After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, my momentum and ambition were shrinking. I was writing Amazon product lists to pay the bills, freelancing when I could, and searching for jobs. My desire for structure manifested in a fervor for making lists: shopping lists, movie watch lists from IMDB’s top 100, games of the year to play. I did it endlessly, vapidly. I put digital library holds on e-books I never read, and idly filled my digital shopping carts with items I never actually bought. I spent hours on Target and Best Buy and Bookshop’s websites, almost making purchases.
I followed through with absolutely none of those plans. Instead, I felt a vague sense of emptiness while staring at my bank account, and a hollowing dread at the sight of my growing list of entertainment — which had begun to feel more like a list of tasks. I was collating as a way of giving myself a sense of purpose. But the make-work wasn’t satisfying, and worse, it had left me with a grotesque email inbox, full of steaming piles of advertisements.
In the summer of 2021, I hit a ridiculous break point. My inboxes were indecipherable. I had gotten tired of the everything-is-a-subscription model, and the way that choosing a digital receipt when I bought a Scrub Daddy and a pack of gum at Target meant getting ads twice a week. I was upset at myself for signing up for Mercari in a moment of weakness — secondhand Ganni at that price? — before never perusing the site again. I was exhausted by the constant specter of consuming my attention over something I was supposed to buy, or log into, or care about.
That was when I had my first outlandishly antagonistic reaction to an “updated terms” email from a vendor I couldn’t recognize. I took the extra minute to scroll to the bottom of the email and hit unsubscribe. I gleefully checked “I never signed up for these emails” on the following screen. Then I figured: Why not just delete my account, and disentangle myself completely? It took 20 minutes from start to finish. I couldn’t locate a delete button, so I had to Google it, and then download the app in order to tab over to a settings screen before hitting “delete,” confirming in my inbox, and then deleting the app. With that, my profile finally vanished — and blessedly, so did the weekly emails.
This kicked off what would become three months of slowly, systematically erasing as much of my online presence as possible. I would compulsively unearth random internet accounts, and joyfully delete my presence from them, no matter the effort. I didn’t do it as some kind of stance around privacy — I’m a digital journalist, being visible is part of that — but because I was tired of the being alive of it all, and how much marketing email that entailed. This was a hole I had dug myself into, and one that I recognized was entirely pointless to dig myself out of. But I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t want to stop until I felt some part of me had been redacted, a chapter of life struck out from the archives of online life.
Mostly, it gave me something to do that felt productive — a feeling I sorely lacked, despite working intense hours, writing enough to pay the bills. It became a kind of informal ritual. There was no real organizational effort. It amounted to checking my inbox and spying an ad, an email notification, or an updated terms of service message from a brand or social platform I had no interest in having an account on. I’d move in like a shark scenting blood, and I’d stop when I felt like I had done enough.
At first, each deletion was its own satisfaction, representative of taking back some parcel of attention I had thoughtlessly handed out. But the effort to extricate myself wasn’t always easy or satisfying. So many companies make it enormously difficult to delete your account. At its easiest, it meant navigating through obfuscating design to finally locate a “delete” form. At its most frustrating, it meant numerous help desk tickets and phone calls, countless versions of “we’d hate to see you go,” and disputes with my bank.
Over time, the process morphed into more of a meditative ritual. I’d excavate habits of my past life, then observe with a kind of detached amusement. I came face to face with every random account I thought I’d eventually use, from DePop to Glassdoor. I used to have a Skillshare account (I used to want to learn skills!) and a General Assembly account from when I lived in the Bay Area and had flirted with the idea of working in tech. My Neopets had been starving for 15 years. I’d sold so much furniture on Craigslist. I had a very strong Pinterest phase, in 2016, that involved dyeing my hair blue.
So many of these platforms had been meticulously maintained, like taking a rake to a Japanese dry garden, before being summarily abandoned. I have been living on the internet for as long as I can remember. The pandemic had, evidently, only intensified what was already true. It also made me work through a lodestone of shame for my younger self — sometimes I wanted to obliterate her, in a fit of Kylo-Ren-ass peak. Don’t ever read your old Yelp reviews. They’re bad.
But I underestimated how often I’d also come face to face with memories that meant something to me. There was the roller skating shop in San Diego that I drove to with my boyfriend, because they had the only pair of skates in his size. I’d bought a pair of new wheels, but had never worked up the energy to put them on. I should probably do that. There was the bookshop where I ordered Craft in the Real World, which I’d logged on my to-read list, and tweeted an image of, but never actually read. I found the name of the cute vendor who sold me my favorite pair of sculptural earrings at a craft fair in 2019 — she’d gently manipulated the wire to suit my face shape, after I tried them on. Many of the newsletters or accounts I held onto were for these independent artists or local shops that I actually wanted to support.
I also began looking at old hobbies and considered trying them on for size. Not all of them fit, but I surprised myself by finding more love than I thought I would for the person who had been interested. That didn’t mean I needed to reignite the Wes Anderson phase, or the “flipping Goodwill furniture” phase. I would probably revisit the blue hair, however — it looked pretty good.
Over time, I petered out of deleting accounts. I’d gotten what I needed out of it: My inboxes looked like they’d recovered from a plague. I wasn’t really fastidious — when deleting was too hard, into the spam filter they went. That had to be good enough. My urge to continue to consume had dwindled, which was perhaps the side effect of smacking my head up against so many brand newsletters. My urge to actually do things started to slowly reemerge. I put those wheels onto my fucking skates. I drove out to Joshua Tree and I read that fucking book. (I also logged it to Goodreads, but some habits die hard.)
My relationship to the internet still is fraught. This is especially true of social media, but also true in general. I still dread email, though scraping off the inbox barnacles has given me some space to breathe. Lots of accounts still live on in places I can’t see. Some of that is because I couldn’t find them. Some of that is because I literally hid them from myself.
Mostly, I’m glad I attempted to extricate myself from these accounts — even if it was impossible to do so thoroughly. I figured it would help simplify the many missives I had to work through. But it also helped me rediscover some of the things I’d once loved, and gave me space to reignite the hobbies I still really care about.