Are You Taping This?

Socially Sober: The Good, The Bad and The Selfie

Towards the end of 2015, I was flying back to LA after a quick trip to London, when terrible turbulence hit. And I’m not talking about your average run-of-the-mill shakes here… I’m talking heart-stopping, drink-spilling, crew-to-your-jump-seats-and-fasten-your-seatbelts turbulence. I tried breathing deeply. I tried closing my eyes and imagining I was on a bumpy country road rather than locked in a steel tube in the sky. And when all that failed, I turned to Meg and Tom for some help.

Pushing play on ‘You’ve Got Mail’, I instantly felt my fears drown in an ocean of rom-com familiarity. I’ve always loved the character of Kathleen Kelly, and related to her in the way that she loves small bookstores and reading in a crowded cafés, worries if Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy will end up together… and runs straight to the computer as soon as she’s out of bed for some digital connection. Twitter is like my Joe F-O-X. Not in a romantic way, but in the way that seeing my @ replies feels like hearing that automated voice saying, “You’ve. Got. Mail!”

Kathleen: I’m just wondering. I’m wondering about my work. What is it that I do exactly?
Frank: Kathleen! You are a lone reed. Standing tall… waving boldly… in the corrupt sands of commerce…
Kathleen: I am a lone reed.

During that quote, 35,000 feet up in the bumpy air, I thought about my own work, as well as my contradicting relationship with social media. I have a romantic view of analog life as well as an intense enjoyment of new technology. And in my chosen job, I believe strongly that classic movies still have a place, that indie films should be widely watched and we should all talk about women in film… but those are the topics which don’t seem to bring those coveted views or clicks or followers or jobs or money. In that moment, I was convinced that I was the only one to feel this way. “I am a lone reed,” I whispered to myself.

Fast-forward to this week; insert a fashion montage in for good measure, and I found myself back inside a plane and turning to Meg and Tom once more. No turbulence this time, just plain boredom. But on this viewing, I realized I also relate to Frank Navasky. That nut from the Observer!

Take this scene, for example…

Frank to Kathleen: Are you taping this?
Frank on TV: Technologically speaking, the world’s out of hand. Take the VCR. The whole idea of a VCR is that it makes it possible for you to tape what’s on television while you’re out of the house. But the whole point of being out of the house is so you can miss what’s on television.

The way he condemns the technology, while also confirming its usefulness. That’s me. But as it turns out, I’m not alone.

As soon as I published my last blog, I shared it across social media. And yes, that irony wasn’t lost on me. Much of that day was spent voraciously reading all the replies, emails, tweets and Facebook comments I received. In the end my head was so stuffed full of unnatural light and exciting confirmations of my existence, I didn’t get to sleep until 3am. But it felt like a different kind of buzz. I discovered just how many people — my ‘tribe’ members and colleagues alike — felt the same as me.

I am not a lone reed!

My journalist friend Jen summed up my thoughts in a much more succinct way:

“How do we make more of the possibilities vs. leaving it all behind?”

Last week, I asked on twitter for examples of people who did twitter “right” — who connected with their followers, felt authentic and spread a nice message. I’m not sure if they were simply trying to curry favor, but many replies said simply, “YOU”. I do try to share articles about women in film and give suggestions for non-mainstream movies… But personally, I think I can do it better.

The more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to one particular phrase in the book, ‘The End of Absence’, by Michael Harris:

In our best possible future we’ll find brave new ways to use technologies in the world, rather than using them to retreat from the world.

Amazingly enough, after scribbling in my notepad weeks earlier that I wanted to interview Michael, he found me… on Twitter! He had read my blog, and liked it. This meant the world to me, as I adored his book. It’s smartly written, yet easy to digest if you aren’t all science-y and stuff. His book is about the wider use of technology, and in it he talks to various experts and road tests several ideas — such as going a full month without any Internet. No emails, no nothing.

Since I suddenly had access to an author with a wealth of knowledge, I asked Michael if I could email him some questions. Kindly, he agreed, and so, I sat at my computer like Kathleen Kelly, and started my ‘You’ve Got Mail’ type correspondence by asking when he first noticed a lack of absence in his own life.

