Sean O'Connell

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Kicking a bad habit feels so good

Almost two years ago, I created a Reddit account. I had already been a lurker (reading, but not posting) for some time. I don’t recall what it was that finally prompted me to create an account, but I’m almost certain it was to answer a technical question for some stranger on the Internet.

At the time, my wife and I were in the final days of closing on the sale of our house in North Carolina. We were also preparing to embark on a journey around the United States, living full-time on the road in a motorhome. We were sitting on go, ready to take off on our new adventure – but it was all pending the sale of our home.

Selling the house had taken nearly five months and three previous contracts had fallen through due to buyer financing problems. Our scheduled closing on this fourth contract was two weeks away. Every day we were waiting for the phone to ring, and our agent to inform us that we had lost yet another buyer. We had long had everything ready to hit the road, and at that point we were in “wait mode” with a lot of time on our hands.

To say that I needed a distraction and an outlet to relieve stress would be an understatement. I was climbing the walls, mentally speaking. Some people blow off steam by exercising, playing video games, or partying. I get stress relief from solving problems. The more complex or challenging the problem, the bigger the dopamine hit when I solve it. One of my biggest triggers for stress is to have a problem that I cannot solve.

I also tend to use proxies to externalize and deal with my problems. If my mind is feeling disorganized and cluttered, I will pickup and clean my house. The act of cleaning and organizing produces a Zen-like effect in my mind. If I have a problem that I cannot solve (like a home buyer’s potential financing issues), rather than ruminating on the problem I relieve the stress by shifting focus to a problem I can solve. As it turns out, there is no shortage of people on Reddit asking technical questions and looking for solutions, and that is what drew me in.

Time is not on my side

In the end, we did sell the house and take off across America. For the next year and a half we drove around the country and visited many interesting places. In between the adventures (and remote consulting work) there was downtime, and I often filled that downtime reading and posting on Reddit. I frequented many technical subreddits include /r/linux, /r/opensource, /r/networking, and /r/linuxadmin. I also spent a ridiculous amount of time in /r/GoRVing and /r/fulltiming discussing the fun and not so fun parts of RV life.

When I decided to really delve into Emacs as my main working environment, /r/emacs proved to be a valuable resource for discovering new configurations, packages, and other learning material. When I switched my primary desktop and server operating system from Debian to openSUSE, the community at /r/openSUSE was welcoming and informative.

As time went on, my subscriptions to various subreddits sprawled. I would idle away my time looking at desktop screenshots in /r/unixporn. I spent time reading sometimes cringe-inducing posts in “circle jerk” subreddits like /r/minimalism, /r/childfree, and /r/linuxmasterrace. Recognizing that this was becoming a major time sink in my life, I culled back the subscriptions on several occasions. But the net effect was that of simply doubling down on the remaining subs.

Don’t get me wrong, I still found time to get actual work done. I ran my business, I wrote several programs, developed a number of websites, and wrote some pretty technically involved blog posts for my now-defunct #g33kr blog. But throughout all of that, I was diverting time away from productive tasks to less and less productive idling on Reddit.

Rinse, repeat, repeat again

If you spend enough time in any particular subreddit, you will soon find that after a while it becomes repetitive. The same topics are posted again and again. The same questions are asked over and over. The same debates will be had repeatedly, with the same recycled arguments. Someone will posted a link to a current news article about some open source project making a change. Two months later, someone else will post the same article again because they just found out about it themselves.

But the trap with Reddit is that despite the repetitive nature, you’re always looking for the latest posts on the hope that some new interesting topic will come up. I would find myself often clicking from one subreddit to another and then back again, cycling through my list of subscribed subreddits looking for something new. Bored but looking for engagement, I sometimes found myself commenting on posts in which I wasn’t even interested, just to have something to do. I came to really understand how trolling happens, and how tempting it can be to make a provocative comment just to spur further conversation in a lulled thread.

Equity in the relationship

I’m not one of those people who believes that there should be perfect equity in every relationship or interaction. That the credits should always balance the debits, and that you should at least be getting out enough to make up for what you are putting in. I regularly donate my time to help other people without getting anything from it other than personal satisfaction and (occasionally) expressions of gratitude from the other party.

But when relationships become plainly lopsided and over the long term you find yourself running consistently in the red, then it’s time to re-evaluate if the relationship is healthy and beneficial. In the case of Reddit, after about the first six months I was really no longer getting any tangible benefit from the site. I was pouring a lot of my time and energy into the discussions I was having, and getting little in return. It was clearly becoming an inequitable situation.

Culture clash

Reddit skews heavily to the younger crowd, with two-thirds of users being between the ages of 18 and 29. Let’s just say that is not my own demographic, nor has it been for quite some time. Which is not to say that younger people and older people cannot interact and learn from one another – they certainly can. But what it does mean is that I often found myself holding very different views and opinions than other redditors – even within subreddits where you would think we would have a lot of commonality. Before I came to learn the demographic information of the site’s users, I often wondered “why am I the only one who sees things this way?” In retrospect, the reason was simple. I was outnumbered two-to-one by people in a very different stage of their life and subsequently, with very different views of the world.

