My official biography, such as it is, reads as follows: "Baratunde Thurston is the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Be Black and CEO and cofounder of Cultivated Wit, a creative comedic digital agency and product development company." I’m an author, consultant, speechifier, and cross-platform opiner on the digital life. My friends say I’m the most connected man in the world. And in 2012, I lived like a man running for president of the United States, planet Earth, and the Internet all at once.
Physically, mentally, digitally, I refused to stay still. I published my book. I toured hard for my book. One week, I hit seven cities in five states across three time zones, employing three airlines, two hotel chains, and one friend’s couch. My life became so mobile, I gave up the lease on my apartment. I quit my job at The Onion. I started a company. I worked for the Obama campaign, survived walking home through Hurricane Sandy, and live-hate-tweeted the final installment of the Twilight movie saga (someone had to!). Here’s a partial quantification of the year:
Trips abroad: six (seven if you count Texas as a separate republic). Cities visited: 34. Days spent away from Brooklyn: 179. Facebook posts: 1,518 (four a day). SMS threads: 3,702 (10 a day). Photos taken: 4,845 (13 a day). Tweets: 11,541 (32 a day). Gmail conversations: 59,409 (163 per day). Miles flown: At least 128,000, which is more than enough ecological cost to outweigh the benefit of my reusable shopping bag.
By November, I’d reached rock bottom. I was burned out. Fried. Done. Toast.
I was aware that my daily routine and lifestyle were unsustainable. That summer, I hired my longtime friend Julia Lynton Boelte to be my "chief of staff." I gave her the grandiose title because "personal assistant" was not big enough to capture her role in helping manage my business relationships, travel, communications, and time. Come November, after a short five months of employment, she politely informed me that I was becoming grouchy, perhaps even nasty, under the combined forces of my will, schedule, momentum, and addiction to constant connectivity. Indeed, I had begun to resent the emails and the mobile notifications, the many ways that an odd and wide assortment of people dared to enter my life. Something drastic was required.
Julia and I started looking for ways I could take a break. I was worried about slowing down, or even stopping. I felt responsible for too many things: my business, my political interests, my "brand," my bills! Christmas seemed the only possible escape. With the exception of Mr. Scrooge, everyone slows down during the holidays, and so would I.
I considered fleeing to a remote island for a few weeks, but I realized I wasn’t craving physical escape. I didn’t actually want to be alone. I just wanted to be mentally free of obligations, most of which asserted themselves in some digital fashion. I decided to stay still, find an Airbnb residence right in Brooklyn (technically homeless, remember?), and step back from digital interaction. Yes, me. The recipient of the 2011 Shorty Award for Foursquare Mayor of the Year would not check in. At least for a few weeks.
Julia and I decided that my digital detox would start at 5 p.m. on Friday, December 14, 2012, and last through Monday, January 7, 2013. Twenty-five days seemed appropriate for the depth of cleansing I desired.
Now I had to decide exactly what to give up.
I didn’t want to completely abandon the Internet. I love, depend on, and frankly am made a better human being by the convenience of streaming movies, online food ordering, and Google Maps. I did not want to sever ties with friends; in fact, one of my goals was to strengthen relationships with pre-Facebook pals. I wanted to go to lunch, attend holiday parties, and host people for dinner. So I decided I could use my phone for personal calls and texts, and could schedule these encounters with Google Calendar.
Two activities made the prohibition list. First, all business affairs would be tabled. Call me self-employed, call me an artist, call me Supreme Allied Commander of My Multi-Hyphenate Life; they all translate to "working all the time." I would not live that way during this vacation. Second, for 25 days I would avoid all social media, including the original online social network: email. I would not read, write, or be notified of any electronic missive. I would not generate any activity whatsoever on any social network whatsoever, including, but not limited to, seeing, reading, downloading, syncing, sending, submitting, posting, pinning, sharing, uploading, updating, commenting, tagging, rating, liking, loving, upvoting, starring, favoriting, bookmarking, plus-oneing, or re-anythinging.
I needed advice on how to do this. So where did I turn? To Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, of course. (Yes, I am aware of the irony, thank you very much. I’m not that far gone.)
