My friend Jonathan and I were out to lunch recently discussing our goals for the 12 week year. I was sharing the fact that I was starting this blog, words I hadn’t spoken to anyone yet, with a huuuuuge smile on my face, almost peeing myself with excitement and bouncing in my seat. He mirrored a more subdued smile and then squinted at me a little bit. “I like this idea,” he said, slowly, “but I think you should define digital minimalism. I’ve only heard it twice now, once in this conversation and once before… from you. Why should people care about digital minimalism? What does it mean?”
When I first heard the phrase “digital minimalism,” I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew it spoke to me, and I immediately needed to know more. I bet something similar is provoked in you when you hear that phrase, something rising from within to the surface of your skin, needing to know more.
Well, here’s the more you need to know.
What is digital minimalism?
Anyone I’ve shared this blog with has asked, “What is digital minimalism?” Expecting to have an answer at the ready was foolish. I’ve been practicing it for 5 years now and it’s so deeply ingrained in me that it’s like trying to explain what air tastes like.
Here’s the way I see it:
Regular old minimalism, which you’ve probably heard of, is defined as a style or technique that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity. It’s the Marie Kondo of it all, the idea that less is more, quality reigns supreme over quantity, and that we enjoy our lives far more when the physical spaces we occupy are clear and objects with which we interact are few but meaningful. (Good article here on that.)
Everyone gets the itch of minimalism from time to time- cleaning out their junk drawers after that very last pen caused the drawer to stick, staying up late to purge their Downloads folder stuffed with gigabytes of PDFs and music files. But to me, and maybe to you, minimalism is more than the physical. It’s really a way of being.
More than closets
Minimalism is a lifestyle, it’s a way of looking at the world that cuts deeper than the run-of-the-mill weekend decluttering.
Minimalism is the sculpture waiting patiently beneath the brick of granite to see the light of day.
It’s a tool that emboldens and encourages those who utilize it to chip through layers and layers of what has been set in front of them- customs, traditions, social norms, what their parents/friends/family/neighbors/cats think, what they should be doing- and figure out what the hell they actually want to do, the sculpture they actually want to be.
Marie Kondo, human extraordinaire, popularized the notion of picking up an object in your hand and asking, “Does this bring me joy?” If it ignites something in you, a small dull sparkler fizzing in your solar plexus, you keep it. And if that joy is nowhere to be found, you toss/recycle/donate/hand-me-down it.
But minimalism can be applied to that which is not physical. It can be applied to our jobs to guide us towards careers that sparkle. It can be applied to our diets to encourage us to eat healthfully and mindfully. It can be applied to our relationships to let us know when it’s time to let someone go. And most importantly, it can be applied to our phones.
Image copyright LOLDWEEL.com.
Digital minimalism is an extension of this minimalistic philosophy.
It’s the idea that we can redefine our relationship with our phones and social media based on utility and our values.
This idea was named by Cal Newport, author of the incredible (seriously, order a copy right now) Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. His book unravels the digital minimalist concept with supporting characters like Abraham Lincoln, Tristan Harris, and a social media manager whose 40-hour workweek is social media. The book provides a comprehensive analysis of why social media and similar “network tools” like email can cause harm, and how to go about incorporating a minimalist philosophy in your life.
Digital minimalism in practice, at least to me, looks like a) getting your smartphone back to a dumb phone, only used for calls and texts, and b) reducing or eliminating your dependency on social media or gaming applications and living life more presently.
Digital minimalism in theory is much bigger than that. It’s about redefining your personal relationship with technology, remaining educated and sharply aware of its designs, benefits, detriments, and costs, and using said technology in a mindful way. Because so much of our experience today is aided by, or even rooted in, the digital world, it’s critical for us to change the way we engage with rapidly-advancing technology to which our prehistoric brains are too slow to adapt.
Basically, digital minimalism is about using network tools in a way that is intentional, meaningful, mindful, and brings you closer to your goals, not further away.
This particular post will be about social media and smartphones, but digital minimalism can also be applied to a variety of network tools, including gaming applications and email which I’ll detail in later blog posts.
Why should I care about it?
If you’ve read this far, you probably care a little bit… But I’ll bite.
You should care about digital minimalism for three reasons, and they build on each other. The first is the idea that social media, though free, requires the user to pay a toll that most are unaware of or, worse, choose to ignore. The second is that you’re not born with an addiction to your phone- it’s a conditioned response enhanced by the addictive design of common social media applications. And thirdly, the reasons we often give for using social media are better served through other connective methods that are not as harmful as social media platforms.
1. Free is NOT free
Social media like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat are all free of monetary cost and require no paid barrier to entry, but all who engage are paying the price of something far more precious- attention.
I won’t deny that the modernized world is filled with industrial wonders and technological curiosities that have empowered humans to do hitherto unbelievable things like go to the moon, see their friend talking and laughing from across the world, and post Dad jokes for all to see. It is also filled with noise, lights, TV screens, advertisements, billboards, puppy dog Snapchat filters, dudes flipping signs in the street proudly announcing a 2-for-1 taco deal- you get the idea.
