The Times tech columnist ‘unplugged’ from the internet. Except he didn’t.

March 9, 2018

So many writers have produced “I went offline, and here is what I learned” stories that they became a tedious cliché years ago. Cliché or no, however, those stories had one thing in common: the writers of them all actually went offline. Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for the New York Times, took a different tack. He didn’t go offline at all: he just said he did, in a widely discussed column. Manjoo wrote about what he learned from his two months away from social media, and dispensed avuncular advice to his readers about the benefits of slowing down one’s news consumption.

But he didn’t really unplug from social media at all. The evidence is right there in his Twitter feed, just below where he tweeted out his column: Manjoo remained a daily, active Twitter user throughout the two months he claims to have gone cold turkey, tweeting many hundreds of times, perhaps more than a thousand. In an email interview on Thursday, he stuck to his story, essentially arguing that the gist of what he wrote remains true, despite the tweets throughout his self-imposed hiatus.

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It seems likely that Manjoo isn’t lying, and that he really believes he had unplugged, and really believes that his weak-sauce explanations don’t belie the point of his column. It could be that Manjoo’s column really does serve as a warning about the pernicious effects of social media. Just not in the way he meant it.

Supposedly tired of the “misdirection” and “mistakes” that happen on social media as news breaks, and wearied by the constant flow of news on social media, Manjoo decided he needed to slow things down. And so:

In January, after the breaking-newsiest year in recent memory, I decided to travel back in time. I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print newspapers—The Times, The Wall Street Journal and my local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle—plus a weekly newsmagazine, The Economist.

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He got most of his news from the papers, he wrote. His one caveat: he “allowed for” podcasts, email newsletters, and books and magazines.

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But he also “allowed for” continued Twitter use. And not just a little: he tweeted nearly every day during the fifty-eight days of the experiment. During the first two weeks of February, he tweeted, on average, more than fifteen times a day. He refrained completely from tweeting on only five days—all on weekends. That’s far from obsessive, but it’s even further from “unplugged.” It is, in fact, the opposite of “unplugged.”

Manjoo objects to that characterization. “I think it’s clear that I meant I ‘unplugged’ from Twitter as a source of news, not that I didn’t tweet at all,” he wrote.

But he had written, quite plainly, that he had “unplugged from Twitter,” not that he had used it only to post news stories. Reactions to his column on Twitter make it clear that many readers took him at his word.

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But also: He didn’t use Twitter only to post news stories. He retweeted news stories from others and commented on others’ tweets about the news on most days during his period of being “unplugged.” In February, he retweeted Sean Hannity, commenting: “You gotta read this thread, it’s amazing.” He was clearly using Twitter to follow the news—albeit less so than he had been before starting this experiment.

Having laid the groundwork with the notion that he had “unplugged” from social media, and describing how beneficial it was for his mental health, and expressing how much more time he had for the truly important things in life, Manjoo encouraged his readers to follow his example, and rather throat-clearingly issued a Michael Pollan–like heuristic: “Get news. Not too quickly. Avoid social.”

Presumably, readers are encouraged to come up with their own definitions of “avoid.”

A Times spokesperson said the paper doesn’t view his assertion as a falsehood, and won’t be issuing a correction.

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Starting around the turn of the century, Manjoo made a name for himself as an insightful chronicler of the tech world, writing for sites such as Wired News, Salon, and then Slate, where he became well-known enough over his five-year tenure that the Times hired him to be the paper’s lead tech columnist (after a very short stint working for the Wall Street Journal). In 2008, he wrote an excellent, generally well-received, and prescient book detailing the various assaults on facts and truth in our public discourse.

But toward the end of his time at Slate, and continuing to the present day, Manjoo started to become known for his sometimes out-there “takes.” Some of them seem akin to the tin-eared musings of Henry Blodget, the disgraced former stock analyst and founder of Business Insider (a publication that Manjoo once praised as a “rapacious news aggregator”). Others are more like the affected “contrarianism” of Nick Bilton, a former Times staffer who once wrote that pens are just so Squaresville, daddy-o, and also that we should all stop writing “thank you” in email, in part because it’s a time sink.

Manjoo’s last column for Slate was not about technology at all; it was an argument that “men should wear makeup” in which he featured a whole bunch of close-up pictures of himself. Earlier, he had defended BuzzFeed for its decision to publish a video of a man killing himself with a gunshot to the head after a car chase that had aired live on Fox News. “People are talking about a thing on Twitter,” he wrote on Twitter. “Posting stuff people are talking about is what BF does. This is their job.”

Last year, he defended President Donald Trump’s lack of literacy in a column headlined “So Trump Makes Spelling Errors. In the Twitter Age, Whoo Doesn’t?” That one must have done wonders for morale on the Times’ copy desk, which had just suffered a round of layoffs.

Manjoo’s latest column seems to be of a piece with these earlier works. After trying, and failing, to get him to own up to the fact that his assertion that he had “unplugged” from social media was not true, I asked him whether perhaps his use of social media was messing with his own self-perception. He didn’t respond to that question.

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Dan Mitchell is a journalist based in Oakland, California. Follow him on Twitter @thefoodeconomy.