Brandon Vogt

5 Things I Learned From My Internet Fast

My Google Reader groaned under the weight of 1,000+ unread articles. My Facebook and Twitter streams were bursting at the seams. Dozens of emails poured in each hour.

That was my life three months ago, and you probably know what it’s like. Modern new media is certainly powerful, but it can also be very overwhelming. After years of engaging online I began to feel like this digital overload was more like a Digital Overlord, ruling my thoughts and demanding more and more time and energy.

So, following the example of Jen Fulwiler, I unplugged for a week. 

For seven days I cut myself off from email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and all other digital tethers. I still had to use the Internet for work, but it was few and far between, and unrelated to my primary vices of social media and blogs.

When the end of the week came, I was surprised at how easy it was. Sure, I fought urges to check-Facebook-real-quick, but it wasn’t as torturous as I imagined. The break was somewhat leisurely and gave me some good time to reflect on my relationship to technology.

Here were the most important lessons I learned:

1. I don’t need the Internet.
Days before unplugging, I was already getting cold feet. Not checking Facebook for an entire week? Not updating my Twitter account? What if I miss a must-read blog post or hilarious YouTube video?

My biggest fear was that I would miss some revolutionary insight on the Internet and therefore live an inferior life. Yet my greatest lesson during the fast was this:

I can live a vivacious, purposeful life without ever going onlineā€”I don’t need the Internet.

Not terribly novel, I know, and I’m aware that millions of people for millions of years have proved this true, but for me it was a huge realization. Before the week I felt like Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and YouTube were a necessary part of my day. I would start to get frustrated and moody if I missed them for too long which meant to a certain extent, I was enslaved.

But slowly throughout the week I felt the slave-chains fall off. And by the end, I felt truly detached. I’m often amazed at how stepping away from something can allow you to see how tight its grip really is. I’ve seen it in my own life with food, drink, television, and now the Internet. When you step back and realize, “Internet, I don’t need you“, then you’re free. And that’s deeply liberating.

2. The Internet doesn’t need me.
Besides addiction, another online vice I was trying to remedy was pride. It was tempting to think that if I took a week off from the Internet, the whole thing would fall apart. Without my insightful comments, witty banter, and compelling book reviews, I was sure that the FCC would decide that the Internet was no longer helpful and would just pull the plug.

That didn’t happen. The Internet puttered through the week without a hitch, and in fact when I returned, I discovered that more than a few friends didn’t even know I was gone.

Four hundred years after Copernicus, my own fasting experiment helped me re-discover his shocking insight: the (online) world doesn’t revolve around me. It’s good to know that some people depend on me–my wife, my kids, my coworkers. But to realize that I’m just “one blogger among many” was, again, very liberating.

3. My family is more fun than the Internet.
I already knew that my family was more important than the Internet. But my digital fast reminded me that they are also more fun. Before the fast, if I wanted a good laugh or some relaxing down time, I’d fire up my laptop.

Yet my offline week freed me up for better things like this (filmed during my fast):

4. I don’t do what I love.
Jon Acuff recently wrote an awesome post where he asked the question, “what do I feel called to do, and why am I not doing it?” My time off caused me to reflect on that quandary, especially the first part: what is my calling? I wanted to find that place where, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “my deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.”

And here’s what I found: my deep gladness involves my wife and my kids, reading and discussing good books, and reflecting on God and his Church. Notice what’s not on the list–reading hundreds of blog posts, posting witty tweets, or browsing my Facebook news feed.

My Internet fast revealed the sobering reality that I rarely do what I love. Instead of sitting in a comfy chair at night to read a book for an hour, I scan through a hundred irrelevant blog posts. Instead of praying, I fire up Facebook. Instead of playing with my kids, I send text messages and watch YouTube videos.

If nothing else, the digital fast realigned my priorities. Now when I open my computer I think, “tomorrow, when I look back at this moment, would I have wished I was doing something else?”

Often, the answer is yes. And then my laptop slowly closes.

5. There’s great conversation online.
Many people dismiss new media for being shallow and base. For instance, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something like, “Why would I care what someone ate for breakfast?” And I get that. I’m with you. I don’t care what people had for breakfast, either.

