On friendship

I’ve been off social media for three months. It’s not a complete break, as I’ve had torrid, short-term affairs with both Instagram and Twitter, but compared to the borderline unhealthy relationship with Facebook I’ve been nursing since 2006, I can safely say it’s been… different.

Fine. It’s been weird, alright? Strange, isolating, freeing, and uncomfortable all at the same time. If that doesn’t make any sense, join the club. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. It’s not like the stories, where the author has some sort of breakthrough moment in every chapter.

What I can tell you without a doubt is that everyone should try it. Not because it’s the cure for anything or will fix your problems, but because only by being outside something, even momentarily, can you see it clearly.

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I’m not going to be that person who waxes endlessly about the benefits of (routine or thing they’re sure will change your life) because I know how most of us feel about these folks. You probably hide from them and so do I.

I’ll keep my posts about being offline brief and sporadic, but I will at times make them, because what’s the point of doing a weird, uncomfortable thing if you never tell anyone about it? Is there any reason for doing the thing?

This attitude, the idea that things are only worth doing if other people notice them, is another reason our performance-obsessed culture has messed us up without most of us taking note, but that’s a topic for another post.

One thing I thought about a lot during my time offline (I had more time to think, and that was weird too) was friendship. Other people have written extensively and well about how friendship in the social media age has changed, not necessarily for the worse, so I won’t repeat their arguments much. I can only say what I have noticed in my own life.

At the beginning of this year, I was reading an essay by someone who decided to try giving up texting. She noticed an immediate difference in who contacted her. I’m paraphrasing, but her essay said something like this: “Only a few people bothered to reach out once they had to call or stop by. The rest, I discovered, wasn’t friendship. It was just noise.”

I thought about that a lot. Honestly, the same kind of thing happened to me when I was off Facebook. Lots of folks have my number and email, but mostly, the way we keep in touch now is through Facebook. Once I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear from most of them.

I stopped getting event invites, unless I heard about them from someone else on Facebook. It felt like a huge segment of people ceased to exist, or had forgotten me.

I can’t blame them for this, because I’ve become the same way.

At first this made me angry. My initial analysis was something like this: we’ve become a bunch of lazy people, sitting inside our bedrooms on the Internet instead of getting out and making real friends.

We’ve let our existing friendships slide and atrophy, subbing in ‘likes’ and conversation threads instead of actual visits, because who wants the awkwardness of in-person discussion? I know I often shy away from it.

When I thought about it a little more (I told you I had a lot of time), I realized this wasn’t entirely accurate. On Facebook, I have more than 600 friends. In high school, I had maybe three close friends, and in college maybe four or five, with a larger circle of acquaintances, but the entirety was never larger than 15, maybe 20.

Somehow between my various social media accounts, I’ve accumulated close to 1,000 friends and followers, and I’m irritated that these people aren’t all calling me up to get coffee. Something is wrong with this picture. It’s not them; it’s a lot me, for having those kinds of expectations of people I’m not really close to, and probably never was. It has nothing to do with who we are; we simply haven’t put the work in to become close.

And it’s a little about the culture we’ve built, the kind that says quantity is value. Friendship isn’t achieved by sweating through hours of awkward conversation to find that one person you really click with. It’s just literally clicking. Do we wonder why the results aren’t the same?

In this culture, it doesn’t really matter if you’re awake at 2 a.m. feeling that no one actually understands you; that you’ve been lonely as long as you can recall; that being in a crowd makes you feel more alone rather than less. What matters is how many likes you get on your latest Instagram selfie or baby picture or political meme. For a while, that feels like enough. If you never take a break, it can feel like enough. Until it isn’t.

I know, I’m not really selling you on the the break thing. “Try it and see how alone and weird you feel” isn’t working, probably. But feeling bad isn’t the point. Realizing your good feeling was fake, shitty frosting a lot of the time is worth checking on.

As much as I’d like this to be a simple ‘get out of your room and connect with real people’ take, that can’t be it, because of course, the people on the other side of our keyboards are real people, just like the people living not in the heartland of America are real Americans.

I think it’s extremely dangerous to start saying ‘this is real and that is not real’ and when we do that, we better be pretty darn sure who is not real. That is a step to dehumanizing people and saying they do not matter. There’s enough of that lately. Online friends are real. Some of my dearest friends now live far away from me and I mostly connect with them online or by phone.

