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I took a break from social media, and it turns out I don't want to go back
A digital hermit manifesto
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A few weeks ago, some birds built a nest on my front door.
They showed up with some branches, grass, feathers, and thread, weaving them through the twigs of the wreath we should have taken down at the end of the Christmas season, and then the female laid six eggs and sheltered them against the desperate, dying winter cold. My daughters were elated, ecstatic, over the moon—they were about to see the miracle of birth take place in real time, right outside their own window.
Except they weren’t.
Of the six eggs, three fell out of the nest and shattered on the porch. One of them hatched, and I watched for several days as the naked, helpless thing that emerged from it screamed silently at the sky, desperate for food, desperate for warmth, unable to do anything but open its mouth and squirm. Two days later, both he and his mother were gone, probably killed by a cat or something, and the remaining two eggs were left to rot in the sun.
You sort of wonder what it means.
But of course it means nothing at all. That same scenario plays out around the world, hundreds of times a day. The woods behind my house are probably full of abandoned nests with rotting eggs in them, and it means nothing when it happens in the woods, and it means nothing when it happens on my front door.
It’s just death. It happens to everything that finds itself in the unfortunate state of being alive.
Lately I’ve been reading Michael Finkel’s 2017 book The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary True Story of the Last True Hermit. It’s a biography of Christopher Knight, a Mainer who one day just decided to walk away from civilization. He drove his car out into the woods, as far as he could; when the car couldn’t take him any further, he got out and just started walking. There was no plan, no goal, but eventually he realized he had neither need or desire to go back. He could just stay out there forever.
Calling Knight a “hermit” is probably a bit generous—he relied heavily on civilization to get by, committing more than a thousand burglaries of the cabins near his secret campsite over the next quarter-century (he was finally apprehended for them in 2013). He’s no saint, no genius, no revolutionary—he’s just a guy who realized he didn’t like people and there was a way to avoid them.
The experience of reading the book is, in part, an overwhelming sense of peace, but also an overwhelming sense of how little that peace means. Descriptions of the beautiful, mysterious Maine woods inhabit the book alongside harrowing depictions of their deadly winters, which Knight would spend wrapped in a dozen sleeping bags, shivering in his own sweat, begging for mercy from a God he didn’t believe in.
And yet, the peace was real, too.
“The past, the land of wistfulness, and the future, the place of yearning, seemed to evaporate,” Finkel writes. “Knight simply existed…He didn’t do it for us to understand. He wasn’t trying to prove a point. There was no point. ‘You’re just there,’ Knight said. ‘You are.’”
“There was no audience,” Knight adds elsewhere, “no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
The winter—or a thousand other things—could have killed Knight at any time. But, of course, the same is true for all of us. We could all die at any moment.
Knight just rejected the social bullshit that distracts the rest of us from that reality.
A week ago, I woke up with the realization that I had no desire to check social media.
It was a weird feeling to have. I’ve had a presence on Facebook since 2006, when my then-fiancée pressured me to create an account so she could link to me as her “relationship status.” Since then, Facebook and (eventually) Twitter have only sunk their claws ever-deeper into me, as I began to rely on them to keep in touch with my college friends; as they became my hub for online interaction after the death of my blog; as I began to carry them everywhere with me after the debut of the iPhone; as they became my only connection to other adults during my years as a stay-at-home parent. For years, the instinct has been automatic—I’d wake up, grab my phone, and poke the Facebook icon—but this morning, I stopped my thumb halfway there.
I was actively fighting against my own muscle memory.
It wasn’t a mystery why: As I’d headed to bed the night before, I’d noticed that a SCOTUS ruling on a Very Hot Button Issue had leaked (I refuse to name The Issue, because you all know what it is, and if you’re looking for hot takes on The Issue, you know where to find them). My genuine impression is that most people who feel strongly about The Issue, on either side, are genuinely Good People™️—people who have thought deeply about their position and genuinely believe that their activism and advocacy are about Saving Lives™️ (though, as we’ve said, there’s no such thing as Saving Lives™️, because all lives end up like the rotting eggs on my door). I know this because I count many people on both sides as friends.
I knew, though, that social media would not show me evidence of this. I knew the moment I opened Facebook or Twitter, I would be assaulted by a bottomless column of self-righteous gloating from one side and self-righteous screeching from the other. That I’d be forced to re-read the exact same shouting matches I’d seen rehearsed ad nauseam for decades. That panicky, breathless misinformation would spread like chlamydia, and the most ignorant, unthinking voices would be amplified to deafening levels.
