I wrote this article as a series of diary entries, completing each of them as I worked my way through the Orpheus Pledge. Throughout this time period I was also talking with friends and acquaintances about their experiences with the internet, which I later incorporated into my entries.
The story of Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice, is one of the most famous in Greek mythology. In it, Eurydice is killed by a snakebite, and Orpheus goes down to Hell to retrieve her. The depth of their love is so apparent to Hades that he says: “You can have your wife and take her back to Earth, so long as neither of you look back, not even to make sure that she is following.” As they reach the summit, Orpheus turns back, and Eurydice is gone forever.
It was this story that inspired the name of the Orpheus Pledge, an internet detox program created by psychiatrist and professor James Rosenquist along with Michelle Fang, DC ‘22. Rosenquist approaches tech addiction from a behavioral and economic perspective. Michelle cared deeply about the issue and knew how to execute the project, make entry assessments, and ask good questions. Each day of the Pledge asks you to record your time spent on screens, while offering a passage to help you think more critically about your relationship with technology. It is supposed to be taken with a group, complete with weekly check-ins, but I’m embarking on this alone.
The lowest points in my internet journey so far: arguing with an actual fifteen year old over queer theory on the internet. Accidentally slandering the Birds Aren’t Real conspiracy theory movement.
Highest points: 90,000 people watched my video about JoJo Siwa two days ago. Two internet women I love mentioned me on their podcast. People like my queer country songs.
I have just over fifteen thousand TikTok followers, for whom I make videos about Jewish issues, feminism, queer shit, and music. I FaceTime my friends on my phone, I text poorly, and I host a livestream music show. I read advice columns, and I watch ContraPoints. Like so many college students right now, I am bummed the hell out in my childhood bedroom, and rack up most of my phone hours before bed at night and before I can drag myself up in the morning. My new job in country music radio starts in a few days, which anchors me.
I’m mostly trying to decide if the trade-off is worth it, and Michelle and James have offered to to help me untether myself from technology. The timing is perfect.
My first day, I fill out pre-pledge assessments: what do my internet habits look like, and what do I want them to look like? Each subsequent day comes with a thoughtful passage about internet usage, and today the Orpheus Pledge tells me that change is a form of death. Am I ready to kill my old self and create a stranger, as the Pledge demands? It’s all rather dramatic. (Michelle will later explain that the 21-day process isn’t easy, so the first few days are designed to draw you in. You start with big concepts: destroying your old self, identifying with your new self, the gravity behind this process.)
I print out my pledge double-sided, counting the seconds, missing the speedier printers of Bass Library. The Pledge asks that you print it out because they don’t want you conducting your internet detox online or with an app-based product; “A potentially useful metaphor,” they explain, “would be setting an alcohol detox program in a brewery.”
A feature specific to the Orpheus Pledge is that it encourages moderation, rather than quitting the internet entirely. My disposition is better at cold turkey. I was vegetarian for six years and didn’t eat a single bite of meat the whole time, until one day I decided I wanted to stop. I am intrigued by the concept of moderation, weaning off, discipline.
Last night I stayed up late to watch a Swedish Sundance film called Pleasure, and read various Tumblr blogs about pornography afterwards.
I reminisce fondly about my disastrous introduction to feminist theory on Tumblr. My friend Vivian Vasquez, SC ’23, explains how the internet offers her a measure of self-creation, and we bond over our younger selves’ internet experiences. “In high school, I was really active on Quora with an anonymous profile,” she told me. “I curated my identity of myself as someone who was very politically active, openly queer.” Back then, she was bolder than her real-life self, but now the two match up a bit more. “I’m the person now that I was online when I was in high school,” she says.
Today I learned about Hot Spots: you need to remove yourself from situations where you are likely to indulge. “In the presence of a cue or trigger, you shouldn’t expect more from your willpower in those situations,” reads today’s passage.
Michelle explains to me that this was part of her motivation for developing the program: she’s resisting a larger force at work. “We’re basically puppets being manipulated to watch more ads,” she told me. “This platform is not gaining money because of how good it is, but rather how long they can keep us on the app. Facebook puts out more polarizing posts when they can sense you’re about to leave Facebook.”