What many people miss, however, is the rich discussions all across the Internet, from comment boxes, to Twitter chats, to Google+ hangouts, and more. I really undervalued this until I disconnected.

Sure, you’ll run into some that are vulgar, vitriolic, and filled with mindless spam. Plenty of others, though, are brilliant. I realized that one of my favorite parts of the Internet is finding intelligent people from all sorts of backgrounds to discuss real, important ideas–things like faith, art, morals, and culture. Offline, it’s much more difficult to have meaningful discussions with groups of people.

So there are some things I learned in my week off. How about you? Have you ever intentionally disconnected from the Internet? If so, what did you learn? If not, have you considered doing it?

  • William

    Great Post. I think that the Internet does distract us from things that have more substance and value to our lives such as reading, prayer or taking a walk. Thanks for the article!

  • Vikram Lele

    Hi Brandon,

    Nice piece – even if I read it a few months after it was published. This essentially proves that it is NOT important to read it immediately. Good articles have perpetual relevance, so there is no compelling reason to be perpetually online to read them as they are published.

    To me, sadly, the biggest loss caused by social networking is, odd it may sound – loss of social skills. People are so eloquent and chatty in blogs/facebook/twitter, but make them sit in a gathering of strangers and they will not be able to do any sensible small talk.

    I love chatting with strangers/fellow travelers when I am traveling. These days I find it more and more difficult to have these conversations, because my fellow travelers are immersed in their smart phone chatting with someone thousands of miles away

  • Love this post, Brandon. I took the week between Christmas & New Year offline, in part because I didn’t have parish work to do and could be completely offline, including email and such. And Jen Fulwiler was my inspiration too, along with my husband’s bet that I couldn’t do it.

    It reinforced, for me, that Offline Evenings are not optional. Referencing your #4 lesson above, about doing what you love, I use my offline evenings to spend time with my husband and read. It is often my only reading time each day, once the kids are in bed.

    I started Offline Evenings a few years ago during Lent, but getting an iPad made it all too easy to get distracted, once again, by the internet long after my laptop had been closed for the night.

    Sorry to ramble here, but really loved this post. And maybe I need to take another week off, maybe more frequently than just when I can do it with email too…like once a quarter or something. Hmmm…you have me thinking!

    • I’m the same way. Nighttime is when I’m most inclined to power-up, so I try to prepare myself throughout the day. In the morning and afternoon I check and read everything I need to in order to make night-time shut down that much easier.

  • RedSetters

    Brandon, this one really hit home for me. While I haven’t totally “disconnected” from the internet, I have given up Facebook for Lent….and probably for good. While it was nice to join FB to find old friends, I found myself getting sucked into the games, and spending much more time on it than I should. As a caregiver for my 88 year old mother, I was using FB as an escape. I,too, had gotten to the point where I was tired of reading what ‘friends’ were eating, watching on TV, their latest aches and pains, etc. What I’ve learned is that by not being FB, I have more time to spend in prayer, reading and contemplation. I doubt that I’ll get back on FB after Lent. I keep in touch with the people who REALLY matter in my life. The rest? Pfftt……..

  • Magnoliaj1962

    I fast from the computer on Fridays since Advent. I find that I don’t have to email my friends and family on every thought that comes to my mind. In the past, I’ve regretted emailing something out of haste. Fasting from the internet allows for more conversation with God. Thank you for your post. It encouraged me even more.

  • Ramoncito baltazar

    your #5 kind a confuse me a little bit…does it mean unplugging means a controlled lifestyle with the internet? when im at home i see to it that i really have a minimal time in my computer. i spend time bonding with the kids and conversing with my wife but when im in the office , the internet is my connection to them… i think it all boils down to the spirit of discipline that God gave us…

  • I tried this before, and I failed miserably. See, as a political junkie, I would listen to the radio and fill myself with reasons to go online and do more research because I heard this or that story and after all, all I’m trying to do is to research. It ate up my time and it became hard for me to recollect myself at prayer time because of the obscene amount of noise in my head.

    Now, I have done some really hard and painful thinking, and I found out what I really needed to do. Instead of the internet exclusively, it’s fasting from anything political by way of radio, TV and internet. No Drudge Report or anything of that. As a matter of fact, no NEWS.

