Experiment Week: People are lonely. The network is seductive. I stopped texting.

Courtesy of Intel Free Press on Flickr.

Courtesy of Intel Free Press on Flickr.

ABSTRACT (TL;DR)

For one week, I did not read or write any text messages. I wanted to see (1) how difficult this would be, (2) if eschewing texting would improve my personal relationships, and (3) if there was actually something to this growing trend of technology-rejection.

INTRODUCTION

The title of this blog post borrows from Sherry Turkle’s most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle is a professor at MIT who studies the way people interact with computers, robots, and the like. In Alone Together, she argues that technology damages human relationships. It’s an intensely quotable book, as Turkle doesn’t waste time trying to hide what she really thinks:

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a marked uptick in people going cold turkey on technology. Paul Miller of The Verge left the internet, as did David Roberts of Grist and author Baratunde Thurston. Some embark on less drastic experiments. Others write long, despairing pieces — “We are prisoners of our phones.” When these users quit (often with a bit of digital fanfare) they cite many different reasons, all laced with vague ennui. Turkle’s loneliness is sometimes in the mix, too.

This trend is frustrating. Though many feel uncomfortable with how deeply technology has pervaded their lives, it’s unclear how much happier one might be if they cut themselves off. Is it just the internet that’s making us miserable? Is it the smartphones? Is it just a question of cutting down our hours? How much is too much?

Maybe the answer, I thought, is in many simple, smaller, controlled experiments. Take one factor out of the equation. See what happens.

So, for seven days, I vowed to stop texting.



MATERIALS

1. Me. 22 years old, female, American, English speaking, Eastern-European descent, graduate-educated.

In the month prior to this experiment (August 2013), I texted 27 individual people. I sent and received 2,322 texts. This puts me — believe it or not — considerably below the average stats for my bracket. According to Business Insider, a typical 18-24 year-old sends and receives a total of 3,853 texts per month.

I also hunted around online for a cell phone addiction test, but didn’t find anything scientifically reliable. However, for what it’s worth, I only hit two of Digital Trend‘s Top 10 Signs of a Cell Phone Addiction.

2. My cell phone. iPhone 5 on an AT&T plan. Alterations described below.


METHODS

I needed my phone for work, so I couldn’t just turn it off for the week. This created a small problem. I obviously wouldn’t write any text messages, but I couldn’t think of a way to avoid receiving them. I considered writing a huge, obnoxious announcement telling people not to text me — sent via mass text, obviously — but that probably wouldn’t be a 100% effective defense.

B.T.E. — the Before Texting Era — generally refers to any time before cell phones became ubiquitous. Whenever I mention B.T.E., I’m really picturing Seinfeld.

Instead, I decided to treat text messages like missed calls: I’d get them, but I wouldn’t read them. I’d know when someone wanted to contact me, but not why. That way, the unread text message would function more like a missed call. That decision seemed most analogous to the Before Texting Era (B.T.E.). I used my phone’s settings to turn off automatic previews of text messages and to prevent it from automatically jumping into Messages when I unlocked it.

I also decided to do my best not to tell people that I was performing this experiment. Don’t know why.


RESULTS

DAY 1
Resisting the urge.

I wake up at 6:45 a.m. to my first text. My first test. I don’t open it.

My immediate reaction is this: I feel terrible. I am not exaggerating. “This experiment idea is incredibly fucking stupid,” I think to myself. What if this is something important? What if the texter — in this case, one of my brothers — needs me? I want suddenly, desperately, to know what he is saying.

The discomfort does not go away. With each text I receive throughout the day, I continue to feel distinct but diminishing pangs of anguish and desire.

Later in the day I see a funny picture in the newspaper. My gut reaction is to snap a picture and send it to fellow The Raptor Lab blogger Erin Weeks. At the last moment, I remember I can’t. I freeze. Should I call her and tell her about the picture? No, that would be a waste of everyone’s time. And the whole point of the picture is to see it, not to hear my thin description of it. So I do nothing.

DAY 2
I don’t know how to make plans with others.

