just a little tech existentialism on a friday night

Note: I wrote this on Friday night (3/15) but didn’t want to post right away, to avoid seeming to make the Christchurch tragedy about me. That is not my intention at all. Rather, my intent is to share some of what was going through my mind that day (and frankly, many days) in hopes that it resonates with others and contributes to a broader conversation.

 

Who/what do you turn to when you feel overwhelmed or exhausted or afraid? When you feel overrun by information and opinions, how do you protect yourself?

I realized today that I don’t really have an answer to those questions.

It’s been a really long work week, and I’ve been channeling my stress into two things that I’ve noticed have become crutches for me when I don’t want to sit with my feelings: Instagram and podcasts.

This morning, by the time I got to work at 8:30 I had already watched about half an hour of Instagram stories, which is how I found out about the Christchurch shootings. I had heard a bit more about the horror on the short morning news podcast Up First, which I usually listen to while I get ready for work. I had also scrolled through Twitter for a few minutes, taking in but not quite digesting takes from dozens of people about what had happened, takes that made me feel, for a few seconds each: sad, sick, disgusted, embarrassed, guilty, defensive, angry, and heartbroken.

In the car, I put on Pod Save America and absorbed about 15 minutes of dudes yelling about politics and reminding me how untenable our current political situation is.

By the time I got to work I was feeling pretty anxious, but that’s nothing new for me so I just accepted it. I read some news, looked at Twitter some more, watched some more Instagram stories. Then I put PSA back on so I could listen while I did some editing. It’s like muscle memory.  Do some work while listening to a podcast, check email, get stressed about something, reach for phone and flip over to Instagram, feel guilty for doing that, get back to work and podcast, remember the world is burning, head over to Twitter, see something horrific, go back to Instagram for comfort, fill head with more and more and more of other people’s stories, ideas, and priorities.

I started reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier earlier this week and I’m only on page 16, so I don’t 100% know where the book is going, but the tone is already, “this is not what we meant for you when we made the social web.” And I know that’s true, to an extent. I don’t think anyone imagined this in the beginning, though I’m certain some people predicted it 10 or so years ago and helped usher it in because it makes lots of money. But it also makes people crazy.

I feel crazy, and when I say that I don’t mean it in the mentally ill sense (although we already know I am that, in some ways) but I mean frazzled, unmoored, grasping. I feel tethered to something for comfort but that thing is what makes me need comfort in the first place. I’ve seen several others compare their relationships with their phones and social media to abusive partner relationships, and I don’t think that’s far off.

Today, when I was overwhelmed by the bloodshed and hatred and extremity of the world all around me, I “retreated” via social media and podcasts into even more of the same. At 9:34am I sent my husband this message:

“I feel so overwhelmed today. I just want to crawl under my desk and cry.”

“I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way,” he messaged back.

But I feel that way almost every day around that time, because I set myself up for it. I know this, and yet I keep doing it, because it feels mandatory for being an active citizen of this world.

I know I’m not the only one in this cycle, and I really don’t think it has to be this way. But one of the things we’re going to have to do to change it is to gather the courage to break out.

On the first page of You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier writes:

“I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

Right now I get the sense that many of us feel that sharing ourselves is part of what makes us somebody. I’m reminded of this recent piece in The Atlantic about young kids coming to terms with their own online-ness. One 13-year-old said, of trying to find information about herself with a group of friends in fifth grade: “We thought it was so cool that we had pics of ourselves online…We would brag like, ‘I have this many pics of myself on the internet.’ You look yourself up, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s you!’ We were all shocked when we realized we were out there. We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’”

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that last part really resonated with me. I grew up online, and have been sharing things about myself there since high school, maybe earlier. Having an online presence, an online self, has felt natural to me for half my life. I’m also a writer, so it might feel more natural to me than most to share my thoughts with the world. But something has shifted over the past few years, and the way the internet – and especially social media – is tied to my identity scares me a little. I find myself wondering if I’m doing certain things because I want to do them, or because I want to share them. When something big happens, I sometimes find myself imagining how I’ll describe it on social media before I even realize what I’m doing. Like I said, tethered. 

Online is where the validation is, I guess, even when we have partners and spouses and families and friends. The silent, pretty, no-strings-attached validation so many of us millennials simultaneously crave (because it’s a normal thing for a human to crave) and cynically joke about not caring about, or not being able to attain. But a lot of us seem to be grabbing for that validation in place of actually dealing with things. And I get it – there is too much to deal with. Mass shootings, climate change, racism, income inequality, mental and physical health problems – it’s all too much. But now that we have been performing for each other online for 30ish years, I’m worried we’re starting to forget not just how to be around each other, but how to feel. As a kid, my identity was so wrapped up in feeling – I cried all the time, was so emotional it scared some of my teachers, and later on definitely scared off a few boyfriends. I don’t cry as much anymore, which is probably healthy, but I also don’t really feel anything stronger than hunger or anxiety for more than a minute at a time. As soon as it pops up – sadness, anger, hurt, shame, worry – there I go, reaching for my phone.

