My dissatisfaction with the time I was spending on the Internet really began to surface all the way back in 2017, a feeling which inspired the relaunch of this blog. Back then, I wrote:
As part of my fresh start, the first thing I’ve decided to regain control of is the way I spend time online. If I’m going to talk about things online, I’m going to do it on my own terms – here on my blog. I’m not going to give Facebook the many hours I’ve given it anymore because the satisfaction I get from it is nil.“A Fresh Start,” Earnestpettie.com
It took me a full two and a half years, though, to fully understand what the problem was before I could really begin to address it.
The problem isn’t any one uniquely terrible website. Nor is it the tyranny of any device. What I think has changed that has resulted in more bitterness about the effect of the internet and devices on our lives has been our relationship with the internet, itself. We have progressed from a very deliberate usage of the Internet with limited access to it to very casual usage with ubiquitous access. Here’s a timeline I concocted:
You can see how when we first got access to the internet, we were constrained in our ability to use the internet. Connectivity and hardware limitations meant we couldn’t use it more if we wanted to. Now, we’re constantly connected to the internet whether we want to be or not. And it isn’t all leisure. We rely on the internet to manage much more of our lives now, paying bills, having things delivered, applying for jobs – we have to spend time online. We don’t, however, have to be indiscriminate in how we spend that time online.
If I was going to rein in my internet usage, I was going to have to regain more of the deliberate usage I had when I began using the Internet. This remains a work-in-progress, but this is how I’ve accomplished it so far.
Limiting Social Media
As I mentioned earlier, Facebook was the first thing I tackled. It was an easy scapegoat, but there are excellent reasons to limit your usage of social media. Social media is the most bingeable part of the web. There is always something new to see because we are constantly updating it, ourselves. It is a perpetual machine. This is really only a problem if the benefit you derive from using the machine fails to exceed the cost of using it. Facebook crossed that line for me. Instagram crosses that line. Linkedin didn’t cross that line until it re-engineered its feed to show more content from people I didn’t know. Twitter remains just above the line for me, and it is really the only social network I use on a regular basis now, but I’ve even decreased the time I spend on Twitter.
Last December, as I started thinking about how my relationship to the internet had changed, I began to realize just how often notifications dragged me back onto my phone. Notifications are a true villain because they stack up and create a feed to be scrolled before you ever make it onto an actual timeline.
I did an experiment where I put my phone on indefinite Do Not Disturb mode, allowing notifications for calls and texts from “starred” contacts. It was remarkable just how quickly that became a new normal. Whereas it took me the better part of a week to withdraw from Facebook, coming off of notifications took just two days. I immediately began to ignore my phone and even forget where I’d thrown it after getting home from work.
There were some negative repercussions. For example, I’d miss texts from Doordash delivery people (I order a lot of Doordash!). I decided to take my phone off of Do Not Disturb and be more intentional in granting apps permissions to send notifications.
The very first thing I noticed when I did that was just how many notifications I was receiving and how many were purely marketing messages. For each notification that popped up, I used Android’s ability to set permissions directly on the notification to limit what I was seeing. The process took a couple of days, but I eventually reached a core set of notifications I felt I could live with.
Without having my phone as my primary connection to the internet, I was able to restore my laptop and desktop computers as my primary gateways to the web, which meant turning my attention to what I was consuming online and how I was getting it.
For years, I’ve been dabbling with using different web browsers to handle different things. I had Vivaldi, Edge, Chrome, Opera, and Firefox simultaneously installed on my computer. Over the past month, I’ve tried to limit myself to using Firefox as much as possible. Why?
- Firefox has its own notes feature, now, something for which I’d relied on Vivaldi. I take a lot of notes when I’m working on things! I need a scratch pad in the browser.
- Firefox is aggressively blocking trackers. It even has a cool feature called a Facebook container which walls Facebook off from the rest of your browsing.
- Firefox owns Pocket and has integrated it into the browser in an elegant way, making it easy to save pages for reading later without you having to add them to your bookmarks.
- Firefox has live bookmarks, which is like a combination of classic browser bookmarks and RSS. Remember RSS?
Live Bookmarks are the key reason I’m using Firefox now. In pursuit of becoming more intentional in my internet usage, I wanted to get back to visiting websites on my terms instead of when an interesting article popped up in my timelines. So I went through my months of articles I’d saved on Pocket, looking for the unique websites I wished I’d visited more, and I added Live Bookmarks for as many of them as possible. You can see how it works here:
I have a lot of friends who are writers, so I even added bookmarks for them. I’ve either live bookmarked their individual RSS feeds (shoutout to The Verge for maintaining author RSS feeds!) or regular bookmarked their Muckrack pages (shoutout to the suckas who don’t maintain RSS feeds for their authors!).
If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear how you feel about your relationship with the interent in the comments. I’m not going to pretend like this has been a perfect transition because it hasn’t. It’s a work-in-progress that I hope helps me regain more control over the quality of time I spend online. I still find myself opening Twitter on my phone and getting sucked in for half an hour, and I do miss that Myspace/early Facebook feeling of being connected to friends and family online. It’s worth it, though, to have the Internet as an escape rather than something I can’t escape.