This So-Called Digital Life: Re-Evaluating the Value of Time Spent in Social Networks

Believe it or not, this isn’t anti-social…it’s a norm of a then analog society. Whether we like it or not, it happens with every media and technology revolution. It’s happening again right now.

There’s a saying…a rising tide floats all boats. Slowly, over the years, I’ve felt the tides of connectivity come in. As a result of social networks, smart phones, pervasive Internet, this tide has floated an always on society. But this rising tide has also washed away a bit of me that valued elements of an unplugged life and human interaction. It’s evolved of course. I’ve changed. Those around me are changing. Every day there’s a growing divide between the connected and those who choose not to rise with the tide.

Over time, the value systems between the groups becomes not only increasingly disparate but also introduces a void in social interactions and relatability between them. I’ve long studied how this connected lifestyle evolves and the impact it has on business and society. But, personally, I’ve noticed a few things…

My connectedness is slowly seizing my quiet moments.
My sanctuary of enjoying my thoughts alone is now threatened.

The moments of watching life pass by as I take pause are now replaced by the need to plug in and socialize without truly socializing.

I swipe, pinch and zoom, and scroll as if I’ve become a digital conductor of sorts.

The light of my mobile screen is the calming I need to fall asleep each night and the stimulus that starts each day. I’m not alone in this statusphere.

I walk and check my screen. I struggle to not drive and check my screen. I excuse myself from conversations or meals to communicate outside. I’m losing my powers of analog observation and perspective in favor of digital engagement.

The truth is that it has its pros and cons. But, I’ve lost muscle memory in my hand and now the grip of a pen feels foreign. I’ve traded it though for dexterity in my thumbs. Though, my thumbs hurt every now and then. It can only be from relentless txts, emails and updates. I know I’m not alone.

I often feel alone when I’m not connected or that I’m missing out when I read the updates of my friends.

It makes me rethink my priorities in ways that wouldn’t be the most productive…at least by yesterday’s standards. Should I have joined them? Maybe getting out would be just what I needed. Again, I know I’m not alone.

I’m not addicted. I’m not in need of a digital intervention or digital detox. I intentionally live this connected lifestyle because I find value more times than not. It’s a choice. But, still I wonder. I wonder if the value I get out of my interaction across a dizzying array of networks is right or simply right in the absence of discovering alternative value or utility.

It comes down to virtue I suppose and where I choose to rank the qualities of social networks and connectedness in what ultimately defines who I am and what I do. Again, it’s a choice

In social media, there has to be something more fulfilling than attention and validation around this digital self-expression. There must be something more rewarding than the measure of people who see or respond to my expressions.

A Like, Retweet, comment, response, or view shouldn’t mean as much as they appear to, yet I see those who are consumed by the duality of a social life support system…living life in the real and digital life and trying desperately to tie them together. By way of illustration, Millennials and Generation Z kindle an unhealthy fixation on the number of interactions and followers they have on Instagram and Tumblr. Just follow the activities of a 13 year old on Tumblr, SnapChat or to see appreciate the inordinate worth placed on the number of people that follow them or respond to updates. If they don’t get what it is they solicit, they’ll try again…this time with a bit more fervor. As time passes, they’re self-conditioned to expect a baseline reaction.

With every action, we expect an equal or greater reaction…

Our meals.
Our surroundings.
Live and life events.
New profile pictures.
Updated relationship status.
Provocative questions or random icebreakers.
Humble brags.

We invite attention because we’re learning to lean on it and the reactions that pour through our screens warms us. It reminds us that we’re appreciated, that we’re loved, that we’re alive.

But, perhaps it’s this value system that requires reevaluation. I believe we can invest differently in order to get more out of this digital lifestyle

I refer to today’s value system in social engagement as the 5 Vs. With each update, we look for something in return and each represent a shifting balance between…

1) Vision (I learn something, I’m inspired);
2) Validation (I’m accepted or justified);
3) Vindication (I’m right, cleared);
4) Vulnerability (I’m open); and
5) Vanity (I’m popular, I’m important…not egotism, but accidental narcissism.)

These 5 V’s coalesce differently with each update and produce distinct emotional results based on the measure we apply to our own actions, reactions and inactions.

Whether we realize it or if it’s simply a matter of our subconscious seeking attention, inspiration, empathy or any other stimulus, we are compelled to share. That’s just human nature of course. In a connected society though, we owe it to ourselves reflect and deliberate new possibilities. This is for us and those whom we influence and inspire. Yes. This is bigger than just you and me. None of us have the answers. We’re learning. And, that’s what this is about…learning to learn.

I had the opportunity to interview Anil Dash at Pivot Conference in New York. Both a friend and someone whose work inspires me, Dash and I explored the state of the social web and its impact on a digital culture. The spirit of the conversation embraced the notion that the value system of the social web may have evolved upon a crumbling foundation of wrong and right. What is wrong and right anyway? Maybe the answer lies in the web we lost according to Dash.

“We will spend three-to-four years with our thumbs on our cell phones,” he shared with me during our interview. That statement caused the audience to gasp. It was obvious that they were thinking about it in the moment and long after the discussion was done. But our time together would only produce additional reflection. “The fact that I spend more time reading my social streams than I do reading to my young son is a problem,” he continued.

Dash believes that the answer lies in rethinking value to re-train ourselves in how we use and appreciate social media. Dash along with Lifehacker Founder Gina Tripani co-founded Thinkup, a new startup that connects your social networking accounts and tells you what matters about the time you spent there. ThinkUp aims to also help you “learn a little bit about yourself” and to “feel good about social networking.”

He, like you and me, seek not only balance, but significance and meaning to help us become something more than an accidental narcissist. It’s the only way to save a social web that we may be losing. The value we take away from this digital lifestyle must only be surpassed by what we invest in it. That’s for each of us to define. And define it we must.

December 2nd, 2013


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