Liberation of a digital world.

Who is in control: Cell phone developers or users? Photo: Drew Furtado

I have a love hate relationship with social media. I’m someone who just loves Twitter. I love the fast paced, frenetic, succinct posts, however, I hate the Twitter trolls, the bots, and the information bubbles it creates. I also love Instagram. I love the photo essays people are curating during their human exsistance. I also hate how I can’t see my closest friends, and instead end up seeing mostly sponsored content. With both apps, most importantly, I hate the feeling of lost autonomy. I don’t feel like I’m in control of my experience using technology.

Instead, I feel like I’m being manipulated by app developers who have employed complex algorithms, constantly predicting my behavior, and adjusting strategies to better engage me to continue to use their product. I felt trapped in an endless stream of information highly tailored to my likes and dislikes.

I recently viewed Netflix’s “Social Dilemma,” a documentary that exposes the tactics created by social media developers to capture and retain a user’s engagement. The film was eye opening, and made me rethink my experience with Twitter and Instagram. Why was I using these apps anyways? What was my goal in using these apps? What was the impact of social media on my life?

Fording the Stream
If you’ve ever played the famous computer game, Oregon Trail, you know how difficult it was to ford the Big Blue River. You pack all your belongings, load up your wagon, and attempting to cross an often dangerous stream with the hopes of a better life on the other side. After viewing the “Social Dilemma,” I was curious If I could cross my own social media stream, and attempt to see what life would be like on the other side. I was going to enter a digital detox.

The Experiment

I’ve always prided myself with my discipline towards technology. I understand its dangers, and have created a balance between technology and real life. I was the person who put his phone away when with friends, frequently reviewed Apple’s Screen Time data, and left the phone in a backpack when at work. However, I could always be better, and wanted to see if I could change my relationship with my cellphone and social media.

My goal was simple:

What would life look without Twitter and Instagram?

What would happen if I turned off notifications completely from my phone?

Methodology

The experiment took place over 5 days, from Tuesday September 8, 2020, – Saturday, September 12, 2020. I used the weeks of August 25-August 29 and September 1-September 5 as control weeks. 

I collected cell phone data from those two weeks, including usage of Twitter, Instagram, Mail, Messages, and other Apps. I also logged times that I picked up the cellphone, and notifications that I had received. I excluded data from Spotify, as I rarely engage with the app actively. Instead, the app is used passively in the background, mostly controlled by my car. I wanted to log usage that I’m actively engaging with. 

For the experiment week, I attempted to not engage with Twitter and Instagram on any device. I also turned off all push notifications sent to the phone, except a few exceptions, including Etsy, Baby Connect, and myRadar. I kept the phone mostly in my pocket, and purposely left it within view when working.

Data Collection

During the week of experiment, I would enter Apple Screen Time data into a Google Sheet spreadsheet daily, isolating Twitter, Instagram, Mail, Messages, and Spotify data. I grouped other app data together. I also logged cell phone pickups, and message notifications. Throughout the experiment, I also caught myself actively thinking about Twitter and Instagram, and even subconsciously opened the apps! I ended up logging those experiences too.

I used the formula (Experiment Data-Control Data)/Control Data to determine the percentage change from the experiment week to the control weeks. I also logged a daily breakdown of time spent throughout the week. All data was collected in minutes, and then converted to hours.

Results

Data Collected throughout the experiment

By disregarding Twitter, Instagram, and removing notifications:

Cell phone usage went from 17.5 weekly hours, to 6.5 Weekly hours, a 62% decrease.

Notifications dropped 84%.

Time reading Messages dropped 44%

The cellphone was picked up 37% less

Other app usage also dropped 31%

Other Observations

Day 1 was the most difficult. I caught myself wondering about Twitter and Instagram 23 times throughout the course of the day. During the start of the experiment, the most shocking thing happened. I had just started a lunch break at work, and opened a new tab. On the keyboard, my fingers just typed T-W… the browser automatically completed, and launched Twitter. I couldn’t believe it! I immediately closed the tab, and made a note of this. This would happen 16 times over the course of the experiment, and 11 times with Instagram.

