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A social-media addict tries to disconnect

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN producer Kiran Khalid spends five days off social media
  • As a challenge, she vows not to read or post updates while on vacation
  • She also locks her BlackBerry away in a safe but feels restless without access to it
  • Khalid: Severing my dependency removed an obstacle to real conversations

(CNN) -- I'm a tweeting fiend. Whether it's quoting Herman Cain or issuing citations for the fashion police -- clear heels to work, really? -- I'm always thumb-typing away.

As a journalist who tweets prolifically, I'm acutely aware of the benefits of social media. My Twitter is connected to my Facebook, I carry two BlackBerrys and when I'm out of the office I'm often obsessing over work e-mail or checking my Twitter and Facebook news feeds.

This can make me an obnoxious dining companion, as my best friend noted resignedly during a recent visit. "I know you only hear half of what I say," she said, looking at her lunch menu. "But it's your job, that's how you stay plugged in." Another friend, a fellow journalist, said he was used to social-media addicts but that I took it "to a whole new level."

So on a recent five-day vacation trip to Antigua, I decided to disconnect from all electronic communications and actually experience what was in front of me instead of tweeting about it. (I know, I know -- unplugging doesn't sound particularly difficult when you're on a beach in the Caribbean. But you're looking at someone who tweeted everything from sunsets to sloths from Costa Rica in July.)

This time, I vowed, I would rid myself of my appalling addiction -- not an easy task for a New Yorker who may have adult ADD -- and chronicle the experience. Here's how it went:

CNN producer Kiran Khalid.
CNN producer Kiran Khalid.

Day 1

I start the day by announcing -- on Twitter, of course -- my intention to unplug for the week: "As soon as they make me turn my phone off, I begin my journey which entails disconnecting from social media and my bberry for the next 5 days. I will be chronicling my withdrawal for your amusement ..."

I get a dozen responses expressing surprise and support. Beyond that, there isn't a major outcry to keep tweeting -- my first clue that the Twitterverse will survive without me.

I land at Antigua's airport, where I'm greeted by warm sunshine, a long customs line and a man playing Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" on a tin drum. All of these observations are ones I ache to tweet. When traveling alone, that's what I do. Even with a companion, I still tweet, then proudly chuckle when a witty friend takes my sarcasm ball and runs with it. Not this time. I am painfully aware of my self-imposed moratorium.

When I tell a tourism official I'm writing a story about "disconnecting to recharge," she smiles warmly. "You've come to the right place."

I share a taxi to my hotel with a Brooklyn woman who says with annoyance, "I'm disconnected because my iPhone gets no signal here." I arrive at the Keyonna Beach hotel to find my room helpfully has no TV, phone or clock. I immediately lock my BlackBerrys away in the safe. Operation Disconnect is moving full speed ahead.

At dinner, the woman at the table next to mine looks unfazed as her male companion checks his phone. I stop myself in mid-judgment, realizing that guy was me at every meal I've had for the past few years. Resisting the urge to cheat -- it's daunting dining alone, without an electronic companion -- I take out my journal and start writing about my day. So far, so good, I think.

Day 2

Breakfast is croissants, fruit and the kind of coffee that's so good it turns you into one of those cranky people who's always lamenting the scarcity of a decent cup of coffee. Perfect, yes? No. I have no idea what the world is tweeting this morning. And that's not the only problem. I'm restless.

Even during this sunset, Khalid was on her laptop, checking her work e-mail.
Even during this sunset, Khalid was on her laptop, checking her work e-mail.

In the seconds after I announced my moratorium on Day 1, a Facebook friend wrote on my wall: "It's awkward at first, but you'll start to enjoy being disconnected fairly quickly."

I had wondered: Why awkward? Now I knew. I'm without a social crutch -- one that allows me to engage with the world, even when I'm alone. In a place known for its pristine beaches, I constantly feel the impulse to share my surroundings with my friends and family.

But it's not an altruistic impulse. I begin to realize it's the reactions to my observations that I find engaging and that I miss. Every time I go for a swim, come back and lie in the warm sun, I reach for my BlackBerry that's not there -- it's become second nature.

That night, I take the hotel manager's advice and take a taxi to a huge reggae party. As a precaution, I take my BlackBerry with me. The whole time the taxi driver is describing the landmarks and vistas we're passing on the 45-minute drive, I'm distracted by a BlackBerry that's essentially off. I've disconnected the phone's Internet, but I catch myself reading old e-mails. Really? When did I become this person?

When I arrive, the party is in full bloom. The outdoor tiki bar is packed and alcohol has prompted some frat boys to dance with the kind of abandon that makes me wonder if Elaine from "Seinfeld" could win a dance-off here. This would be exponentially more amusing if I could tweet it or take a picture and post it to Facebook, but I resist the urge.

