conservative.

***


​​I’ve known since I was a teenager that my dream was to be an author. But I was too distracted for most of my 20s to read books, let alone write one.

I wanted to write essays like this one, too. I wanted to tackle huge projects that required sustained focus and deep thinking, two traits I lacked. I was vaguely aware that I could be using my time better when I was scrolling newsfeeds, but this guilt was painful, and so I didn’t want to look at it too closely. It could be easily buried by more scrolling, each inane status update flitting through my consciousness before quickly being replaced by another.

And it was easier to put the blame some​where else, so I convinced myself that because I spent all day writing at my journalism job, ​I just didn’t have the energy after​ward to write more.

Today, I do work as an author. But writing a book is an extremely demanding task, and I wish I had started putting in the work of learning it much earlier. How much more would I have learned if I had spent my free time reading books, instead of scrolling Facebook? What if I had been bored enough to get into Kindle publishing in 2009, or 2012, as I had been curious to, instead of waiting until 2016?

***


​​10,000 hours don’t just represent the time I spent, but also the creative energy.

In psychology, “rehearsing” is when we repeat information over and over in our head to remember it [3]. My favorite business podcast calls this phenomenon owning your employee’s “shower thoughts,” or their random brainstorms and idle musings [4].

Social media owned my shower thoughts for many years. Much of what I consumed and produced was through social networks —political rants, PR-sounding relationship celebrations, complaints about delays, photos of food ​[5]  — and so that was the language that narrated my life. The voice stuck in my head was writing and rewriting some dumb caption for a photo of some dumb thing I saw on the sidewalk.

Of course, not all my creative energy went to social media. I still managed, during that decade, to graduate high school and college, get a series of dream jobs and excel at them, and move abroad.

In my free time, I started an animals newsletter that brought me joy and that had potential. Even people who didn’t know me read it! But how many other projects like that never existed because so many of my creative thoughts were put toward status updates, dumb musings, fleeting quips that are now dead and erased from the Internet?

Perhaps I was creatively expressing myself, and isn’t that good? For some people, yes, maybe social media is their creative outlet. (And truly, good for them!) But for me, social media wasn’t creatively satisfying when I knew I was using it to avoid the big projects that scared me.

But wasn’t I learning how to develop a voice, keep an audience, craft a narrative?

Social media is a skill, and there are people who are very, very good at it. You can make it a career: There are influencers, brand strategists, consultants.

At one time, I believed I was “good” at Facebook and social media. But now I know I wasn’t developing creative skills in any meaningful way.

In ​Deep Work [6], author Cal Newport writes that much of social media (for the average user,​ not an influencer or celebrity) is based on reciprocity: “I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say—regardless of its value.”

My first experiment with leaving social media was a 30-day detox, on Newport’s suggestion​​. He tells you not to post that you'll be leaving.

He writes, “The reason why I ask you to not announce your thirty-day experiment is because for some people another part of the delusion that binds them to social media is the idea that people want to hear what you have to say.”

Newport learned from building his own blog that “earning people’s attention online is hard, hard work.”

But for most people, social media “short-circuits” this principle. The “connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you” is replaced by “a shallow collectivist alternative.”

“You ‘like’ my status update and I’ll ‘like’ yours.”

This idea is supported by a 2013 app called Lovematically. Creator Rameet Chawla didn’t want to spend time liking his friend’s posts on Instagram, so his app automatically pressed the “heart” button on every photo in his feed.

Chawla was surprised by the unintended results. The Likes he earned on his own posts skyrocketed, and he began gaining 30 new followers a day [7].

I was a human Lovematically app. I’ve called myself a “serial-Liker.” I legitimately enjoy to see the people I know succeeding, so I gave out social media Likes with abandon. I wanted to be supportive! And I was on Facebook all day anyway, so it was something to do.

That meant the Likes on my own posts didn’t mean what I thought they meant. The attention paid to my posts didn’t reflect their value so much as that I was spending a lot of my time Liking other people’s statuses, too.

