I quit social media. Here’s what I learned …
FORTUNE — My friend Sarah’s home burned down at the end of August. A social worker, she didn’t have renter’s insurance. Her friends immediately started organizing on her behalf. My sister sent around a Facebook invite for a poker tournament to raise funds. Someone else organized a fundraising page on Gofundme.com to help offset the cost of cleaning her belongings. So far, her friends have raised $2,400.
Of course, I missed all of this. “Isn’t anyone doing anything for Sarah?” I asked my sister. I could hear her sigh over the phone.
“When is this social media diet over?” she asked.
Last August, I took a break from social media. With fair warning to my friends and colleagues, I signed off every single social service — Instagram, LinkedIn (LNKD), Pinterest, MessageMe, Twitter, and most crucially, Facebook (FB) — in hopes of discovering what I’ve gained — and lost — over the past decade. I took an extreme approach. I also quit instant messaging services, and I tried to stop texting. Basically, any new social communication service I’d added in the past decade was up for examination. I hoped that my month off would give me new perspective on these technologies about which I write. Here’s what I learned:
SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE PROFOUND: Okay, I already knew this. I have devoted my career to writing about it for a reason. But its absence reinforced its significance. Sarah’s tragedy is an extreme example of the way in which social networking tools allow people to organize quickly and effectively. They brought Sarah much more than money — friends came together to offer couches, dog care, and general support.
MOST TASKS ARE BETTER WITH SOCIAL TOOLS: Many times in August, I longed for the ease of my social network. As more and more services, from the home-sharing site Airbnb to the music-streaming site Spotify, let users access their social connections, I have come to rely on my friends’ decisions to make better judgments about everything from where to stay (Melis stayed in that apartment in Istanbul so it’s probably good) to what’s on my playlist (Shelley’s tastes are particularly good).
SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE MUNDANE: My social sites have become personal 24/7 tabloids, always at the ready via my iPhone (AAPL) to absorb my attention with food photographs and pictures of babies with big bows on their heads. (FYI: Bows are not cute.)
IT’S NOT SOCIAL MEDIA’S FAULT: When September 1 came, I didn’t log onto my social sites immediately. I was certain the task of catching up on a month’s worth of nonessential messages would take hours. I put the task off until Sept. 2, and then discovered that I had screened all of my messages and posts within about 10 minutes. I realized that much of what is annoying about social media concerns my social media habits, not the tools themselves. Just like with any other addictive substance — wine, perhaps, or potato chips — I had to find smart ways to set limits.
Ultimately, my month-long social media diet allowed me to catalogue my own bad habits — to observe the behavior I hoped to changed. Most notably, I’ve leaned on social media to remove myself from offline social situations I find uncomfortable. When I landed at a barbecue where I didn’t know anyone, I found myself reaching for my phone as a way to hide under the guise of doing something “more important.” And I also turned to social media whenever I wanted to avoid really thinking about something. A great example: For the last hour, instead of actually writing this story, I’ve been checking Twitter and Facebook compulsively for updates. I use it to zone out — the same way I might have flipped through bad cable channels back when I paid for cable TV.
Devoid of these habits, I often found myself without a lot to do. This was uncomfortable in a brutal and mundane human kind of way. I might sit on the subway for five to seven minutes, looking at my hands. I might pass the time waiting for a friend at a restaurant by doing, well, nothing. And then, inevitably, my mind would wander and sometimes I’d feel uncomfortable. Louis CK recently described this discomfort to Conan in a particularly eloquent way here, explaining it was part of what makes us human. The takeaway: There is likely value to this discomfort. I’d like more of it (or at least, not less of it).
I waited a month to write this piece. I wanted to see how long the halo effect of my break would last. For several weeks, I was diligent about restricting Facebook checking to once in a day. I posted only on Instagram, my current favorite tool, and I left my phone off, and mostly in my purse. It’s October, and I’ve resumed my full social media diet. Sarah found a new place to live, post-fire. I found a new respect for the tools we all use to navigate our lives online. Still, I am no more confident in my own restraint to use them all too often.