Andrew Sullivan’s essay for New York Magazine seems especially timely, given that a few of my friends are taking hiatuses from social media at present.
I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
This has been my reality for so long, I’m honestly not sure if I can imagine living any other way. I justify it by saying it helps me keep in touch with friends far and wide, but how in touch am I, really, when the majority of my updates come through the firehose of my Twitter timeline and are condensed to 140 characters?
A former romantic partner used to have a very active, very rich social circle that he kept in constant touch with through his laptop (and his phone, to a smaller extent). When I’d visit him in the Bay Area, his laptop was a third party in our bed. And I never felt like I could ask him to only focus on me, because those other people in his life were important too. What I eventually realized is that by taking advantage of the very limited time I had to spend with him and giving it to other people, he was showing me in no uncertain terms that I didn’t really matter at all.1 It’s now why I insist that current romantic partners put their phones away and silence any notifications while we’re together. As Sullivan writes:
Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully unplug. I want to get to a place where I can at least read quietly again, without sharing what I’m feeling at every moment with the ever-present dopamine injection that is my list of Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I want to hold hands, feel skin against skin, notice the way someone’s forehead furrows, and the way their eyes sparkle with laughter. But how can I do that in an unmediated way without being independently wealthy? But the distractions of my online life aren’t doing me any favours personally or professionally, and I think I could benefit greatly from sitting with the discomfort of quiet long enough for it to start to fit like a well-loved pair of slippers.