Day 3

Without my BlackBerry as an alarm clock, I awake to waves crashing. It's 9:45 a.m. I take my phone to breakfast with me out of habit. During a chat with the hotel's owner I become distracted by my BlackBerry's blinking red light, meaning I have new e-mail.

The old me would pick up the phone and read away without any regard to the person speaking. Rude but necessary, I often reasoned: "It could be work." This time I resist the urge and make a silent observation: "You are obnoxious. But at least you're self-aware."

At midday I move to a different hotel, the Hermitage Bay Resort on another part of the island. Upon arriving I am so overwhelmed by its luxury and lush surroundings, I immediately feel it warrants a massive Facebook update. This would create the mother of all threads. But I can't.

So I cheat, sort of. I opt to e-mail a group of close friends to let them know about this life-altering upgrade, you know, in case they went looking for me at the wrong resort. One friend immediately replies, "Aren't you supposed to be off the computer?!"

Not exactly, I protest. This is a social media embargo, to which I threw in abstinence from my CrackBerry on account of me being socially retarded. What? It was one e-mail!

OK, it was more than one e-mail. After sending that first dispatch from my new glamorous digs, I'm sucked into several exchanges about details of my trip. It's the first time I've traveled completely alone, and my friends are divided between being horrified and impressed.

I'm still abstaining from social media, and the BlackBerry is locked away in another safe. But I feel like a cheater.

Day 4

What a difference a day makes! The urge to Facebook or tweet has all but dissipated. Really, it has.

People used to describe me as a good listener before my BlackBerry addiction took over.
Kiran Khalid

What changed? The guilt I felt for faltering on Day 3 has strengthened my resolve to recommit myself to disconnecting. For now, at least. It seems the longer I go without social media, the less I feel the inclination. In its place, is a sense of calm. I had expected to have symptoms of withdrawal by being disconnected.

If only my friends back home, the ones disgusted by my addiction, could see me now. I am the epitome of willpower. The sensation is akin to eating a healthy meal -- you feel satisfied, though not exactly satiated.

Day 5

OK, so that whole "I don't miss social media" stuff isn't true.It's been four days since I logged onto my accounts and I'm anxious to see what my friends are up to and fill them in on my reclamation-of-sanity tour here in Antigua.

Why the sudden shift? Maybe I have island fever, due to information underload. Yes, it is too such a thing. You've heard of TMI? This is TLI -- too little information. I have no idea what's happening outside of this serene place I've selected as my respite. It's driving me crazy.

Giving in, I head down to breakfast with my laptop. I log on to my CNN e-mail and start devouring the recent developments of the Penn State abuse scandal -- a story that I had covered prior to my departure. Soon I'm replying to e-mails and reaching out to sources regarding other stories in development.

"Mmm-hmm," I hear someone murmur. I look up and see a lovely Antiguan waitress shaking her head disapprovingly at me. I smile sheepishly. "How can you look at the computer when you have all this?" she asks, gesturing towards the sprawling expanse of white sand and turquoise blue water. I nod, click "send" and slam my laptop shut.

Still, by noon I'm fidgety again, pestered by thoughts of who has replied to my e-mails at breakfast. Was my out-of-office reply sufficient, or would my flurry of e-mails lead recipients to think I'm back on the grid? Suffice it to say, my brief rendezvous with Microsoft Outlook has knocked me off the wagon. Still, I've managed to resist the growing impulse to Facebook and Tweet.

At sunset, with a beautiful pink sky over the Caribbean, I break down and check my e-mail again. I'm the worst, I know. Next time I should just vacation at a call center in a windowless warehouse.

Day 6

I'm leaving this afternoon. I feel rested, and despite all my e-mailing the day before, I do think there has been a beneficial disconnect. En route to the airport, I savor views of the ocean and the rolling hills. Already I feel I'm learning to appreciate fleeting moments like these instead of being buried in my BlackBerry.

My two phones stay off through my journey until I touch down back at JFK. Then ... I immediately turn both on and start checking my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

And I tweet: "What I missed during my social media moratorium: egypt unrest, haqqani resignation, new syracuse and sandusky accusers and DWTS winner."

Back to normal?

What have I accomplished in this short foray into freedom from Facebook? I'm relearning how to connect. People used to describe me as a good listener before my BlackBerry addiction took over. I realize that by severing my BlackBerry dependence for five days, I removed a hurdle in my face-to-face conversations.

The flashing red light I used to respond to in seconds no longer competes so urgently for my attention.

I feel like I'm back to normal. I'm giving those I choose to spend time with what they deserve -- my undivided attention. For now.

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