The problem with all of this sheer information, or content, is that our brain is not in 2023. It’s somewhere back before time even existed. Yes, it can take in new information and learn at rapid speeds, which is how you can read this blog post or perform your job, but our attention spans have not expanded to include the fast pace of life in Western civilization.
While we live in the Age of Information, so too do we live in what economists and psychologists have defined as “the economy of attention” (coined in 1971(!!!) by economist Simon Herbert). In the attention economy, there is an almost insurmountable ocean of information, content, available at our fingertips and presented to us daily in our jobs and our personal lives, but for the purposes of this blog we will focus on the information available to us on social media networks, specifically mobile applications thereof.
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” -Simon Herbert
To really understand this, think about a time before the Industrial Revolution. What were people doing? How was their life shaped? Read any historical fiction novel (or Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman) and you’ll know that people who walked this planet before the Industrial Revolution were not as keenly aware of the passage of time. Each second or minute did not “count” as much as it does in today’s world, when, per The 12 Week Year, the average professional has 40 hours of uncompleted work in their queue and feel an immense pressure to get shit done. Time then was something we lived in. Time now is something we commoditize in order to DO all of the things implicitly or explicitly required of us to do.
Nowadays, we are presented with so many responsibilities and avenues to which we can draw our attention or invest our time that it becomes more important than ever to safeguard our attention and use it wisely.
In an attention economy, your attention is the most valuable commodity any seller can capture, because when your attention is drawn, you are aware of their brand. You are disrupted from the scroll and, if the advertiser is worth her salt, your attention moves to that brand, possibly even to purchase. Modern marketing techniques are designed to hook the user’s attention- otherwise they would scroll past- which is great for business, but in the social media space, it means that your attention is the commodity which advertisers seek, not just your funds.
Have you ever heard the quote, “When something is free, you are the product?”
Though social media doesn’t require monetary payment, the inundation of advertisements, not only through sellers but through fellow users, necessitates that we pay the price with our attention. Advertisers and fellow users capitalize on the volume of time spent on the platform to introduce advertisements that eventually “get” us, like famous Instagram ads that are so spot-on it’s scary.
But it’s also more about the nature of our attention that is being robbed. When we enter a social media platform the nature of scrolling can induce a hypnotic state (more on that in reason 2). We are enveloped in nothing but the application, shut off from the outside world. To most, this is an excellent way to intentionally or unintentionally numb ourselves from the pains and joys of our lives. But might I remind you that this is just a piece of glass! 1’s and 0’s behind a screen. And that a present and purposeful life can be supported by the screen, but most certainly not lived through it.
The thing you hold so dear is not the phone itself, it’s a feeling. And we don’t have to sacrifice our presence for that feeling anymore.
Our brains are not in 2023. They’re way back in the time before time existed. And though our brains are powerful, complicated anomalies that expand and adapt with new information learned, they’re still wired to take in the emotions of 150 people per Dunbar’s number. (Though this number has been revisited in recent years, I can’t imagine it’s healthy to take in thousands of people’s comments, pictures, and overall emotions through doomscrolling and the like.) Our attention spans are not intended to be stretched to the capacity of work, family, friend, AND influx-of-digital-information limits. With this in mind, it doesn’t feel like rocket science to connect the dots between the spiking levels of anxiety and depression in my generation and the unnatural devices we hold in our hands.
Image from the Financial Times.
2. Your addiction is by design
Tristan Harris is one of the most famous whistleblowers in Silicon Valley. Why? He exposed the fact that social media applications are intentionally designed to hook the user like a slot machine- and keep them on the platform for as long as possible, and coming back for more.
I personally don’t think that social media companies intentionally mandated an addictive design, at least not at first. These companies were interested in making a product that a) people would enjoy and b) would become profitable. There were micro-adjustments made along the way to make it more enjoyable and profitable, A/B testing in which a red notification, signaling distress systems in the body, was way more compelling than a blue one, and we arrived here at slot-machine TikTok.
What started as an accident has become concrete. Like chocolate chip cookies, or sponge candy… but way less delicious.
While I will alleviate blame from those early stages of exploration, I don’t think it’s fair to discount the idea that these apps are currently designed in a slot-machine format- and that that won’t change any time soon.
Take a moment to consider the beauty of a slot machine. Because our brains are still predominantly run by the “lizard” brain, the part of our brain which we’re born with fully intact that controls emotions and installs our earliest beliefs, we’re extremely susceptible to lizard-like things. Good food. A warm spot in the sun. And anything shiny. We’re not only interested in the prospect of a nice big prize literally flashing before our eyes, we’re interested in the fact that we just have to do this one tiny thing to get it. And if it doesn’t work the first time, well! We’ve got some time to kill, why not try again and again and again?
Maybe you’ve heard of “dopamine hits” that your brain receives when you log onto social media. These dopamine hits are the prize that your brain unconsciously associates with the act of refreshing the page and scrolling. We’ve scrolled to see posts that make us feel things before, maybe good things, so our brain is conditioned to continue the scroll. A brand new post is waiting just on the other side of your swipe, and another, and another. It didn’t work the first time? We didn’t find what we were looking for? Well! We’ve got some time to kill, why not try again and again and again?
