Information overload. Notification fatigue. Decision fatigue. Virtually all of us all are experiencing these modern ailments. In one day we are inundated with more information that most of our ancestors ever had to process in their entire lives--much of it unnecessary. We are in a constant state of high alert. Notifications for everything (our body usually processes these as alarms, but the term “notifications” sounds a lot more innocuous doesn’t it?). Alarms to wake up, alarms to go to bed, alarms for texts, alarms for emails, alarms for social media, alarms for banking, alarms for shopping, alarms for dating apps, and on and on and on. Social media is the worst offender. It is designed to keep us in high alert, a notification for literally every activity. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we get a notification and we immediately react. Our adrenal glands are becoming attuned (and enslaved) to the social media algorithms siphoned to us by corporate masters we’ve blindly sold our data to in exchange for a promise of fuller connection to the world. I think we all now realize that promise was a false one.
Yes, it is now possible to be friends with thousands of people from all over the world, get information from all over the world, however, the connection is tenuous at best. At worst, a complete distraction from our real non-social media lives (which desperately are in need of our attention). This corporate-sponsored never-ending connection to social media is stealing our ability to authentically connect not only to each other, but maybe more importantly, to authentically connect to ourselves. It is stealing our ability to simply sit with our thoughts without being pulled in multiple directions at once. It’s no wonder many of us are suffering from anxiety, depression, or periods of mental and emotional exhaustion. We are being torn apart, our consciousnesses on the operating table of commerce, our attention spans dismantled and whittled down until they’re only able to process ads.
I don’t know about many of you, but I read far fewer books than I once did. I don’t write as much either, nor do I think as clearly or as deeply. I am swimming in the shallow end of social media activity, sometimes drowning from the shallowness. If it is affecting me I know it is affecting you too.
I hope we are not at the stage where we no longer have the attention spans to read books or watch movies or even digest news articles, but I worry, especially for younger generations. For nearly a decade I was an educator. For 2 of those years I taught AP Seminar at a local high school. Every once in awhile for holidays I would reward my students with a movie of their choosing on the last day before Christmas break. One day while we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas I remember looking out into the darkened classroom at a constellation of iphones. It was at that moment I knew something was wrong. Now, it doesn’t take much effort to watch a movie--it is, after all, a mostly passive activity for most viewers. But my students couldn’t even summon the attention span to watch a movie that they loved. They were on Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram instead.
Social media, whatever it’s original goal was of connecting us, has done the exact opposite. It is separating us. And from our own lives, which is the foundation of all other meaningful connection. The highlight reel that social media rewards with “likes” keeps us constantly “plugged in.” Our days often feel much like when we are lost in thought when driving and can’t remember how we got to our destination. Our lives become a stream of likes, memes, ads, and comments, none of which we remember at day’s end. It scatters our consciousness to the wind. We can no longer concentrate on one thing. When is the last time you watched a movie without checking your phone? How many of you have your notifications on right now for messaging, Facebook, Instagram, dating apps, banking app, emails, etc.?
If comparison is the thief of joy social media and all things designed to “notify” us is literally designed to make us unhappy. We are inundated by others’ highlight reels. We have all seen the Instagram model on vacation in the Bahamas (vacationing from what nobody seems to know) posting half naked pics of herself partying and the thousands of likes she inevitably gets. Social media has monetized our unhappiness and dissatisfaction (and they are in large part manufacturing our dissatisfaction by not allowing us to see all possible content but rather privileging the content that gets the most likes, and with anything that is based on the public appetite, we often get the very worst-- the “if it bleeds it leads” type of content). Social media companies may grow fat from the money it makes off of our interaction, but we are starved for attention. We are out of existential shape, malnourished of meaning and authentic connection, our real lives a wasteland of bad time-management and unhappiness. It is to social media we often turn to when we are bored or lacking in direction. Like the addict, we log in for the “fix” of likes and comments. For far too many, they would rather live a half-life on social media than take the larger risk of a real life. They crave distraction from their real lives, or worse, complete disengagement.
The startling thing is that I am no different than them for the most part. I sometimes distract myself and I definitely “multi-task” (a horrible term for simply being distracted). As I write this post Lethal Weapon 2 is on TV vying for my attention. Sure, I’m pausing it to write here and there, but for the most part it’s on and in the background (shamefully I just cut it off). We are all distracted. Instead of being completely dedicated to a moment we are doing several things at once, none of them particularly well. It’s not just our performance that is compromised, but our ability to enjoy the moment, to fully inhabit it. We often remember our vacations backpacking, hiking, or swimming in the ocean because we are fully in the moment. Not an ounce of our attention is elsewhere. Our lives take on a timeless quality we were are in the moment (at-one-ment). It’s the reason why our childhoods are so vivid. We were all in. No future thoughts, no past thoughts, just the ecstatic joy of living in the present fully.
We are now tied to social technology. The Rubicon has been crossed. The bell can’t be unrung. Some futurists have predicted that our brains will be directly interfaced with the internet within the next few decades-- 24-7 access to pure information. This may sound startling to some, however, the problem we will face will be much the same problem as what we face today: what information is good? What information is true? What information is beautiful? How can we filter what is truly meaningful? How can we find a healthy relationship with information?
What then can you do?
Well, one thing you can do is cut off your social media notifications. Instead of curating your social media life, curate your real life (because trust me, when you die the random guy who sent you a friend request in 2015 will not show up because he liked your meme about Cheesus Christ). As a real friend of mine once said, “Your real friends are the ones who show up when you need help moving.” Having virtual friends can be rewarding, but nothing is as rewarding as cultivating a life of meaning where you can interact in person, eye to eye, human touch to human touch, immediacy unfiltered by crafting a clever response, but enjoying each other’s company, and actually be fully present.
Read short stories. Read books. Read articles. Cut back on the meme-sized information. It’s usually neither wholly accurate or precise. Start rebuilding your attention span.
Listen to music without doing anything else. Music is often the backdrop of our lives at parties, while we wash dishes, etc.. How about we bring it to the forefront? How about we actually listen?
Learn to meditate. Sit in silence. There are few things as clarifying as meditating and engaging with your own mind. Doing so reveals just how much of a reflexive organ the brain truly is. It will likely create scenarios, movie scenes, regurgitate past events while you’re simply trying to count your breaths. But while realizing our monkey-minds it also shows us the work we have to do to center our attention.
Once a day put your phone away for an hour. Lock it up if you have to. Then see what happens. I promise you whatever you do will likely be more memorable than whatever notifications you would have received.
And when you do find yourself on social media ask yourself this: are you posting out of emptiness or fullness? Are you adding value to others’ lives or simply distracting yourself? Are you posting to prop up your ego or to help others?
We can make social media healthy again. But only if we are.