‘Am I Too Online?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I’m a queer gal in my mid-20s. I’ve got a nice little circle of friends, and we go out fairly often (we even “touch grass,” as some would put it). But there’s something that’s been gnawing at me lately and, no offense, I’m wondering if you might be able to relate or have some advice on the subject. 

My friends and I are extremely online. Even when we’re hanging out in person, the conversation invariably drifts back to memes we saw or to discussions of the main character of the day on Twitter (we once had a spectacular debate over “bean dad,” just to give you an idea of how grave the situation is). It can be a lot of fun, but, to be candid, sometimes I get sick of it. It’s like there’s no break from the internet! I log out just to talk about the things I saw while logged in. It can get a little exhausting.

I guess I’m wondering if there’s anything I can do to be more offline. Or maybe it’s less about that and more about finding a nice, delicate way to approach the topic with my pals. Or maybe I should triple down and become one with the world wide web and upload my consciousness to the cloud? I’m open to suggestions. 

Chronically Online

Hey there, CO!

I’m sorry to report that this is one of those “if you have to ask” questions. Somewhat paradoxically, knowing what “touch grass” means is itself a sign of heavy internet usage. The “touching grass” community isn’t aware that they’re touching grass. To them, they are simply outside. It was shocking to me too.

Your instincts were correct, though. You’ve come to the right place. I myself quite enjoy gossiping about the most recent embarrassing personal essay making the rounds on Twitter, or about the person who made a fool of themselves trying, but failing, to sound smart on their Instagram Story. Sometimes, TikTok drama even makes its way to me, like a message in a bottle. A friend will give me the rundown on why this TikTok personality sucks and all the reasons they belong in jail. I find this satisfying in small doses.

There is, however, a line. It’s not terribly easy to see until you’ve crossed it. You pause mid-conversation about an “oomf” or about “the discourse” and you realize, Oh God, we’re those people who talk too much about the internet.

Though we’ve been living with widespread internet access for decades at this point, digital hygiene is an ever-evolving concept. I think that’s because technology changes faster than our brains can keep up with. The habits and rituals we developed around the family computer room 15 years ago are completely out of date now, as are the ones we practiced before we started scrolling social-media feeds on smartphones. When you think about how young Twitter and Snapchat and TikTok are, you really get a picture of just how little time we’ve had to think about proper etiquette for them.

Frankly, I don’t think we evolved to process this much information on a daily, hourly, near-constant basis. Yes, as you mention, our social-media feeds are creeping into our offline conversations, but I’m just as concerned about how social media impacts the conversations we have on … well, on social media itself. I think social media incentivizes a certain way of seeing the world, a way of thinking, and a way of taking in new information that, over time, becomes an unconscious habit. I’ve seen it make others, and myself, more cynical, more reactionary, and less empathetic. It can be hard to shake off that lens.

That’s why, in my view, the problem isn’t just raw screen time. I think it’s about social media. There’s a world of difference, for example, between a book club of friends that meet over Zoom and reading an opinion on sex scenes in movies from a stranger with an anime profile picture that makes you want to opt out of society altogether.

My strategy for your situation in particular would look something like this: There’s probably at least one person in your friend group who feels similarly to you. Try bringing up the conversation in a casual way to test the waters. I’d probably say something like, “So I’m trying to spend less time on social media, and I need an accountability buddy. If you catch me talking about Twitter or TikTok out loud, make me put a dollar in a tip jar.” You know, something silly, something fun.

You can jump from there into a broader conversation with everyone about how the group could do things that facilitate conversations that don’t revolve around the internet, like a book club or watching a movie together (ignore Twitter movie conversations for your own mental health) or a day trip to a museum or a nearby town. This communicates that you’d like to be less online, but that you still value hanging out with your friends and have ideas about things to do.

In your personal life, you can delete the apps from your phone and take a break, just to see how it affects your mental state. There are apps that cap your social-media usage daily, including ones that delay your access to them. In other words, you have to wait 15 to 20 seconds to get to the feed, which can really help curb your reflexive instinct to pull out your phone and scroll through social media. I would also suggest meditating daily, even for just a little bit. Practice focusing your attention on something that isn’t a phone, on something that isn’t transmitting new information into your eyeballs at an alarming rate.

Returning to the concept of digital hygiene, I think an important element to all of this is recognizing that, yes, social media is an activity that you need to bring moderation, discipline, and care to. For those of us who spend a lot of time on the timeline, it can begin to feel less like an activity we’re consciously choosing and more like breathing. When we challenge our habits and implement changes, we prove to ourselves that we’re capable of growth, that we can make healthy decisions. This can improve our quality of life all around.

It’s less about logging out for good and swearing off the internet forever and more about recognizing something you want to change and taking tangible steps to that end. I do have friends who’ve successfully quit social media, and while they register to me as ascetic monks, that option is also on the table. You’ll be missing out on CoolRanchLesbian420 (Villain Era)’s searing insight into how Wii Sports contributed to queer body fascism, but life is all about compromises.

Enjoy your time out in the real world! Tell me what it’s like out there.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published March 26, 2024.

Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Am I Too Online?’