A new digital magazine forces you to unplug from the internet

February 26, 2018

At first glance, it seems like the ultimate paradox: A magazine that exists only on the internet, filled with content that can only be consumed once a would-be reader has disconnected from the internet. But that’s exactly the kind of contradiction founder Chris Bolin says he was going for when he created his new magazine, The Disconnect, which launched in February.

When you first visit the site, you are greeted by what looks like the cover of a regular online magazine, but over top of it is a pink banner that says: “Please disconnect from the Internet. This is an offline-only magazine of commentary, fiction, and poetry.”

After disconnecting, the site instantly reveals itself, looking very much like a standard online magazine. There are short stories, essays—including one that argues getting away from the Internet is an option available only to the privileged—and poems, as well as an editor’s letter explaining the rationale behind the magazine.

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“The theme of this issue is straightforward: humans and our technology,” Bolin writes. “Every piece in this issue describes an encounter with technology, whether it’s intentional or inconsequential, constructive or devastating. You’ll find a poem about a conflicted hunger for silence, a tale of monetizing the dead, and an exposition of the future of digital divides.”

Bolin tells CJR he isn’t some kind of internet-hating Luddite determined to show how evil technology is. In fact, he’s a computer programmer by day, one with no real background in media or publishing literary magazines. So why did he decide to create one that makes such a dramatic point about the need to disconnect?

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“I created it in part because I think it’s funny to use irony in that kind of way—to have a piece of the internet that forces you to leave the internet,” he says. “To create something new that functions as commentary but is also participatory, in that it forces you to participate by disconnecting. I liked that idea.”

The site takes advantage of a function built into most web browsers, which detects whether a user is connected to the internet or not. There are ways around that, Bolin says—for example, a user could put the browser into developer mode and tell it to pretend that it is offline—but he figures most people probably won’t go to those lengths. Plus, the request to disconnect is mostly designed to make a point.

“I guess it’s kind of like a paywall,” he says. “But it’s more of a pay-attention wall.”

So how does a user get access to the magazine if they’re no longer online? All of the content is downloaded when a user first visits the site, but is blocked from view until the browser says it is no longer connected. The entire magazine is only about 250 kilobytes in size (about the size of a single small photo), because there are few images and no advertisements.

Bolin says he would like to broaden the range of content in the magazine by commissioning non-fiction for future issues, but first he has to come up with a way to pay writers. All of the content for the first issue was provided free of charge, either by people he knew already or in response to an open call for submissions that he made on Twitter.

Options for funding that he’s considering are sponsorships or some form of crowdfunding, Bolin says, and if he can manage it he said he would like it to become a quarterly.

“I guess it’s kind of like a paywall,” he says. “But it’s more of a pay-attention wall.”

Bolin says he was driven to create The Disconnect in part because he noticed his own tendency towards a kind of internet addiction, where you find yourself following link after link for no real purpose, until you look up and see that hours have gone by.

There are a number of different apps and services that are designed to help users focus on a task, but Bolin says he personally finds that sometimes the only way to really get away from that kind of distraction was to actually pull the plug, something he says he did occasionally while writing his graduate thesis. “It’s disconnecting as a way of saving you from yourself.”

He first experimented last year with a standalone site called Offline, which contained a single essay by the same name that talked about the need to disconnect. Like the magazine, it can only be viewed once a user has disconnected.

In the essay, Bolin writes, “I have spent hours caught in webs of my own curiosity. Most dangerous is the split-second whim: ‘I wonder what the second most commonly spoken language is?’ Those 500 milliseconds could change your day, because it’s never just one Google search, never just one Wikipedia article. Disconnecting from the internet short-circuits those whims, allowing you to move on unencumbered.”

The internet is a great tool for information, he says. “But it’s not really designed for people—or rather, it’s designed for perfect people. If you were a machine, you could decide which links you see are relevant to your task and just follow those. But for human beings, the unknown is always more interesting than the known, so maybe you open a link in another tab, and then more. It’s kind of the thrill of the hunt.”

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One response he has gotten to The Disconnect is a kind of sarcastic suggestion that if he really wanted to create something where people couldn’t read it online, he could have just published a regular printed magazine.

“Yes, the sardonic take I’ve gotten from some people is ‘Hey, congratulations, you’ve invented a magazine,'” he says. “But in this case in order to get it, you don’t have to order it, you don’t have to go to a newsstand, you don’t even have to have a physical address, you don’t have to waste trees, and you can share the link with others. So there are a lot of added benefits that come from being online.”

Bolin says when he was building a site for The Disconnect, he deliberately didn’t build in support for traffic-measuring services like Google Analytics, because the theme of the magazine was disconnection, but he recently looked at the data from the server he uses to host the issue and found that more than 50,000 unique visitors had been to the site in the first two weeks it was up.

The bottom line, he says, is that “I don’t think the internet is bad—in fact, I think it is very good. It does a great job of connecting people who would never be connected, and creating business opportunities, and so on. It’s overall a good thing, just like the printing press was a good thing. I just think we should reflect on it a bit.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.