Day 2, I experienced another occurrence that tested my resolve. I got an email from Twitter, telling me about some highlights of Twitter. I rarely get emails from Twitter, so I can only assume my departure triggered some automatic response and an algorithm attempted to get me back to the app. It failed, and I quickly deleted the email. I honestly felt like I was constantly being tempted.

Photo: Drew Furtado

During the evening of Day 2, I ran into my mother in law, who asked me “Did you read what Bob Woodward released?” Up until this point I was in the dark. I hadn’t read anything, and I hadn’t watched anything. I was receiving no news, as I get most of my news from Twitter journalists. I was in a media blackout. I immediately felt this sense of “FOMO.” (Fear of missing out.) I could actually feel extreme anxiety as I thought about what I was missing, and my mind began racing. I ended up waiting until the 6:30pm news with Lester Holt to see what happened.

On Day 3, I decided to catch up to news by visiting news websites. I usually follow multiple sources of journalism on Twitter across many different information bubbles and across all political spectrums. I really enjoy having all the sources right there in real time. To account for this missing link, I visited many different news sources. I was amazed at how clunky and cumbersome these websites were to navigate, and how much time it took to visit each site. I especially felt overwhelmed as some of these sites offered information overload.


On Day 4, I received a text message from a friend. New Bedford, MA had a stark increase in COVID 19 cases, putting the city into the Commonwealth’s riskiest areas. I would’ve seen this on Twitter, and was thankful my friend texted me. I didn’t like this part of the experiment. I didn’t like being out of the loop. It was this day that I reflected on the value I have in social media, but understood how my relationship with it needed some tweaking.

Source: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/community-level-covid-19-data-reporting

Finally on Day 5, I had just become comfortable with the idea of removing notifications from my phone, and wasn’t thinking about Twitter as much. We had just put our son down for an early morning nap, and my wife and I decided to spend the morning with a cuddle session. I couldn’t help but notice a blue glow, as she mindlessly scrolled her Instagram feed. I wasn’t upset, but made me feel grateful for this experiment. We discussed my experiment, and it inspired her to rethink how she uses social media at times.

At midnight on Day 5, I logged into Instagram and Twitter. I spent 4 minutes on both apps, and asked myself, “what was I even looking for?” and then closed the app as I retired to sleep. It didn’t feel exciting anymore. I felt like my behavior had changed. It felt like eating a cupcake after an intense gym workout.

Conclusion

The following day, I only logged in both apps only two times. I found myself spending more time in the present with my family, and enjoying little moments that I would’ve normally missed. I found more time to read to my son, and felt at ease that I was able to diminish my cell phone usage. I also found myself hyper focused at work, as I spent the week setting up a class website for my students. Hours just flew by, and at the end of the week, I had 3 curriculum maps created, one class website, and 6 Google Classrooms set up.

Without cellphone notifications, I felt hyperfocused on projects at school

This experiment was certainly eye opening, and I learned a lot about myself and my habits. I found that my usage of my device relies heavily on picking up the cellphone and responding to push notifications. The push notifications acted like a gatekeeper for me, inviting into meaningless distractions. Once turned off, I found I wasn’t searching for my phone anymore. That simple adjustment dropped my usage of my phone tremendously. I honestly felt liberated.

After this experiment, I’m looking at social media in a different way. I’m going to focus on Quality versus Quantity. I’ll be indentifying quality interactions and meaningful experiences instead of long sessions wrought with mindless moments.

I’m keeping the push notifications off. I’m also going to track data to see if it directly impacts my cell phone usage in the future. I’m also going to limit my usage of Twitter and Instagram, and might even put limits through Apple’s screen time, if it starts to become unmanageable. This experiment also inspires me to challenge my students ability to become cognizant of their digital decisions, and how it impacts their own life.

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