Jackson du Pont, ES ’22, is one of those people who is deeply conscientious about everything, and he blames the companies too. We agree that social media is just a tool—one that could be used for good or bad. But, says Jackson, “profit-driven companies are designed to create addiction to draw us to these platforms. Is it toxic as in I feel compelled and anxious when I’m not checking social media or Twitter?”
Well, yes. I decide to leave my phone downstairs and work upstairs. If I can’t be convinced to moderate for my own good, maybe I’ll do it simply to buck the system? This work day goes well, too, and I stay off my phone.
Today, I’m supposed to pick out things I would rather be doing with my time than being on the internet. I’ve chosen a walk, a book, and a non-recorded music practice session.
Jeremy Scheck is a friend I met through TikTok; he makes college cooking videos, beautifully narrated and immaculately edited, and has just shy of two million followers. He says that ideally he would like to spend one hour on the internet for social stuff, and two hours for content creation, but right now he spends more time than that.
One of Jeremy’s least favorite things about the internet is that it allows people to hide behind blank profiles in order to argue in bad faith. (In every video, I beg TikTok to take me in good faith; it’s my signature, but it doesn’t always work). I talk to Vivian about the conservative meme account she ran in high school: “There were always people sliding into my DMs asking me about me about my politics back then, being offended by the fact I was openly gay and also identified with the conservative label.” She confesses she’d cringe at 99% of what she posted now.
I ask Vivian if it worries her that certain opinions she no longer holds might still exist as part of her online presence. The longevity of internet content scares me a little: what if I make a song I don’t like but can’t take it down? Or a video is misinterpreted but remains forever part of my internet presence? But in characteristically bold fashion, it doesn’t worry Vivian at all: “[The internet] is a way of archiving all of my thoughts and feelings, and having this record there is more empowering than scary,” she says.
The Orpheus Pledge said something about attention span today that I find compelling, especially since I make internet content that purports to share ideas and information. I follow smart people with thoughts that are new and usually of consequence: communists, feminists, PhD psychology students, teenaged critical race theorists. After half a day of scrolling, I feel like I come away with more knowledge.
But today’s Orpheus Pledge passage explains that even if the internet introduces us to new ideas, there’s no “leading strand of knowledge built.” The Pledge explains that “we eventually expand our knowledge, but in a way that requires our precious attention to jump from one piece of information in one area to another.” This rings true to me. The knowledge I gain is fragmented; I don’t know where it comes from.
But I do think it’s possible to incorporate online-sourced knowledge into a larger pattern of learning deeply. I don’t know where I’d be without my foundational internet content from early high school: wild child advice columnists like Dear Coquette, radical feminists reblogging Judith Butler on Tumblr. Vivian, too, reminds me that the internet was where she (like many before her) first learned about lesbian sex.
Today, there is the question of the check-in: What is the point of opening your apps every few minutes? Why not check them once a day, or every other day? Michelle thinks that the notification is one of the most insidious things that social media companies use to demand our attention and, therefore, to profit.
One week done. Today, I am supposed to redirect my bandwidth to something other than social media. I go on a vibe drive with my brother and we listen to country music to prepare for my job.
Jackson and I talk about the dangers of the feed, the endless stream of content. Some of it is original, but many people just follow trends, making jokes or dance videos in the same format to the same song with slight alterations, until a new trend pops up a few days later. “What are the social consequences of art being repackaged and recreated rather than original?” Jackson asks.
Perhaps one of the larger problems with social media is the degree to which it takes over culture, filling up magazines, rewarding repetition, blocking out space for original content.
I think I’m realizing just how anxious I feel online, and how much I have justified this anxiety to myself. I know this is hugely multiplied for Jeremy, who loves making his content, but doesn’t always like the amount of anonymous vitriol that attends it.
On Day 9, we learn about the “Addressed to Occupant” story: when there’s a huge disconnect between the level of anger someone directs towards you and the level appropriate to your actions, they’re expressing a state internal to them—it isn’t usually about you. Projection. Of course, it’s much easier to do that online, where you don’t even know the person on whom you’re projecting.
