I first got online in the mid-90s.
Back then, we connected with each other using BBS’ and IRC (“Bulletin Board System” and “Internet Relay Chat” for new or non nerds). It was an interesting time, because it was the first time this whole “digital connection” thing could happen.
I still remember the first IRC group I regularly frequented. It was a bunch of odd-ball nerds with various IT-related jobs like myself, who felt like they finally found a group of people that they could relate to. A bunch of us even lived in the same area (Toronto, at the time), so we got together in real life to hang out—mostly to watch sci-fi movies at weekday matinees or have LAN-parties. 20+ years later, once or twice a year, I still hear from people that were part of that group.
So it’s safe to say I’ve been on social networks longer than most. And for a little while, I really enjoyed it. It was a tool that fostered connection — connection to people who felt alone in the physical world.
But things changed, as things do.
More and more people got “online” and more sophisticated social networks emerged. Centralized and monetized networks, run by corporations with shareholders and venture capitalists wanting a good return on their investments. Social networks became productized, where we (the people using them) are the product, being bought and sold through advertising — a seemingly small price to pay for convenient and constant connection. These networks became gamified, to keep us using them longer — hits of dopamine being released each time someone liked or favourited what we posted, and little red notifications on our apps, luring us back into them. Breaking news happening every few seconds, keeping us glued to our devices.
Now, these networks even boast about knowing when people (or teenagers in the case of that specific article) are feeling “insecure” or “worthless”, which can then disgustingly be used for better conversions from advertising.
It seems there’s no end to the knowledge or connections we can obtain, within a few clicks or taps (though knowledge and wisdom are different).
But does this help or hinder us? Does the ability and possibility to know everything and everyone actually do us any good? While being addicted to a constant stream of knowledge isn’t as bad as, say, fentanyl, what are its side effects — both long and short term?
At restaurants or coffee shops, I always play a little game with myself: what’s the percentage of people who don’t look at a device for the length of my stay? It’s not even judgement, it’s just noticing. Sometimes it’s zero people. Sometimes it’s a handful of people. Even for myself, there are times when I’m out and I pull out my phone, not because I need it, but because it’s a habit. If I’m out with other people, I play another secret game with myself where the first person to pull out a device while we’re together loses — sometimes it’s even me.
Five years ago, I wrote about how I turned off all notifications on all my devices, outside of calls and texts (I get neither very often). I did because I wanted to be more in control of distractions. If I’m working, or if I’m enjoying my life, I don’t want to get pulled out of that. So separating myself from notifications seemed like a smart idea. But sometimes, I notice that notifications are only part of the issue — because sometimes, I don’t need a bing, buzz or a red circle to want to open a social network and just “check in on a few things”.
Four years ago, I started noticing how much time I spent on social networks, and started taking months at a time away from them. A digital detox or sabbatical, if you will. I still do this a few times a year, where I don’t log into any social network for a month or so—each year the time way grows longer. Currently I still haven’t logged back in, even though my detox technically ended over a month ago.
Earlier this year, I deleted all social network apps from my phone. The only things I can do on my phone is check email, use a browser, or engage any of my home automations. I figure, if I’m not in my home office, staring at my computer screen, I don’t need to be online. Yes, I run a business by myself, but there are very rarely emergencies that require me to stop what I’m doing offline and rush back to a screen. Hell, most of the area around where I live has no cell service or wifi anyhoo.
I spend a great deal of time noticing when I’m not in the moment. Because, if I was in the moment, enjoying or just being where I am, I wouldn’t notice anything other than that moment I was in.
Currently, if I have to use social networks (ok, Twitter, since it’s the only one I’m on) in a purposefully annoying-to-myself way: I only access it from a browser, I stay logged out unless I’m using it, and I have 2-factor authentication turned on. That way, I can’t just impulsively tweet or refresh the feed). I have to purposefully log in, wait for the 2FA SMS message, find my phone (since I refuse to keep it at my desk), and log in. It takes a few minutes, and generally involves running down and up my stairs, so I have to be sure I want to spend the time using it. Since it’s even worse to do this whole process on my phone, I just never log in on it. All I use Twitter for currently is to share articles (from myself and others).
What I continue to also notice is that myself and most other people want to fill spaces. It’s like we’re so afraid of being bored or being alone — we have to fill even the smallest gaps with updates from our screens. Being in line, waiting for an entree at a restaurant, sitting on the bus, noticing a lull in a conversation while sitting across from a real human being, etc — it’s like we’ve become deathly allergic to being alone with our thoughts. But then, when I’m not online or on a long break, I miss it. I miss the people who I’ve connected with and talk to on a regular basis on social.
In my life, I feel as if I’ve both won and lost by being on social networks. I’ve made some amazing long-term friends, done a whole lot business, and grown a great audience of folks who I enjoy interacting with. So I’m not completely anti social networks. Nor am I quitting entirely.
This isn’t even some philosophical, internal debate, or a quest to be more mindful in my life. It’s 100%, absolutely, about control. I’m a control freak. It’s why I design, code and write — so I can do the things I want, the way and when I want to do them. To that end, I continue to want to be in control of how I use and consume information on social networks. I don’t want to be a Pavlovian dog, salivating at every beep, buzz or red circle on the screens I look at. I don’t want to be the end product for companies who are buying and selling my information, tastes, and whether or not I’m feeling particularly worthless on a given day. I also want to run my business, my way, and say “screw it” to the thought leaders who say social media is a must, and that you have to be on all the networks they’re on.
Tools only have the power we give them.
A hammer, in the right hands, can build a whole house. In the wrong hands (or… my hands), they can smash the hell out of a (my) thumb. Social networks are just tools. Sure, they’re designed to keep you using them, as often as possible — but they also only have the power we give them. And just like hammers, they can be extremely useful, or even beneficial.
I still haven’t figured out exactly how to make social networks be super useful for my business and me, but I’m working on it. Or at least, continuing to notice and adapt.