I think what I’d like to say is that being off Facebook made me think a lot more deeply about friendship in general, and how little effort I put into most of it. I feel dissatisfied with the state of my adult friendships in many ways, not because of the kind and wonderful people I know, but because I don’t know them as well as I’d like to.

I am positive I’m not alone in this, mostly because of the dozens of posts and articles and conversations I’ve seen and heard from my peers on friendship and loneliness.

We all have a lot of acquaintances, but most of us, especially more introverted folks, have few good, trusted friends, people we can tell the hard things to at weird times of the day or  night. Being more connected hasn’t really helped with this, because forming rock-solid friendship takes time. Hours. Hundreds and hundreds of hours and uninterrupted attention most of us don’t give to anything anymore.

That’s a good place to start on friendship, isn’t it? Knowing however alone you feel, it’s not just you? C.S. Lewis has one of my favorite quotes about this.

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So now what? As usual, the first step in fixing anything is just to notice it’s happening. I think my Facebook break helped me notice something that had been happening to me for a long time without my notice. I needed it. Maybe you do too. It’s your call, of course.

I’m planning to approach my friendships with more care and intention than I have for a long time, because I realize now how much I value them, and how rare good, true friends truly are.

How about you?

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Amusing Ourselves to Death

The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing, on the radio, or for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. Neil Postman

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I was one of the only people I knew who didn’t have cable TV or an at-home computer. This wasn’t an aesthetic choice on our part as much as it meant we were poor. I found this to be somewhat of a cramp in my style, especially when I visited the houses of friends with slick PCs and 200 channels. But mostly I read a lot. For better or worse, kids are adaptable.

I didn’t recognize it until later, but this experience instilled in me a lifelong love of books. More important, it gave me the ability to entertain myself for hours without electronics. I couldn’t have imagined then how useful that would be.

Today I have the money to buy a nice TV and computer. I’m writing this essay on one right now. But still, I prefer books, long form essays and newspapers (some in digital format, to be sure) to TV or mediums like Twitter.

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Photo by Frank Okay 

That’s nice, you might be thinking, but why should I care?

Because the switch from a culture based on the written word to one based largely on images affects you, in ways you may not have realized. That switch is the subject of one of the best books of all time, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), by Neil Postman.

Much has been written recently about our current political culture and the divides it creates. Still more about about the rise of technology use, the dip in attendance at traditional community institutions like churches and social clubs and how these things change the way we all view each other.

Relatively little has been written about how we got here in the first place; that is, to a place where what is valued is speed, looks and attention.

Many of us are unhappy with the way things are. Or at least we feel a vague sense of being in a hurry or on display most of the time; yet we don’t know how to make it stop. 

We’re not satisfied, yet we have not wondered why this might be. If we have, we blame it on what are arguably symptoms: (political candidates, news channels, electronic devices, work hours) rather than root causes.

Neil Postman is an exception to this norm. The author of several books and a professor for more than forty years at New York University, Postman was well-known as a critic of technology’s impact on culture before his death in 2003. He was not afraid to wonder. Amusing Ourselves to Death a bible for the zeitgeist of today’s fast-moving culture and worth re-discovering.

His witty and prophetic work is mostly about television, but it could apply word for word to the way our culture has changed following the adoption of social media, data analytics and other tools.

He argues we have failed to examine the impact of the transition from a largely written-word society to one that is mostly image-based. The invention of the telegraph, and then the television, created ‘news of the day’ (events most of us might read about but will affect few).

Attention spans shifted. No longer would audiences sit for events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted hours. Most of us feel deluged by news events we can do nothing about. The cultural implications, he says, are profound and have gone largely unnoticed.

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Photo by Daniel McCullough

Think about the presidents of the United States. Most people in the U.S. would be unlikely to recognize the first 15 presidents if they passed by them on the street. No one knew what they looked like. Can you imagine?

These men were instead known for their speeches, for those who could hear them. For the rest of the country, they were known by newspaper accounts of speeches they gave, letters they wrote and whatever else the public could read about them.

Today nothing could be further from that reality. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, a large part of choosing our contemporary leaders has to to with their photogenic qualities. In your recollection, since the advent of television, have any of the presidents (or many governors, state senators, news anchors, celebrity pastors, etc) been bald? How about overweight?