Not surprisingly, there is lots of advice online about how to move your existence offline. Some of it was actually useful. For instance, there are plenty of good recipes for hot toddies, so I grabbed a couple. There are a plethora of posts on digital detox, including one called "How to Take an Email Sabbatical," by Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who goes so far as to auto-delete all inbound emails and send an auto-reply informing senders "to resend their message when I return." I couldn’t commit to that. The FOMO (fear of missing out) in me is strong. What if Kerry Washington (the Scandal star, whom I have somehow never met) wrote me confessing her love and I missed it because of some extremist view on vacation emails? To ensure an inbox-free vacation, my chief of staff would log in every few days to check that I didn’t miss anything urgent such as a family emergency, holiday party invite—or that message from Kerry.
With email under control, I tackled the other tasks I had to accomplish to ready the world (and myself) for my impending departure from digitalhood.
First, Julia and I pulled together a list of VIPs who deserved personal preparation for my disappearance. These folks included my agents, lawyer, cofounders, landlord, show bookers, close friends, and sister. An email, a phone call, or face-to-face interaction was required in each case.
Then I started making a series of loud announcements, both on email and via the many social services I inhabit, about my impending departure. I wanted to do this in as considerate a manner as possible, since both personal and business matters are conveyed through these platforms. I’ve gotten client proposals via Twitter direct messages and wedding invitations via Facebook updates. To simply walk away with no warning felt rude and unprofessional. So my announcements were recurring, clear, and very specific, telling people the hour of my farewell, the few exceptions I would make, and the date of my return to digital life.
Along the way, I concocted a wish list of activity for my disconnected time. It was a pleasure to contemplate places to visit in New York, books to read, and people with whom I wanted to spend some quality time. I included Alec Baldwin among that group, for reasons that I cannot explain. I do not know Alec Baldwin, and I do not have a burning desire to spend my vacation with him; but he made the list, and I thought you should know.
The next steps, which I left for the very last day, were to appropriately deactivate my iPhone and my social media services, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Path, Instagram, SoundCloud, and voice mail. This is where things got complicated. Disengaging from all this was a lesson in just how locked in we really are.
As much as we all gripe about email, it is designed to be turned off. Email comes with the vacation-message feature that alerts senders to the fact that we are not available. We can set up forwarding rules that apply to different subsets of contacts. People trying to reach us aren’t left in the dark to assume we have met our demise, entered witness protection, or placed them on a no-reply list of enemies. Email lets us leave.
Social media services, however, are not interested in making absence easy. Senders have no way of knowing whether our nonresponsiveness is personal, technical, or something else. The services offer no "vacation mode." Sure, we can "deactivate" or "suspend" some accounts. But those options are well hidden, and their actual meaning is unclear. For example, I use Facebook to log in to many sites. If I suspend my account, do those logins fail? After much research, I still do not know. Social media sites are like planes designed for perpetual flight. Anyone wanting to come down must signal wildly before attempting a crash landing.
With no vacation mode available, I hacked the next best solution: I changed my profile photos to an all-black rectangle with a simple message in all caps: OFFLINE THROUGH JAN 7, 2013. EXPECT NO REPLIES. In an era of high-definition, handheld, multiparty, and free wireless video chat, my best option was essentially a smoke signal.
But that’s not all it takes to escape social media. I wanted to shut down inbound noise while also creating no digital expression of my vacation activity. I wanted to take pictures during my break, but I didn’t want pop-up alerts if someone on Instagram started following me. I wanted to watch Netflix on my laptop, but I did not want to publish that movie selection on my Facebook Timeline. The more I tried to control these data streams, the more I realized that everything is too integrated.
I had given hundreds of apps, websites, and services the rights to publish my activities to Facebook and Twitter, or to interrupt my iPhone experience with unsolicited alerts. Some alerts just add a number to a count on the app’s icon, which seemed meaningless until I realized that little number is a nagging reminder I’d never truly reach inbox zero. I never sat down in a single signing ceremony granting permission for all of this communication. Instead, I had clicked "yes" or "allow" or "check here" if you just want to get to the actual app you installed once in a while over several years. Now I was trying to shut it all down in a single day. I was stunned at the cumulative level of noise I had embraced and frustrated at how difficult it was to silence. Had I really granted all of this? Did I really need the three most recent alerts from GateGuru on my phone’s lock screen? On Facebook, Twitter, and everywhere else, I was forced to mute services one at a time, hundreds of times.
