1996. I remember it clearly. Recently graduated, I was working as an engineer at the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany. A rebellious type, I’d decided that either they let me keep my Mac, or I’d go work somewhere else. They let me keep it.
I’d heard about the internet, and supposedly we had it, but via an email gateway called Bitnet. To “FTP” something, we’d send an email, and get back several encoded file chunks, requiring a terminal emulation program to download for offline reassembling.
Curious one day, I downloaded, assembled and launched John Norstad’s usenet reader. I’ll never forget that day; the moment I realized I had graphical access to the internet, and a door opened to a brand new world.
Soon I was following several newsgroups, and before long I experienced the first feelings that we’re probably all familiar with these days — that a huge amount of possibly useful information was being continually exchanged, and that missing even a day of it could leave one hopelessly behind. There was a larger social audience than accessible in my real-life world. There were those who were considered authorities, and getting their attention felt like an elevating accomplishment.
Little by little, my productivity began to suffer. Somehow I found myself having difficulty focusing and getting as deeply involved in my projects. The furtherest suspicion on my mind was that it might have something to do with the energy I was expending in following the newsgroups. After some time, I decided that perhaps it was the calling of the internet and the bursting horizon of opportunities, and I left to start a business. Looking back, it was probably a bit of both.
Rewind back even a bit further, to the decade covering my university studies, and first couple of professional years.
Somehow, without access to social media, I managed to identify some of the key areas that would later prove central and valuable in my life. I discovered that design is something everybody can benefit from understanding, and Robin William’s, “The Mac is not a Typewriter” forever changed my written communications. I discovered that engineering is about trade-offs, and Frederic Brooks’s, “The Mythical Man Month” taught me that there are no silver bullets. Stephen Covey taught me that it’s critical to understand the difference between “urgent” and “important”. Michael Gerber taught me that being good at something doesn’t always translate to being good at the business of that something. Roger Black showed me the beauty of black, white & red. Jan Tschichold helped me understand why I cozy up to some books, and not others. David Ogilvy taught me why I bought things.
These were, for me, profound and valuable lessons learned, over the period of about a decade, from a relatively few, but accomplished, individuals.
Fast forward to today, 2011. I read my RSS feed over breakfast, and then catch up on Twitter over coffee. Twitter stays active all day long, continually grabbing my attention.
I start to notice that even while concentrating, pauses in thought — for example, hitting a conflict while defining some project specifications — seems to trigger a desire to switch into Twitter, almost like it’s a relief to active thinking and problem-solving.
And at the end of the day, I have a feeling of uneasiness, of dissatisfaction, a little anxious. Rather than engage in reflection, though, I check my feeds. And Facebook. And Twitter, again.
I also begin to wonder whether the reasons I communicate, in the online context, have changed. Do I really have something to say, or am I just trying to have something to say? Why am I reaching to jump into that conversation? Is because they’re influentials, and I want to be seen a part of their conversation? Why did I reply to that person’s comment to me, but not the other’s? Is it because I know people are looking? Am I becoming influenced by the superficial pull of status? Are we really socially interacting, or are we more like living window mannequins, maintaining a carefully crafted expression, position and always seeking notice of those passing by?
For some reason, which I haven’t yet identified, several weeks ago I simply thought, “Enough is enough.” And since then, I’ve only opened Twitter to tweet (and that was relatively infrequent), and respond to the people who’ve contacted me. No Twitter consumption at all. Nor Facebook. I’ve only caught up on RSS one day per week, usually on Saturday afternoon.
It has felt wonderful.
I’ve enjoyed a sense of calm I’d forgotten I was capable of. I found myself intellectually and analytically engaged in my life’s important activities, and haven’t felt those activities any longer to be overwhelming.
Although there have been times in the past when I cut back on social-media consumption, this time, for some reason, it has been different. This time, I’ve had the sort of “eureka” sensation I had after studying about the Paleo diet, and somehow knowing that I’d made a change that’s going to stick with me permanently.
