Cyberfairy Magic

by Maud Newton

I’m writing a book on deadline and keeping my job, so most of my day goes to work of one kind or another. Often I tell myself that I can’t spare the time to meet friends for dinner, or to go to a museum or a party or reading. Sometimes I even call in to therapy. And yet, on occasion, on those very same days I’m supposedly too busy to go out, I spend several hours clicking around to random stuff online. “It would be one thing,” I was telling my husband a couple months ago, “if I got to the end of the day and thought, well, I squandered every free second I had on the Internet today, but at least I had a really great time!” I remember when I did feel this way, more than a decade ago, when I was first blogging, but I never do now. I think about how much nicer it would have been to go out and talk to someone.

I rely on a social media blocker called Antisocial to get my writing done. Calling it a social media blocker is misleading, actually, because although the app comes preprogrammed with some obvious culprits like Twitter and Facebook, it allows the user to add any distracting site to the list of banned places. Over time my collection has grown to include nearly any website I visit routinely for any purpose, including newspapers, my bank, the New York Public Library, and this very website. I leave my email free, a window out.

One Saturday morning last month, I woke, abluted, made coffee, and set the app to block for eight hours — the maximum. A window popped up, saying “Antisocial wants to make changes.” I typed in my password, pressed enter, and started working in my document, and the window popped up again. Again I typed in my password. Again the window disappeared briefly, only to reappear. This happened twenty or thirty more times, and then I did a forced shutdown. When I turned on the computer once more, the sites were blocked.

Through the day and into the night I wrote. The sites were still inaccessible when I went to bed, and again when I got up in the morning. For for the next day, and then two days and three, I dreaded the moment that they would become available to me again. From my phone, I checked Twitter, looked at Instagram, paid some bills. On my iPad, iPad I caught up on the news and read a couple articles someone sent me. But on my computer, I wrote, and not much else. I kept the mobile devices in the next room.

Soon a week had passed, then ten days. There were sites I needed to be able to access for my book project, sites that don’t really work on mobile devices. My pet food order was late, and I hadn’t checked on my library queue. Still, I felt like a character in a fairy tale; I didn’t want to dispel the magic of the cyberfairies.

I’m not sure exactly how many weeks passed in this way, but finally, several days ago, I really did have to do some research on my laptop, so I emailed the app’s developer. He explained that they’d sent out a message I must have missed, a warning that the app wasn’t compatible with the operating system I’d recently installed. They’d updated the app since then. In his message were links to two apps, one to clear the existing blocks, and one to update Antisocial. I ran the first, so I can once again go anywhere I want on the Internet.

But I haven’t been able to bring myself to run the second. Instead, I keep compiling and amending a long list of sites from which I’d like to ban myself forever. I’m not sure the Internet will ever seem more full of possibility than it does to me at this moment.

Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.

Photo by Martin Eckert.