r/NoSurf: A Subreddit for the Very Offline
Cyberbits #6: The quest to use the internet less
Welcome to another weekly edition of Cyberbits—a weekly curated newsletter of fascinating finds on the internet, from random Reddit threads to weird webpages.
I spend a lot of time online and I’m fascinated by people who don’t. This week’s edition explores r/NoSurf, an online community encouraging internet users to unplug, a look into the Online Fame Machine, and Twitter threads as a storytelling art form.
This week I published an interview with Nadir Matti, the 20-year old Founder behind Study Together, a Discord community that’s grown to over 150K members in 15 months. He talks about how he grew the community so quickly, why he picked Discord, and how he keeps students coming back. It’s available for paying Cybernaut subscribers.
A paid subscription to this newsletter gets you access to interviews like the one above, as well the entire Every bundle of newsletters and podcasts, including Glassy, Means of Creation, The Long Conversation, Talk Therapy, Napkin Math, and many more! You’ll also get access to our Discord community—this week, I spoke with Nathan Baschez in a live chat about all things internet writing. The community also chatted about online satire and Ghost Knowledge, a new platform where you can request articles from experts.
r/NoSurf: A Subreddit for the Very Offline
As someone Very Online, I’m privy to the latest meme (plus twenty of its permutations), know the trending topics of the day, and of course, I saw that tweet. Being in the know is one-part smug satisfaction and one-part sheepish embarrassment; I’ve seen the TikTok before it hit the group chat, but there’s a certain inanity in being entirely too caught-up on The Discourse, one that largely doesn’t matter.
Sometimes I encounter someone who’s the opposite, Very Offline, in a meeting of the minds that feels foreign: they didn’t read any Bean Dad takes, they don’t “miss Nuzzel” or even know what that was, and the name Yashar Ali elicits a blank stare.
Started almost 10 years ago in 2011, NoSurf is part-community and part-movement encouraging people to unplug in the quest for a better life:
“No Surf is a community of people who are focused on becoming more productive and wasting less time mindlessly surfing the internet.”
The all-encompassing nature of the internet is a topic of constant conversation in NoSurf, as members describe how they get tangled in the web for hours at a time. They tell familiar stories about everything from monitoring the fluctuations of crypto to burrowing deep into internet rabbit holes looking for a drill.
The term “internet addiction” is used frequently, and in one thread a user announces their return to the community after a “huge long relapse.” Users as young as eleven describe their struggle to stay offline as the internet beckons them to showcase their lives on Instagram instead of doing homework. Many members are self-described time wasters: porn addicts, video game compulsives, and iPhone enthusiasts. Some spend upwards of 10 hours a day on their mobile device and share the Screen Time screenshots to prove it.
As the internet has pervaded every aspect of our lives, a backlash is evident in places like NoSurf where members speak of “going off the grid” and “dopamine fasting.” But it's not just a tiny band of rebels. From the “internet shabbat” to the “digital detox”, disconnection has become its own industry. The tension observed throughout NoSurf—between the compulsive desire to be online and a desperation to escape the online vortex—is widely acknowledged as a problem. Jean M. Twenge, an author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has pondered on whether smartphones have ruined a generation, citing data on how the release of the iPhone is correlated with teenagers spending less time with their friends, dating less, and feeling more lonely. From Bill Davidow’s Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet (2011) to Carl Newport’s Digital Minimalism (2019), there’s no shortage of information warning of the dangers of being online and unplugging as the path to salvation.
Browsing through No Surf’s communities, it’s hard to dismiss these claims as entirely hyperbolic or completely unfounded. Struggles with moderating online use are apparent—from people in dire need of sleep who can’t seem to stop scrolling to hating social media and continuously coming back.
NoSurf eschews instant gratification and encourages users to explore the world on “the other side of our screens.” A key part of the community is a NoSurf activity list, a resource detailing things to do when a lack of online activity leaves a void: baking, reading, writing, tabletop gaming, and origami are all recommended.
The official advice from NoSurf on curbing internet obsession is often practical:
- Install blocking software to make distracting websites inaccessible; it’s unrealistic to rely on willpower alone.
- Fill your life with fulfilling activities; “there's a whole world out there on the other side of our screens.”
- Read their recommended books; from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.
- Seek professional help; the Subreddit isn’t equipped to help individuals who are facing off with a “serious medical-grade internet addiction.”
But the advice that users dole out and the measures they take themselves are usually more extreme: substituting an Android phone for an old-school flip phone, deleting all social media accounts, half-joking half-serious musings on trips to deserted islands. At times, the community veers into the puritanical—is listening to a podcast being “online”? How about following along with an audiobook? Well, it depends.
