You Have My Divided Attention

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 years of 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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5 Responses to You Have My Divided Attention

  1. Pingback: You Have My Divided Attention « Life of a Wonderer

  2. “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.”

    I admire your attempt to log-off as well as your honesty about how difficult it is to disengage. I long for moments like this, and intend to make them happen – only after I check just a couple things on the internet (every time I say it to myself it’s in that “I feel guilty about doing this, so I’ll be quick and get to what really matters in no time” kind of way). Yet behind the guilt, behind the feeling that I’m missing out on real, quality moments that make up real, quality life, is the sense that if I walk away, I’ll be left behind, and my impact on the world significantly lessened.

    Perhaps the questions is: if Socrates would be posting online, what would he be posting? How often? Would he be announcing to his followers what he ate for breakfast, or perhaps a photo from his night on the town? Maybe. I’d be lying if I denied doing either of these. It was Facebook, after all, that led me to your post.

    • Camila says:

      Thanks, Katie. And yes, my goodness, you’ve nailed that paradox. A real, quality life has always consisted of unplugged, under the sun/in the theater moments, but never before have so many people we shared them with–the social being the other necessary element of a real, quality life–be half-living half-lives on the screen. So, we go to meet them there. Funny: even my temporary Facebook disappearance only fully “counted” once I could share the experience with others, kind of like going on a trip takes on new meaning once you go back home and tell the stories…
      Let’s start flashmob-esque “log off” times where everyone leaves their gadgets at home and converges for old-fashioned conversation at the park, plaza, or cafe.
      Oh, the irony.
      (P.S. You should submit a post!)

  3. Bob Filbin says:

    “Minutes become hours become years and there goes the examined life.” Yes! I’m reading Emerson right now. He spent a lot of time in conversation while leading the examined life, but it wasn’t a life of memes. The question that comes to me is, and that your post begins to answer: how is Facebook changing discourse? What discourse is it replacing?

    Even before Facebook, I think digital media had replaced a lot of intimate discourse. In some ways, Facebook helps regain that intimate discourse, because we are discussing things with friends, rather than just receiving info from the TV or news site. On the other hand, nothing allows for rich discourse like discussions in person. But what if those discussions are now about the memes on Facebook? Where has the examined life gone, and the chance to share those examinations with others? What would Socrates do today – would he be posting online, rather than talking with his followers in the street?

    • Camila says:

      Incisive questions, Bob. Thanks for commenting. You’ve made me realize how much less time I spent on social media while in (liberal arts) college. As a humanities major, that intimate discourse was the point of our days, and a community of peers in our immediate vicinity. The summer after graduating I began to use FB more—just to stay in touch with friends—but now it’s become more important, as a virtual seminar/social-intellectual salon on everything from current events to product reviews to life’s meaning; yet it’s an unsatisfying venue. I think the core issue is listening. There’s a lot of fidgeting and no eye contact. Online, listening is required in the most superficial of ways—aren’t the psychological rewards of FB interaction (red icons) geared to drive traffic into ones’ own sphere? And once that traffic happens, responding too much seems to kill it. I think Socrates would be annoyed.

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