hckr.fyi // thoughts

Communicate with People Instead of Networks

by Michael Szul on

This essay was originally published on Codepunk and represents a "best of" of some of my work on that project.

Sorry. I deleted myself from social media completely for a toxicity break.

I knew the feeling, so I highly sympathized. I had recently taken to reviewing my multiple collections of digital contacts, and emailing a few to get updated information. One of my longtime digital compatriots—Chris Joseph—had emailed that line back to me. We emailed back-and-forth a few more times.

Email. We used email. I slowly came to the realization that I hadn't done this much recently, feeling like email was a burden of communication instead of an enabler. I felt that it was slow. I felt like nobody used it anymore but stuffy academic types. It was a necessary evil at work, slowly being replaced by Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Ben Brown sends me "zines" in the mail. I look forward to them. They're filled with the crazy thoughts that could only come out of his own head. They're an excellent physical compliment to his other creative outlets.

There are two things involved here. Ben expends creative energy creating a physical thing in the real world—something resembling the underground newsletters of our youth (Ben and I are around the same age). His process includes line art, scanned images, mixed media, and a simple printout that he hand cuts to create mini-booklets.

The second thing involved… is waiting. You anticipate the Benzine and it's always a fun surprise in the mail when it shows up. Yes, he physically mails it to friends and subscribers. You appreciate the effort. Sometimes I let it sit on my desk for a few days so when I see it, I can hold onto the anticipation of reading it.


Closing down my Kindle a few weeks back, I took to the markdown editor (currently using Abricotine) to discuss my thoughts on Cal Newport's Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You.—both of which I finished with high distaste for the productivity guru feel. But there are gems in Newport's Deep Work that make it worth the read even if it won't change your life. The simple advocacy of getting off of social media is a common refrain from digital minimalists and slow web advocates. At least turn off your notifications.

There is a certain technological hipster (and privileged) attitude that comes with the digital detox crowd. I don't believe in digital detox. I do believe in distractions and limiting said distractions. Newport has two points about social media that could be written on Post-It notes. The first is that having social media open constantly creates easy distractions that prevent you from deep work. If you're trying to accomplish a task, close down your social media, close down your instant messengers, and close down your email. I wake up at 5:15am every morning, and I work from 5:30am to 8:30am without checking any email and with all distracting notification removed.

As a manager of people who still has to code, I find myself engulfed in a tidal wave of shallow work and meetings that leave little room for depth of coding. The additional distractions of open emails, checking Twitter, or seeing who's all over my LinkedIn doesn't help. When your code is compiling, it's easy to pick up your phone or launch a browser. Even the default "new tab" page of Firefox is loaded with news stories that can pull your attention from what you launched that new tab for and send you down a rabbit hole of articles and news.

The web is being built for distraction—even non-profit browsers apparently—so I decided to make a significant effort to reduce it. I try to keep my email off as a much as I can (sometimes impossible as a manager), and I only check Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn once or twice a day. Usually, my morning regimen is something like this:

Three hours of high quality programming before the daily email routine and since I'm already distracted by the emails, I'll check what's happening on Twitter, etc.

I don't completely stay off of social media. But I do make sure it's on my own terms, which is one of the founding principles of the slow web crew.

The second, more intriguing point that Cal Newport tries to make is to be comfortable with being bored. His premise is that if we're constantly checking our phones, emails, and social media feeds when we're in line at the grocery store, when a TV show goes to commercial, or when we're… in the bathroom… then we're training our brain to be okay with distraction, which will ultimately make it easier for us to get distracted when we do need to get deep work accomplished.

Looking over at my wife and the consistent glow of the cell phone screen while we're watching a movie together made me realize the tendency to plug in ever time a movie scene bordered on slow. The inability to sit still. The inability to relax. The inability to be comfortable with boredom.

Nobody should have to feel separation anxiety from a phone application. This fear of missing out (FOMO). It only took a day or two for that feeling to subside when I removed all social media applications from my phone (except for Instagram… I like the art pics). Every once in a while I found myself with a snappy phrase to tweet before realizing I can't unless I boot up my computer. That's okay. I didn't need to tweet it anyway. Occasionally, I miss the perception of instant communication and broadcasting my thoughts, but let's be honest, nobody really reads social media that much. It's more an echo chamber.

I certainly don't miss the anxiety from Twitter's trending topics—an ever-flowing stream of COVID-19, California wildfires, and asinine or dangerous statements by the current government administration.

Of course I can't find any envelopes, so I have to make a quick trip to the Dollar General (I feel dirty just typing that) to pick up something that can carry a few acrylic pins. With 50% of the envelopes out of stock I come back home with large envelopes and some bubble wrap. Wrapping up some Codepunk stickers and some emoji bot pins, I ridiculously stuff them in the envelopes and out to the post office we go.