Being Very Offline is a sign of success; an escape from mindless scrolling and an embrace of meaningful activities. Those who have successfully navigated online disconnection share their own experiences to motivate their fellow unpluggers:
“my screen time (on useless stuff) has gone from 11-13 hours a day to around 1-3 hours its stayed down for a week now!! ive had ups and downs, n i dont doubt itll slip back, but i know im getting better and better.”
“Its been almost 3 months since I broke my fancy smartphone. I switched to the old one with broken screen and potato speed internet. I'm using it only for texting and calling...”
“I'm 14, and like any other humanoid apart of my (terrible) generation, I used to be on my phone ~5hrs a day. I struggled with it a lot during quarrantine. Skipping homework and all. I recently started using an app blocker with a "strict mode". My grades are at almost all-A's. I can do anything now. I'm so free.”
For members of NoSurf these success stories are an encouraging window into what’s possible, a future where they’re no longer held back from their achievements and can realize their goals without distractions.
But there’s a certain irony in discussing disconnecting ad nauseam on another online site—a contradiction that feels inadequately addressed by the community:
“Fortunately we can meet and discuss advice, struggles, and solutions with each other using the internet. Subscribing to this subreddit and being exposed to other people's experiences feels like an insignificant action, but is actually the first small step of what could be a significant and lasting transformation.”
Part of what’s so compelling about the internet, and why I write about it, is precisely what they mention: the extraordinary ability to observe, learn from, and connect with people you otherwise wouldn’t. I’m sympathetic to the notion that tech platforms use growth and engagement to hook us, but stop short of the idea that we lack agency to tailor our internet use. I can understand the dangers of overuse, but am not compelled by the drive to entirely unplug.
That said, seeing people embrace the idea of being Very Offline reveals how many of us are grappling with the feeling that our devices control us, and not the other way around. While the internet has the extraordinary ability to connect us and allow us to peer into different worlds, some are desperate to stay footed in the physical world and leave the digital behind.
Tweet Threads as an Art Form
One of the primary criticisms of Twitter is the 280 character limit. It erases nuance, incentives outrage, and flattens the 3D-world into one dimension. But constraint breeds creativity and Twitter threads that unfold one tweet at a time can be a medium for telling stories that are beautiful, hilarious, or shocking.
Here are a few of my recent favorites (and classic) story tweet threads:
- The recent trending tale of one man's punishment after coming in last place in his fantasy football league: a 24-hour stay in a waffle house that he can reduce by eating waffles.
- A long saga of a rice delivery order gone terribly wrong, complete with dramatic drivers, heated negotiations, and family chronicles.
- Told by her son, a fascinating story of a smoking, drinking, card-playing woman with ten kids who lived out the last 31 years of her life as a nun in a monastery.
- Originally penned in 2015 and since deleted from Twitter, this wild tweet thread about the fallout between two stripper friends is riveting and was recently adapted into the film Zola.
- Treated with both levity and gravity, a fascinating thread on a two-week stint in jail.
The H3 podcast, hosted by Ethan Klein and Hila Klein, has returned from hiatus! Their first guest back was Bella Poarch, TikTok sensation and Billboard-charting singer. She has the most liked TikTok on the platform and her debut song, “Build a Bitch”, is the #1 music debut in YouTube’s history. She opened up about her heartbreaking childhood permeated with mental and physical abuse, her time in the US Navy, struggling with mental health, and her meteoric rise to fame that she ✨manifested✨.
It’s an inspiring story of perseverance worth watching, especially since Poarch rarely speaks in her TikToks. But it's also a fascinating glimpse into the Online Fame Machine. After just one viral TikTok, influencer management companies started courting her immediately. She chose her current agency because they were the only ones who would meet without her signing a contract. This anecdote is insight into how management companies can attempt to trap young creators who don’t know any better—fortunately Poarch did. Artists like Megan Thee Stallion have been less lucky.
Internet Article Archive
The Land Where the Internet Ends (2019) — Speaking of Very Offline, Pagan Kennedy previously penned a fascinating piece on how the internet is expanding across the wilderness—national parks, backwoods, and dirt roads—making solitude impossible and the online world inescapable.
“When we talk about privacy, we tend to think about people spying on us online and harvesting our data. But just as dangerous — perhaps more so — is the way that the omnipresent, in-your-pocket internet can coax us into destroying our own inner wilderness.”
Do you fall into the Very Online or Very Offline camp? I'm curious to hear from you on whether you feel the the need to disconnect from your devices and the digital world!
Have a lovely weekend,