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?