Look over here! Social media and distraction in the age of anxiety

I have this list of changes I want to make to my business and its website that’s grown very long over the last few months. It’s not that my workdays aren’t productive; it’s just that I find myself constantly distracted. (BTW This is a 1900 word post but I’ve put lots of bullet points, short paragraphs and headers toward the end – for those of you whose attention may flag after 700 words!)

In the past my distractions may have been the phone, my partner or work colleagues – all legitimate requests for my attention. Or it may have been a cow wandering past the back fence; its hulking mass reminding me that all the awe and inspiration I need is, literally, in my own backyard.

I’ve always liked distractions. They often form a natural pause or lull in the mental hubbub of work. So when I’m thinking about how to do something differently, I’ll go make a cup of tea or google the question or do a quick check of my email. Then when I go back to my work with a fresh mind, there’s usually a new way of approaching whatever was slowing me down.

But these new distractions – which began over a decade ago with email but have mushroomed with the social meanderings of Twitter, Facebook and RSS – have me doubting whether they are really helping me.

Of course, I can see positives in all of them:

  • Facebook is a great way to catch up with old friends. In the daily updates, I can see that while we live very different lives, many of our concerns are similar (health, the environment, turning 40, social justice, art, humour). I see my values reflected.
  • Twitter is a great way to find instant news or opinion. It’s nothing if not a diverse dip in our cultural pool.
  • RSS Feeds are a great source of new ideas that help me think about my own little challenges differently. It’s the “Ah, that’s clever. I never thought of doing it like that.”
  • Email is how I keep in contact with most people. It’s convenient (I don’t have to worry about disturbing you at 11pm when an idea I want to share hits me) and I find I express myself better in writing (less of the “oops, I didn’t mean it that way” apologies).

At least with email, I feel I’ve gotten a handle on it. It has its place in my life and I can leave it if I need to. [CR Ed: Come swim with me in de river denial, it’s nice and warm.]

But the addition of the others is doing my head in. On a recent Monday morning, after a weekend without internet, I had almost 600 new RSS items. [CR Ed: You are a freak.] When I start looking through I find some feeds are re-feeds or are filled with duplicates, so there may only be 300 new items, but geez that’s a lot of reading, attention, and importantly, energy.

With RSS, I am beginning to open the feeds with the fear of overwhelm. Because of the way I subscribe to feeds – ie I subscribe to most things I find interesting and I’ll stay subscribed until I no longer find them interesting  – I find I need to constantly cull. In the end, I may only look at 10 items. And for one hour a day, which admittedly comes out of my leisure time or my significant other time, I am just a human filter. Am I just filtering the rubbish on the web so that other people can make money telling us what’s trending? Hmmm.

Well, my curiosity is starting to wane.

So I’m left asking, what’s behind the distraction? Why do I feel compelled to subscribe to or follow all these things? What is it about them that mean they get my attention rather than my business development or the rest of my life?

There seems to be an approach/avoidance thing going on.

What attracts me to my social meandering distractions:

I see my values represented – If I got down to the brass tacks of it, I’m looking for some evidence that the what I believe to be true and important is in fact so. “Look, Joe Blow says corporations suck, so it must be true.” Yes, I know, this is sad.

I feel I have choices – I’m looking for different ways of looking at issues, so that I can apply it to whatever challenges I’m facing. I want choices.

I am on the Right path – I’m using it to see if I am living a worthwhile path ie Have I made the ‘right’ choices?  Am I missing out on something because I didn’t stay in the city and get a “career”, have kids, go to the latest fringe exhibition or event?

Synthesis and meaning – I’m looking for someone or something that brings all the seemingly disparate ideas and experiences of my life together and gives it meaning.

Connection – I’m using it to stay connected because somewhere in my “busyness” I have stopped having face-to-face interactions. I rarely even speak to people on the phone.

I want to see change is possible – Sometimes it’s not enough to see little changes in my own life. Sometimes it’s not enough to read of legislative changes that indicate our culture is changing in positive ways. Sometimes I just need to see people bringing forth brilliant solutions to ongoing problems. A little reality check.

