Why do we flop around for so many hours online?

Why do we post endlessly on Facebook, scroll through 140-character mini-screes and schticks on Twitter, sit, mindless mostly, staring at our computer screens?

I can’t speak for others. But I turn to news and social media to fill space; to, in some sort of vague way, find connection; to fish for interesting information and ideas.  Sometimes I find something worthwhile; my friend Jeff Seglin yesterday posted  a New York Times essay, “The Joy of Quiet,”  about the lengths and expense to which more and more people are going to evade and avoid the wired world.  Wrote Pico Iyer:

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.

Hmm. Sound familiar?

Facebook and Twitter to me ultimately taste a bit like a soy burger. Please forgive me, my vegetarian friends, but where is the beef?  I leave feeling no more connected than I would if I were attending a lecture on love and commitment alone.  I feel no more satisfied either and, often, I feel more restless, more self-critical then when I signed on.

So why do I have accounts on Facebook and Twitter anyway?  Largely, I imagine, to conform. I teach journalism, and both are places to go for a range of stories and sources. I ignore social media at my peril,  even as a tenured professor who, at this point, spends more time day-dreaming about where I eventually want to live (you know, after I’m no longer working for pay) than about the next big thing in the world of news.

I use them, too, I confess, in the hope that perhaps others will click onto my next echoing call into the endless canyon that is cyberspace — that maybe, this time, I’ll write a blog or three for more than my cat and dog and old friends in Arizona.  Maybe I will be worthy of a “like” or a “retweet.” Maybe, oh just maybe, one of you will even post a comment.

But then what?  I don’t wish to be too existential before your second cup of coffee, but it is sort of pathetic, isn’t it?  It saddens me to see students so tethered to their smart phones  that they can’t see the sunshine or the scene before them. But I feel equally bad for myself for getting sucked into this online world of empty calories.

Yes, I know all about the search for “serendipity,” the discovery of simpatico online communities, the exciting shrinking multicultural universe that’s ours at the click of a mouse. But is it a good tradeoff to watch a screen eight or nine hours a day, as Iyer writes that we do?  Is that a worthy alternative to the reading we don’t do, the music we don’t listen too attentively, the walks we never take, the real conversations we no longer have?  Is it?

The digital world is generational and I, no doubt, am on the wrong side of the divide.   But I’m curious. Why do you scour the links and lines of hundreds of “friends,” most no more than casual, if amiable, acquaintances? What’s the draw?  Are we really gaining new insights into life?  Is it relaxing?

Or are we really all that lonely?

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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2 Responses to Why do we flop around for so many hours online?

  1. Kevin F says:

    I disagree that the digital world is generational – at least any more than the real world is. Members of different age groups may flock to different Web sites, but the addiction to connectivity definitely transcends any generational boundaries, at least from what I’ve seen. I was once on a very crowded bus coming home from work and had to stand during the whole 30-minute ride. It was dark outside and dark in the bus, but a woman sitting just to my left was typing feverishly on her very brightly backlit PDA to someone I deduced was her daughter. It was next to impossible not to see what she was writing and let’s just say this was the sort of conversation that neither needed to occur nor should have occurred during that particular 30-minute stretch. (I hope the daughter wised up and finally left the guy.) The woman on the bus had to be in her mid 50s, if not older. Then there are the individuals of varying ages, mostly north of 30, who have apparently banded together in an effort to make me miss my train every evening by walking in clusters, as slowly as possible, heads down, thumbs swiping their iPhone screens feverishly, willfully oblivious to the fact there might actually be other people in the station who need to pass on the left or the right. Again, the dividing line isn’t so much generational as between the self imprisoned and the free.

    As to social media in particular, it’s merely the next iteration of what started with the telephone, no? (or did the phenomenon of “pen pals” predate this?) In the 1800s, being able to speak to someone in a different room, town, or state was revolutionary and the newness of it doubtless meant that users spent a great deal of time calling people just for the sake of calling, without having anything meaningful to say (a 19th-century “tweet”, if you will). Then came radio, which (along with very important news about things like war or the Depression) broadcast a lot of fluff – “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine” – but made people in Oklahoma feel connected to people in California, who themselves felt connected to people in Illinois, who felt connected to the folks in New York, because they all knew that they were all listening to the same thing at the same time. It filled the human desire for connection and interaction without everyone actually having to be in the same spot. Television did the same thing, but with the addition of pictures (plenty of “empty calories”, but also the Moon landing, “Roots”, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.).

    So now comes the Internet (and specifically Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and to the connectivity of radio and television is added instant feedback. In 1890, you needed to call the operator and have her connect you to Aunt Bernice in order to tell Aunt Bernice your cat just played your piano. Now you can film the cat on the piano with your iPhone, post it to YouTube, and hyperlink the video onto Twitter and Facebook, with friends or strangers from around he world logging on within minutes or hours to tell you either how amazing your cat is or how stupid you are. The same human desire for connection and interactivity is fulfilled. (Yes, I suppose some people really are that lonely.)

    But for every thousand or so videos of the cat on the piano, you get the video of Neda Agha Soltan’s murder in Tehran in 2009 or the Mubarak police attacking protesters in Tahrir Square last year. That’s why I use it. Like you, I want to keep up with what’s going on in the world and I like having the ability to get raw video and alternative sources of news (and not having to drive for 50 minutes to the Amtrak station in Trenton because that’s the closest place I could get a copy of the Washington Post). And yes, it’s nice to keep in touch with friends who now live far away (e.g. exchanging messages with Nori Kitano during last year’s earthquake in Japan). Every once in a blue moon, I’ll even find and contact a source on LinkedIn or Facebook for whom I can’t find a telephone number or email (that’s been very helpful).

    I think ultimately there are always going to be the sorts of people who spent hours on the telephone 30 years ago talking about nothing and who now spend all day on Twitter and Facebook posting and consuming swill, just as there were always people who could get an amazing nugget of information over the telephone in a 2-minute conversation and who now find an amazing story idea for a national magazine by reading a tweet from the court reporter for the Clarksdale Press Register. It all depends on how one chooses to utilize the technology.

    • jerrylanson says:

      Great comment Kevin. Far more interesting than my post. You make well the case my friend Mitch Stephens makes in his history of news:
      That anytime technology changes there are those wringing their hands about the good old days and raising alarms about the impact of
      change. History shows both that the old doesn’t vanish and that the new, though imperfect, usually makes things better over time.
      Your point that there are those who use technology well and those who use it poorly is correct, too. … Always good to learn
      from former students! I will, however, continue to guard against being sucked into social media just because it’s there. I try to
      clear a day a month completely off media. In the summer, I’m going to expand that to a couple of days a week. Hope you’re well.

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