Upon returning to stay with family in Olympia, Wash., to continue work on SeedSpeak, our Knight News Challenge Project, as well as complete a long-postponed creative writing project, I decided to commit myself to disconnecting completely from social media for two months. And, to the greatest extent possible, I wanted it to be an all-around web media fast.
Apart from the most essential of emails, this post marks my first web communique to the world since my return home. No instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare. (However, as an unapologetic news junkie, I put no such limits on news produced by professionals — call it a weakness.)
Exactly what led me to disengage from social media remains unclear even to me, and it’s likely a question that a psychologist is better equipped to answer. And while it’s tough to measure net losses or gains from such a months-long abstinence, I identified what I think are some positive effects.
First, my productivity went through the roof. In just a few short weeks, I brainstormed and completed the requirements documentation for SeedSpeak’s next phase of development, complete with lo-fi prototypes, a revamped business plan, and a trove of marketing material. And the creative writing project? It got done — ahead of schedule. Enough said.
Real Life Unplugged
Secondly, I had a chance to sit, observe and connect with people in real life. Sitting adjacent to the old-school community bulletin board at the entrance to downtown Olympia’s Caffe Vita, I struck up three separate conversations, and collaboratively sketched out two new hardware technology ideas. These ideas ended up inspiring two additional digital product ideas.
Plenty of this owes to Washington’s particularly open coffee shop culture, Olympia’s close-knit community, and my strategic location next to the community bulletin board. But these impromptu encounters happen everywhere, and they beg the question: How can digital technology not just facilitate — but also enhance — these encounters?
Others, of course, have engaged in somewhat more formal experiments in media deprivation, such as the recent week-long, college-wide ban at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, or the day-long experiment at U.K.‘s Bournemouth University, where participants shared experiences similar to mine.
Rewards Worth the Challenge
Carving a space for solitude and (relative) isolation may be a greater challenge than ever before, but the rewards are no doubt worth the effort. Just ask Emerson or Iron Man. Indeed, when thinking about how to improve the way people communicate, there’s certainly no shame in asking the question: “What would my fictional and literary idols do?”
I won’t argue for a minute that any theoretical costs to our mental and physical health or quality of relationships outweigh the myriad benefits of social media and other web communication and collaboration tools. After all, that’s why we love working with digital technology, right? And taking a break from social media simply isn’t an option for those whose livelihoods depend on those instant, timely updates.
But if disconnecting in some way, whether from the web or some other energy-intensive part of the daily routine, has the potential to shake loose inspiration and innovation, why not value it as much as the very web connectedness that gives us access to great ideas and helps us collaborate?
Photo of a plug by One Tree Hill Studios via Flickr.