In the the fields of journalism and public policy, a good discussion of ideas is not worth as much as a good haircut.

Somehow, in the last half-century or more, we’ve completely switched our paradigm for viewing leaders, and in doing so, have created a culture of celebrity that has changed the way we view the pulpit, politics, journalism and almost every public arena.

You might think this doesn’t matter to you, but science shows us we’re all affected by bias and looks and distractions. 

Postman’s brilliant critique invites us to closely examine not just the effects of these changes, as many of us have already done, but to look at the tools themselves and how they fundamentally influence our culture and conversation. 

When we make gains, (which he allows television provided, such as coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights marches in the 1960s) we make choices. We bring something to trade. The error isn’t in making the trade, but in leaving the trade unexamined.

He gives the example of clocks, which completely changed the way we think about time. Minutes, hours, and seconds play a pivotal role in our lives and in the way we measure almost everything. Yet they are, like most measurements, just an invention. Before we had clocks, we had the seasons.

“Moment to moment, as it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s,” Postman says. “It is man conversing with himself about and through a machine he created.”

As an artist, Postman inspires me because he is not afraid to examine the hard questions in our society. He takes almost nothing at face value, asks ‘why’ about everything and forces the reader to rethink almost all their long-held assumptions. He’s funny, for all that, and well worth the time spent on his work. If you want to know how we got to today’s media culture, Postman is an indispensable read.

Interview with an introvert

Recently a friend asked me to be an interview subject for a class of college students. While the idea of being interviewed generally makes me break out in a cold sweat, for some reason I did it anyway.

I’m glad I did, because like any series of challenging questions, these interviews have forced me to confront my why. Why I believe what I do, why I think what I think and where I want my life to go.

Being asked this on a regular basis means I can’t avoid the question. I’d prefer to live a more comfortable and unexamined life a lot of the time. But facing these questions is good for me. I’m very comfortable speaking about my stances and issue-centered thoughts; not as much about myself.

This is a question I was asked recently and I thought I’d share my answer.

What do you want to do with your life?

Somebody once told me the definition of hell: “On your last day on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.”

Photo by Davide Cantelli

Last year I went to a concert, a fairly expensive one. I was there with friends and my partner, and we had traveled hundreds of miles to see a favorite artist. We had great seats. I noticed almost everyone there watched most of the show through their phone camera.

What kind of an experience is that? We seem to have experiences now mostly in order to prove to other people that we have had experiences.

Where is the time to think, to reflect, to even process that the experience has happened?

How can we expect to die different people when we don’t fully live?

At a funeral last month I listened as friends and relatives stood up and shared memories of the man we were there to remember.

They told stories of someone who took people camping, brought treats to the bedside of someone who was sick, loaned out a truck when it was needed and baked a mean set of pies.

Not a particularly headline-worthy life, but someone who would be remembered with love as long as those friends and relatives were alive to treasure the memories.

Naturally this made me think of what I value and want for my life. None of it includes something I can document on a screen, except possibly my photos and the writing I do here.

Those count because little bits of me are in them. The rest mostly feels like running on a treadmill. It technically counts as activity, but I never really get anyplace useful or interesting.

As I look back on even my recent experiences, none of those screen moments stand out, unless they involved a good conversation with long-distance friends.

Often in the past 10 years I’ve defined a bit too much of my likability, my wit or even the way I look by the interactions I have online. Slowly but surely, I’ve been creating a life that looks good outside, but is often neglected inside.

Like a fancy downtown coffee shop with all the latest accouterments, it is very instagram-worthy. But is anyone inside having good conversation? Or do we look good to avoid feeling?

I say this only about my own experience; I can’t speak for others. But on some level, I don’t like what my life has become.

This probably sounds like a standard-grade rant against technology, which isn’t an accurate reflection of my stance. I love what technology has brought to our world. I do think we could balance it a little more with time to reflect, slow down and think about who we want to be. Then we will know what we want.

Personally I’m still deciding exactly what I want my life to look like, but I love having the mental and physical space to consider it and enjoy when I am living.

I like to think I can look back and appreciate the little things and interactions that have made it worthwhile, even if I never do anything headline-worthy.

