When David Mohammadi decided to take a two-week break from social media, he never imagined that he’d stay logged off for over an entire year.
But for 65 weeks between 2016 and 2017, he was completely beyond the reach of Facebook notifications, Twitter mentions, and Instagram stories. “The first week was hard. The second week was nice,” he says. “And as I got closer to the end date, I just was like: ‘Wow. It feels great to be so present, and not just on my phone.’”
David originally decided to take a digital retreat to meet new people and properly acclimatize to his new home in New York. Back when he lived in San Francisco, he’d had a comfortable but unfulfilling job in retail. Now in New York, he wanted to find something more creative and more challenging, a role that would make a mark on the fashion industry.
“I quit my job, came here, and started interviewing. I wanted to just really be present in New York and not thinking about: What’s going on in San Francisco? Or, Am I missing out on anything?”
David had tried moving permanently to New York once, in 2008. He was 25 and Facebook was in its heyday: “I would just come home from work, get on Facebook, and see what all my friends were doing. I was just getting really bummed out.” Missing home, he soon moved back to San Francisco.
That was not an experience he intended to repeat.
So he decided for two weeks he was going to focus on the here and now, to communicate in what much of his generation would describe as the old-fashioned way: calling and texting.
No more distractions
“The first couple of days were really interesting, in the sense of, I would constantly pick up my phone for no apparent reason,” says David. “I would open it and I would realize there’s nothing for me to look for… it was a bit of an Aha! moment.”
And with no notifications to check, no photos to look at, and no gifs to retweet, he couldn’t help but notice how much more productive he was. Working as a boutique manager, he noticed how his coworkers would constantly check their phones. Those two-minute breaks from the real world robbed them of opportunities to get more commissions — opportunities that would be theirs if they would just look up and notice the customers.
David, on the other hand, found himself constantly on the sales floor.
“That was one of the biggest things that I realized — how many opportunities I had when I was in San Francisco that I probably lost, because I was on my phone,” he says. “I could have probably made amazing sales, and built up some amazing connections with prospective clients.”
Now more productive, and finding it easier and easier to stay away, David decided to stay on his sojourn from social media indefinitely.
The mental Rolodex
The vast majority of Americans who have access to the internet rely, at least to some extent, on social media to keep tabs on their friends and acquaintances. According to the data, 88 percent of people between 18 and 29 use Facebook, and almost 60 percent of that age group have Instagram accounts, too. The numbers aren’t much lower for people between 30 and 49 — 84 percent and 33 percent, respectively.
So what happens when one of your friends goes ‘off-grid’?
To make sure his friendships didn’t suffer, David was more assertive in calling and texting them, and making sure he was still part of their lives.
But when it came to people he wasn’t as close to, the reaction to his prolonged absence taught him a lot about how many of us now use social media as a substitute for actual interaction.
He references a scene from the “Black Mirror” episode “Nosedive,” where the main character played by Bryce Dallas Howard takes the elevator with an ex-coworker. Desperate to strike up a conversation, she uses technology implanted into her retina to scroll through their online activity to find something to talk about — ultimately landing on a pet cat.
“I went to visit San Francisco and I ran into people, and I could literally see them doing that with their minds, pulling up that Instagram Rolodex of my activity,” recalls David.
“Hey, David. How’s it going? How was, um, um, uh...”
“When I told them that I wasn’t on social media, they’d be like: ‘Oh. Oh, my God. I was just like thinking in my head, what was the last thing David posted?’”
“I was like, this is so crazy.”
‘I can’t believe you blocked me!’
For David, staying away from social media simply meant keeping a clear head and using other tools to stay in contact with the people in his life. But in a world where social currency is in part based on your willingness to like, share, and retweet your friends’ content, his inactivity was perceived by some as a snub.
“There were a few people who approached me to ask if I’d blocked them,” recalls David. “I thought it was so interesting how this has nothing to do with them — it’s something I was doing for myself — but they’d immediately thought that I blocked them even though I had no reason to.”
David recalls an instance — before his detox — when one person dropped out of a trip he’d been planning with some friends. David went on the trip and enjoyed himself, posting several pictures on Instagram.
But he noticed that the friend who’d dropped out hadn’t liked any of the photos he posted.
