A Modest Proposal: Just Log Off
Every time I go online these days, three words rattle around in my head like a mantra. Often, they are directed towards myself, when I’m clicking on the fourth article about some stranger who has been cancelled for dubious reasons. But increasingly, I say them as a kind of incantation to the countless people I see online acting in a way that is clearly counter to their best interest: Just log off.
I can’t think of one online dust-up, cancellation, ruckus, brouhaha, Twitter screenshot apology, or controversial company statement—followed by another bizarre statement that clarifies the first one—that wouldn’t be made better by first following this simple advice: Just log off.
I realize the hypocrisy here, of me telling you to log off the internet while on the internet. But I say this with some basis. In the past six months, I’ve logged off more than I have in the ten years prior. So far this year, I’ve spent about 60 minutes total logged into Twitter — that’s far less than what I used to clock per day. Instagram is often deleted from my phone for weeks at a time and I deleted Facebook years ago. I am too old for TikTok. I find things to read via newsletters I’ve chosen to subscribe to and visiting the homepages of a couple of news sites once or twice a workday (shockingly, this still works.) It’s by no means total abstinence, but it’s a huge reduction from the time I was spending online before.
Time away from these platforms and the news cycle they fuel has been clarifying. I’m amazed by how much more expansive my brain feels, how clearly I see the limitations of online life, and how differently I react to online nastiness when my nervous system is not jacked up on the outrage, trauma, and chaos that accompanies being online all the time. That is perhaps why, when I do go online, I wonder why more people don’t do the same: Just log off.
I don’t even need to pick a particular example here, because you know exactly what I mean. You watch someone do or say something stupid, then you see the torrent of abuse and hatred that is hurled in their direction from total strangers who are probably lacking a lot of context. The person then writes a series of hasty, typo-ridden Tweets, in which you can almost hear their heart thumping and shallow breathing embedded in the 140 character installments. Cue second wave of abuse and hatred in response to those probably-dumb tweets, as well as a couple dozen Substack editions and columns in The Atlantic and the New York Times opinion sections parsing and analyzing the latest dumpster fire. Eventually, the person in question may come to their senses, apologize both for the original offense as well as the exacerbating (and by now, deleted) Twitter thread. By this point it doesn’t matter, because everyone is so frazzled and exhausted that the conversation has devolved to reductive labels — woke millennials, far right, cancel culture, etc — and everyone briefly settles down. In approximately 14 hours, an eerily similar progression of events starts all over again. The political persuasion of the cast of characters may change, but the outcome is always the same.
The baffling thing about this is that many of the most Extremely Online people complain about this exact phenomenon, dissect it in their podcasts and Substacks, ask academics and experts to pontificate on why it’s happening. However, no one seems to engage in or publicly endorse the only behavior that will actually mitigate it: Just log off.
Most people know that the internet shapes what they think about, but less appreciated, I think, is that the internet also shapes how we think. Or more specifically, the platforms that have come to define the internet do. (For more on this, read Jaron Lanier’s 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. You’ll find yourself logging right off.)
When you give yourself some sustained time away, it becomes clear that many people are looking online for things they will never find there: acceptance, validation, certitude, true connection, justice. It also becomes clear that the platforms’ business models are agnostic to the way they make you feel — angry, anxious, enraged, traumatized—as long as you keep coming back. The reason why there are seemingly countless examples like the one I described above is because that precise progression of events — which reliably makes everyone feel angry, anxious, enraged, traumatized—is simply great for business.
There’s lots of talk about how to fix this, and those conversations are important. The online space is here to stay, obviously, and I’m not suggesting we give up on it forever, nor that all of it is bad. But I think more of us need to prioritize the ability to think, exist, and be offline. We need to stop allowing our nervous systems to become addicted to the outrage cycle online without even realizing that it’s a physical process that’s playing out in our bodies day after day. We need to start seeing the internet as merely a place we visit, rather than a place we allow to define and shape our thoughts, our physiological responses, and our beliefs in totality. That can start in a dozen small ways, perhaps by finding one day a week to log off completely, or removing all social media and push notifications from your phone. But it has to start.
The internet demands immediacy, which is why people feel so compelled to respond to things without figuring out how they really feel about it first. Notice how I said feel, not think. Humans are not just cerebral creatures. When we’re truly honoring our needs, we are giving ourselves time to physically integrate events in our lives, to rest and digest, to make some space around whatever is going on before we make a decision about it, let alone respond to it publicly. Ever notice how everything difficult and hard in life feels a minimum of three per cent more manageable after a good night’s sleep? That’s because we’re animals, not computers.
In our current culture, people are living their lives online without spending any quiet, unstimulated time with the one person they should actually be concerned about appeasing: themselves. At the heart of all those bad tweets, weird apologies, reactive behavior, overblown controversies, and hasty cancellations are a bunch of disembodied creatures, ones who’ve handed the task of self regulation and self determination to a business model that does not have their best interests at heart.
I won’t say the process of disentangling yourself from this is easy, exactly, and in the beginning I found it very uncomfortable—especially since I’ve earned a living for the past decade off this very infrastructure. But I find it’s helpful to remember: You will never appease the online mob, you will never get to the bottom of the latest controversy, and if you stay online for long enough, you will eventually be cancelled too. When that all fails, I remind myself, mid-scroll, that I’m never going to find what I’m looking for here. I should just log off.