A news story, told by a mob of idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I had no interest in reading any of it. No—it was more than that. I actively, deliberately wanted to avoid reading all of it. Not only would I learn nothing from it, it would make me dislike my friends. It would leave me annoyed, misanthropic, depressed—and for what? So I could spend the day moping? So I could take it out on my kids?
There was no upside to checking Facebook or Twitter, and there were a thousand downsides. I suspected it had been that way for a long time.
I figured I’d take the day off, and then maybe check in tomorrow and make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
But then…I didn’t.
I woke up the next day and realized I still had no desire to log back in. As of today, it’s been more than a week, and I still haven’t been back. I just haven’t wanted to.
I’m halfway through the woods, looking around, thinking I could just stay here.
I think a lot—more than most people do, I assume—about the “Burned-over District.” That’s what they used to call the western end of New York State, back in the nineteenth century, because so many traveling religious revival shows had passed through there.
If you’re a revivalist preacher, your job is to attract a huge crowd, whip them into an emotional frenzy, extract as many conversions and donations as you can from that frenzy, and then move on to the next town. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Thing is, people can’t stay in an emotional frenzy forever. They burn out. They get tired of being manipulated. And because upstate New York had been hit by preacher after preacher,people there were just tired of feeling things. They were hard, cynical, bitter. Preachers were warned to stay away.
Whipping people into emotional frenzies is a great way to get attention. It’s a great way to rake in cash. But it doesn’t build anything that lasts.
And right now? The whole world is a burned-over district.
Or at least…I am.
Since I gave up junk food, I’ve been hyperaware of what a Skinner box of a casino consumer capitalism traps us all in. There’s very little money to be made in giving people lasting joy or peace, and nearly infinite money to be made in making people feel awful with occasional moments of bliss.
Twinkies, Ho-Hos? Those things are just slot machines in food form. You feel lousy? That’s crazy, man. No idea why. But remember how great you felt when you were eating a dozen Twinkies? Maybe try that again!
I once heard social media described as “emotional roulette,” and I can’t think of a better way to put it. That post made you feel GOOD??? Awesome, maybe the next one will, too! Wait, that one made you feel BAD??? Better keep scrolling till you find one that makes you feel good again!!!
It’s not even a conspiracy, it’s just market forces. If people are sufficiently miserable, they’ll keep buying whatever highs you’re selling, so you work hard to make sure your highs are temporary and lead directly to misery.
It’s a churning machine that spins joy into hatred and grinds virtue to dust.
In The Stranger in the Woods, Finkel observes that there are, traditionally, three types of hermits, alliteratively terming them “pursuers,” “protestors,” and “pilgrims”—that is, respectively: those who resign from the world to perfect their art or science, those who drop out due to disgust over political or social corruption, and those who quit to chase religious perfection. Knight, he says, didn’t fit into any of those categories—he was just tired of dealing with people.
I’ve been wondering which I would be, though, if I dropped out. Maybe I’m already a pursuer—I’ve basically cloistered myself to perfect my writing. A protestor? I guess I could be; the world’s broken, and I don’t know what to do about it, other than rage-quit.
A pilgrim, though? I’m not sure, but it might say something about me that the first volume of Bishop Robert Barron’s new subscription edition of The Liturgy of the Hours is currently wending its way through the mail toward me. I decided a while ago that prayer would be a better use of my time than endless scrolling.
I know some of my readers don’t believe in God; you think prayer is just talking to yourself. But in the end, we’re all just talking to ourselves.
And who would you rather have listening in: a benevolent deity, or a bunch of advertisers?
I remember reading once that whales have “pop songs,” or at least “folk songs.” Whales sing, and cetologists have observed that every once in a while a new melody pops up among the influential ones. Then the others start singing it, and then more, until finally the whole whale world is singing the latest catchy tune, probably with lyrics about shaking whale booty and dancing in the whale club.
Why do they do it? Because they’re whales, and it’s what whales do. They have to follow the influencers.
I wonder, if I took a walk in the woods behind my house, and if I had perfect birdlike hearing, if I’d notice something similar happening there. Tweets traveling through the woods like wildfire, each bird repeating whatever it had heard, until a new tweet from above announced a new orthodoxy and the cycle began anew.
Listen to me!
I’m saying things!
The same things the cool birds are saying! But LOUDER!
A cacophony of endless screeching—most of it, I imagine, done mainly to silence the screeching in the backs of their own minds: the screeching that says One day you will end up like those eggs in that nest on that door. Rotting in the sun.
There is no Saving Lives™️…
That’s not really what this is, though. I put “manifesto” in the subtitle, but that was mainly a joke. I’m not taking a vow, or making a moral pronouncement, or leading a movement. I’m just…making an observation about myself.
I no longer have any desire to scroll through my newsfeed. I’ve reached an event horizon, where the benefits of staying off social media are noticeably greater than the benefits of getting on it.
