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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 7, 2014 at 8:00 PM

His year of online silence: A popular blogger braces for reentry

"It became my job to be Online David Roberts."

“I spent the last 10 years asserting myself on the Internet. By the end my job was being David Roberts On The Internet. Which I kind of liked.”

I sat down to lunch with David Roberts on Thursday expecting nothing but wisdom.

“Everybody badly wants me to come back enlightened,” Roberts laughed, picking at a blackened salmon sandwich.

Last fall, Roberts wrote a popular blog post I read with envy and awe.

He wrote that he was taking a year off his job as a snarky, well-read staff writer at Seattle-based green magazine Grist.org.

He was signing off his work email, uninstalling Facebook and Twitter — where he posted 30 times a day to nearly 37,000 followers — and abandoning pretty much all obligations to the busy digital world that has so many of us checking in, like it or not, day after day after day.

His work was fun. His lifestyle was crazy. It was time to reset.

“I think in tweets now. My hands start twitching if I’m away from my phone for more than 30 seconds. I can’t even take a pee now without getting ‘bored,’” Roberts wrote then.

“The online world, which I struggle to remember represents only a tiny, unrepresentative slice of the American public, has become my world. I spend more time there than in the real world, have more friends there than in meatspace.”

His readers could relate.

“Across the Internet, people nod in recognition,” one wrote in a comment.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 4.47.13 PM

Roberts on the bass guitar. (Courtesy David Roberts)

Roberts on the bass guitar. (Courtesy David Roberts)

The David Roberts I had lunch with was 25 pounds lighter than that David Roberts. He had biked to our meeting at the 74th Street Ale House in Greenwood after spending the morning working on his yard, and would be back to see his 10- and 8-year-old sons, Griffin and Huck, get home from school.

Offline David Roberts goes to hot yoga, plays bass guitar and walks 10,000 steps a day — hobbies that don’t involve staring at a screen.

His fans praised him for having the “courage” and “clarity” to disconnect for his own good.

But he has no idea, he told me, if he has steeled himself at all for a reunion with Online David Roberts in September.

He’s afraid he’ll pick up right where he left off.

“I was frazzled. I’d like to be better equipped to not be frazzled all the time,” he said. “But am I better equipped? I don’t know.”

Roberts’ year off social media is a public example of what University of Washington professor Kirsten Foot calls “pushback.”

In a paper published this month in the International Journal of Communication, she traces the online conversation about digital resistance to 2009.

Five years later, Edward Snowden is spilling surveillance secrets, articles strategize healthy tech habits, and people like media mogul Arianna Huffington tour the country telling horror stories of too much connection.

Kirsten Foot

Kirsten Foot

Talk of pushing back is now mainstream. Sixty-one percent of Facebook users said in 2012 they had taken a multiweek break from the site.

But whether it’s privacy, addiction or finding more balance between work and home, Foot believes all pushback is driven by a “deep-seated, widespread unease.”

Roberts hasn’t come up with a lot of big answers from his year of online silence. But he’s made a lot of observations. How nice it is not to have an opinion about everything. How dedicating himself to immediately beneficial real-world activities — even just washing dishes — feels more productive than work. How much he enjoys watching 8-year-old Huck re-enact Little League Baseball games in the yard.

“My year has been … I don’t want to say lonely, but alone. Which has been nice,” Roberts said.

He still composes tweets in his mind in perfect 140-character chunks, “like a musician who knows where the fret is without looking.”

And he knows what it will take to re-emerge with the control to live the way he wants to. To dismiss distractions. To make time for the real world. To write a blog post when he’s writing a blog post. To spend a lot fewer than 10 to 12 hours a day on a screen and have a lot more to show for it:

Mindfulness.

But in a world built on the “ping-ping-ping buzz” of constant information, it’s not knowing what to do that’s hard, he said.

It’s having the guru-like discipline to do it.

“Do you have to be enlightened just to get by these days?” Roberts asked no one in particular.

It’s a wiser question, I think, than he realized.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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