“I think a lack of absence creeps up on all of us, right?” he wrote, “You could peg it to the moment you got your first cellphone. Or the first time you went to bed with your phone on your bedside table. Or the first time you woke up in the middle of the night and used your Instagram feed to lull you back to sleep… But around 2012, when I started work on the book, things had reached a digital fever pitch in my life. I was working as a magazine editor at the time and I had three screens going on my desk pretty much non-stop. I couldn’t think anymore and I wanted to break away, just focus on one problem in a sustained way…. The fact that I have to really work in order to focus on something for two hours without checking my email is so frustrating. It really feels like my brain has been colonized and, like all colonizations, it isn’t necessarily for my benefit.”

“Personally,” he continued, as I imagined Tom Hanks narrating this, “I want as rich a life as possible, and that means experiencing multiple modes of being. Connected and disconnected. Manic and solitary. As for the outcomes or rewards you get from absence — that’s pretty hard to quantify. But basically it seems that when you occasionally disconnect from the rest of the world you become more likely to have fresh ideas, more likely to understand yourself, and more likely to connect in meaningful ways with others.”

That is really true, I thought, with Meg’s voice in my head. Think back on your favorite moments of 2015, and apart from, possibly, that one time a celebrity re-tweeted you, I’m guessing most of it happened IRL. And I know I get my best ideas and understandings about myself when I’m away from the apps that curate a virtual me and show how many ‘like’ it. But then when I get those ideas? I like to go to social media to proof-test it. Or just when I’m lonely. Or bored. Or can’t sleep.

Kathleen: The odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something.

Why do we crave social media so much? Why do we enjoy it? Is it an inherently human trait to try to connect with people in any way possible?

“I think we are hardwired to desire social grooming,” Michael wrote in response, “And that desire is something our social media absolutely capitalizes on. At the same time, social media can become a crutch that allows us to avoid more intimate forms of human connection. A friend of mine posted about his mother’s death on Facebook and then figured he didn’t need to talk about it to anybody. But on my sunnier days I find Twitter quite fun. It allows me to keep in touch with a writing community that spans the globe instead of just my city. I imagine that can be especially useful for writers from niche communities or minorities. I’m gay, for example, and I do like having the ability to connect with lots of gay writers from around the world.”

One big idea I’ve gleaned from this week is that I simply can’t escape social media with my job. For example, on Wednesday night I was hired to host a live-stream of a premiere… all done through Facebook. Which was actually a lot of fun and gave fans a chance to experience the red carpet along with me. That seems useful. And a quick perusal of my existing contracts showed how often ‘social media promotion’ is written into them. But then there was a job I lost because the other person had more followers (but less experience) than me.

I absolutely know that I need to find a way to curb my addiction, I need to cut down on the number of platforms I’m on, only follow people who inspire me, and make sure I am using it with good intentions. And try, just try, not to go on the black hole of looking up ex-boyfriends after drinking too much wine.

Frank: You think this machine is your friend, but it’s not.

I asked Michael for some advice on doing some kind of a digital detox, and what he suggests for people like me, who worry about their addiction.

“A couple things,” suggests Michael, “if you’re going to take a digital detox of any kind, try and do it with others, or at least try to hang out with people who don’t Instagram every coffee they drink. Secondly, really approach it like an addictive habit that you’re trying to break — you should fully expect to feel like crap for the first couple days. But once you put yourself through a proper digital detox — once you remember what a pre-Internet brain feels like — you’ll have that incredible gift of remembering there’s more than one mental mode you can adopt, more than one way to think or to approach your day. You become, in other words, way richer.

…In the end, I’d never advocate going off to live in the woods, unabomber style. That’s for people who give up on the world. What we really need is to start thinking about media diets the same way we think about food diets. The body and brain are crying out for sugar and fat and salt, but that doesn’t mean we always give them what they want. Same thing for social media: your mind is crying out for social grooming but in a world of over-abundance you may need to craft that media diet.”

A media diet. I like the sound of that. And it’s something I need to do slowly, carefully.

To begin creating some boundaries, I think I first need to closely examine my usage. And because I consider these blogs somewhat of a group experiment, I would love you, dear reader, dear Dorothy Boyd/fellow reed/Frank Navasky/Kathleen Kelly… to join me in this next week, if anything I have written speaks to you.

Here’s the challenge: One day this week, note down whenever you use social media, how long you spent on it, why you opened it (Filling time? Wanting to check likes? Sharing something fun?) what you posted and how you felt afterwards. Be as honest as possible, and send me the results or your general observations to my email address on aliciamalone.com. I’ll keep yours anonymous, but I will do the same and be completely transparent. Sound scary? A little, but as Joe Fox says, quoting ‘The Godfather’… it’s time to go to the mattresses!