It’s not a vow or a discipline. It’s the opposite—I’m doing what I want to do. I just had to go cold-turkey to realize what I wanted.
It’s possible that, in another week, I’ll be back to my old habits. Or maybe I’ll find a healthier way to integrate Facebook and Twitter into my life, although that sounds a bit like finding a healthier way to integrate binge drinking into my life. Or maybe this is it, and I’ll never scroll again. Maybe the whole world has reached a tipping point, though I sort of doubt it.
After I publish this piece, I’ll probably promote it on social media. What else can I do? For the Content Creator™️, social media is sort of like the automobile: you can hate it as much as you want, but eventually you have to deal with its entrenchment, and you’ll probably end up using it for something.Like Knight, I’m doomed to steal propane tanks and Kraft mac ’n cheese, just to get by.
I’m not here to preach or change minds. I’ve just stopped halfway through the woods, realizing that I don’t want to go back.
It’s deadly, probably.
But for the first time in years, I’m at peace.
Yo dawg I heard you like free books
I was going through a closet the other day, and look what I found: seven pristine copies of my first novel, Ophelia, Alive. These are copies with the original cover, from back when it was published by the now-defunct Post Mortem Press, and most of them have multiple award seals on them, because this was before my wise friend K.B. Hoyle informed me that putting multiple award seals on a single book was tacky.
Anyway, they’re not going to do me any good sitting in my closet, so here’s what I’ll do: The next seven people to sign up to receive my Substack in their email will get one of these copies, signed, in the mail. All you have to do is enter your email address right here:
“But what sort of book is it, Luke???”
If you liked this essay, you’ll probably like it. It’s similarly rambly, morbid, and weird. It’s a thriller about a girl realizing she’s haunted by more than her past. Oh, and also she turns into a zombie. It’s a whole thing.
Sign up and you can read it for free! Here, I’ll try to keep the sentence below updated, so you know if I still have some left:
ALL SEVEN COPIES HAVE BEEN GIVEN AWAY. (last updated: 09:58CDT, 5/31/22)
As always, everyone who signs up still gets free e-copies of both Ophelia and my nonfiction debut, Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem. Also, I guess this Substack might be the best way to stay connected to me, since I’m tired of social media and my podcast is coming to a close soon. Shrug.
Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
Back in 2005, a screenwriter named Blake Snyder published a book called Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. I read it in 2013, when I was hard at work on Ophelia, Alive (see above), and I found it helpful in ironing out the parts of that book that weren’t working, even if Cat’s reliance on formula seemed a tad cynical. I haven’t thought about it much since, other than to notice that every movie I’ve watched in the last eight years has seemed strangely predictable.
Recently, though, I noticed that somebody—not Snyder, since he passed away in 2009—has somehow turned Save the Cat! into a publishing behemoth, with half a dozen spinoffs by multiple authors, including one that applies Snyder’s methods to fiction, Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, which I picked up as well. I found it useful, but was mainly impressed by how hard Brody sold her own novels within its pages (game recognize game), including a YA romance called The Geography of Lost Things.
Writes a Novel actually closes with an outline of Lost Things (in order to show how it changed during the course of the writing process), and something about the outline convinced me to pick up Lost Things as well—it sounded like a fun adventure.
It turned out to be a bit more, though.
Lost Things tells the story of a high school senior who gets stuck on a road trip with her ex-boyfriend, at first trying to sell a classic car left to her by her deceased absentee father (and then, when that doesn’t work out, trying to spin straw into gold by “trading up”). It didn’t actually grab me right away, I think because of its sunny, relaxed pace; like the titular lost things, though, something about this book stuck with me, drawing me back in each time I looked away. When I got to the climactic chapter (in which our hero learns the truth about her father), I admit I ugly-cried.
It didn’t feel manipulative or formulaic, either—it was just a deeply human story of how people learn to live with their own brokenness. This book won me over hard.
I realize that, if you’re a writer, and you don’t aspire to write for Fox News or equivalent, which I absolutely do not, it’s basically career suicide right now to imply that not all conservatives are Literally Hitler™️, but I’m doing it anyway, because I’m #brave.
If you’re wondering why, this was mainly for economic and geographic regions. New York was one of the first parts of the country to be crisscrossed by railroads and canals, making it easy to get around in. This is part of why New York is still such an economic powerhouse.
Anyone wanting to play cop here will notice that I’ve technically tweeted twice in the last week—but I was responding directly to someone who tweeted at me. Again, this isn’t a Principled Stand™️ against social media. I’ve still been checking notifications, just to make sure no one is trying to contact me directly. I just have no desire to look at a newsfeed.