#29: The case for mindless scrolling.
Could social media addictions be a good thing?
Today, I try and make a case for mindless scrolling.
What kind of advice would you give people who need a little more joy in their lives?
A few years back, I made a list of everything that made me happy. When I went back over it, I remember being struck by the fact that the list was dominated by aesthetic experiences.
Strolling through Provincetown. A good lobster roll in Camden, Maine. Listening to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” on repeat as I walked across every bridge in New York City.
Every single one unrecorded or unrecordable, the kind of things that will be totally lost to the ether after I die.
There were no special reasons why these events were particularly enjoyable either. They just were. I liked looking at the architecture in Provincetown. I liked the taste of the lobster. I just like Phil Collins and wanted to listen to that one song over and over and over again. They served no purpose; they’re not sharable; they don’t make me a better person.
I have a suspicion that this is part of why mindlessly scrolling TikTok or Instagram is so appealing. We can monetize our production on these apps, but the consumption is pure leisure. Of course, like television, it’s “fast food leisure,” but it’s leisure all the same.
Its sheer purposeless is what gives it value.
I think it’s important to point out that something like scrolling TikTok for a few hours is vilified not just because it’s perceived as antisocial, but because it’s time where you’re very explicitly not being productive.
Interestingly, one of the most profound (and common) forms of rebellion in the U.S. is languishing in this nothingness. It’s how teenagers piss off their parents. It’s also seen as a feature of both the lowest rungs of the lower class and the highest rungs of the upper class. That is, outsiders that are easily scapegoated.
When you think about it, isn’t it weird how intuitive this connection is? Why should laziness and rebellion (or just being undesirable) be intrinsically linked?
Leisure is seen as tantamount to laziness.
This is time you could be bettering yourself somehow. But not all time has to be spent this way. It’s okay to just be.
Relaxation will often get mixed in with self-help so it’s still somehow productive. Notice how very few spas are just spas, they also frequently have some weird self-improvement angle, too?
People get burnt out not when they’re working constantly, but when their input doesn’t match their output over a long period of time. Any work that has few returns is eventually going to exhaust you.
And here’s where the trick is… not everything can or should be work.
So, if everything is framed as work, even the things aren’t, shouldn’t or can’t be, you’re going to produce less. And worse, you might not even know why.
A lot of relaxing activities are cast as something that should be generative, even if the only thing it’s supposed to be producing is an improved self. This is a great way to drain the fun out of something.
This is also how you end up with people who say things like, “Yeah, but a bubble bath/movie/yoga feels like such a chore.”
It’s because our culture teaches us that these things need outcomes other than just enjoyment. Start stacking experiences like this alongside a 40 hour a week job, and you’re going to run out of steam pretty quickly.
I would gamble that this attitude is also probably why note taking has taken Silicon Valley by storm in the last year or two.
We’re pathologically externalizing things so we know that our consumption isn’t for nothing. People struggle to just read an article or a book anymore for the sake of it. You can’t just know something. Even tweets aren’t fired off just to the hell of it; people pay thousands of dollars to learn how to tweet better. You have to have something to show for everything you do.
The creator economy is another interesting outgrowth of this, especially as we get into the community building side of things. But I’ll save that for another newsletter.
There’s plenty of good advice out there about the joys of volunteering, spending time with friends and family, or even through your work. There’s also incredible joy waiting for you in nothingness.
Do something that doesn’t have to be catalogued. Just for the hell of it. Give yourself permission to be truly useless, at least once a day.