Is the Offline You a Better Person? One Man Finds Out

There’s a Liz Phair lyric that sums up tech journalist Paul Miller’s year without the internet: “…if you do it and you’re still unhappy, then you know that the problem is you.” The story of the 26-year-old Verge editor’s experiment is a subject of fascination in the press this week. Suffering from burnout and quarter-life existential angst, Miller cut himself off from online access. He downgraded to a dumb phone, delivered assignments via thumbdrive, and contacted sources, friends, and family by phone instead of email or Skype. And he kept that up for a mostly painful 365 days.

There’s a Liz Phair lyric that sums up tech journalist Paul Miller’s year without the Internet: “…if you do it and you’re still unhappy, then you know that the problem is you.”

The story of the 26-year-old Verge editor’s experiment is a subject of fascination in the press this week. Suffering from burnout and quarter-life existential angst, Miller cut himself off from online access. He downgraded to a dumb phone, delivered assignments via thumbdrive, and contacted sources, friends, and family by phone instead of email or Skype. And he kept that up for a mostly painful 365 days.

The not-quite-digital native had been earning his livelihood online, he says, ever since starting a Lindsay Lohan fan site as a teenager. In an essay on the Verge, as well as in a 16-minute “Finding Paul Miller” documentary and in numerous interviews including with MSNBC, CNN, and the Today Show, Miller describes his net-addicted behaviors: half-listening to conversations with one eye on his text messages, staying home to surf instead of going out for face-to-face socializing, and feeling too distracted to write long feature articles or finish reading a book.

He hoped checking out of the virtual world for the first time in 12 years would enable him to get to know who he is without it, and to understand how it was impacting his productivity and creativity. Miller admits to feeling “a lot of pressure to do something by age 27,” and to having a fear of reaching 30 “and I’m still single and still can’t write longer than 1,000 words.” Plus, he planned to make up for skipping college by reading the Great Books during his Internet fast.

Instead, 11 months into the experiment he tells a videographer, “I feel overwhelmed because I don’t seem to be in sync with the human race.” He realizes there might be “deeper reasons for my problems” than constant connectivity. “I’m kind of a depressive,” he says on camera. “Some of the loneliness and boredom that came from leaving the Internet let me know that my problems are more internal than external.”

Miller says he did expand his attention span enough to get through a long book and felt like he was “practicing the muscle of patience” without having instant clickable access to every desire. But he also says, in a sincerely confessional video, that he spent a lot of time on his couch playing video games, failed to finish the draft of his novel, and still can’t write an article longer than 1,000 words. In all, “it was not a transformative experience,” he says.

His advice to others considering World Wide Web banishment: “Find something you want to do and disconnect to do that.”

The best advice Miller seems to derive from the experience comes at the end of his year when he makes a roadtrip detour to visit Justin McElroy, founding editor of the video game publication Polygon. Captured in the documentary, McElroy jokingly worries that after a year offline his friend might be vulnerable to Nigerian princes offering great investment opportunities. But he also tells Miller, “I started having more success when I stopped feeling like there was a narrative to my life. …Once you let go of that idea, you stop seeing yourself as the most important thing in your narrative. You see yourself as more of a component.”

Miler seems to get it. Announcing his return to the virtual world, he says, “There’s only so much navel gazing one guy can do.” As a followup to his “Goodbye Internet!” tweet of April 30, 2012, on May 1, 2013, Miller tweeted “jk” and 66 more thoughts that day.

It might not be quite the level of greatness he hoped to achieve, but with all the media attention, Miller is getting his 15 minutes of fame at age 27 after all. In an interview with CNN, he said of the internet, “It’s just such a wonderful invention.”

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