The same was true for my iPhone. While there is a nice "Do Not Disturb" feature on newer iPhones (complete with a sleepy little moon icon!), all it does is silence calls and alerts. I wanted the apps to stop sending alerts altogether. And believe it or not, it takes six screen taps to do that . . . per application! This is what Apple must mean when it calls iOS6 "the world’s most advanced mobile operating system."
Needless to say, I had not budgeted the time to flip all these switches. While I had told everyone that 5 p.m. ET was my cutoff, I missed it by several hours. I wasn’t finished until shortly before midnight. But, despite the unanticipated delay, I had done it. I had successfully unplugged.
On the first morning of The Great Disconnect, I overslept.
I had made plans to rent a Zipcar and drive to New Jersey to get some things I needed, but due to my late start, that wasn’t going to happen. So I decided to redefine "need" and live without those items for a while longer.
Instead, I headed to the farmers’ market and stocked up on greens and cheese and cider. After dropping these off at the Airbnb, I made my way to Soho to read a section of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at an annual fundraising event for Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. When I had done the same event the year before, I had posted photos to Twitter and checked in on Foursquare and Facebook. This time I took no pictures, and I checked in by walking up to the booker and saying, "Hi, I’m checking in."
After the event, three friends and I went walking in search of a particular Chinese dumpling restaurant. I knew its name lay somewhere in my Foursquare history, but that was off-limits. Instead, we meandered toward the three-dumplings-for-a-dollar bargain, along the way walking past a whole pig stuffed into a plastic bag on the sidewalk. Twenty-four hours earlier, I would have Instagrammed this image, along with a suitably witty comment; instead I saved my snapshot for later viewing by people physically close enough to see my phone. The afternoon lazed along, and when I checked my phone at 5 p.m., I was shocked to find its battery life at a historical high-for-that-time-of-day 50%. My detox was saving battery life (!), which was saving energy (!), which was saving the Earth!
My only other fixed appointment was a massage. As I chatted with my massage therapist, I discovered she had lived for several decades in the Prospect Heights neighborhood where I was staying. Since I couldn’t query my online network for local dining and culture options, my massage therapist became my recommendation engine. She told me of several restaurants and sites to check out. She transmitted this data by writing down the names on a piece of paper.
I stopped next at a friend’s holiday party, where I engaged in conversation without once taking out my phone to see what Twitter had to say about my conversation. My mind left the party only when my body did, at about 2 in the morning. I noticed that I was walking down the street with my head held high and my eyes focused on the path before me, a path interrupted by a group of people about my age who seemed lost. They asked me if there was a diner nearby. Had they not been glued to their phones, they might have seen the illuminated sign for the Ocean View Diner across the street.
The online world didn’t want to leave me alone.
A few days after the disconnect, my chief of staff texted me: "Was that you logging in to FB today?" Someone had tried to hack my account. Given that I had told my 100,000 subscribers and my 1,000 or so "friends" that I was leaving social media, and given that I don’t have 1,000 real friends, it made sense that someone was trying to break in. Luckily, Facebook makes this fix pretty easy—I guess because it involves keeping you around. I told Julia my password, she went through Facebook’s suggested security steps, and I went back to doing as little as possible.
When she logged in to my account, she hit another trip wire. Since I had not disabled the Facebook chat feature, my friend Doug noticed "me" on the system every time Julia logged in to deal with the security situation. He sent "me" a quick set of accusatory notes: "Way to shut it down?," "Don’t pretend you were not online," "You just can’t stay away!" Finally, Julia responded, "This isn’t Baratunde, it’s his chief of staff." "No one is buying that story," he responded. And since I didn’t see Doug during vacation, he remained sneeringly ignorant.
In the real world, however, my first week sans social media was deeply, happily, and personally social.
A friend and I went to see The Book of Mormon and then went to dinner. The waitstaff, my friend, and I were the only people aware of my order. I read Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, by Patton Oswalt, and shared my thoughts on it with seven people I had invited to dinner in my home. I wandered through a nearby park and chilled near the Hare Krishna, close enough to take in their incense and drumming, far enough to avoid their pamphlets. I bought a new pair of glasses and shared my new face with the real people I spent time with.