I find it interesting to reflect on my life before 1996, and after. If I visualize pre-1996, I see a relatively open and sparse world, in which based on nothing more than my own pursuits and limited social interactions, I identified and learned about a small handful of things that would prove of lifelong value to me.
Post-1996 — the online period — looks, by comparison, like a noisy television screen, tuned to a channel that’s signed off the air. Literally thousands of topics have appeared on my radar, raised by people I don’t know, but whose social weighting, rather than their accomplishments, have caused me to at least mentally flag the matters as potentially important to understand. File them to Delicious, tag them, Instapaper, Readability, a quick Amazon Kindle purchase, and add the author to some Twitter list.
And rather than a select, few individuals, my inflated and distorted perception of expertise has extended to hundreds, if not thousands. 10,000 twitter followers? He must know what he’s talking about.
As I look back on the past 15 years, and try to identify what I’ve learned in consuming social media, what has proven really valuable in my life, I come up empty. And that’s, I think, profoundly disappointing, considering the number of information pieces that I temporarily found interesting; of course, bookmarked and tagged for later reference. Can it really be true there was nothing there of comparable value to the visualization lessons I learned from Eduard Tufte, or the principles of investing I learned from Harry Browne?
And what I also see, looking at pre- and post-1996, is a difference in independent intellectual engagement. And I prefer the “pre” period, during which I would spend long periods of time just thinking. Just observing. Just reflecting. And, most importantly, I’d piece things together on my own, that would result in meaningful personal progress, and identification of what’s really important to me.
Affects of virtual societies
In his book in on mathematical illiteracy, John Allen Paulos discusses (among many other things) some not-so-obvious affects of global media. In our everyday lives, we’re exposed to a gaussian-like distribution of events, with extremities like murders and natural disasters being so statistically rare that if exposed only to local news, we’d hardly ever hear of them. Most of us in the developed world would perceive life as relatively tranquil.
But national and global daily news have the effect of artificially compressing the distribution, making rare events seem far more common, and this has the disturbing effect of distorting our perceptions and views. We tend to see the world as a far more hostile place than it really is.
It seems logical to me that social media would have similar distortional effects, perhaps in other, non-obvious dimensions, since the characteristics of these virtual contexts are so radically different.
Our social circles are much larger, but contain far less mutual inter-connections. We can develop artificial senses of belonging, and false impressions of relationships, where none really exists. The conversations are usually one to many, and originate in different motivations than real-life discourse. Why we communicate changes. Influence tends to derive from status, rather than accomplishment. Our susceptibilities to pride and status seem amplified in these scaled environments.
My new social media and information diet
How social media and the explosion of information affect individuals and societies is the subject of a lot of study and research today. As with most major technological shifts in history, there’s certainly benefits and drawbacks. What I tend to conclude, though, about myself at least, is that without discipline, patterns can develop that affect productivity, and without careful awareness, perceptions can be distorted. And above all, I simply don’t want to waste time!
My intent is the following:
Blogs For the time being, I’ll continue to read the blogs I like, but I’ll set strict boundaries; for example, only on weekends.
Social Media I’ll also limit Twitter (which is really the only social network that’s stuck with me) to weekends, but will make an additional change as well. Rather than follow a private curated list, whose members are based on perceived status, influence, or likelihood of saying something valuable to me, it will be based on relationships; mostly containing people I know (personally and virtually), who I want to keep up with.
I have a feeling this represents an important new phase in my life; a phase in which my social media consumption will get dramatically reduced in the same way the Paleo diet led to the dramatic reduction of carbs in my diet. (And just as with the Paleo diet’s “cheat day”, it’s not really about complete abstinence, but rather reduction and discipline.) Hopefully this represents a phase in which I’ll return as captain of the ship, determining what’s important through independent thought and experience; less affected by the biases and influences of the emergent online social contexts.
(As an end-note, I do recognize the irony of expressing all this in a blog post — and one that concludes with a “follow me on twitter” link! But for the time being, I’ll continue blogging, and tweeting, since writing, for me, is a great way to consolidate and distill vague ideas into some form of coherence.)