After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, my momentum and ambition were waning. I was writing Amazon product listings to pay the bills, freelancing when I could, and looking for jobs. My desire for structure manifested itself in a fervor for making lists: shopping lists, lists of films to watch among the IMDB top 100, games of the year to play. I did it endlessly, vaguely. I put digital library reservations on eBooks I’ve never read and filled my digital shopping carts with items I’ve never purchased. I spent hours on the sites of Target and Best Buy and Bookshop, almost make purchases.
I followed absolutely none of these plans. Instead, I felt a vague sense of emptiness looking at my bank account and a hollow dread at the sight of my growing list of entertainment – which had started to look more like a to-do list. I gathered as a way to give myself purpose. But the makeshift job wasn’t satisfying, and worse, it had left me with a grotesque inbox full of smoldering piles of advertisements.
In the summer of 2021, I reached a ridiculous breaking point. My inboxes were indecipherable. I was tired of the everything-is-a-subscription model, and the way choosing a digital receipt when I bought a Scrub Daddy and a pack of chewing gum at Target meant receiving ads twice a week. I was mad at myself for signing for Mercari in a moment of weakness – used Ganni at this price? – before never visiting the site again. I was exhausted by the constant specter of focusing my attention on something I was supposed to buy, or connect to, or care about.
That’s when I had my first strangely antagonistic reaction to an “updated terms” email from a provider I couldn’t recognize. I took the extra minute to scroll to the bottom of the email and click unsubscribe. I happily ticked “I never signed up for these emails” on the next screen. Then I thought, why not just delete my account and sort myself out completely? It took 20 minutes from start to finish. I couldn’t find a delete button so I had to google it and then download the app to get to a settings screen before hitting “delete”, confirming in my inbox , then delete the application. With that, my profile ultimately gone – and thankfully, the weekly emails too.
This kicked off what would become three months of slowly and systematically erasing my online presence as much as possible. I would compulsively unearth random internet accounts and happily delete my presence from them no matter how hard I tried. I didn’t do this as some sort of stance on privacy – I’m a digital journalist, being visible is part of that – but because I was sick of being alive and the amount of e- marketing emails that involved. It was a hole in which I had dug myself, and which I recognized that it was completely useless to dig myself. But I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t want to stop until I felt a part of me had been redacted, a chapter of life erased from the archives of online life.
Above all, it gave me something to do that felt productive—a feeling I sorely missed, despite working hard hours, writing enough to pay the bills. It has become a sort of informal ritual. There was no real organizational effort. It was like checking my inbox and spying on an updated ad, email notification, or terms of service message from a brand or social platform that I had no interest in having an account. I moved in like a shark that smells of blood, and I stopped when I felt like I had done enough.
At first, each deletion was its own satisfaction, representative of the recapture of a parcel of attention that I had inconsiderately distributed. But the effort to get out of it has not always been easy or satisfying. So many companies make it extremely difficult to delete your account. At its simplest, this meant navigating through an obscuring design to eventually locate a “delete” form. In its most frustrating form, that meant numerous support tickets and phone calls, countless versions of “we’d hate to see you go,” and disputes with my bank.
Over time, the process turned into a meditative ritual. I dug up the habits of my past life, then watched with a kind of detached amusement. I came face to face with every random account I thought I’d use, from DePop to Glassdoor. I had a Skillshare account (I wanted to learn skills!) and a General Assembly account since I lived in the Bay Area and flirted with the idea of working in tech. My Neopets had been starving for 15 years. I had sold so much furniture on Craigslist. I had a very strong Pinterest phase, in 2016, which involved dyeing my hair blue.
So many of these platforms had been meticulously maintained, like raking a Japanese dry garden, before being summarily abandoned. I’ve been living on the internet for as long as I can remember. The pandemic had obviously only intensified what was already true. It also made me work through a lodestone of shame for myself younger – at times I wanted to erase it, in a peak fit of Kylo-Ren-ass. Never read your old Yelp reviews. They are bad.
But I had underestimated how often I also came face to face with memories that meant something to me. There was the roller skate shop in San Diego that I went to with my boyfriend because they had the only pair of skates his size. I had bought a pair of new wheels, but had never found the energy to put them on. I probably should. There was the bookstore where I ordered Real-world crafting, which I had logged into my reading list and tweeted an image of, but never read. I found the name of the pretty saleswoman who sold me my favorite pair of sculptural earrings at a craft fair in 2019 – she had gently manipulated the wire to fit the shape of my face, after trying them. Most of the newsletters or accounts I cared about were for those independent artists or local stores that I really wanted to support.
I also started looking at old hobbies and considered trying them on for size. They didn’t all match, but I found myself finding more love than I expected for the person who had been interested. This didn’t mean that I needed to relaunch the Wes Anderson phase, or the “goodwill furniture flipping” phase. I’d probably go back to blue hair, though – it looked pretty good.
Over time, I stopped deleting accounts. I had gotten what I needed out of it: my inboxes seemed to have recovered from a plague. I wasn’t really picky – when deleting was too difficult they went to the spam filter. That should be enough. My urge to keep consuming had diminished, which was perhaps the side effect of banging my head against so many branded newsletters. My urge to actually do things started to slowly reappear. I put these wheels on my fucking skates. I drove to Joshua Tree and read this fucking book. (I also logged it into Goodreads, but some habits die hard.)
My relationship with the internet is always strained. This is especially true for social media, but also true in general. I still dread email, though scratching the barnacles out of the inbox has given me some breathing room. Lots of accounts still live in places I can’t see. Partly because I couldn’t find them. It’s partly because I literally hid them from myself.
Above all, I’m glad I tried to extricate myself from these narratives – even if it was impossible to do so thoroughly. I thought this would help simplify the many missives I had to work on. But it also helped me rediscover some of the things I once loved and gave me space to rekindle the hobbies I still hold dear.