Perhaps because I wasn’t always getting updates on events happening in faraway places, I focused on the world around me, especially nearby Vanderbilt Avenue, which turns out to be quite a place, especially for food. Late one night, I entered a restaurant called Cornelius, lured by large-print signs in the window advertising meat. Whiskey. Oysters. I could not resist. At the bar, my recently rediscovered heads-up
display—aka my eyes—revealed a person next to me, and for several hours I found myself in a fascinating conversation with one of the dancers from the Broadway musical Spider-Man. One morning at the Usual Restaurant, one of the Canadian brothers who opened the diner 20 years ago engaged me with tales of the changing neighborhood, in between his slightly sexist, outdated-but-charming jokes. The pancakes were delicious. For lunch I frequented Chuko, where the server recommended the pork-belly ramen. This was not the Yelp.com server, mind you, but a human server who proclaimed, "Try the pork-belly ramen." What an algorithm.
On another day, I happened to walk past Brooklyn Bike and Board. I bought a bicycle. Turns out it’s easier to ride the thing when you’re not trying to simultaneously check your Twitter.
By the end of that first week, the quiet rhythm of my days seemed far less strange. I was less stressed about not knowing new things; I felt that I still existed despite not having shared documentary evidence of said existence on the Internet. Seven days in, I felt prepared to fully appreciate one of the best experiences of my time away: "I am here" day.
The concept of "I am here" day originated with Priya Parker and her husband, Anand Giridharadas, newly minted Brooklynites who avidly supported my digital downshift. In a January New York Times column, Anand defined "I am here" day as a time to "set aside our technology and to-do lists, choose a quarter of the city we wanted to know better, and explore it for a full day. . . . [It is] a kind of antimodern communal experiment: giving our gadgets a secular Sabbath; reveling in friendship and conversation of a kind that Facebook doesn’t do; being thickly in one place, not thinly everywhere."
For this edition of "I am here" day, Priya, Anand, and I were led through a neighborhood in the Bronx by my friend Gustavo Rivera, who represents part of the borough in the New York State Senate. Gustavo walked us through the 33rd District, telling us of the controversy behind the new Yankee Stadium, the historic grandeur of the Grand Concourse, and the racial discrimination behind the Cross Bronx Expressway. He took us to the Bronx Museum, the New York Botanical Garden, and a Mexican cowboy boots shop. We walked the perimeter of the Bronx Armory and dined at one of the city’s best Italian restaurants. The connecting didn’t end there; on Gustavo’s recommendation, I downloaded the 66-hour audiobook edition of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s epic biography of Robert Moses who, for better and for worse, determined so much of what we know as New York City.
"I am here" day was the turning point in my digital detox, when I stopped consciously thinking about the experiment and just started living it. I was reading long books, engaging in meaningful conversations, and allowing my mind to wander and make passive connections I had previously short-circuited with social queries, responses, interruptions, and steady documenting and sharing of unripened experiences.
I could regale you with more details of my time unplugged. There were so many positive experiences. The beauty of giving myself 25 days was that after 7 days, I still had 18 left! This disconnection was the gift that kept on giving.
And the fact is, I maintained the same slow pace, the same sense of discovery that I enjoyed during that first week. There were movies, there were food trucks, there were friends, there was mulled wine. There was brief consideration of a mulled-wine food truck. Above all, there was an expansion of sensations and ideas. A writing project that had stumped me before the break suddenly appeared to have endless possibilities. The seed of an idea planted in November started to bloom as I began looking at various Brooklyn buildings that could house a hybrid retail-performance-dining-coworking venue centered around comedy and creativity.
I focused on the regional coverage in the New York Times. When I wanted to share an article, I would text it to a couple of people. After doing this two or three times, one friend replied, "You are really pushing the boundaries of SMS technology." But I appreciated the boundary and held to it. Had I Facebooked or tweeted such articles, they would have been accompanied by replies and reshares and notifications of comments. Had I emailed them, that outbound message might have resulted in several new inbound ones. A text was enough.
The end arrived too soon. Despite the shocking fact that the Internet and the world seemed to have gotten used to life without me, my non-vacation life demanded a reinsertion into the Matrix. Startups don’t run themselves, books don’t market themselves, columns don’t write themselves, and very few people pay for prerecorded speeches. On the day of my return, I posted homecoming messages to the major networks, flipped my profile photos over, and prepared to reverse my preflight checklist. But then I realized something: I didn’t have to reverse all of it. There was no rule that I had to restore Shazam’s rights of interruption on my lock screen. There was no law forcing me to be notified of each Twitter mention. It was possible to enjoy music without auto-publishing each Rdio track to my Facebook Timeline. I returned to my plugged-in life, but less plugged in, and armed with new habits that flowed from four important realizations.