If I never create much (I already know pies won’t make it in) but have folks at my funeral who remember I cared; if I can say I have been fully present in my own imperfect, messy life, that will be worth it.

How to listen to people you disagree with

Update: Part II of this post is here

It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby. (Noam Chomsky)

As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups. (Robert Sapolsky)

The name of this post probably surprised you. It was supposed to be ‘how to talk to people you disagree with.’ But the more I started researching this topic, I realized that title wasn’t right.

I’ve felt the need to write about this for months, and it’s not just because of our current political climate, although that’s a big part of it. More and more, we are a culture of talkers. We love the sound of our own voices, to debate, to argue, to have the last word. We love these things right up until they make us question our own dearly-held beliefs.

Doubts and flaws are all well and good, but they belong to the other guy. We know things, and we have the funniest quips to win the argument.

The problem with all this is apparent enough (if you checked the news or your news feed anytime in 2017 you probably agree) but we keep doing it. I’d like to examine why we do, how even the most well-intentioned people can get like this, and how we can do better.

Our boxes, our selves 

We don’t like uncertainty. It makes us uncomfortable and we quickly search for a way to get rid of it. Some of this is unavoidable. Our brains simply can’t process all the information going past us at light speeds, so we use categories to help make sense of it all. That’s not inherently bad. It’s how we identify something we’ve never seen as a chair.

Categorization gets dangerous when we start to use it as a shortcut for other things, like getting to know people, or figuring out who we are.

We reach for the simplicity of boxes because they make sense, but people and the world don’t always make sense. We don’t want to spend time thinking about that, or being afraid, so we grab onto a cause or a stereotype and stop thinking.

When these shortcuts become the building blocks of our lives, we build them on foundations of sand. But usually we don’t realize this until it’s late in the game, and we don’t want to look stupid or start over. Instead we cling harder.

One thing I’ve noticed in some discussions I’ve been part of is how much people care about issues that don’t seem to immediately affect them. It’s pretty common – the straight person who’s never been in the armed services angry about the transgender military ban, or the rural resident who’s never met an immigrant who worries about illegal immigration.

Why do we get so heated over issues that don’t immediately affect us? They might, especially if a wider law is passed, but statistically the chances are low. Yet these and other issues become top of mind, ones that divide friends and even families, sometimes forever.

In his 1984 book The Psychology of Influence, Robert Cialdini discusses why we identify so strongly with things that don’t seem, in the big scheme of things, to change our daily lives.

Cialdini tells the story of a war veteran recovering in a hospital ward. The man remained silent for 30 years. One day as he heard a game on the radio being played by his hometown team, he sprang to life and yelled at the radio. After that moment he never spoke again. Why, of all things, should that have made him speak? Cialdini says it’s because he didn’t see it as a game. The vet thought he was the one losing the game, had gotten a bad call.

“When viewed in this light, the passion of the sports fan begins to make sense. The game is no light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent form and artistry. The self is at stake.”

These things aren’t just abstract issues affecting small groups. They’re lenses that change how we see the world. Or maybe more accurately, they’re mirrors in which we see ourselves.

Successful politicians and public figures have mastered these portrayals, pitching issues and their own candidacies as reflections of a voter’s psyche.

The reason it seems like we can no longer have rational, calm discussions about many of these issues is because for most of us, they are not rational.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes no one is above it.

“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means,” he says.

“And if you don’t believe that about yourself, just note how true it is of everybody else.”

If we all cling to our issues, using them as building blocks for our very identities, is there any hope for discussion or listening between people who think differently?

Forming identities is part of who we are as people, and we could no sooner leave behind these identities than we could cease to become human. It’s not wrong to find meaning or identity in things like gender, race, religion or politics.

The problem occurs when we can’t see around them, when we have certain ideas about people from other groups, or even our own groups, that grow so strong that we decide we don’t need to meet them, to listen to them, to hear their stories. The ideas become the people.

The Us and the Them 

In a recent article for Nautilus, author Robert Sapolsky discusses how easy it is to divide the world into an us and a them. Science shows it’s actually hard-wired into the way we think and react.

“Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture.

We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality.

Across cultures and throughout history, people who comprise Us are viewed in similarly self-congratulatory ways—We are more correct, wise, moral, and worthy. Us-ness also involves inflating the merits of our arbitrary markers, which can take some work—rationalizing why our food is tastier, our music more moving, our language more logical or poetic.