“I remember we got in an argument, and I was like, ‘You know, you didn’t like any of my pictures on Instagram!’” he laughs. “A year ago we brought it up again, and he was like, ‘Yeah. I did see your pictures, and I didn’t want to like them because I didn’t go on that trip.’”
“This was the most ridiculous thing in the world to be talking about. But there’s this sense of politics: Well, they’re my friends, so I need to like their pictures.”
“But it brought the pettiness out in me, and it brought the pettiness out in my friend. And it showed me how these things can now, in ways, be very important to people.”
Figuring out what friendship means
For the most part, especially during the first few weeks, David’s friends were extremely supportive of his digital detox. And he says that, in some ways, those friendships were able to grow stronger.
“I’ve always warned my friends I’m not a phone person. And my text messages tend to be very short — just a sentence,” says David. “But [because of] the lack of social media, and not being able to see what my friends were doing, I was more willing to reach out, and call, and talk to people.”
“I wanted to hear their voices and hear what’s going on with them. Listen more.”
The experience gave David time to reevaluate and strengthen many of his friendships, without the distraction of who was liking what and commenting where. It reminded him of the fact that this is how friendships had always been like until just a few short years ago, when having a Facebook presence and a smartphone became de rigueur.
“You kind of feel like you’re in the dark, but in actuality, this is how it’s been for thousands of years.”
As the months went on, though, some downsides did start to appear. Because his job involves a lot of travel, some friends found it difficult to keep up with where David was and what he was doing.
“It was almost like they felt like they were out of the loop with what was going on with me personally,” says David, who notes that feeling out of the loop went both ways. For example, he remembers various instances when his friends would refer to something they’d all seen online, and he wouldn’t be able to engage in the conversation.
“There would be moments when someone would forget, and would say something like, ‘Oh, did you see that thing that so-and-so posted?’” he recalls. “I’d say No, I didn’t, but you could tell me what it was? And they were like, ‘Well, it’s not as funny if you didn’t see it.’”
Coming back, and avoiding the nosedive
So what made David return to the world of social media after a relatively blissful 65 weeks?
“It was very much about my friends,” he says. “I want to be involved in my friends’ lives.”
“I know this is a new era, and that this is how people are sharing stuff about their lives. I had quite a few friends that had babies, and I wanted to see pictures of their kids. Friends that had moved or are moving and living different places. I wanted to keep in touch with them.”
Now with active Facebook and Instagram accounts, he says that having those tools available is also helpful for his career: “Being in the fashion industry, I need to be aware of what’s going on. For example, right now is New York Fashion Week. It’s important for me to be in the know of what’s going on in my industry, and Instagram is one of the best ways to do that. To discover amazing new designers and artists.”
When it comes to what he posts, David says he’s more interested in keeping up with his friends, and is now more discerning when it comes to sharing something himself. But it’s not a rigid process. Rather, it’s a natural understanding that the digital detox has helped him come to realize.
“I try not to overthink it. If it’s something that happens, great. And even if my friends are like, ‘Hey, let’s get together and take a picture,’ I’ll take a picture,” he says.
“I think I’ve posted maybe four pictures since I got back on Instagram. I was in Paris, and I was there with my best friend and it was a really special moment for her. But it’s not something that I do all the time.”
The same thing goes for how much time he spends on those platforms. To negate the impulse to constantly check his feed, he’s turned off his Instagram notifications, and hasn’t downloaded the Facebook app to his phone, only perusing it on his computer.
But even with the technology in front of him, he no longer feels the urge to be constantly tapped in.
“I think I’m more aware of that, now, because of the detox,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll be on Instagram or on my phone for a while, and I’ll realize: You’ve been on for way too long for someone who hasn’t been on for 65 weeks.”
“Here I am, sitting at a desk in front of a computer, an iPad, and two phones, and I hardly look at them compared to how I did before. I’m very much the type of person that, if I set my mind to something, then I’m doing that.”
But what happens when he finds himself falling back into old traps, like feeling hurt when a friend never likes your photos? “It’s just funny. You have to laugh at it,” says David.
“If you don’t, then your digital detox needs to be way longer than 65 weeks!”
Kareem Yasin is a writer and editor. Outside of health and wellness, he’s active in conversations about inclusivity in mainstream media, his homeland of Cyprus, and the Spice Girls. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram.