Deleting Social Media Apps: Goodbye Little Dopamine Machines
2018 was a year for thinking about, and occasionally struggling with, social media and general phone dependency. I have been a Facebook user for a long time - I think my first account required using my university email account. Twitter same deal. We have had our ups and downs. I've initiated and been caught in tweet storms, kept in touch with parents and relatives, promoted work and celebrated milestones. But I started to become mindful of how my behaviour was being trained, tidy little jolts of dopamine metered out to make sure I remained a Daily Active User. The firehose of news in my feeds made every day an emotional mini-roller-coaster. And then there was an increasing feeling of surveillance-creepiness. Lack of transparency on data collection and usage, combined with a first-hand view of the data that is available as someone on the ad-purchasing side of the business, started to make the cons start to outweigh the pros when it came to unfettered access to the parts of my life that flow through my phone. I wasn’t going to go for full account-deletion (my parents, aunts, and uncles would never forgive me), but I did want to cram the genie at least part-way back into the bottle. There are endless strategies to help you with this. I rolled my own two-step process:
Step 1: About 2 months ago, I turned off all push notifications. That one change led to a significant decrease in FB and Twitter usage. It turns out that little red circle had become a strong behavioural trigger. Its absence dropped my usage of those services by about 30%. It immediately became clear just how often I checked — multiple times an hour, just a quick glance to see if there was something waiting for me. After a week or so, the habit was broken and I started glancing at my phone way less and gained an incremental little boost in focus along with generally looking a little more dialled in and less distracted when hanging out with other people. The first step was important. Without it, i couldn’t have even imagined the second step. Those feedback loops are strong.
Step 2: Before going on holiday, I took the next big step and deleted both apps from my phone. It was meant as a further personal blocker against compulsive checking, but it also slammed the door on access by those companies to my photos, microphone, camera and other phone-related data. As you can imagine, it led to some big changes in and a few learnings about about my social media and phone-focused life:
Now I generally check FB and Twitter when I fire up my laptop. When I do, I have 30 or so notifications on Facebook (mentions, family, birthdays, etc.) and 0-100 on Twitter depending on what’s going on (media, customers and authors happy or otherwise, podcast, other chatter). Weirdly, notifications matter a lot less when you’re dealing with them in volume. Before, no notification would go unchecked. Now, I triage with abandon, making sure that birthday wishes get attention, but not being too concerned about checking in on that event that 3 friends are going to. Same with twitter mentions. Customer with a problem, I’m there. Getting called out by a twitter troll? Whatever.
Facebook used to get checked multiple times an hour. Now it’s maybe twice a day. Most of the habitual hooks have been removed, so I do a long scroll at the end of the day as opposed to an endless succession of quick hits.
I still use both services on phone, but only through their mobile browser experiences. It’s funny to engage with these services through a mode that they so clearly despise. There are hundreds of deliberate points of friction designed to push you back to the app. You get used to them.
Posting is harder. It is the most obvious point of friction mentioned above. This has resulted in a threshold of importance for sharing a photo or event that probably isn’t a bad thing. I don’t know if anyone other than me has noticed. Probably not.
24-48 hours after app deletion, they notice that you aren’t checking like you used to and the churn prevention wheels start to turn. Daily email summaries that you have never seen before land in your inbox — calling out notifications, mentions, new friend requests. I have a professional interest in how companies react to customers who go “off pattern”, so it was fascinating to watch those tactics all turn on one after the other.
Soon after I took out FB and Twitter, my “pick up and scroll through something” reflex migrated to my news apps: NY Times, Guardian, Globe and Mail, CBC News, BBC and Economist. So they got deleted too. Not because I don’t love news - I do. But because I wasn’t deliberately thinking “It would be helpful for me to know what's going on in the world.” I was thinking “I want to look at something. Give me that little ping of dopamine.” Now I hit them through their web versions as well. That little bit of extra friction helped to make the choice to access news a little more deliberate as well.
I kept instagram because it never had the same compulsion for me. It’s pretty much impossible to use without the app and I use it pretty frequently for work. I was watching closely to see if I would end up on it more, but it’s been fine so far.
Thanks to iOS Screen Time, I had very granular view to how my usage was evolving. Time on phone dropped by about 60%. Social media time went down by 75% (I think there are still some messaging apps categorized as social media that inflate that number a bit). My relationship with the device changed a lot. It is more of an as-needed information and communication tool, less of a continuous monitoring device. Without the background chatter of social, the remainder of use cases become more clear: mapping, music, podcast, messaging, info lookup, travel assistance, fitness and health tracking. None of them hold a candle to social in terms of time spent (except music, audiobooks and podcasts thanks to their more-or-less continuous presence for me on planes, in cars and while working out.) All in all, I got back at least an hour, often an hour and a half a day.
Life is a tiny bit more lonely (but just a little.) I wish a few more belated-birthdays. I’m a day behind when something amazing has happened to a friend in their career. But I really notice it when I am traveling for work. It turns out that social media acts like a soothing tether, a connection to friends and family back home. Being in a hotel room doesn’t feel as isolated when you are congratulating a friend on their new baby, sharing photos from the trip, smack-talking a colleague on their hockey team loss. So my time on web versions ratchets up then.
All in all, I got back at least an hour, often an hour and a half a day. That’s enough for a gym workout, a new hobby, or a work project. Of course, it was scattered in tiny little slices through the day, but it adds up. I’m on my phone less at home, which I think is good for relationships with kids and my beloved wife. At work, the phone stays in my pocket a lot more often. Rather than just letting the reclaimed time get absorbed back into the day, I am going to try to be deliberate in allocating it. In Q1, I’m adding an hour a day when I’m in the office to meet with people outside of my direct reports, the kind of organizational rummaging around that always turns up interesting results. In Q2, I’ll pick something else.
I’m not trying to claim any kind of moral high ground. I don’t think this makes me better than anyone else. If anything, I tried this because I didn’t like the feeling that my behaviour was being optimized by someone else. The result: I get back an hour of my waking day. Multiply by 365 and that’s newly recovered 15 days a year. Sweet! And even more importantly, I think the rest of my time is a little higher-quality. I pay a little more attention, am a bit more focused, and a little less stressed out. That’s good for me and anyone else around me. And I’m pretty sure Facebook and Twitter will be just fine. So everybody wins.