A few years ago, a newspaper reporter called me up and asked what my thoughts were on the topic of “social network addiction”. A quick chat later, it became clear to me that the lady had already decided what her story was going to read like. She had already decided that her piece was going to uncover the horrible reality behind the fad that was social media. To this end, she kept asking me how bad things were for me and what I thought people could do to snap out of it.
If you have ever had someone desperate to read an illness into your behaviour, you will know how it felt.
Never one to waste time on nonsense, I got rude and kept insisting that there was no such thing as social network addiction. She kept pointing out that a person no less than Karan Johar had admitted to being addicted to Twitter and I kept telling her it was nonsense. Eventually, she got sufficiently offended and ended the call. I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to viewing tweets, Facebook posts, blog comments, and funny pictures. I was, and very probably still am, an addict.
Any reasonably pleasurable habit can grow to be an addiction. And addictions ail ADDled ones like me doubly so. I think a part of me still has a thing for toys. When I was a child, toys meant playthings. These days, they take the shape of web tools, communication mediums, and brand new social networks. Toys serve to enrich our minds, serving as real world anchors for our flights of imagination. But they can also become obsessions.
There is indeed such a thing as social media addiction. A few years ago, we used to call it internet addiction. Social media addiction is different because it is eventually entirely vacuous. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that we are ultimately only obsessing over tools and letting the tool guide the course of our day. The original plan, if ever there was one, was to chronicle our real lives through the use of Facebook, Twitter, and similar social web tools. What we have ended up with however, is a mockery of that original plan. The things we post on Twitter don’t come as a consequence of us having experienced events in real life. The people we connect with on Facebook are not really our ‘circle of friends’. More often than not, the situation is quit the reverse. We go through life looking for interesting things to tweet about. We present sanitised pictures of our everyday lives so we would look good to people in our friends’ list — people we have never met and, in all probability, will never meet.
And yet, in spite of these blindingly obvious differences, we continue living parallel lives on the web. Lives that eat into our day-to-day goings-on and cause us to bail on real world interactions with our actual friends and family. I got to thinking a few days ago that Facebook was a little like Frodo’s ring in the Lord of the Rings. It is fulfilling on one level and we don’t want to let go of it, but at the same time, it dehumanises us so much that we can’t tear ourselves away from “our precious” mobile devices even when in the middle of actual company. The same applies, to a much lesser degree, to Twitter as well.
It doesn’t help that I realise that I am at my productive best when I am in non-distracting environments. And I figure this is something that is more or less universally applicable. You have more patience reading a long article when there is no link-filled sidebar to take your attention away from it. You write with more focus when there is no toolbar above your writing environment to remind you that you can do so much more than just type. You create quality content for your blog when you are not worrying about the typography your words will be rendered into when you eventually get around to posting the damn thing.
I think part of the reason behind this kind of behaviour is that in the back of our minds, we are aware that there is a LOT on the web. Lots of things to read, lots of people to talk to, lots of pictures and videos to view. We are also aware that we don’t have nearly enough time to do all this. So we go about managing our web-based lives in an all too haphazard manner, rushing from link to link without spending time on any one article (but we do tweet the link before we leave the article page without reading it), keeping our eyes glued to the news feed for the fear of missing out on something, relentlessly posting arbitrarily taken photos for the benefit of people similarly bored as us, and checking constantly for comments and replies.
A big hurdle to be overcome before one can give up this addiction is the false sense of importance we assign to the web. We believe we need to be plugged in constantly or the world will pass us by. We believe that if we do not update our social networks with the latest news in our lives, our friends will drop out of contact and we will never see them again. This is all untrue of course, and we know it. But they are good excuses to help justify being constantly plugged in. Truth is, one can live a perfectly satisfactory (and perhaps more productive) life while remaining cut off from the real time web.
I for one, would be writing long, rambling pieces (like this one) all the time if it had not been for the abbreviating influence of Twitter and Facebook. Life seems to be flowing out of my mind as snippets. This diluting of thought eventually ends up affecting my professional writing also. Being brief is nice and all, but we have turned the proverbial soul of wit into a veritable behavioural epidemic. Neither our reading, nor our writing takes the shape of long form text anymore. The reason behind this of course is what I mentioned in the last paragraph. We don’t stick around long enough to actually engage in the act of reading and/or writing. Why? Because the real time web will not wait for us – the various streams and feeds will flow on and into an ocean of information and we will miss it all. See how the trap works?
The internet is not the problem — the real time nature of the social web is. I am not going to say goodbye to everything that is good about the world wide web, but in order to bring some manner of sanity to my work life, I feel I must at least pull the plug on Facebook. And it’s actually more doable than it sounds. Many have deactivated their Facebook accounts and have become more involved and productive as a result. Facebook is a black hole that sucks in hours of the day — one minute here, five there, two more over there and soon you have no idea where all the spare time went. It went into Facebook!
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you can resist the black hole better than I ever could. But I have a feeling I am not the only one who struggles with the pressures of being social on the web. At any rate, in a few months’ time, I will deactivate my Facebook account. I can do Twitter on a one-way basis, posting tweets via SMS (hence no pressure to check for replies and interact). The time I save will go into my work — various creative gigs that I do, and my writing, and most important of all, books.
I will keep writing these essays however, once a week. I quite enjoy the rambling, long form writing I get into here. In addition, these letters will be concentrated doses of what has been on my mind all week since I will have had a full 7 days to think about what I want to say (as opposed to the real time web where things are shot off without even a minute of thought).