There was an ad that ran during the 90s that really creeped me out. It was from AT&T or some other remnant of the Bell Telephone monopoly, and it proclaimed that WE’RE ALL CONNECTED. I’ve rarely felt connected to individual people, much less all people, so the mental image the ad produced—millions of cables and signals tethering and binding us to each other—was alarming. I paid little mind to the Internet. I was a cabdriver and painter who was suspicious of photography, so what good could anything on a computer screen do for me?
Yet by the beginning of 2015 my daily routine was punctuated and organized by tweets, e-mails, and notifications emanating from the smartphone I carried at all times. When my phone did not emit the requisite signal for a few minutes, I’d keep refreshing Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, or whatever platform I was obsessed with at the moment. I hated myself for letting it get this bad. How had it happened?
In 2003 I married a database programmer and she suggested I make a website. I had learned how to turn on a computer only a few months before, but she built the site from scratch, hand-coding each HTML page. I had my brother scan in a bunch of slides of my paintings and drawings to make JPEGs. The marriage fell apart shortly afterward, and I was left to run the page. I repeatedly wrecked it and built it back up again until I figured things out. Having devoted so many sleepless nights staring into that screen, I eventually decided to look around to see what others were doing. New sites to promote art seemed to spring up every other day, and I uploaded images to all of them—I figured that I’d throw everything I could against this virtual wall until something stuck.
MySpace was the first site where the daily affirmation and encouragement of other’s responses became a thing I looked forward to and craved. When I signed up, the lines between self-promotion, career advancement, and friendship began to blur. The platform allowed me to share my artwork, tell people what music I liked, become acquainted with the people making that music, get hired to illustrate their records—and I even met the occasional girl. The community was exciting and exhausting. The site made me feel as if I was part of a larger creative universe, a place where I could be accepted and recognized in ways that rarely occurred in the “real” world.
The most important reason for me to log on to the Internet every day was to publicize my work, but I also felt a compulsion to keep up with what everyone in my online circle was doing. This became a kind of job in itself, and an often demoralizing one. I couldn’t help but envy those with more “friends,” or wonder whether my “friends” reciprocated my interest, admiration, or love. The quest to raise my profile or status became a preoccupation. There was no way to avoid those fluctuating numbers next to my avatar.
I used to text my friends about the crazy things that happened to me during my cab shifts. Joining Twitter in 2008 gave me a way to do the same thing in public, with a larger audience. It was a note-taking tool for things I was writing, and it helped me grow an audience. But the desire to keep tabs on what friends and followers were saying worsened. By the time I got a smartphone I was a goner; obsessively checking my time line dozens of times a day became routine. I was still meeting people and getting jobs and affirmation, but it all felt like a grind, a chore. “Twitter is how I connect to the people who pay my rent, so I have to do it,” I’d tell myself. I had to pretend that my “followers” were friends, and that it was pro forma to “like” the things they did and said. I never followed many Twitter accounts because I knew that scrolling through a time line filled with thousands of people would leave me little time for anything else, but this made many people who followed me feel like I didn’t like them, or worse, that I believed I was above them.
Early this year I moved to a new neighborhood after a relationship ended. One of my ex’s criticisms was that I too often had my nose stuck in my phone rather than engaging with her or others in our physical surroundings. Staying “connected” to all those virtual friends and keeping up with their every thought estranged me from a woman I lived with and loved. I’d excuse myself during dinner at a restaurant to sit in a bathroom stall and scroll through my time line. If we were at a party I’d be the guy on the couch staring into a screen rather than meeting an actual person’s gaze. I’m not saying Twitter killed our relationship. But the virtual search for attention from my followers helped separate me from someone real who was actually paying attention. So this past March, I quit Twitter.
A few people who only knew me through Twitter were disturbed enough by my departure to inquire about my mental health, but I assured them I was as (relatively) sane as I’d ever been. The most immediate result was a substantial increase in free time. I still had Instagram—which I’d joined as a lower-dose alternative—but the world seemed a lot less hectic. On a Saturday this past July, as an experiment, I decided to delete Instagram as well.
Later that night I went to see a band at Schubas and sketched them as they played, a thing I’ve been doing for about 30 years. Since getting a smartphone I’d become accustomed to taking a picture of my sketch and immediately posting it online. But that night I looked out at the packed room of sweaty strangers, then down at my sketchbook, and that’s it—no instant affirmation. I was forced to think about my present situation, with no virtual overlay to mask my isolation.
A week later I walked into a Verizon store and traded in my iPhone 6 for a basic flip phone. The guys working there treated this as an act of betrayal—they couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing.
In the weeks that followed I ran into more people I knew than I had in years. I’ve read more books and articles this year than I have in a long time. When I get on a bus or train now I spend a good part of the ride noticing my fellow passengers or the scenery going by. I’m present in my life for many more hours a day than I used to be. It has felt like waking from a dream, one in which I was constantly looking into a screen.
The feeling of connection, social media’s supposed raison d’etre, is actually an addiction, one that’s hard to kick. I’ve never been good at being casual at anything; I’m either in or I’m out. For me social media was like a drug—I’d refresh the feed and there’d be another line to read, another link to click, another rabbit hole to fall into. I had to quit cold turkey. The trouble with the attention you get on the Internet is that it’s both fickle and fleeting—but once you get a little, you spend an unhealthy amount of time chasing more of it.
I can’t disconnect from the Internet completely, nor do I want to. At least not yet. As an artist, I still have to make a living by e-mailing collectors and other clients, and I value the vast and accessible information the Web provides. I still have the same site my ex-wife made almost 12 years ago. I send out a newsletter every Monday. But I won’t “like,” “follow,” “favorite,” or in any other way signal my approval or endorsement online anymore. Maybe we are all connected like that old phone ad insisted, but I’m better off having some say about the terms and conditions of my connection. v
Reader contributor Dmitry Samarov is a Chicago artist and the author of Hack: Stories From a Chicago Cab and Where To?: A Hack Memoir. While you won’t find him on Twitter, he’s still online at dmitrysamarov.com.