Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Disconnecting to Reconnect

by Laurie Allee
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The mixed blessing of deleting my accounts...

Have you cut back on social media and noticed a weird reaction from friends and family?  Now, before I continue, let's get one thing straight: if you are proselytizing digital minimalism to people, then I understand their blowback.  There's nothing more annoying than someone ranting at you to do something a certain way.  Nobody wants a lecture about social media or phones. (They don't want one about politics, religion or child rearing, either.)  

I'm talking about the gut reaction from people when you mention you've quit Facebook or decided to put down your phone.  There's an undeniable defensiveness that comes out, and I think it's so strange.

Here's a sample of the kind of things I regularly hear:   

"Social media is the way people keep up with things now.  Are you just becoming a hermit?"


"I wouldn't have a career without Facebook.  You're hurting yours by doing this."


"Social media is a fun way for people to connect!  I don't get why you want to be antisocial."

and my favorite:

"I guess you just don't want to know about your friends anymore."

Sound familiar? 

I don't notice the same response when I say I'm on a restricted diet.  Nobody immediately says "But we need food to live!  I guess you're just planning on starving!  Are you saying I should stop eating food too?"  

If I say I'm trying to limit sugar and carbohydrates nobody comes at me with "I can't believe you want to live a bland life with no sweetness!"  Nope.  They just say "Oh, good luck with that." 

And then show me something on their phones.

When I realized that I was spending more time scrolling posts on my phone than actually interacting with people I loved, a similar defensive reaction rose up in me.  I couldn't possibly be one of those people with a bad phone habit.  I wasn't overusing Twitter and Snapchat and IG.  (Social media is how we connect!  It's fun and healthy!  It's good for my career!)  

After I accidentally dropped my phone in the toilet (and experienced the resulting panic and withdrawal)  I did not use the opportunity to examine my phone and social media usage.  Instead, I got a new phone and went right back to my usual tapping, scrolling and "sharing."  

But it wasn't really sharing.

I realized that many of my good friends had become ripples in a stream of accounts to scroll through on Twitter or Instagram.  Even when we connected, it was now usually through text -- and often using emoji shortcuts.  Here's an example:

Me:  How's it going? 😁  

Loved One: 😫

Me: ???

Loved One: Work 💩 

Me: 😘

Loved One: 👍

Then, I would click over to IG to see their  photo of a full coffee mug on their desk, or a meme of "It's 5:00 o'clock somewhere" with #SadlyNotHere or #Goals or #IWish added below.  I'd dutifully add a ❤️ or a 😂 and move to the next meme, selfie or hashtag.

I wondered why I never called people anymore  to connect.  I decided to bring back this relic of the 20th century and phoned a friend I hadn't spoken to in a while.  She answered like this:

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing.  I was just calling to say hi."

She paused and then said, "That's great but why didn't you text?  I thought something bad happened."

Later I tweeted something like "When did we stop phoning each other?  Now we're supposed to use a phone to text instead of actually call?"

I'm not sure who, exactly, I was hoping to reach with that tweet but immediately my phone rang and a friend said "I agree with your tweet.  We should phone more often!" 

I was stunned that my own gut response was, hey, he should have texted first...

Yeah, it's complicated.  We've rewired ourselves to think a few emojis are conversation, that viewing public social media messages is the same as spending quality time with people we care about.  I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while and I asked how she was doing.  She didn't hide her irritation when she said,

"Well, if you were on social media like a normal person you'd know how I've been."

If I could hashtag my own life at this point I'd probably use the label #normalisoverrated.  Since pulling way back from social media, I've felt an almost gleeful reconnection with the world around me.  My mood is no longer dictated by the day's trending topic.  I no longer feel nine kinds of outrage before breakfast.  I no longer wonder if I'm missing out or measuring up or meeting expectations ... because I've disconnected from what had become my constant attachment, the phone as some kind of weird external hard drive.  

If you'd asked me about it before, I would have told you no, of course not, I don't check social media very often.  But I did.  Dozens of times a day.  I checked when I was at the park with my daughter.  I checked sitting in traffic.  And many of you do, too.  (Would you eat that much sugar every day?  All day?  Stopped in traffic?)  

For me, it was best to just get rid of Instagram and Snapchat.  I'd already been off Facebook for years but I was heavy into the others.  I had started to notice that I felt compelled to "share" every little tidbit of life.  Here are my library books.  Here is my family having dinner.  Here is a picture of my feet as I relax at the beach.  I'm so relaxed at this beach I'm taking the time to curate a post about it.  What had started as a way to post my photography had become a compulsive chronicle of my personal life.  When I really thought about it, I felt creeped out and silly.  WHY was I posting all of this stuff? 

So I stopped.