When a Them does something wrong, it reflects essentialism—that’s the way They are, always have been, always will be. When an Us is in the wrong, however, the pull is toward situational interpretations—we’re not usually like that, and here’s the extenuating circumstance to explain why he did this.

Despite that role of cognition, the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic, as summarized by when we say, “I can’t put my finger on why, but it’s just wrong when They do that.”

Haidt, the social psychologist, has shown that often, cognitions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why.”

Getting real 

All this psychology and theory is helpful for understanding our blind spots, but how does it apply to real life? Can we face Uncle So and So easier across the table at Thanksgiving because of any of it? And where do we start?

Last summer I was camping in the mountains with my family. We had just finished a series of hikes into the North Cascades. Everyone was dirty and tired, but it was that content, wrung-out tired won only after a long, hard day of playing in the woods. A burn ban was in effect, so we huddled around a lamp instead of a campfire, toasting s’mores over a portable stove.

“So,” someone said as we settled in to talk – talking is our television in the mountains, and it’s nice – “what does everyone think about the NFL protests?”

Silence reigned around the fire as we made our calculations. It was a mixed crowd around the lamp/fire that night, not a comfortably homogeneous group of politically conservative or liberal people who held the same opinions. We only saw each other a few times a year. Yet we were friends and family. We wanted to say what we really thought and felt, but how could we do so?

That experience made me pause. Somehow, the easy camaraderie of conversation had become a field of land mines, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. And for these people, I cared.

They weren’t anonymous images on the other side of a screen, they were people I’d known for years, who sat at my wedding, who gave me furniture for my house and helped me make eggs for breakfast that morning. We don’t agree on every social and political issue and probably never would, but our relationships transcended that. How do we navigate these relationships now, in 2017?

It’s easy, usually, to say what we think when perusing message boards and social media. Like shots fired from a military drone, our words are chosen with less regard for our targets, because we can’t see them. We can talk to more people than ever before, most who we’ll never see in person, and if the conversation upsets us, we can block, delete, unfriend or ignore.

“I can’t talk about things like religion or politics,” friends have told me recently, “Because it’s never a conversation. It just becomes a shouting match. Everyone assumes things about me before I’ve even started, so I figure, what’s the point?”

“Twitter is the worst,” someone else said. “It’s just people one-upping each other over and over. There’s no room to discuss anything. It’s like you get points for being mean.”

So now what? 

Right about now, this may seem dark. Our biases are hard-wired into our thinking, and studies show our reactions are usually visceral, immediate and unconscious. We can’t necessarily think our way out of them. But we’re not helpless.

We can be aware that something beyond our conscious choice is shaping our thinking and the way we perceive the world. Many people don’t think about bias, or they think everyone is biased except them. That’s not true. You are biased. I am biased. We all have lenses – let’s accept it and work on it.

We can take time to build and nurture relationships in real time, with people who might be different from us. Not to get them to convert to something or to win an argument, but just because we want to know them. No one is born with their views, they learn them. Life shapes them. So how did they get there?

Individuals and relationships are the antithesis to the Us/Them way of seeing the world. When we see someone as a person, it’s a lot harder to make them a box or a category. Your cause and beliefs may be very different than a friend’s, but it’s not your list of talking points that will change minds or increase empathy. Just knowing you does that.

Finally, we can try a little more listening. It sounds like a small solution because it is. It’s not a substitute for policy change or fixing racism or ending poverty. But big things start with small things. Governments and organizations are just people. Someone who seems worlds away from you might not be that different, if you knew more of their story. That’s the beginning of big change.

Lonely in a crowd

Notes from a social media addict:

It wasn’t until the fifth day offline that I noticed a difference. I was sitting in the mall waiting for a friend and I realized I was one of the only people not using my phone. The others who weren’t were very busy. I saw an older man at another table also not using a phone. We briefly traded glances – it seemed like we were the only two people there. I believe I could have gotten up and danced naked through the mall and no one would have noticed. That’s how intent everyone was on their business. No one looked around. No one made eye contact.

