By Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, DLINQ Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media

How many of you are beginning 2020 feeling overwhelmed and bombarded by the clickbait and hot takes vying for our attention? In my Twitter feed, over the past few months, I’ve seen a number of tweets from people announcing that they’re taking a break from Twitter and other social media. Wanting to sign off – to disconnect – seems a totally reasonable and justifiable response to the noise vying for our attention; it feels like an act of self-care.

This desire fits with a long history of wanting a complete retreat from society. As Jenny Odell writes in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, one of the earliest examples is Epicurus, who around the 4th C BC established “a communal refuge in the countryside” (p. 37). In America in the 1960s, communes provided a refuge for people who wanted to drop out of society. The communes often failed, however, because they were founded on the notion that it is possible to start over from scratch, free from the constraints of the social systems in which they had been immersed. Instead, people brought their baggage – and their privilege – with them.

As Amy Collier pointed out in our first digital detox of 2020, individualistic notions of self-care are hard to extract from conversations around privilege. Jordan Kisner writes in The Politics of Conspicuous Displays of Self-Care that the ability to care for oneself is a core American value, not unrelated to the concept of being able to pull oneself up by the bootstraps; and, one upon which success is judged. To lack the ability to care for oneself is to not be worthy. And, Kisner argues, “self-care in America has always required a certain amount of performance: a person has to be able not only to care for herself but to prove to society that she’s doing it.” Cue the spa selfies on Instagram. Particularly when such messages about self-care are coming from an aspirational, change yourself-change your life perspective, they can serve to reinforce the status quo while ignoring larger, systemic issues. In this vein, Chloe King argues that “Radical self-love and positive attitude advocates are more about adapting to a world ‘gone mad’ and systems that do not serve you than really improving your life.” In other words, she suggests that individualistic practices of self care come at the expense of engaging with community and addressing deeply broken and oppressive systems.

Detoxing can be a form of self-care, but if we want to help make change in the digital platforms and social systems in which they are embedded, detoxes need to be the kind of self-care that enables re-engagement and participation. We can follow the lead of marginalized communities who have positioned self-care as a radical act, or as Audra Lorde called it, “an act of political warfare.” Evette Dionne (For Black Women, Self-Care is a Radical Act) writes, “Self-care is listening to what my body tells me, and honoring whatever it needs at that time. …Black women are entitled to moments of sunshine after spending centuries shrouded in the bleakness of enslavement.” She explains that self-care is about being healthy enough to do what needs to be done, including for family and community. It’s an act of individual care and an activist stance; self-care not as dropping out, but taking as a step away to be better prepared to take a step back in.

Indeed, Jenny Odell suggests that in the world of clickbait and hot takes, “the need to periodically step away is more obvious than ever. …we absolutely require distance and time to be able to see the mechanisms we submit to” (emphasis in original). In her book, Odell draws on Thomas Merton to explore the relationship between contemplation and participation, and the tensions between renunciation of the world and responsibility to the world, to arrive at a recommendation for a “hybrid reaction” to the overload and overwhelm of living in the attention economy that asks us “to contemplate and participate, to leave and come back” (p. 61).

So, take a break from Twitter – but come back. And when you come back, how do you decide what to pay attention to, where to participate? Odell suggests practicing “standing apart” or “refusal in place” as a radical act of refusing to engage in the attention economy in the ways that platforms dictate. Standing apart resembles an auto-ethnographic approach to our lives online; examining our own practices in order to make the familiar, strange, which in turn enables us to look with fresh eyes at how and where to pay attention. Practicing refusal-in-place provides us with a critical approach to our information environment coupled with the hope that we can do something about it.

Take Action

  • Practice noticing which technologies and platforms are demanding your attention on a regular basis, and notice the impact on you – how do you feel? If you like collecting data, you might even keep a log or time-use diary for a day to document which technologies you use, when, for how long, and in what contexts.
  • Make a plan to give yourself some distance from the technologies and platforms that are demanding (and capitalizing on) your attention. You might resolve to take a break from social media for a few days or a week. If that’s not feasible, you might consider limiting how much you check to just once or twice a day.
  • And, make a plan for your re-entry. Practice noticing how your behavior has shifted from your time away, and how you feel about being back in those spaces after some time away.
    • Did your time away suggest any possibilities for a different type of engagement with those technologies and platforms?
    • Do you notice yourself engaging differently?
    • Did your time away change how you feel about your relationship with those technologies and platforms?
  • Use these insights to identify where participating differently might benefit not only yourself but others. Where can your attention make a difference?

We’d love to hear about your reflections and explorations with “standing apart.” Share them on our blog or click the blue button to share them just with us.

What did you do with this Detox? Want to share some resources or ideas? Click here to submit a reflection!

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Keep Reading!

How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell

The Politics of Conspicuous Displays of Self-Care, Jordan Kisner

Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless, Laurie Penny

The Dangers of Radical Self-Love, Chloe King

For Black Women, Self-Care is a Radical Act, Evette Dionne

Audra Lorde Thought of Self-Care as “an Act of Political Warfare”, Sarah Mirk