Knowledge is king, but action is queen. Your obsession with your phone wasn’t intentional. But your breakup with it can be.
Those dopamine hits are a result of the novelty of the platform. This is why I watch my boyfriend open Instagram for the second time in 20 minutes and rifle through his Stories without really paying attention. It’s the promise that something new and interesting and shiny is available on the platform at any given second.
And we’ve proven ourselves correct.
There are 66,0001 posts generated across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat per second. That’s close to 4 million posts per minute, worldwide, every single minute. This number reduces of course in the context of one’s personal network, but from anecdotes to which I’m sure you can attest, there’s something new, whether it’s a beautiful post or just an advertisement, to be interacted with and viewed at any second.
I do not fault ANYONE for being phone obsessed. How could I? These platforms and other network tools have made the experience of “social connection” and “entertainment” gamified and addicting- even industry insiders say so. And what’s worse, the experience causes diminishing returns- Anna Lembke writes in her fascinating book Dopamine Nation that as soon as we sign off, the brain has become deficient in dopamine, and we reason more exposure will help us.
American culture is obsessed with more. But more of what? More presence, joy, and empowerment… or more trappings of limbic human behavior that leave us anxious and depressed?
More exposure to these platforms does not help us. It hurts us. Which is why it’s important to introduce values, goals, and intention into the conversation that can bring us back to ourselves- and allow us to make empowered choices about our digital experience.
3. The pros simply do not outweigh the cons
What is your goal with social media?
Did an answer come to mind? I’ve found that social media is more something we do for reasons we can’t explain, and less goal-oriented. If digital minimalism is about applying the minimalist philosophy to your digital experience, then it’s important to evaluate the utility of this feature in the landscape of our digital lives.
It’s a personal question, one that only you can answer, and I encourage you to really consider your motivations. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport writes that one of the most common responses for why people use social media, not necessarily their goal, is “to stay connected with family and friends” (a claim supported by this, though slightly outdated, study).
He calls bullshit, but not before explaining that social media is NOT the only way to stay connected with family and friends. In fact, it might not even be the best way to do so.
In the mindset of a true minimalist, Newport implores that if we are looking to maximize the quality of our lives while disregarding the idea that more quantity (of followers, likes, connections, content) = more quality, it would behoove us to ask ourselves what “staying connected” really means, and most importantly, if it’s worth the price we pay by spending hours on these applications.
What is the quality of a Facebook connection?
Though it is extremely rich with multimedia, pictures of happy families and baby cousins you won’t meet for another 2 years when family’s back in town- is this the highest quality connection we can have? What about Instagram? TikTok? Twitter?
Additionally, how many of your Facebook friends or Instagram follows are truly the friends and family you want to stay connected to? How many of the profiles on your list are friends from high school, old coworkers, or even total strangers that you may not actually want to connect with?
Every benefit comes with a cost. Would you rather the benefit be staying connected but the cost be your health?
When compared with the quality of a rich in-person, by-phone, or even texting relationship, the quality of a social media connection pales. When I became a digital minimalist, I wasn’t seeing play-by-play updates from my friends and colleagues, and that meant that I needed to be more intentional about scheduling lunch dates and FaceTimes. The relationships that I did pursue in this method have grown much stronger. They’re not forged of likes or comments which themselves can be performative. They’re forged of intention, thoughtfulness, presence, and support, which are qualities I define as important for me.
There are pros to social media. They’re an easy distraction. They’re really good for business. And I will not deny that social media is fun. As we’ve seen, it’s designed to be that way, and it IS. But much like slamming rum-and-Cokes at a frat party and waking up with a hangover the next day, we pay the price. We always do.
Do the pros of social media outweigh the cons for you? After honest self-reflection, do the pros support your goals?
If they don’t, it might be time to consider redefining your relationship. You can tell the phone it’s not them, it’s you, and it’s true. YOU are the one taking the power back and protecting yourself from the harms of these platforms. YOU are the one commanding the attention of the phone- not the other way around.
This image has been floating around the Internet forever. Credit unknown. If you know the originator please let me know!
An old man screaming to the sky with his fist up, a wide-eyed woman with a “FEAR THE END” poster, a general curmudgeon- I am not. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of texting, calling, and FaceTiming a friend to catch up and enjoy our lives together (and then scheduling time in person to enjoy each other’s true company). I believe in the power of Google to enlighten us on everything from the ways birds mate (it’s wild) to our favorite mac and cheese recipe to millions of papers and articles on topics that absorb us. And I even believe in the power of social media to connect us as business owners to consumers in an untapped market.
But what I believe in more than any of those things is the conscious choice we have in how we interact with our technology.
You can stay connected with family and friends, engage in world news and activism, and even get inspired by your favorite thought leaders in an intentional way that does not involve a social media addiction.
A way that invites presence, intentionality, and mindfulness into the picture. A way that empowers both you and the person with whom you share a real human connection to be free of pressure or unconscious habit. A way that is truly peaceful, because it’s under your control.
Why should you care about digital minimalism?
With so much on the line, living in a world flooded with the digital experience, empowered with the knowledge of it’s harms and the knowledge of how to fix it… it’s too dangerous not to care.