In the fifteen minutes I sat there, I saw three people stop and watch the piano player, who was making beautiful music in the middle of the plaza. The intricate holiday displays and lights could have been dust for all the notice taken of them. Maybe I’m doing these folks an injustice – they could have seen them. But no one stopped to take them in, or paused for even a second to savor it; the weather, the day, the people around them. Everyone rushed or stared at devices.

When I see a beautiful picture or an interesting article, I immediately feel an urge to share it. I love to have discussions about things that matter to me, and hearing other points of view is one of the better things in life. But if I’m being honest, that’s not the reason I do most of my social media sharing.

Leo Babauta, one of my favorite writers who authors the blog Zen Habits and has written several books, has a great post about social sharing that addresses this dilemma. He urges us to question the need to share our photos and thoughts.  Why is this moment not enough, without the need to share? Do I just want to brag, or is there a good-hearted motivation there too? What am I so afraid of, that I can’t refrain from sharing?

The last one gets me the most. What am I so afraid of? What are we afraid of, that we can’t just be? Does everything have to be curated, hashtagged, made funny for an audience, posed, properly lighted, quipped and finished with a lesson? What if it doesn’t neatly end? What if no one laughs or likes? Does it still matter? Do I still matter?

If you ask anyone what their greatest fear or their greatest hope is, they’ll give a lot of different answers. But they’ll likely all be a variation on the following – people don’t want to be forgotten. We want to be loved, respected, remembered; to be seen. To do something that matters with people who matter. To be truly known is a rare gift. In such a connected world with more ways to talk to each other than we’ve ever had, many of us are deeply lonely.

Social media offers us that connection. Kind of. A crowd of our peers talking to each other in a virtual room is fun, but it isn’t always what we need, because so often, no one is talking with us. Instead, we talk at and over one another. No one has come to see us, to ask how we’re doing, to visit and pass the time with no performative outcome in mind other than knowing the heart of another person.

It offers a legacy of likes, that immediate validation we’re all seeking, if we’re honest with ourselves. That we’re seen, we matter, someone is listening. In the 2 a.m. moments when we’re not sure if we’re enough, we can scroll through a feed and be reassured.

It’s not accurate to say “the friendships I have in person are good, and the friendships I have online are bad or insufficient.”

The friendships I have online are good, but often they provide the illusion of being more than they are. Having them makes me feel good. I think I know my friends better than I actually do, and that feeling prevents me from doing more. From seeking them out, from calling them or from setting up a private chat, or from inviting them for coffee or a drink after work. From doing the messy, riskier work of being in-real-life friends. The connection we have is just enough to sustain me, but not enough to fulfill me.

Like so many others, I often feel lonely in a crowd. Sitting in the mall, just the older man and I, I could have been on an island instead of in a sea of my fellow humans. I could have turned to Facebook to see what my friends were doing, but in that moment of clarity, I know it wouldn’t have helped.

I couldn’t have told any of them the things I was struggling with that day, the reasons I feel most days like I am not enough, the fears I have at 2 a.m., the times I try to avoid mirrors – these are not things I can tell most of my social media friends. And if I can, I won’t tell them there. So in the end, what is it for?

The attention we give to social media, and the creativity, the thoughts and connections we might have made with the downtime we won’t have, the books we won’t read, things we won’t see passing the window of the bus because we’re too busy staring at a phone or a computer – who is to say what the sum of these things are? They can never be numbered, and it’s impossible to try to count them, but they matter.

I know they do, because I can remember my life before social media and after. Without a doubt it is different. In many ways it is more enjoyable. But some things are gone. 

I have been on a speeding train seeing a lot more things, but the train is going so fast I don’t have time to think about anything I’ve seen, or get off and walk through the neighborhoods, or wonder what is there. I have traveled further but not seen much of it.

For every minute I put into halfway things, that’s a minute I’m not putting into something else. We only have so much time and attention. It’s the one thing that’s truly ours, and it’s more limited than we’d like to believe. We’re giving it away; daily, weekly, in tiny, forgettable pieces we can never get back. Not to a person or a dog or a hobby or even a job – just to a website. That probably sounds too dramatic. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives though, isn’t it? Annie Dillard nails it.

This isn’t the kind of thing that matters over one day or one week or one year. It matters over the course of a life. Do we really want to look back and realize we spent fifty minutes of our time each day on Facebook alone? That’s more than 18,000 minutes per  year, and about 1/16 of our waking hours. That’s not counting time we spend on Reddit, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube or other popular sites.