I'm still on Twitter, and I'll be honest: sometimes I really feel compelled to dive into political Twitter's rabbit hole.  But right now I am struck with the urge to argue that I only use it to promote my work and forward interesting information about art and politics.  I'm tempted to make sure to reiterate that I don't post selfies or stuff about my life and did I mention that I need to utilize social media for my career!  But now I'm rationalizing.  

I wonder sometimes, maybe all of this is like being an alcoholic.  Maybe there is no way to just have one glass of wine at dinner once you've gotten used to bloody marys at breakfast, martinis at lunch, cocktails at 5:30, two bottles of wine at dinner and a nightcap of Schnapps.

Maybe social media is something you either get fall-down wasted on or abstain from altogether.       

Yes, using social media really is good for your career -- and many of you have found this blog through it -- but I don't want to treat my real life as a career.  I am a person, not a brand.  I want to live my life, not reveal curated portions of it and hope for approval.  I want to TALK to my friends, not just like their posts and communicate in cartoon happy faces.  And I don't want the times we get together in real life to devolve into showing each other YouTube videos or taking selfies and posting them.  (#BFFs!)

But here I go proselytizing.  And we all hate that.    

I remember back in the early days of social media I thought it was going to be a wonderful way for friends and family to stay connected.  I never expected it to replace so much real connection.  I thought it was going to add something, especially with people who lived far away.  But for me, it took so much away.  When my "relationships" with old friends began to resemble my "relationships" with celebrity twitter accounts, I knew something had gotten seriously effed up.  

I have a handful of loved ones who share my feelings.  Since pulling back from social media, we've spent more time connecting one on one.  Our text streams include complete sentences -- paragraphs, even.  We regularly  Skype and Zoom each other for coffee instead of posting photos of our mugs on Instagram.  We talk on the phone. We send letters and cards in the mail.  I make time to get together with local friends and family more often, and when it happens we keep our phones put away.

But there are too many other friends who don't answer the cards, or even email.  The ones who let their phones go to voicemail or text "I've been so busy!" (Maybe adding a few emojis for emphasis.) Their social media accounts remain active, though.  Throughout they day they post pithy messages universal enough to be directed at everyone and no one in particular.  I realize by not liking their public expressions, I've slipped out of their private view.

And I miss them.  I wish I could find out what is really going on behind the veil of an Instagram filter.

Pulling back from social media has made me realize that my actual relationships are so much better when I dedicate myself to nurturing each one on its own terms ... no one size fits all post, no online declarations.  It seemed like I was keeping touch with people by liking their posts in my feeds, but I wasn't really connecting with them anymore.

Social media rewards the shallow.  It never requires more than a few seconds of attention.  You quickly review posts curated for a wide audience, and then move on.  For me, social media had begun to feel like being at a cocktail party that never broke up into smaller groups of real conversation.  Again, I once would have argued differently.  But we all still have the deep conversation with each other when we get together!  I would have protested.  Social media is just an addition to the relationships we have.  

Isn't it?

Maybe it is for some, but not for me.

I got together with loved ones recently who I had not seen in over a year.  At lunch I noticed that each one kept his or her phone on the table or in hand -- something we'd never done before.  While we had fun talking, the conversation was constantly broken up by their phone notifications.  There were also the obligatory selfies posted to Facebook and Instagram.  A rather large percentage of conversation was devoted to outrage about political tweets and amusement at YouTube videos.  I thought, Good Lord, we have become social media.  Even in real time we are posting, tweeting, liking and blocking.  When I suggested that everyone put away their phones, you'd have thought I'd have suggested they willingly volunteer for amputation.    

Each loved one deserves my undivided attention -- at least part of the time.  I spent far too many hours looking at people's posts rather than being with people.  It takes time and hard work to make my handful of close relationships thrive. But it's so much better than seeing how many likes I could get for a picture of a sunset.   It seems crazy to me now, looking back, how although I saw hundreds of vacation pictures, memes, selfies and videos, checked out all the new houses and baby pictures and meal choices and pets, liked all of the events and confessions and cloud photos and wine glasses ... I had never been more disconnected from the people I loved.  

So, when I say I've cut back on social media I don't say it to be confrontational.  If you can manage all those feeds and still have the energy to devote to your families and friends, that's great.  For me, I had to pick between digital shorthand and the messy, complex, cursive love letter of real life. 

Someday emojis and hashtags are going to be as archaic and outdated as morse code and telegrams.  Today's social media will be the next generation's passe sitcom joke. I don't want to spend my real life on digital ephemera in the cloud.  

Instead of scrolling IG, I now write a letter -- a real letter that needs a stamp.  I call a friend and get the heart to heart details on what is actually happening.  I go to the park with my daughter and if I take pictures there, I keep them for our family photo album.  If I check Twitter, it's after a long, full day of being unplugged.

I choose real life.   I'd love it if you'd put your phone down -- at least for a while -- and join me.       

Read more about social media (including my recommendations for alternative sites) here.          

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