Thursday, August 21, 2014

Social Media and My/Your/Our Terrible Summer

The other day I did something I hadn't done in much too long: I read a daily newspaper, on paper. I was meeting friends at The Tombs for an early dinner, and for once in my life I got there before they did. I had a beer at the bar, and picked up a newspaper lying by the register.

Once upon a time, all bars used to have at least one newspaper on the bar, for patrons who were drinking alone. You see it less often now, because of the assumption that people at the bar are otherwise occupied, watching one of the many screens on the wall or looking at their phones.

Since the paper was there, I read it. And it felt like taking a long bath, or going for a walk, or having enough oxygen after a run. It felt like a luxury.

I haven't subscribed to a daily paper in about ten years, which embarrasses me. I pay for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Portland Press-Herald online. I get daily news summaries emailed to me from Bloomberg Business Week, The Boston Globe, The New York Post (for the horoscope) and something called Trove that I don't even remember signing up for. I follow Slate, Vox, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, The Wall Street Journal, The Texas Tribune, Romanesko, RTE and at least half a dozen publishing newsletter/blogs on Twitter.

I am a news junkie. And whether it's booze, pills or news, addiction kills.

Everybody agrees that this has been a terrible summer, terrible to the point of absurdity. War in Gaza, war in Syria, war in Ukraine, war in Iraq — and those are just the wars the global media are reporting. Ebola in West Africa. Refugee children at the U.S. border, being treated like criminals. Ferguson, God help us, exposing the ugly truth that some people sincerely believe we're not all equal citizens in this country. Robin Williams' death. The Hachette-Amazon dispute. I could keep adding things to this list all day, but let's move on.

The one constant through all of this has been my Twitter stream, which I made the mistake of downloading to my phone four months ago.

"Doesn't it seem to you like people are crazier than they used to be?" I've had that conversation with at least half a dozen friends in the last month, in almost exactly those words. People are losing their ever-loving minds. But why? Are things really so much worse than they've been? Are they worse than the summer of 2002, when we were (or at least, I was) looking at the sky for strange planes and jumping at unexpected noises? Are they worse than the summer of 1998, when Congress was getting ready to impeach the President of the United States? (And God, doesn't 1998 sound great right now?) Are they worse than 1968, which I barely remember except for the smell of smoke from downtown Norfolk, and my mother crying in front of the television?

I don't know. I only know that it feels worse, and I've decided that Twitter is why. Facebook too, but Twitter more so.

I love Twitter. For people who work alone at home, like me, Twitter is a constant online cocktail party. I keep the Twitter window open on my computer all day — it's open now, with a tab telling me there have been 62 new posts since I last checked it. I justify that by saying it's part of my work, because I do help some authors manage their Twitter feeds.

But I'm realizing that Twitter is a big part of the anxiety that's infected me this summer. Twitter is a constant emergency, and it's all too much.

Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist, published a study several years ago that found that most people can maintain meaningful social connections with a maximum of 150 people. This is not a Western phenomenon; this is a global pattern, whether you live in Greenwich Village or a village in central Asia. Relatives, friends, co-workers, connections — 150 people is about the limit of how many names, faces and relationships we can take care of.

I follow just over 1,000 people on Twitter. I have 572 Facebook friends. How can I pay attention to 1,000 conversations at once? How can I be a friend to 572 people? I don't even know who some of my Facebook friends are; they're aspiring authors who sent me friend requests in my early Facebook days, I think, or friends of friends, but now they're in my news feed and it would feel unkind to drop them.

It has to stop, because it's making me crazy. This summer has not been bad for me personally. I've had a lot of work, I've seen family and friends and baseball and some great movies, I have a ridiculously good cable TV set-up and a view of the Washington Monument from my living room window. I have a rooftop pool, for God's sake! Which I've used exactly twice this summer, because the pool doesn't have wi-fi, and God forbid I detach myself from the electronic tether.

Let me be clear: this is my problem, and I've written this all out because I suspect I am not alone. I am not saying that social media or the Internet is bad — they're obviously not. I'm saying that I have been binging on social media and the Internet like a teenager on Boone's Farm, and it needs to stop.

The first step is taking both Twitter and Facebook off my phone, which I'm doing right now. The next step is to shut the Twitter window (41 new posts since I checked it!). I'm going to subscribe to the paper Post again, and make an effort to get more of my news from print and less from Twitter. I need that distance, that space. The step after that . . . I don't know. Ideas, suggestions?

Yes, I realize the irony of blogging to request help with my Internet self-discipline. Send me a letter. I'll email you the address.


Lise McClendon said...

I got a copy of the Sunday New York Times while I was traveling recently and I felt the same way == I miss the paper paper. I miss browsing and discovering interesting articles.

And yes it has been a terrible summer... but Fall is almost here! :-)

Erin said...

I couldn't agree more with every single word of this. Twitter especially amplifies everything. The OUTRAGE. The FUNNY. The TRAGEDY. I'm sometimes jealous of my husband, who doesn't do any kind of social media. He's looking at devices as frequently as we are, but he uses them to find and read mostly long-form journalism and sports news.

In the wake of the last few months, I have altered both my twitter and Facebook feeds some, but more importantly, I think my attitude has changed insomuch as see them both as tools, rather than necessities. I've gotten better at setting them down and walking away. Or having one-on-one conversations rather than engaging with The Whole World.

At least, I hope so.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I've been thinking about similar things lately. A few days ago I finished reading Gladys Taber's My Own Cape Cod which was published in 1971. Interspersed throughout her generally cozy observations about life on the Cape are worries about the Bomb and Vietnam and violence by the US in general. Since reading that, I've been trying to figure out if every age feels as hopeless as ours does right now. To your list of woes, I have a constant underlying sense of doom about climate change as well.

This may be why I bought a rotary phone a few weeks ago. And why I want a typewriter. And maybe why I have been enjoying vintage spy fiction like Eric Ambler and more recently Six Days of the Condor. It all just seems so flippin' quaint.

As I sit here typing I realize that some of my sense of desperation is the fact that so many Americans, including so many in Congress, are unwilling to act in good faith with our current president. The right certainly hated Clinton, and the left certainly hated W, but even in those situations one still felt that we might, after all, still be in this together. Things feel so fractured and broken. I certainly have my thoughts about why that is, but I won't go into it here.

I certainly love many things about being so connected, but I miss the days of being unavailable.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Tom, it's so funny you should mention the rotary dial phone; we just got a land line for the apartment as part of our new cable package, and I need to buy a phone. I think I'm going to order an old push-button Princess phone from, because everyone says their sound quality is far superior to anything cordless. I can't even remember the last time I spoke on a corded phone; maybe at a hotel somewhere.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I found the phone at an antique shop in Bucks County for $32. Way cheaper than when I looked for one online a few years ago. For me it is less about sound and more about the size of the handset. So much more comfy to hold. Mobiles exacerbate my tennis elbow.