These sites are tools. They are inherently neither good nor bad. I don’t mind their construction or the things I do while using them. I love sharing pictures and ideas, catching up with friends, discussing social and political issues and hearing new points of view. I love the availability to learn, to access online courses and find facts about history, to view photos from around the world and talk to people from other countries – the global connectivity the internet provides us is, in my opinion, a good thing.

They are tools, but they are Twinkie tools. They are engineered to be delicious and addictive. What bothers me is that they are often set up specifically to play to our psychological vulnerabilities.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Silicon Valley developers, many who helped make some of the most successful social media sites and products, expressed concern about where they’re headed and how they affect our attention span. This piece is one of dozens I’ve read expressing similar concerns.

“Justin Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

“One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.”

The idea of likes and social approval – it’s a brilliant use of psychology. We need to be social and perform, and we need approval and validation from our peers. That cocktail keeps us coming back for more and more.  I feel enough of that on a daily basis without creating it.

Many people have made their fortunes off the idea that we are, at heart, unsure of ourselves. That idea is much older than social media, but it’s reached new heights, mostly without our notice.

Think if you were describing this phenomenon to an alien race who had no familiarity with the concept. Today, just by reaching into our pockets, we can feel on top of the world, liked, funny, sexy, intelligent or sought after, or we can feel the exact opposite. That power is all in the hands of our friends or followers, people we may not even know or have seen for years.

Everything we click on in this tool gives unknown people every possible facet of information about us, our likes and dislikes, what we buy, where we’ve visited, who we befriend and are partnered with, and anything else they’d like to know.

These people sell this data to other people who are also unknown to do with what they will. Sound like a good deal? The alien race would probably say no.

All those things matter – the distraction, the selling of our data, the psychological manipulation – it’s what we’ve traded to talk to one another in a way that’s fast, fun and ultimately a bit empty, like junk food.

But that isn’t my biggest takeaway from my social media fasts (this is my second in two years, and increasingly I’m feeling a need to distance myself from it altogether.)

 

The biggest takeaway is how lonely I still feel in a crowd of my peers – more peers than I’ve ever had before. I talk more, engage more, know more and discuss more, and somehow it is less. I am eating more, but never satisfied. Something is wrong with that picture. 

What do you think? Do you remember the time before social media? Was it different?

Cheers,
Liz

Better Off: How logging out for 10 days helped me tune in to life

A few weeks ago, as I wrote about in a previous post, I went on a 10-day social media fast, inspired by Christina Crook’s book The Joy of Missing Out. I promised I’d chronicle my thoughts on this experience. I’m don’t believe they’re incredibly unique, but in our increasingly wired and connected world, purposefully tuning out is something we’re doing less and less. And if we are doing it, it’s a thing. We announce it on Facebook, replace profile pictures, blog about it and make sure to notify our friends. If we’re not on, the narrative goes, surely our close friends will believe something terrible has happened to us.

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One of the biggest things I noticed when I went offline was how untrue this was. Unless your business is in media and communications, if you log off for a while, most people don’t notice. They will likely notice if you don’t return their email, or if you manage a Facebook business page and ignore them. But in your personal life, you’re probably not as big a deal online as you think you are. I know I wasn’t. So get on with your life. The world will keep turning if you don’t upload that picture. Really, it will.

Online, we curate and create our own little worlds. We’re captains of our digital ships, and many of us create entire personas that are far from who we actually are. We form and nurture connections online via these personas. This can be an incredibly positive thing, especially for folks who may not have things in common with many around them. Online, we can join support groups, access disease-specific health information and make friends around the world. I’ve done all these things, and I’m a better person for having done them. But over-digitization can also be a hindrance to building in-person relationships. Crook posits that the Internet and other technology tools have become a way to replace things that don’t necessarily need replacing.

During the time I was off, I struck up conversations with many folks, several of them perfect strangers, about my online fast. Most of them thought it was a positive thing to do, and expressed a desire to do it themselves. “I’d definitely get off Facebook,” most of them said, “Except I use it to connect with my family.”

This is valid, right? Who can argue with that? Seeing pictures of my friends’ kids and my family is one of the joys of social media for me. Except…what did we do before 2004, when Facebook was invented? How did we experience hikes and beautiful places around the world before Instagram accounts and Flickr?

