Entering the Era of Social Ennui
originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider
“Social media—from Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)—and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.” – Stephen Marche in The Atlantic
As social media’s popularity continues to reach new heights, with boys in short pants creating billion-dollar social businesses practically overnight, there seems to be a collective yearning to slow down the oversharing. Recent reports, blog posts, and editorials have expressed three general principles: we’re sharing too much or too often; online relationships are not the same as relationships forged in person; and, there’s a negative aspect to this that has either been documented or is theoretically worrisome. Beyond the Atlantic story, consider some of these other examples:
- “Digital Natives switch their attention between media platforms (i.e. TVs, magazines, tablets, smartphones or channels within platforms) 27 times per hour, about every other minute… They experience fewer highs and lows of emotional response and as a result, Digital Natives more frequently use media to regulate their mood – as soon as they grow tired or bored, they turn their attention to something new.” – Time Inc. study
- “…Creative pauses are happening wherever people are solving problems…The creative pause allows the space for your mind to drift, to imagine and to shift, opening it up to new ways of seeing. There’s just one small problem: The creative pause might soon become a thing of the past. When was the last time you remember being bored? Or even having a moment free from distractions?” – Martin Lindstrom in Fast Company
“Facebook makes sharing easy — too easy, some would say. Because one’s social network often consists not only of actual friends but also relatives and sort-of friends, along with sort-of friends of their sort-of friends, you need to be careful about what you post. Yes, the site does allow you to define smaller circles of friends, but that requires constantly monitoring what should — and should not — be shared with whom.” – Randall Stross in The New York Times
“Give up your need to impress others. Stop trying so hard to be something that you’re not just to make others like you. It doesn’t work this way. The moment you stop trying so hard to be something that you’re not, the moment you take of all your masks, the moment you accept and embrace the real you, you will find people will be drawn to you, effortlessly.” – from PurposeFairy.com’s list of 15 Things You Should Give Up to be Happy
This also plays out in a number of books that have been published recently:
- “I owe the Amish hackers a large debt because through their lives I now see the technium’s dilemma very clearly: To maximize our own contentment, we seek the minimum amount of technology in our lives. Yet to maximize the contentment of others, we must maximize the amount of technology in the world.” – “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly
- “The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community: Reality, compared to games, is broken.” – “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal
- “People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.” – “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle
What’s more striking in these books is that Kelly and McGonigal are extremely pro-technology. Kelly visits the Amish to understand the allure of society collectively rejecting technologies. While he can’t live that way, he takes pride in his personal freedom to reject technologies. McGonical furthermore is so evangelical about social gaming that her most enthusiastic passages are the ones that made me stop playing Draw Something and call a family member. Turkle, by contrast, offers the most thoughtfully damning treatise on the dangers of digital and mechanical relationships; her book should be required reading, and it will undoubtedly affect your views of how we relate to each other.
There has been more, and there will be more coming. Every day, it seems my News.me roundup of the most shared links from my friends includes at least one story about simplifying life, building real relationships, and shutting down the social media spigot. The more we share, the more we create this fantasy of the anti-us. We imagine these alternative versions of ourselves and our peers who don’t rely on technology to communicate with each other, who can focus without any kind of digital distraction, and who shun multitasking in favor of monotasking.
Even brands have joined the fray. Microsoft’s Windows 7 handset ads promised, “It’s time for a phone to save us from our phones.” The tagline never made any sense, but I’m sure many of us wanted to believe it. As we embrace smartphones with prettier screens and faster bandwidth and batteries that sometimes last longer than fifteen minutes, we are compelled to share more and more, actively and passively, voluntarily and involuntarily.
The New York Times cited companies such as Path, FamilyLeaf, and Pair as part of the solution. The remedy here is to limit who sees what we share, and that makes sharing more meaningful. Are they the social networks to save us from social media? There is probably something to the idea. On Path, I tend to receive more interactions than I do on a comparable post shared on Facebook, even though my Facebook connection base is about twenty times larger. This may be the start of a real change, or it may be a disproportionately active audience of early adopters using Path. Then again, Facebook may acquire Path and gut it before we even know the answer.
There is a palpable sense of cognitive dissonance brewing. The oversharing is numbing us, but we can’t stop doing it. There are only two ways to resolve the dissonance: either we need to accept and embrace how much we are sharing, or we need to change our behavior. We want to keep loving social media without feeling like we’re narcissists, or emotionally dulled, or giving up our creative pauses. Most of us probably won’t join the Amish. In lieu of changing ourselves and our behavior, we will keep doing what we’re doing, while collectively searching for anything that will save us from ourselves.