On the experiment's first day Karen Borchert found herself unlocking her iPhone and mindlessly touching her thumb to the most familiar spot.
Unlock, press. Unlock, press.
She searched for the icon like a missing appendage. She grasped for it, as if for a lover who had fled at midnight.
Unlock, press. Unlock, press.
Nothing. Facebook was gone.
She had deleted it on the Fourth of July, declared independence from the same social networks where she had celebrated the birth of her three children, reconnected with old friends and learned things that helped her in her job as a CEO of startups and a digital entrepreneur.
Each time she subconsciously returned to look at Facebook on her phone on this Independence Day, Borchert shook her head and then dutifully recorded it in a diary meant to chart how her life changed when she unplugged from Facebook and five other social networking sites.
That first day, she tried to check it at a stoplight. She tried to check it as she held her 4-day-old baby. She tried to check Facebook on her phone 14 different times.
“That was the experience of that day ... how ingrained, how automatic this was,” she says. “The word addicted is a very strong word, but it was a compulsion.”
Karen Borchert is far from the first person to quit social networking, but she is also not your average user of technology. She started two nonprofits, one that used technology to feed the hungry and the other that harnessed the power of mobile apps to allow blind Americans to experience the Washington, D.C., monuments.
She's now the vice president of an open-source technology company. From Omaha, she telecommutes daily to Washington, D.C. She helps developers turn their ideas into businesses.
In short, this 35-year-old is a master of the Digital Age.
And yet, Borchert increasingly saw the age's dark side, especially when it came to social networking.
She filled spare moments by going to Facebook and Twitter on her phone: Stoplights. The doctor's office waiting room. The line at the grocery store.
Late at night she would cycle through all six of her social networking sites, Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Pinterest to LinkedIn to Goodreads, post a comment or a photo, and then cycle through again to see if anyone had liked it or responded. And then again. And again.
She also noticed that she was filling moments that weren't so spare. She stared at her phone instead of listening to her eldest daughter talk about her day at school. She stared at her phone during a rare quiet evening with her husband.
She gave birth to her second child, and within the hour she grabbed her iPhone, unlocked and clicked to Facebook.
“I had to stop the madness,” she said.
And so she designed the parameters of her experiment in late June, right before her third child was born: No social networking for 12 weeks. No checking on her phone or computer or her friends' phones. She couldn't click on a Facebook or Twitter notification sent to her email — in fact, she shut these off so as not to be tempted. And while she could listen if someone told her a piece of news or gossip from a social networking site, she couldn't ask to be updated on the Facebook happenings of relatives and friends.
Before and during the experiment, she kept a detailed spreadsheet of her interactions with the world, online or otherwise. She recorded whom she spoke or wrote to, for how long and whether she found those interactions beneficial or useful.
On July 3rd, her last day before the Facebook purge, she binged.
She spent nearly two hours on her favorite social networking sites.
Of the 182 people she interacted with in some way, 159 were people she “talked” to on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. Many of these interactions happened with near strangers, she said — people she wouldn't have an actual conversation with if she ran into them in a coffee shop.
Only five were people who actually stood in the same room as Karen as they talked.
And then on the Fourth of July she quit cold turkey.
Almost immediately she entered a sort of Facebook withdrawal. She tried to click on the spot on her iPhone where her Facebook app used to be. She caught herself crafting perfectly worded, pithy posts and tweets in her head, except now she had nowhere to share them.
“I would just say it to my husband and he wouldn't find it nearly as pithy as I was sure everyone would on Facebook,” she says.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
She completely missed it when Miley Cyrus twerked on MTV. She also missed consoling a cousin when her long-beloved pet died. And she missed some of the news from Syria.
She continued to record her interactions on a spreadsheet. She noticed the number of phone and face-to-face conversations going up, and lasting longer.
She started to read, and it wasn't light. Studies of brain scans. Research on how our brains react to junk food and social networking.
She started to think, and that wasn't light, either. She found herself replaying conversations with family members in her mind, considering new ways she could give her husband advice, new ways she could answer her daughter's questions.
“The quiet has given me more time to organize my thoughts.”
I would love to tell you the rest of Karen's story — what she has learned about the Digital Age brain — but instead I will tell you that you most definitely should buy a ticket to hear her and 13 other people speak in Omaha on Saturday, Oct. 26.
It's the fourth annual TEDx Omaha, the local offshoot of the wildly popular speaker series. I served as a volunteer on the selection committee this year, and I promise you this: It's going to be worth that $25 ticket and then some.
This year you can listen to Laurie Smith Camp, Nebraska's first female federal district court judge, talk about the gender differences she sees from the bench. You can listen to Ben Sasse, president of Midland University and a candidate for U.S. Senate, make a case for a different kind of college education. You can listen to Joe Starita, a UNL journalism professor and one-time Miami Herald investigative reporter, on how a Ponca chief named Standing Bear and an 1879 Omaha court case reshaped our past and our present.
There is so, so much more: the lead singer of one of Omaha's best bands; a set of twins who hang out with the Marsalis boys and play jazz; a popular Omaha artist who tangled with one of the pre-eminent painters of our time; a scientist; a chef; a craftsman.
And Karen, who will explain why she plans to return to Facebook, but only with some new, self-imposed boundaries.
She will detail how she has changed — how she sees the world around her a little bit differently — since she stopped unlocking her phone and clicking her way to oblivion.
And maybe she will tell this story.
A few weeks ago, Karen stuck in her ear buds, strapped on a fancy running watch that measures her pace and heart rate, and went for a jog toward Elmwood Park.
On the way there she passed an elderly woman waiting for the bus.
“Can you tell me what time is it?” the woman yelled as Karen passed.
Karen raised her hand and waved it right and left, the universal sign for “I don't have time for you.”
She jogged maybe 50 steps past the bus stop when she realized what she had done. And then she did something that she had never done before.
She took out her ear buds. She switched her fancy watch from miles per minute to Central Standard Time.
She turned and jogged back to the bus stop.
“Ma'am, it's 12:19,” she told the old woman waiting for the bus. “I'm so sorry.”
“I cannot imagine how many countless times I have done that, just lost in my phone or buried in technology, tethered to it,” Karen says.
She thinks for a moment about what kind of example that set for her children. She shakes her head guiltily at that thought.
“I can give somebody the time of day,” she says.