In the 30-day detox, that no one notices you’re gone is an essential part of the experiment. It’s meant to strip you of the idea that you were creating value on the platform, and that it will be missed when you’re gone.

It was a lesson I had to learn.

***


​​I’m seeing the what-ifs and retroactive possibilities through rose-colored glasses. It’s nice to think that I would have spent 10,000 hours writing novels or studying story structure (or just ​reading some dang books!)

But maybe, faced with the absence of social media, I would have spent more time drinking, or binging Netflix, or any other number of destructive or useless things.

And maybe I have the correlation vs. causation all wrong.

I stopped using social media the same month that I left my job to be a full-time entrepreneur. As I tried to bootstrap, or hustle, or whatever buzzword you prefer, I quickly learned social media was an unhelpful distraction. I’ve always seen quitting it as a necessary step in my ability to build a business, write books, and read much more.

But they say the part of your brain that helps you achieve your goals isn’t even fully formed until age 25 [8]. When I first joined Facebook, I was only 17. In the years between that and 27, when I started seriously cutting social media out of my life, I grew up a lot.

So perhaps it was with maturity that I was able to start a business, and with maturity I was also able to curb my use of social media. One didn’t cause the other; they were both products of the third event of passing age 25.

Maybe I couldn’t have started writing novels when I was younger; I just wasn’t mature enough.

***


​​And despite the tongue-in-cheek title of my essay, I don’t actually blame Mark Zuckerberg. His apps are designed by very smart people to be very addictive, but I’m not helpless. I take responsibility for my 10,000 hours lost.

Judging from my first posts on Facebook in 2006, it appears I held out ​on joining for a few months. “You have given into the life that is Facebook,” one friend wrote to me. In the years afterward, it often felt like I ​hadn't chosen it. Hadn't all these social media sites always just been there, an essential part of modern life? I​ lament that it took me 10 years to realize the importance of ​consciously choosing my environment— one that made me a better person, not a worse one.

And anyway, I can’t go back and change it now.

I suppose me writing this, though, is me trying to put to rest the what-ifs. Trying not to beat myself up too much for all the work I put into Facebook, into Instagram, into Twitter.

I guess the point is that I think of a 17-year-old girl now, who is definitely not on Facebook but has already been steeped in Snapchat and Instagram for years, and I wonder if she dreams of being a writer, too.

But maybe the novels she used to consume obsessively lie abandoned. Maybe the short stories she used to write seem boring compared to the mesmerizing and endless scroll of her social feeds, and her own participation in them.

Maybe she’ll spend the next decade of her life obsessing over these platforms because she’s a natural storyteller and the more she uses it, the deeper she digs herself into a hole where she needs the validation it gives her. The immediacy and feedback are addictive and easy.

I hope that someone tells her it’s OK to quit. It seems like the world is on there, and everything important is happening on there, but it’s not. It can feel like creating content for these platforms is creative and satisfying, but over a decade it will, when you step back to look at it, be a pile of forgotten half-thoughts that doesn’t add up to all that much.

I’d tell her, this is preventing you from achieving what you actually want to.

Put the phone down, pick up that book. You feel like you’re so young, now, but the years pass as quickly as a scrolling feed.

Take back your brain’s ability to stay still and focus. Do what it is that you’ve dreamed of doing, especially if it’s hard, even if it’s scary. You’ll wish you had started sooner.


​How many hours have you spent on social media? Is it a creative or social outlet for you? Do you regret any of the time you've spent on it? I'd love to ​hear what you think in the comments below.


Footnotes & Links


[1]​ "How Long It Takes to Get Back on Track After a Distraction," Lifehacker

​[2] "How Much Do We Love TV? Let Us Count the Ways," New York Times

​[3] "What Are You Rehearsing?" PsychCentra​l

​[4] I can't find the specific episode but the podcast is Tropical MBA

[5] ​Tim Urban's ​"7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook" on Wait But Why is a great read

[6] Deep Work  ​by Cal Newport​​​

[7] Rameet Chawla details Lovematically on his website here​, but I first learned about it from Adam Alter's phenomenal book Irresistible​​​​

[8] "Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years," ​NPR​​