6 months after leaving social media, and a reflection on solitude

*disclaimer: i keep my twitter and tumblr active professionally. i do not use the timeline features. i describe more about this here

as we pass over into 2022, this time also marks the 6 month mark of my decision to leave social media to benefit my artwork. while i have found it has certainly done just that, ive also been blessed with a wealth of general benefits in my life too. today id like to focus specifically on the idea of solitude, and the importance of thought.

when i read cal newport's digital minimalism back in august, i definitely overlooked the chapter spent dedicated to spending time alone. though id appreciated the sentiment to an extent as id gotten into the habit of taking my hour long walks in silence and having the odd bus journey without a book or music, i didnt take much notice of his argument that a good amount of solitude is needed to think clearly and allows ones thoughts to properly engage in ideas and problem solving.

as newport points out, its important to define what solitude is, and what it is not. solitude is often misconstrued as an individual finding themselves completely alone, far away from any other human beings. this is not the case - solitude is about what is happening in your mind, and not in your environment -

you can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car [...] so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. on the other hand, solitude can be banished even in the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude. in addition to direct conversations with another person, these inputs can also take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching tv, or performing just about any activity that might draw your attention to a smartphone screen.

i suppose this is something i overlooked because i didnt realise it was something i was lacking. id long before identified my issues with focus, which directly link to solitude, but i didnt appreciate how solitude could affect the way that i think. in my digital thoughts blog, i wrote in november how i felt like i think more, and this is something that ive especially noticed throughout december. its sort of a bizarre thing to say as ive always thought that i think way too much, but after - guess what - thinking about it, ive realised that its not that im thinking more, its more that my thoughts have become less fragmented and are far more focussed.

for me, removing social media has meant i spend less time on my phone during any time you might pull it out - on public transport, in queues, while eating, etc. but i also decided to make intentional times where i dont have any kinds of interruption at all, such as on walks. for health i try to walk around 10k steps a day, which is mostly fulfilled at work but ive started getting off the bus earlier/later so i can get in an extra thousand here and there. on weekends, i can take much longer walks. these walks have been crucial times for me to think. i used to listen to music on my walks (also on public transport, or anytime i could, and spent a lot of my teens/early adulthood with this habit) but now i walk in solitude. i find myself able to think deeply about things i need to do or resolve, and most importantly and excitedly about my artwork. im currently working on a large project which i dont think i wouldve ever conjoured up if id stayed on social media thinking about the next artwork and having my mind be constantly warped by the artwork i was fleetingly consuming but aggressivly comparing and competing with. i always take a notebook with me and sometimes have to use my phone to record voice notes if its too wet/windy. ive wanted for the last decade to make a webcomic, and it never seemed to happen because i never seemed to have time to truly think about it.

i feel compelled to mention at this stage is that when you decide to remove certain digital habits or technologies, you need to know what it is youre replacing it with. i did not replace these addictions with things like video games, i forced myself to participate in healthier habits such as walking, or practicing art, or reading, or forcing the times i would check my phone to be moments where i have to sit there and stare into the distance. i am constantly finding ways to improve my mindstate using things such as gratitude and the way i feed my body, so i cannot say that it was deleting instagram that cured my mind, but there is also a clear correlation between looking after my digital habits and my improved focus and mental clarity.

besides the impact solitude has had on my creativity, id like to speak of the benefits its had on my ability to think critically. one of the few lessons i took from school was the ability to look at and understand both sides of an argument, no matter how deeply you might disagree with a side. i recall lessons where the class was split into two groups and no matter your personal opinion, you were to argue for or against the topic, for example for or against abortion, or arranged marriage. i dont think i wouldve been able to keep the distance ive managed to keep from online echo chambers as much as i have if it was not for these lessons - but its something i still fell victim to. having a feed that you check everyday that is at first designed by who you follow and then by the algorithms deciding posts for you inevitably means that you will be exposed to certain lines of thought and political groups. there is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but the design of the social media feed and its fleeting nature means youre laughing at a meme about a video game in one second and reading a 15 second poorly backed up argument about systemic oppression tiktok with a chart song playing in the next.