1. I had become obsessed with The Information.
Before The Unplugging, I wanted to read every feed and follow all the right sources so I could be connected to every important event and insight as they unfolded. There is satisfaction in feeling informed—our democracy depends on it—so the more informed I was, the better a citizen I felt I was. Only when I dramatically reduced my connectivity did I realize how addicted to information stimulus I had become—and that I did not need to sustain that constant high to live well and happily.
2. I shared too much.
In the months before my break, I achieved Peak Twitter. I averaged roughly 1,500 tweets in the months of September, October, and November 2012. Much of that was due to the U.S. presidential election and that final Twilight movie. But I spent an inordinate amount of time documenting, commenting on, and sharing experiences. In the process, I wasn’t fully having those experiences, since it was imperative that I tweet something relevant before they were even over.
3. I was addicted to myself.
From the perspective of ego management, I’m a pretty dangerous combination: performer, writer, CEO, youngest child. Our digital social tools feed right into that ego trap, since pretty much my every piece of self-expression is accompanied by performance indicators. I can measure how many "likes" an idea has. If my tweet was not retweeted, did I even tweet it? Never before have we had the ability to microgauge our own rhetorical value to the world. I was judging my oversharing of uninhabited experiences. Since the break, I look backward far less than before and I’ve tried to create more discrete moments for checking email rather than maintaining a constant level of inbox awareness, anxiety, and guilt.
4. I forsook the benefits of the Industrial Age.
The first season of Downton Abbey features a remarkable scene in which the Dowager Countess, who is always quick to offer a sharp retort in defense of tradition, responds to another character’s announcement of weekend plans with a truly confused inquiry: "What is a weekend?" One major feature of industrialization was the adoption of leisure time for those of us not among the leisure class. Yet one major feature of the Networked Age is our de-created ability to disengage. Will the concept of downtime have been a temporary blip in the history of civilization?
The greatest gift I gave myself was a restored appreciation for disengagement, silence, and emptiness. I don’t need to fill every time slot with an appointment, and I don’t need to fill every mental opening with stimulus. Unoccupied moments are beautiful, so I have taken to scheduling them. Once a quarter, my chief of staff and I institute a zero-appointments "Blank Week," and almost every week I tune out of the Matrix for hours at a time (yes, while I am awake and conscious). Perhaps the most life-affirming change is that I rarely walk down a street while looking at or tapping on a device. My reading or writing can wait, especially if it means I will be alive later to deal with it.
I have stopped taking and sharing pictures of my food, because that’s almost always dumb (unless I cooked the meal, in which case it’s art!). I have, however, started taking photos in black-and-white; now that I consider myself a more enlightened being, I’m far more pretentious.
Despite these new habits, I feel myself pulled back toward full digital immersion. This is the first year in which I haven’t live-tweeted the Oscars, Grammys, or Super Bowl, but the bombing and manhunt in Boston snapped me back into my old command-center mentality. Given the significance of the event and that Boston was once my hometown, I’m okay with the relapse, but it reminded me of how easy it is to slide into digital obsession, and my post-vacation numbers prove the power of its gravitational pull.
I am still a creature of my technological time. I love my devices and services, and I love being connected to the global hive mind. I am neither a Luddite nor a hermit, but I am more aware of the price we pay: lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness, and mental exhaustion, to name but a few. In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them. We have collectively colluded to take this journey, but we’ve done so inches at a time, not realizing that we have traveled leagues in the process.
For 25 days, I pulled back far enough to see that distance, and I needed the cover story of a messiah’s birth to give myself that space. Could I have done so during another less forgiving time of year? I am not sure, but I hope we all—users and makers of these tools—allow each other more reprieves from the hunt for constant digital connection, so that we can find and maintain other, deeper connections.
Photographs by Roger Erickson; styling: Krisana Palma; grooming: Agata Smentek; prop styling: Sarah Jayne Kinney;Illustrations by Max-o-matic
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.