    Now, in my car (2 hr commute each way) I listen to Lenten talks and pray the rosary. If I need a change of pace, it’s Classical music only.

    At home, sure I might get on the computer, but the only thing I am allowed to do is to visit Catholic blogs (not politically charged ones) that are inspirational to attaining my Lenten goals.

    I’m already finding extra time that I never had and my thoughts are clearer and I’m able to be better recollected. It’s great.

  • Chrisroth79

    This Lent I have given up my favorite time consuming websites… Facebook, Yahoo!, Twitter, Drudge, ESPN, and Youtube. In less than a week, I have learned how productive my day is when I am not distracted by the Internet. It’s easy to spend 1-3 hours on the Internet and feel like only 15 minutes has gone by for me. I am not exploring a few other websites, only after I have accomplished my daily goals of off-line projects. The video may have killed the raido, and the internet is slashing at the video, but I refuse to let this take over my life! Keep up the good work Brandon!

  • “Silence is God’s first language” St. John of the Cross

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I haven’t owned a television in several years and am off of FB for Lent and am slowly weaning myself from the internet in general. And it is quite a a freeing experience. I’ve found the internet to be, too often, an occasion of sin of many types and I’m much better off without it for the most part.

    One of my professors has said, all the crimes in the world are committed by people who can’t sit alone in a quiet room for five minutes.

    We need to get the ear buds out of our ears and our faces out of Facebook and start engaging the real world around us.

  • frjason

    Thanks for sharing, Brandon. The internet is good, but it can also become a bit enslaving. Best to take time away from it now and then.

    Fr. Jason Worthley

  • Jennifer Fulwiler

    Brandon, this is one of the most insightful posts I’ve read in a long time. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • You’re welcome, and the thanks is mutual. You made me do it!

  • I have already been reflecting on this and praying about it. I spend entirely too much time online! I think you might have inspired me to do my own fast. Thank you!

    • Awesome! Do it! I guarantee it will transform you.

  • I actually have been reflecting on this at my blog because I decided to detach myself completely from Facebook. It’s been interesting. To be frank, I don’t hold your optimism about online discussion. It’s possible, but I find it to be less and less so as people use social media as their sole means of communication.

    You can check it out here if you wish:

    Pre-Facebook deletion:

    http://christianstate.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/the-interwebs/

    Post Facebook deletion:

    http://christianstate.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/the-interwebs-pt-2/

    A friend also posted about the internet and its connection with the ancient Desert Fathers vice of acedia:

    http://virtueethicsdigest.blogspot.com/2012/02/acedia-internet-and-social-media.html

    in Christ

    -Harrison

    christianstate.wordpress.com

  • Michigancatholic

    I’m older, I enjoy the Internet for the speed of finding things and for the quality of information at my fingertips. It’s enabled me to find a real Mass in Amsterdam on business trip, figure out how to visit a saint’s room in Rome, and search the Catechism of the Catholic Church for free. It’s helped me find books like Bonhoeffer and essays by Chesterton. It’s allowed me to meet people and have deep conversations continents away. But I don’t have a Facebook account and try to use the internet rather than letting it use me!

  • Part of my Lenten promise was to not surf the internet from my smartphone – a bad habit of mine. I’ve also picked up on something else you talked about, getting up early. I’ve been getting up at 6 a.m. and praying for an hour, and going to bed earlier. This has ended up meaning no internet before 7 a.m. and no internet after 9 p.m. Becoming detached is one of the hardest lessons to learn this Lent, but it’s becoming well-worth it. God bless.

  • Fascinating, Brandon. I haven’t deliberately shut it all off except for various retreats and trips and what-not. But I think the same thing: I’m one blogger among many. It’s all digital pictures and text and people don’t _need_ to see my contribution everyday. Humbling but good, because like you said my family does need me, in a very real way!

    • Totally agree! And by the way, you’re one of the people who makes me shudder when unplugging. Because when I’m offline, I think of your blog and wonder, “OMG WHAT IF I MISS A COMPELLING APOLOGETICAL ARGUMENT OR IMPORTANT ECUMENICAL DISCUSSSION!!!!1111!!!!!

© 2017 Brandon Vogt

X