before your mind has a chance to process the information youve read and compare it to what you know, youve scrolled onto the next piece of information which is likely to be completely unrelated. as a result of this, your mind will only hang on to the information that shocks or surprises you the most, which in my case was often a statistic or a phrase. a lot of this information presented to you is gathered in a similar way, and it is like a bizarre game of chinese whispers. ive seen this in action in "cancel culture", where you read a tweet saying that "friendly reminder so and so is a *insert "libtard" "terf" "alt-right sympathiser" "sheeple" or the most violent career destroying words you can think of*" but when you look up what actually happened, it turns out all they did was make an unsavoury joke 12 years ago. most people, and ive been guilty of it many times, dont bother to look it up however and will end up retaining this information and spreading it on. ive spread a lot of information on social media regarding important history or current events which ive later discovered is misinformation, or sometimes straight up a rewrite of history.

the spaces ive inhabited online have always been very left-leaning politically, and in general this is true of the values, beliefs, and political views i hold. theres always been a couple areas ive shared slightly alternative views on, and id never shy away from checking out videos or blogs or other opinions by other people even if my timeline was telling me i absolutely shouldnt. but as my school life taught me, its important to consider all sides of an argument and read things that actually challenge your beliefs. sometimes it does inspire a change of mind, sometimes it makes me reinforce my current beliefs even more. i also ended up taking in a lot of views and internalising ideas which ive since come to realise i never even agreed with, but where i was consuming it everyday in bite-sized, brave new world-esque mantras during my mindless scrolling i started to believe them. since leaving these spaces, in my moments of solitude ive been able to mull through my ideas and create arguments and identify what i need to learn more about. id found that a lot of interest in certain areas or beliefs id had, id changed or repressed in order to better fit what i was being presented with online. its also helped me to bridge the gap between these sorts of ideas in my artwork, as that is something ive struggled to do often but now is something i have began to find solutions in how to portray, online spaces can make you feel like youre incredibly politically well informed, but youre almost certainly not. most of the research ive done has been about technology, and its astounding to me how much ive actually ended up learning. researching these things is crucial, but as newport expands more on in digital minimalism, it is the solitude of great thinkers that have allowed them to solve great problems and create great ideas.

(id also like to say that this is not my way of saying "the left" was a cult i needed saving from. i believe ANYONE who engages politically through online spaces, whether youre on "the right" or "the left", needs to be careful to consider how what youre seeing daily, and the often poorly researched, emotionally charged to grab ur attention, chinese-whispers-esque information presented in tweets, headlines, instagram stories, 4chan boards, and "memes" that you mindlessly let yourself consume are having on your actual beliefs. ive since noticed that people who are in my life who are "right leaning" and have widely different views to me think exactly the same as i did because of the way we consume information - the only difference is that the information itself was different. (topic of research 4 another day)

other than this, ive found my moments of solitude have led me to further appreciate life, as is. i feel like this one is the one i always read/hear about when people leave social media, but i never quite felt this effect until recently. these moments of solitude dont need to be filled with deep thought or introspection. sometimes the mind isnt following a trail anywhere and is aimless, but i think its important to leave the gates open to see if you end up trailing down somewhere interesting instead of shutting them closed with unnecessary distractions. my breakfast can just be a 15 minutes where i look out of my window, observing the weather and nature of the day while having a better focus on the texture and flavour of my food.

it seems as though my mind has been working at 50% capacity for half my life. it feels like ive been living at a messy desk, filled with piles of other people's thoughts and opinions, and ive wiped it all away and i can now fill it with things i want to think and things i cherish. it feels as though ive been choking on a busy city smog, and ive moved my mind into a small village instead. it feels wonderful and i wonder where it will take me in the new year. thanks for reading and have a happy 2022 :o)

- omoulo