After a couple of days of Twitter frenzy last week, I came down from my high and felt a bit sick – not unlike the aftermath of a sugar binge or a hangover. What had I just done with my time? And now where was all the virtual “love” I had been feeling? If I hadn’t tweeted – and been re-tweeted – in the last 24 hours, I wondered, did I even exist anymore?
This all happened just as I was winding down my last week of work before taking time off for the holidays. At first, I panicked. What would I do? Who would I be if I stopped checking my office e-mail, stopped Tweeting, and just started living my own life?
There’s been a lot written about internet and social media addiction, but usually it’s about how people use it to communicate with (or show off to) friends or share trivial details about their lives. But social media is also a venue for expression of political views, a tool for social justice advocacy campaigns, and way of disseminating hard news and other information we think of as “important.” But even that kind of use can become obsessive and ultimately deflating. Twenty-four hours of tweeting the details of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on CIA torture last week, for example, didn’t leave me feeling like I’d accomplished a whole lot more than if I’d been posting cute pictures of my dog. Sure, I got a bunch of re-tweets while the torture story was hot in the news, but honestly, does that kind of 140-character engagement make any difference?
At the time, it seemed crucial – fueled by the possibility of retweets and “favorites” and ever more followers. But for what purpose? When I finally was too disgusted and exhausted by details of the torture report to continue my tweeting binge, all the attention I’d received – the internet “love” as they call it – stopped just as quickly. Not that I stopped obsessively checking, at least for a while. Because subconsciously there was this burning question: who am I – and what am I worth – if thousands of “followers” out there in the Twitterverse have no idea at this moment what I’m thinking?
Neuroscientists have tracked how the brain is affected by social media, and found that getting positive feedback – “likes” on Facebook, retweets or “favorites” on Twitter, for example, — appears to stimulate the same sort of reward centers we get from sex, food or receiving money. The more people use social media, the stronger that reaction. And therein lies the potential for addiction.
I got out of journalism five years ago in part for this very reason. I was writing for an online magazine that demanded not only in-depth articles but constant blogging and tweeting. The more clicks you could show for it, the better. The pace was so relentless, though, and the attention to the content so short-lived, that I felt like I was riding a roller-coaster. On a good day, I got lots of clicks and re-tweets and even got invited on the Rachel Maddow show — the highlight of my online journalism career. But on a bad day, no one seemed to care about the thing I was furiously reporting and writing about – and I undoubtedly thought was terribly important. I would end up frustrated, spent and demoralized. As with any roller-coaster, I came to realize, there was no final destination, just this endless ride of highs and lows, leading, it seemed, absolutely nowhere.
So I got out, determined to do something more meaningful. Although at times I’ve had the opportunity to do more sustained work on particular subjects of human rights advocacy, much of the work I do now feels eerily familiar: as advocates we basically repeat ourselves over and over, on social media, blogs and elsewhere, trying to spread our message as widely as possible, obsessing over the exact tone and wording of the message, and sometimes about who should best deliver it. But in this polarized political atmosphere where people’s opinions seem so entrenched, do we really change anyone’s mind? Does all that effort amount to anything?
I don’t mean to denigrate the advocates who do this work, many of whom I admire for their dedication to this Sisyphean task. And in the end, I believe it is important for all sorts of social justice advocates to be out there pushing their cause, even if immediate results are hard to see. There’s a strong argument to be made that over time, we see slow but real progress.
But my recent experience tweeting the torture report reminded me why it’s so important to also do things that involve more meaningful and sustained connections and relationships. It’s why I love coaching.
There’s a big difference in the kind of connections we make with people when we speak honestly, one-on-one, and truly listen. There’s a level of attention we can pay to one another when we really focus on doing that, that’s rare not only in social media, but in much of our daily lives. (How often are you talking to someone while they’re checking their e-mail, text or Twitter feed?) Coaching – or any real communication — is not about reaching the widest audience or winning the most accolades, but about really connecting with another human being. The value of that can’t be quantified.
Social scientists studying happiness have repeatedly shown that true personal connection is critical to our mental and physical health. Research shows people who have strong relationships with other people are happier, healthier and live longer. These are the kinds of relationships in which people feel able to talk openly and be understood, give and receive support, share activities, experiences and positive emotions. And those are things that are found mostly in direct personal communication, not in an online public forum.
That doesn’t mean we should give up using social media. But we do need to be aware of when it becomes a substitute for real communication and connection – for spending time with, and talking to, actual living people.
I’m sure I’ll keep tweeting and writing about the things I want to change in the world (and post the occasional picture of my dog) with some small hope that I’m participating in a larger movement that will eventually do some good. I’m actually happy and proud to be a part of that larger effort. But I need to be careful to keep it in perspective, too. The roller coaster may be fun for a short ride, but what goes up will always come back down again. And always grasping for the next quick high is no way to live a meaningful life.