An actual problem has emerged: I am supposed to meet a college friend for dinner tomorrow, but we never decided exactly when or where. Do I call her to decide? That seems unnecessarily formal. Do I send an email? That seems like the opposite, a very distant way to do it. After prolonged waffling, I call and leave a message on her voicemail.

Later, my Significant Other (S.O.) and I go to Coolidge Theatre to see Jaws. In an uncharacteristic move, I leave my phone at home. Since I’m obviously not going to take any calls during the movie, and since I don’t need Google Maps to find the theatre, what’s the point? As we wait for the movie to start, S.O. leans over to show me a recent text exchange with a mutual friend. I feel an illicit thrill, like a dieter in a bakery.

When I return, I note that I’ve received a few missed texts from friends, as well as one from my current roommate. My roommate is a voracious texter. We have sorted out many apartment issues — rent, lease, smelly garbage, etc. — without ever actually uttering a word aloud. I worry that ignoring her texts will seem bitchy and forever taint our roommateship. So, when she comes home, I break one of my methodological vows and reveal that I’m doing a No Texting experiment. Please email or call instead.

“Whoa,” she says. “That seems really difficult.”

DAY 3
I start using email as a crutch.

The college friend and I trade calls and emails all day to make these damn dinner plans. First we’re meeting in Jamaica Plain, then we decide to move to Chinatown. First we’re going to meet at 6:30, then 5:30, then 6:00.

At this point, a few things occur to me. 
First: This feels like it’s taking a lot of unnecessary work. My usual preference for texting must play a role in how long time it has taken us to decide exactly when and where to meet. I suspect that, in the B.T. Ages, we would have been forced to act much quickly and decisively over a single phone call.
Second: Email is fairly similar to texting. It allows me to interact with my friend in an impersonal, time-flexible way. I wonder if, for the experiment’s sake, I should also put some kind of email ban into effect.

After she and I finally pin down the time and place, I call my S.O. and say that I won’t need a ride from work today. A few minutes later, back in the office, S.O. texts me. Sudden panic: plans must be going awry again. I call.

“I saw you texted, but I didn’t see what you said, and I was worried it was something important,” I say, suddenly aware of how lame I sound.

“Oh, no,” S.O. says, laughing. “It wasn’t.”

Right. When is a text ever that important?

A new problem lingers in the background of the day: My brother just started at college and I want to check up on him. Since dropping him off at his dorm (on Day -1 of this experiment), I’ve heard almost nothing. All I’ve gotten is a single email with a link to a video about sloths. Ordinarily I would text, but, you know. I want to call, but that seems unnecessarily invasive. We rarely talk on the phone as it is, and I don’t want to demand too much of his time. Again, with my new email ban in mind, I do nothing.

DAY 4
Hump day.

Texts come in. I ignore them with studied carelessness. I’m also finding it slightly easier to ignore phone calls and to avoid opening emails right away. Who cares? What information could these messages possibly contain? Nothing matters.

To ignore the itch, I look up some stats about cell phone addiction:
* When people are separated from their phones, they sometimes report physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal, like phantom ringing, jitteriness, and headaches.
* One study offered college students a small monetary reward if they put off answering a text message. Most students turned that reward down.
* There is a word for “fear of losing your phone”: nomophobia.

DAY 5
I’m an idiot.

As soon as I leave my apartment for work in the morning, I realize I’ve left my keys behind. Too late: The door is locked. I call my roommate to see if she’ll be home tonight to let me in. (Half the time, she stays at her girlfriend’s in Allston.) No answer.

Worried, I break my two-day-old ban on social emailing and send her an email. No answer.

I call again several hours later and leave a voicemail. No answer.

I rewatch that .gif on how to pick locks, just in case.

Finally, around lunch, I receive an email back. She’ll be home! I’m saved! I waste a long time wondering if it Means Anything that she chose to email back rather than call.

In the evening, finally re-ensconced in my apartment, I glance at my pile of missed text notifications and pat myself on the back for how well I’m doing. Then I seriously consider ending the experiment early and making up entries for the final two days.