We read about them. We looked things up. We traveled, of course, and the sole purpose of said travel wasn’t to take envy-inducing pictures and selfies. If we wanted to check on our families, we called them and asked them how they were. We wrote letters. Remember letters? That thing you wrote to a specific person, with no thought to how funny or hashtageriffic or SEO-searchable it would be? It was just for them. It wasn’t about performing, or updating, or sharing the shiniest best you. It was, I believe, a more honest form of communication that we’re missing now. Of course, we didn’t often bare all in our letters and calls and visits. We still put on brave faces and pretended. But there was less opportunity to do so, and more importantly, more opportunity for someone else to notice if we felt down, or off, and say something about it. To invite us over. To give us a call.

We notice this lack of community and relationship today, but we don’t know quite how to get it back. I would argue it’s not as difficult as we’d like to think. It doesn’t necessarily involve massive amounts of government investment or psychological study or panels of experts, although those things are not bad. But why do those things while we know that every day, there are many who go days without speaking to another person in any meaningful way? We are replacing things that don’t need to be replaced.

When I was offline, the biggest thing I noticed, as I noted in a previous post, was how much more time I had. Words are my thing, but I’m having a hard time explaining this one. My thoughts and time just flowed differently. More slowly. Less frenetically, and more deliberately. I slept better. Crook’s book described one person who went offline for a whole year, completely, no email for work or anything, and described it afterward as though her brain actually functioned differently – perhaps the way ours did before the internet. She noticed a longer attention span, for example, and the ability to focus more deeply on projects at hand.

I noticed this even in the few short days I was off. I texted friends, and made calls. I read a lot. I journaled. Online journaling isn’t the same –recent studies in graphology and neurology prove how beneficial writing is for memory, vocabulary and the learning process. Sometimes I just did nothing. I didn’t stay awake late at night, stressing over online arguments, or how my comments and photos had been perceived. I didn’t look at the clock and realize I’d spent 35 minutes scrolling through a newsfeed of someone’s photos who I haven’t actually seen in 10 years. I had lots of time for me. I’m an introvert, but I’d argue the internet, such as it is, is not always a source of restful recharging time introverts need, because social media so often puts us in a mode of performance anxiety. Neither is it a true outlet for extroverts, because it attempts to substitute personal relationships for digital ones.

Can there be deep friendships formed and kept up online? Absolutely. I have several. The Internet itself is not inherently bad, and I didn’t come to that conclusion during my fast. Rather, I agreed with Crook’s conclusion – the Internet is a tool. It’s an amazing, engaging tool that has fundamentally reshaped our thinking. Not just what we think about, but the actual way we think and the way we see the world. It should not become our world, and for some people, that’s what it is becoming. This is not a good trend. Many beautiful, tangible and intangible things exist in the physical world that cannot be completely replaced in the digital one.

I’ve decided to limit my time online – I’m not sure how this is going to look, exactly, but ideally I’d like to get on about once a day. I’ve deleted apps from my phone and am considering deleting a couple of social media accounts – probably not Facebook, as it’s basically digital opium, but I was surprised at how little I really ‘needed’ to be there when I decided not to be. I love to use it to plan events, read news and engage with friends, but I can do all that without Facebook. So can you, if you want. Marketing has ultimately succeeded when it convinces us we need whatever it is selling, but realistically, we need very few things.

Here are a few other digital detox ideas for anyone interested:

  • Social media-free weekends
  • Log off one day per week
  • Delete apps from phone – try to keep fewer than 20. How many do you actually use on a daily basis?
  • Put your phone in a difficult place to reach when you get home. Are you a doctor on call? If not, you probably don’t need to check it every five minutes.
  • If you’re bringing your phone to a social gathering because you don’t want to be there, try this – instead, don’t go.
  • Call someone. Just try it. Or if you hate the phone, invite them for coffee or a drink.
  • Multitasking – we’re trying to make it a thing, and it’s not a great way to learn. Listening to a podcast with 15 browser windows open while checking your notifications is not going to help you focus on any of them. What’s the likelihood you’ll remember what you did in 10 minutes, or gain anything from each task? Pick one.
  • View the Internet as a tool. Before you log on, decide what you’re going to do, do it, then get off and go do something else.

Cheers,

Liz