My address book is in a sad state of affairs, and at this point, I'm just shipping some paraphernalia to Codepunk co-creator Bill Ahern, and I wanted to return the favor to Ben Brown for all the stickers he tossed in my direction.

Two things to make mental note of: I'm buying too many random things from StickerMule and I pretty much don't have a clue where anyone lives.

I don't have anyone's email address…

I stared at my contact list. Already realizing that my collection of snail mail addresses amounts to 3-4 friends and a handful of family members, now that I'm disengaging from regular Twitter and Facebook activity, I realized that my first line of communication defense is a contact list scant of email addresses, having relied too much on Facebook Messenger or Twitter DM's for casual communication.

It was time to do some culling, and I broke out the Gnome Contacts app (I'm currently running Pop OS on a System76 Linux laptop). The Gnome Contacts app uses the Gnome Online Accounts service under the hood, so it hooks into various online services. The Microsoft integration is either limited or broken, but Google integration works just fine. I didn't want to create only an on-disk address book, but instead consolidate a few messes into a single online repository that could be exported.

My contacts are a mess. My Google contacts are incomplete and it looks like my Microsoft (Outlook.com) contacts are also incomplete. Apparently my iPhone is holding onto a few separately as well.

The worse part? I made the mistake of integrating Facebook, LinkedIn, and whatever other connected accounts were offered. The result? Several incomplete address books with a mashed together list of friends, family, colleagues, and random LinkedIn people. Some of these contact cards had no email addresses. Some had no phone numbers…

There was some work to do.

I started by eliminating contact entries with no emails or phone numbers. What's the point of holding onto an empty contact? I then started removing stale contacts, removing people I really didn't know, and other exceptions to the rules of communication. I wasn't interested in an address book full of people I would never talk to. I wanted an updated address book of people I could communicate with through email—outside of the algorithmic boundaries of social media.

Once I cleaned up my Google contact list inside of Gnome Contacts, I moved onto Outlook.com—exporting the list and importing them into Google. This resulted in additional duplicates and some clean-up needed. Once done, I moved onto the iOS stragglers. Talk about an arduous process.

I haven't touched Linux in more than 15 years. When I decided to pick up this System76 laptop it was supposed to be a personal machine for supplemental hacking, but it quickly became my primary machine. I felt at home in the environment, and even though Mandrake Linux (and previously Red Hat) was my primary distribution, the Ubuntu-based Pop OS from System76 was solid enough for me to toss them a small donation for upkeep. Application installation and maintenance was much easier than decades past, and although the Gnome UI remains mostly the same, there have been enough tweaks in Gnome 3 for me to feel continuous progress.

Gnome in particular has a series of applications and integrations written primarily in Vala—a C#-like language for the GTK that, together with Gnome 3, has spawn almost Windows-like specific applications for common usage: Geary, Contacts, Calendar, Gnome Music, etc. Not all of these were started with Gnome 3, and some of the items have an underlying dependency on applications originating from Ximian (later Novel and still later Gnome) Evolution—freshly broken apart for the perception of less bloat.

I wasn't going to use a desktop contacts program, but the integration with online services meant a contacts application that allowed me to manage email service contacts (like the aforementioned Google account) within the device I resided. This led me to try out the Gnome Calendar integration, and ultimately, after a 3rd or 4th attempt, finally was able to get Geary to grow on me. Geary deserves some honorable mention because most people log onto the Internet to check their Outlook or Gmail accounts—capable of easy distraction from the presence of other tabs, services, and add-on. The whole purpose of Geary is to take what people love about online mail clients and make a desktop client with it.

Does it solve this?

No. But it certainly has a lot of promise.

Sitting here with my email client nicely tucked to the minimize, and a contacts application slowly being edited, refined, and filled in with email addresses, phone numbers, and physical addresses, you begin to appreciate the ritual of personal communication. If I have to open an email client, construct a message more than a few sentences, and possibly anticipate a reply (which may require a response in it's own right), you are guided to think: Do I really need to send this message?

If communication requires effort, there has to a value acquired from the effort. What is that value? Contemplating this reduces your level of engagement, but increases the quality of communication. When you're not sending tweets into the void, what are you doing?

With social networks you don't communicate. That's why it was ultimately "re-branded" as social media. You can't charge money for networks unless you're making the user pay for the privilege of using the network. Can any of us say we're willing to pay for some of these services? Certainly the value isn't as much as these companies would lead us to believe. But "social media" leads us to believe that the sharing of media (e.g., images, news, ideas) has value that we can pin a larger price to… or at least charge a larger advertising dollar to "promote" ideas. On Facebook, companies regular have to pay to get their posts "promoted" into their own user bases. I wrote a while back on Codepunk about how that project's traffic is largely driven by organic search, while social media is a minute fraction that does little but make me feel like I'm broadcasting to a larger base.

I don't want to communicate with networks that shuffle my ideas into a void with no hope of return. I want to communicate with people. And I'm changing my habits to reflect that—starting with an address book.