I think there are a lot of remedies to this. One would of course be to just go cold turkey, cut ourselves off from all social media and not look back, but that kills all the good along with the bad. And there is so much good.

Another idea: the people who make this stuff, these products designed to pull us back for more and more, triggering dopamine receptors like slot machines, could…you know…stop. They could pull back and be more mindful – more empathetic – about how their users experience their products. I’m far from the first to suggest this, but given the slowly growing exodus from platforms like Facebook (by both users and employees), it might be about time for them to listen.

Or maybe something more communal is more realistic. Maybe we can get the human connection and validation we crave by helping each other be kinder to our brains and gentler toward our emotions, while also keeping up with all the memes and Trump tweets. What if you had a tech accountability buddy who texted you once a day to ask about your internet activity and how it was making you feel – not to shame you, but to empathize, acknowledge, validate, and encourage you? There are apps that do this, and chat bots, but as much faith as I want to have in empathetic technology, I know they don’t really care. Maybe a friend does, or wants to. Maybe we can get to a healthier place – a place where we can demand better from those who design the tools we use, and figure out how to use them without becoming dependent on them, and get back to feeling the difficult feelings – together.

By the way, you can support Christchurch victims and families here.

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4 days without Facebook

I never thought of myself as someone with an addictive personality. I tend to get really excited about things — hobbies, television shows, fashion trends — for a short period of time and then get bored of them relatively quickly. I’m an absent-minded perfectionist, a picky consumer of culture, a bit slow on the trend uptake, but an addict I am not. I thought about this a lot around the time I got my first iPhone a couple of years ago, a couple of years behind most of my friends. The great thing about the iPhone, everyone said, was that you could have all of your social media in one place, at your beck and call whenever you wanted to look. I didn’t understand at the time why that was such a plus; I didn’t spend all that much time on Facebook or Twitter, and had never used Instagram. I wouldn’t be one of those people constantly glancing down at their phones, I swore.

I was, of course, wrong. It didn’t take long before I got a rush of adrenaline (and likely oxytocin) whenever a little red notification popped up, and I eventually found myself mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed in particular even when I knew there was nothing new or interesting to see. I sometimes felt that I had “FOMO,” Fear Of Missing Out, or just that I needed a distraction, even when all I was doing was watching a movie or eating dinner or, I’m ashamed to say, working.

So do I have an addictive personality after all? I’m not sure. Is there something about social media — and Facebook in particular — and the way feeds are curated and participation rewarded that keeps people, whatever their disposition, coming back for more, even when it’s counterproductive? I think so.

This past week, anyone who uses Facebook likely saw a phenomenon that has become commonplace in the world of social media in the wake of a disaster or tragedy or other headline-making event. Facebook posts and interactions in the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown could (and probably will) be studied by social scientists, psychologists, political scientists and anthropologists alike. I have conflicting feelings about the necessity and efficacy of discussing things like this on Facebook. On one hand, Facebook is the main form of communication for a lot of people, and can provide an opportunity for exposure to information and opinions one might not otherwise encounter. On the other hand, people are already prone to digging their heels in on issues of politics and morality, and there’s a lot of convincing evidence (anecdotal, but scientific as well) that sitting behind a computer screen with the ability to type anything and the feeling that something must be typed immediately and often does not bode well for conversation about anything, let alone issues as controversial and multi-layered as what has happened and continues to happen in Ferguson. There’s also evidence that it makes us depressed. I was starting to believe that last bit.

So on Wednesday, as I was wrapping up my work before the holiday weekend, I used one of my Facebook detours to post a message that said I would be leaving for a while. (We could probably have a separate discussion entirely about why I felt the need to do that, and whether anyone cared, but that’s for another post.) I also deleted the Facebook app from my phone. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and I haven’t been on Facebook since.

It’s been relatively easy so far, since I’ve been spending time with family, Christmas shopping and relaxing, but I’ve also noticed some major changes. I feel calmer. I feel less anxious, which for me is really saying something. I feel like I am sleeping better. My blood pressure is lower (at least according to my at-home testing cuff.) I’ve been more productive, even in “vacation mode.” And I don’t find myself with FOMO at all. The friends I care the most about have stayed in touch via text message, I’ve kept up with news via Twitter (which doesn’t have the same addictive effect on me, for various reasons), and I generally feel happier.

Facebook has made an effort to interrupt my break, though. Yesterday I got an email letting me know that I had 18 “notifications.” This isn’t actually true; I have notification emails turned off. The email was really a sneaky way to try to get me to come back to the site to see what I’d “missed” over the last few days. I resisted.

But it’s only Day 4. Stay tuned for an update.