Observing is easy – It’s easier to talk about what other people are doing than to actually do something. You know, the planning, the calling, and the shovelling of shit. People talk about how new technology allows us to participate – but I don’t know if most of us are. Is sitting in your bedroom writing some rant or comment really participating? Shouldn’t there be some element of engagement when one participates? All I see is a lot of people talking in one direction. “This is what I think”, “You are wrong”, and “This is the real truth”.

What am I avoiding?

Engaging or actively participating – I’m not doing the things that actually require some level of engagement such as writing the new website or going out with friends.

The really important stuff – oh, that.

Which brings me to the big question….

Does social media actually enhance our lives?

There has been a lot of talk about whether media such as Facebook and Twitter are useful or energy/brain/life drains. The verdict seems to be that Twitter is “a new way of communicating” and we are still writing the rules about how to get the most out of it. But I’m not so sure.

We’ve had plenty of “sound bite” communication before: the newspaper headline, the tv or radio sound bite, or the “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!” town cryer. That’s not new. What’s new is that now everyone with a computer connected to the interwebs is a town cryer. And it sure is getting noisy.

Many to Many Connections

For the technology to work it has to evolve so that the noise is filtered; each person only shouts to people who want to hear him/her, and people only hear their shouters of choice. Although filtering is beginning to take place, it’s not as evolved as other technologies that connect people such as peer-to-peer file sharing.

But, also, I don’t know if I want to play in the shouty playground. When Caro edits my stuff she refers to this tone as my “outside voice” and it’s very clear that ranting at people is not the optimal way to have a dialogue. So, the shouty network may be entertaining but it is not going to be very functional. It’s probably just going to give me a headache. So the filtering will also need a volume control.

The new media evolution

I can see that the social media (r)evolution has the potential to provide trusted news sources for anyone connected to the interwebs. That would be ideal and it would mean a massive power shift from the current corporate media to the people. What was inscribed across the arches at my alma mater? Knowledge is power. (Well mostly) The idea that people could have the information and resources they need to live healthy and meaningful lives is exciting.

As part of this, Twitter, RSS, Facebook and whatever other new mediums are created and adopted in the new few years have the potential to be part of this new media. But they need a lot of work. And the marketing junk needs to be filtered out.

And true, Facebook is a brilliant way to keep in contact – but our real connections need to be in real time. This is already starting to happen with meetups which seem to have been adopted by urban and/or gen Y users. Hopefully, like the surge in the use of FB itself, the face-to-face meetings will increase.

When anxiety is the norm

While all this access to information and connectivity is great, there is the downside that I mentioned earlier: Is all this new information and attention flags actually diminishing my quality of life by making me more highly strung and anxious? Is there really a thing such as Too Much Information?

We are living in a time filled with much uncertainty. We’ve been sucked into the false prosperity of credit culture and living beyond our means. Now that the lifestyle is slipping away, where do we put our attention? What do we do when we can’t consume our way out of our anxiety?

For many, the possibility of losing your job isn’t just about a downsizing in lifestyle. There is growing anxiety about whether people will be able to meet their basic needs – to pay mortgages and put food on the table. But many don’t know how to plan for an uncertain future and as I’ve found, it’s much easier to focus one’s attention on junk culture than take action toward a fuzzy future. But, it seems that not taking action, and watching that fuzzy vision get further away, just adds to the anxiety.

Accepting what is

Those of a new age bent will tell you that in order to find true peace you must accept what is. Perhaps this is the key – or part of it; to stop chasing after the new or the inspiring, and just accept that new ideas and inspiration will naturally evolve from curiosity. It also means stopping the avoidance – but not in an active way, which is my usual response. Instead, accept that the changes will either happen or not happen.

Either way, I will be fine.

Using social media to enhance life

My hope, if I dare have one after that little soliloquy, is that social media will move beyond being a distraction to being one of many new, meaningful ways we connect with others.

I think it comes back to how we interact with our culture generally.

When we let the culture dictate what’s important and what we should give our attention to, then our lives will always be “missing” something – despite the frantic activity and achievements, we will continue grasping for something.

When we work out what we need, what’s important to us and how we want to live, and use the technology and culture to enhance that (if we need it), then we start living whole and rich lives.

And that’s what’s really important, isn’t it?