The Reddit crowd also overwhelmingly favors anonymity in their use of the site. Very few redditors use their real name in their profile or give any personally identifying information. Being able to establish a redditor’s identity is the exception, not the rule. My own views of online identity run counter to that ethos. I post using my real name. My online identity is the same as my offline, real world identity. I just find that operating this way keeps me honest and civil, which are things I want to be.

In contrast, most redditors – protected by the mask of anonymity – are free to lie, distort, insult, deride, and engage in the most vitriolic, uncivil manner of discourse. When the karma on their account reaches subterranean levels they simply discard it, and create a fresh new account with which to troll and cajole. Now to be clear, most redditors do not engage (at least, regularly) in this sort of behavior. But the potential for it is there, and some of the worst users of the site can make conversation very unpleasant at times.

Lastly, (and this is probably due to the age demographic, again) from my experience redditors tend to be overt in the expression of their political beliefs and inject them often into conversations where the subject matter was not even relevant. As an older person, I was raised in an era when “polite conversation” (especially with people you don’t really know well) generally avoided two hot-button topics: politics and religion. To quote one of my favorite musicians:

You’ve got opinions, man. We’re all entitled to them. But I never asked. So I’ll just thank you for your time and try not to waste any more of mine. And get out of here fast.

— Sara Bareilles, King of Anything

If I’m having a discussion about the relative merits of systemd versus sysvinit, injecting Trump into the conversation is rather off-putting to say the least. I just don’t care about your politics, let’s stay on topic.

A grim accounting

In the end, what really killed Reddit for me was when I started reviewing the posts and comments I had made on the site over the course of two years. It had started innocently enough. I had been engaging in a discussion that involved a great deal of back and forth. I was scanning back through comments I had made to confirm that I had actually said what I meant to say. I then saw a different discussion that triggered a memory. Taking a diversion down Memory Lane I kept going back further through my comments revisiting previous discussions. Page. After Page. After Page. There were hundreds, if not thousands of comments I had made on Reddit in hundreds of threads. It took me much longer than I expected to get to the last page in the history.

And that was when it dawned on me: tens of thousands of words written, thousands of man-hours, and what did I have to show for it? Reddit doesn’t have a mechanism for exporting your posts and comments, but even if it did – what value would they have? It would just be a collection of disjointed, incongruent thoughts. Little pieces of conversations long forgotten. What an enormous waste of my time.

How many articles, blog posts, poems, songs, programs, short stories – even novels – could I have produced if I had spent my time doing something more productive than engaging in the same conversations over and over again on Reddit?

And that was when I decided to quit for good.

Ask Cort├ęs for the matches

When I make life changes, I do it definitively. Burn the ships, and the only possible way is forward. Quitting Reddit would be no different. I knew I couldn’t just stop going to the site, because I tried that before in late 2017 and within a week or two I was back. I also didn’t want to just delete my account and leave my posts and comments behind. They would always serve as a history, a reminder, a lure to draw me back one day. I wanted the clean, absolute break that can only come from the certainty of flames. Burn it all.

As it turns out, that isn’t so easy. You can readily “deactivate” (they don’t call it “delete”) your account with a few clicks, but this won’t delete your actual content. Reddit doesn’t provide a way to easily delete your posts and comments, almost certainly in order to discourage what I was about to do. For Reddit, user content is the product. It’s the reason users visit the site. They don’t want to make it easy to reduce the value of their platform.

There are a couple of third-party projects for erasing your Reddit account, one of which is the appropriately named Shreddit. In comparison to long-time and prolific Reddit users with thousands of posts and possibly hundreds of thousands of comments, my data footprint was relatively small. Rather than using a third-party script, I decided to just delete my posts and comments manually. It was a tiresome, repetitive task going page by page through my comment history and clicking “delete” and then confirming “yes” for each one. The process took me a couple of hours to complete.

But at the same time, I found the experience quite cathartic. Each time I clicked “yes” and the comment disappeared, it was like putting away a little piece of a conversation – closing it with a definitive finality. As I worked through each one, I began to feel a little better about all the time I had previously wasted. Each page I cleared was like a further commitment to make better use of my time in the future. By the time I finished the long process of clearing every comment, I felt like a weight had been lifted. When I clicked the “deactivate” button to close my account, I did it with a clear conscience and no sense of regret. Rather than feeling loss, I felt something regained.

Now what?

So now that I’m on the other side of my time with Reddit, what will I do to fill my downtime? The truth is, I don’t really know for sure. I just know that I’ll have a lot more spare time now, and a renewed motivation to fill that time with productive efforts that return lasting value. Hopefully, I will make the most of it.

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