Why I Feel Ambivalent About the Online World Now (Told by a Former Early Adopter)

My first selfie on a Palm Treo 650. Dec 27, 2005

It’s 2016, which to my 40-year-old brain sounds impossibly futuristic and almost fictional. Social media has become so pervasive, so ingrained in our culture, that for many of us in New York, we’re waking up on a cold, rainy Monday in April, trudging down the steps of the subway, eating an egg salad sandwich for lunch at Starbucks, buying a $10 cold-press juice at an overpriced Brooklyn juicery, and thinking of ourselves as mini-celebrities.

It’s the YOU show every day, and in the U.S. and especially media-saturated New York, we’re spending a huge amount of time thinking about ourselves from the outside, how we’ll appear to other people online and in our apps. How cute and desirable we look in a selfie. How active a love life it looks we have. How much fun we’ve had over the weekend.

We’re going from Instagrammable moment to Instagrammable moment, leaving in our wakes a trail of data and information and signals for our “fans” and ad targeting algorithms to read and process.

As an early internet adopter, part of Generation X that started out on this crazy ride from the very beginning, I feel ambivalent about where we’ve ended up.

Many of us who flocked to the internet first were introverts who had very particular interests and had a hard time communicating to people in real life, and we appreciated a layer of anonymity and time to process things.

Or maybe we felt alienated for some reason — who we were wasn’t accepted or understood by the people around us in our small towns or suburban high schools, and the internet made us feel less alone. Through the internet we could become part of a community that didn’t before exist, except in our heads.

For many of us who had a hard time being “ourselves” IRL, we got to create a new persona, the person we wanted to be. It was the equivalent of going away to summer camp in a different state and getting to reinvent ourselves and become someone new.

Selfie with the first iPhone at the Four Seasons Palo Alto May 16, 2008

For me, I was able to create myself on Friendfeed and Twitter, formulating a persona that was far more interesting and bolder than I felt in real life, and I faked it until I became that person. I used the presence of a small audience to reinforce behavior that I wanted to demonstrate in real life.

For a lot of people, this positive part of the internet is still there, especially globally, as we see the internet bring about deep changes in countries and regions and mindsets that drastically need social justice. (I’m thinking specifically of the #BlackLivesMatter movement here.)

But I also feel a deep ambivalence in what we’ve created. There is a dark side to this technology that we didn’t anticipate, or at least was only anticipated by our futurist thinkers and fiction writers.

Some mornings when I’m looking at my Twitter feed I feel like our generation opened up Pandora’s Box with too much enthusiasm, not thinking that we’d end up at this point, with our political candidates tweeting out animated gifs with no gravitas and someone literally living or dying by a poorly worded tweet.

This worries me. I’ve worked for some of the top tech companies in the world, and I entered into this new era with boundless enthusiasm for the newness and the connection and the personalization and the AI.

But now I’ve gotten to feel like all of this media, this tidal wave of tweets, posts, podcasts, apps, VRs, email newsletters, Netflix series, Periscope broadcasts, Amazon movies, Medium articles, etc etc etc has become too much.

My tech pendulum is swinging back the other way, back to a time when technology and media was just another tool, not the thing itself.

I’m craving simplicity (that beautiful simplicity and singular purpose that USED to be exemplified by Apple) and single purpose devices that help me to concentrate on one thing and one thing only.

I’ve adopted a moratorium on new apps and devices unless they will significantly increase my quality of life (and that bar is very high), and I’ve turned off push notifications except for the most critical apps. My iPad mini is now only a reader for books and magazines, and I’ve gone back to preferring physical media, not from a romanic sense of nostalgia, but more to stanch the flow of interruptions, the blips and pop-ups and pings that seem at every moment to be vying for my attention and taking me out of what I’m doing in the present moment.

I fear that this pressure to live through our devices is keeping us from being fully present in the physical world around us, keeping us from paying attention to the human emotions and relationships right in front of us, to the detriment to our culture, our psyche, and our physical well-being.

My wish is that we balance out. That we construct boundaries about what we publish and consume. That we consciously think about the consequences of the stories we tell about ourselves and others.

Because right now, I feel like the online world is a free-for-all, a never-ending contest to garner the most attention.

Anything goes, and the lack of self-awareness and boundaries of acceptable behavior online could lead us to a dark and uninhabitable place, and the algorithmically determined feeds we consume constantly could create a delusional worldview that feels real but is ultimately hollow, narcissistic, and inaccurate.

But I have hope that this won’t be the case. That we’ll figure this shit out, and in a few years, we’ll look back at this surreal circus and laugh at how ridiculous we all were.

Selfie on a MacBook Air March 31, 2016. Lighting help by Jason Riker.

A few books that I’m reading now that have informed/inspired this article:

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales

The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think by elipariser

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by jonronson

Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington Arianna Huffington

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein