You Have My Divided Attention

I wrote this piece on April 13, 2012 for www.sustainingchange.org. Yet more evidence of an “innovative” approach to blogging.

The effect of modern digital communications on quality of life is a scary-big topic. This post is about my inner war with Facebook. How do you justify, monitor, or otherwise ponder the role of social media in your life?  

“Good for you,” people responded when I announced deactivating.  Congratulations tinged with guilt.  I should do that too, but…

But what?

***

The symptoms mounted.  At work, thumbs ached from toggling between web windows.  At happy hour, Mojitos downtown were peer-reviewed—mid-sip—for 1,150+ friends.  By midnight, mind noisy with the static of social chatter, I counted “likes” jumping through a blue box towards sleep.

Social media addiction?  Hyperbole aside, we all know someone in a comparable state. Last fall, the marketing firm Nielsen found that in May 2011 alone, Facebook’s then-150 million American users spent 53.5 billion minutes on the site.  That is over 101,000 yearsof uploading, posting, commenting, and passive peering.  Nearly 30% of users log in before they even roll out of bed in the morning. Who were we, eight years ago, before this drug hit the market?

Our online avatars have become such actors in our flesh-and-blood existence that the question rings of heresy and betrayal. By the virtual social sphere’s self-reinforcing logic, quitting is implicitly thumbing your nose at actual friends, “hanging out” there in the scrolling sidebar. Does the “Facebook suicide” send a chill down your spine? Opting out is for Luddites, poets, wilderness freaks, the paranoid, for Great Aunts. Disappearing from the web is, for a young urban changemaker, the unpatriotic equivalent of skipping the 4th of July for High Tea along the Thames.

But let’s face it—no matter how wasteful, creepy, navel-gazing or even dangerous the deeply personal and increasingly corporatized online world has become, it is near impossible to opt out.

Unless you are actually diagnosed with a serious addiction or threatened with your life, the benefits of participating in social media appear to outweigh the costs. It’s one thing to miss out on former classmates’ ultrasound pics, another to not receive event invites; the LinkedIn updates are clutter but the stream of personalized news articles efficiently keep you in the loop. For the changemaker, there’s the crux: having influence. Amidst eco-socio-political upheaval, social media offers a bully pulpit from which to sway your neighbor and the masses. It promises a flatter playing field in which wealth or resumes are not prerequisites to kick around the ball of opinion.

***

Last fall, instinct screeched me to a halt. A growing philosophical discomfort finally cemented into action at a dance performance inspired by Emily Dickinson. There I sat in the theater’s dark, hemmed in by rows of seats on all sides with my hands quietly resting on a paper program. During the choreographer’s interpretation of poetry spinning across the stage, I felt peace. True peace—a rarity, despite the blessed lack of physical violence around me. The narrator as Emily asked, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?  Beyond bleeping-texting-flashing-vibrating-chatting-ringing-alerting-emoticon-digital time lies our whole attention. The bone-deep exhalation of just being; like slipping into a hot bath, sinking into the velvet chair and into each moment—precisely because it was just me, and we the unplugged audience, in that place, together, witnessing the one act of those people giving their all, and none of it could ever happen that way again.  Each moment is mortal.  But gosh darn if we aren’t trying to simultaneously experience, capture and repost the living shit out of life.  And in trying, what do we lose?

I went home and immediately logged on to log off. Quitting felt great. The day lengthened from 24 to 27 hours. I started reading books again. Yet my one-woman attempt to stem the Singularity lasted a mere month. That social imperative which makes me an organizer both fueled my resolve to quit (for quality) and lured me back in (for quantity). Statistically, I’m a born sucker for social media: young, opinionated, female, urban, educated, community-oriented, and a news junkie.  The online soapbox or public square draws me like a moth to the light.  By feeding the right kind and volume of info to hungry algorithms, issues I care about make their way onto News Feeds of those who may not otherwise listen. However, expecting to use but be not used by these algorithms and companies is naïve.  Legal battles over the freedom of the webour freedom—are raging worldwide.  A whole lot of money, citizen and consumer outcry, activism, backroom deals, legislating, judicial review, continued technological advance, and a little bit of time will reveal at what cost we participate online.

Although I intend to approach social media as a tool—a means toward a better world—inevitably it becomes an end in and of itself.  Minutes become hours become years and there goes the examined life. There are infinite memes, articles, photos, posts, and threads to digest. It is difficult to know when to shut off.  On my deathbed I do not want to regret having spent life circling the electronic screen.  The lone moth ultimately burns in frantic orbit of the kitchen lightbulb: a tragic-comedy for those who know reality is under the sun. Or is it? Perhaps we are too far robot to remember.

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