Jeremy explains the two strains of hate he receives on the internet. One type of person is just trying to be mean, he says, “which can ruin your day, but at the same time I can kind of just brush that off because this person is clearly unhappy. But I am happy. So that’s okay.” I’m struck by the way he is so secure in his own happiness, able to recognize when he hasn’t done anything wrong. I think it’s a healthy way to engage with other people. Jeremy says it’s a bit harder when something he says is taken out of context.
Neither of us want to be misunderstood, so we spend time clarifying our views in the comments or in another video if some crucial piece of information is lost. To me, it is always worth it to correct this semi-permanent record, but I am definitely not misunderstood this often in real life.
I go several days without completing an Orpheus passage or filling in my screen time. I’m busy with my job and with signing a new lease, which is very exciting. My screen time is not skyrocketing, but I miss Day 10 and then go another few days before continuing the Pledge. I’m sad about this interruption.
Days 11 to 15.
This month, I haven’t been posting to my little platform as much as usual. There’s something a bit frustrating about needing to constantly produce content in order to grow your audience. And growing your audience, at least on TikTok, is addictive: everything on the platform is designed for maximization. But I get the feeling that I’ve said most of what I could possibly want to say about political issues on the internet; this month I’ve shifted to making content mostly about music. I try to post on my own terms rather than in a way dedicated towards as much fast growth as possible.
Vivian and I talk about how the internet fosters insulation from other viewpoints. I think that this is part of why I am tired of posting about politics. Vivian thinks it would be useful if we could figure out some way to break out of the algorithmic bubble. “I don’t want to have a totally different page than someone on straight TikTok… or exist in an entirely different reality than someone else,” she says. I feel this way, too; the issues I focus on have become so granular, so specific to my own internet communities, that I often wonder if I’m introducing anything new to anyone at all. At the same time, I love my bubble of queer internet academics and Jewish musicians. When I’m away from my real-life friends, it feels especially necessary. And some of them become my real-life friends, too.
There’s something refreshing about the point I have reached today. This detox hasn’t reduced my internet time substantially — just by about an hour or so every day, and I’m not quite yet down to the sixty-minute maximum I set as my goal. Still, I feel like I have a lot more time on my hands, and I am making space for other things.
“I think authenticity is why I have an internet presence,” says Vivian. She’s not interested in the values of influencer culture. “I went to a very white, Hollywood-esque school, and [the students] used Instagram in a very superficial way,” Vivian says. “I wanted to use Instagram as a diary.” She says it sometimes scares her that people might be observing and then rejecting her before they’ve even met, but for Vivian that can sometimes serve as a litmus test. She is relaxed and comfortable on the internet, so if someone doesn’t like her internet presence, they might not deserve to see the real her, either.
The comfort of reading and then answering questions about the daily passages the Orpheus Pledge provides is somehow a self-fulfilling internet positivity spiral. The Orpheus Pledge helps you to be more intentional with your time, careful with your little attention span. I’m more able to appreciate the things I do like about the internet.
On the last day, Jackson and I talk about our changing feelings towards the internet, and how intensely the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. “We feel a need to take up time in our days, because of Covid. The internet is more of a vacuum than a cornucopia,” says Jackson. “It’s not providing in the sense that we thought it would.”
I decide that I will probably take the Pledge again later in the year. I would want to do it again with a group, which Michelle explains is essential, since everyone has individual strategies that can be helpful. I ask her for some final advice as I embark on my journey of internet moderation without the daily Pledge scripture to guide me. Michelle tells me there is no one universal strategy. “I would think about how I use my device right now, and how many minutes I don’t need it for, and where are my minutes being lost?”
I’ve talked often with friends this year about the way in which it is within human nature to seek out the things that we need. We’re not wrong for desiring what the internet can give. We’re social creatures who need social connection—to fill up time we can’t figure out how to use ourselves, to play dress-up, and to reach beyond the people we are when alone in our bedrooms.
The problem is that the internet does not always give back what it should.
The Orpheus Pledge comes from a place of deep and abiding compassion. It helps you learn to fulfill the needs that the internet cannot provide for, as well as figure out which ones it can. The Pledge is not perfect, but I am exiting this experiment with a little bit more confidence in my own ability to conduct my online & real-life existence in balance.