DAY 6
The home stretch.

I’ve now racked up a list of a few friends who have been trying to contact me via text, to no avail. On my walk home from work, I decide to try calling each of them. My second choice picks up: a college friend, E. She and I rarely speak for real, but generally text each other on the first of the month as part of an anachronistic good-luck tradition. I’d forgotten, going through my list of missed texts, that that was probably the only reason she’d contacted me.

She’s surprised to receive a phone call, but happy to chat, and we talk for nearly an hour before I have to go.

DAY 7
All is revealed.

I ended the experiment a few hours early for no good reason other than antsiness. In total, I missed 19 texts from 10 people. Happy to text again, I settled down with a cup of coffee and eagerly — if belatedly — responded to everyone.


DISCUSSION

It’s hard to ignore your phone. Maybe an obvious finding, but there it is.

I missed some things — but not a lot. I was invited to lunch. I was asked for advice several times. I didn’t respond; the texters didn’t try to reach out in any other way; no one benefitted and nothing got done. That being said, none of these missives were vitally important. Which leads me to my next discovery…

I suffer from delusions of grandeur. When texts came in, I felt anxious, like I was missing out on something. I really wasn’t. Only one person really needed something from me: My brother wanted a scan of my car’s registration to fill out a form. He texted me several times about it, but when that didn’t work, he emailed. If the form had been more time-sensitive, he probably would have even called. No problem.

Phone calls are considered formal and inefficient. If it isn’t absolutely necessary to talk on the phone, people don’t want to do it.

Texting deters decision-making. My college friend and I were forced to make plans on the phone and we did a pretty terrible job of it. The slow back-and-forth of texting — the process of making plans over several hours or even days — feels far more comfortable. 

I interacted with fewer people. I knew that the ban would probably limit the number of people I spoke to, and that definitely happened. I often chose to email instead of text, and sometimes I decided not to contact the person in question at all. This may mean that I was becoming (rightfully) more selective when deciding when to use my phone. It may mean that texting allows me to be more social — and that the ban simply limited my ability to connect. Maybe both.

I didn’t necessarily interact more deeply with anyone. Though I suspected I’d interact with fewer people, I thought perhaps those interactions I did have would be be deeper or more rewarding. The only evidence to suggest that might be true would be my phone call with E. However, it’s hard to know if that call was an effect of the experiment or a random fluke.

Some people will text you no matter what. A few of the people who I told about the experiment continued to text me throughout the week. One person texted every day, apparently not getting the hint. I’d be curious to see how long it would take for other people to give up texting me.


CONCLUSION

Do I recommend this experiment? Sure, why not. I’d be interested to hear about other people’s experiences. But I don’t think not-texting made a radical positive difference in my life.


Aviva Hope Rutkin is a science and technology reporter in the Boston area. She currently writes for the MIT Technology Review. Follow her @realavivahr.

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3 Responses to “Experiment Week: People are lonely. The network is seductive. I stopped texting.”

  1. Mikey

    Great exipiment & article. In the article when you said you were going to continue using email I laughed & thought you wouldn’t make it the whole week. Using email on the phone might as well be texting cause it’s the same typing & motions with the same outcome of not actually talking. I’m surprised people didn’t call after not responding to multiple texts. If you had went longer without texting, yes & emailing, it would have given people more motivation to call. As you already saw going a week didn’t really seem to accomplish anything, although the expiriment motivated you to call E which is great. I think a month would be more sufficient because than it gives people a lot of time to start missing you & eventually the people that truly wanna connect will call. I’m trying to use texting more for brief messages & save the conversation for real calls.Years ago I did an “internet fast” for 2 weeks and found it really refreshing. I don’t use any “social media” sites so that wasn’t a problem. 35.m.wa state

    Reply
  2. Bobby

    I’m glad I found this. I’ve been taking the same break from online social media (besides email) for 13 days so far, and plan on going until the new year. I can relate to just about all of your early ‘symptoms’, and it’s been really awesome to follow through with this experiment. Thanks for your article! 15.m.MI

    Reply

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