12-Step Social Media Scanner & Intervention Bot

Also, there should be a 12-step bot that constantly scans people’s social media feeds for signs that things are out of control, like this:

many shoes being pinned onto pinterest
…and then tweets you the location of your nearest AA, Overeaters Anonymous or Shoppers Anonymous, depending on the particular content and nature of your web-enabled misdeeds.

10 early warning signs that you need to decrease (or increase) your time online

Yesterday I received what I accurately diagnosed as the Best Error Message Ever:

Error message reads, "Microsoft Error Reporting quit unexpectedly."

Being a deeply religious person, I figured that an error message this…ummm…ironic? apt? transcendant?…must be some kind of sign from the universe. At first I thought it might be a sign to stop using Microsoft software, but then I thought, hey, surely the universe isn’t that literal. I went to bed with the kind of spiritual unease that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been dealt a contradictory set of Tarot cards, a cup full of inscrutable tea leaves or an out-of-context paragraph from Revelation.

But this morning when I awoke, the meaning was clear: it was a metaphor. (The universe is very big on metaphor.) More precisely, it was a reminder to stop trusting my error logs, and do a more careful assessment of whether my professional and personal technologies are really working for me.

It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves regularly. Any of us knows enough to freak out over an inbox with 2000 unread messages, or a computer that crashes every three hours, or a phone that drops calls while surrounded by 82 cell phone towers. What we’re missing is the broader, more subtle early warning system: the signs that tell us when something just ain’t right with our online lives.

In my physical life, I know exactly what that kind of sign looks like: swollen glands. Thanks to a year of elementary school spent in a near-constant state of strep throat, the glands in my throat turn into baseballs if my white blood cells even think about taking a nap. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but it gives me a sign to double up on the vitamin C, lay off the booze, and get a good night of sleep — which can usually be counted on to ward off whatever virus triggered the gland flare-up. It’s a warning system that works great because it kicks in early enough for me to do something about it.

When I look at my geeked-out friends — or at myself — I can see that the immune system for our online lives is sorely lacking. People ask the hard questions about their online lives when their boyfriends or wives dump them, when their kids complain about how Mummy loves her Blackberry more than she loves them, or when a weekend away from the Internet leaves them sick with anxiety. In other words, once it’s too late.

And the less geeky are equally vulnerable to a stealth attack. They don’t ask about the health of their tech ecosystem until their boss tells them that the reason they missed out on that promotion is because they’re known as the office Luddite. They always seem to hear the latest industry or office news from someone else (someone who uses Twitter). They’re still relying on a paper calendar, but wonder why they didn’t get invited to that last meeting (booked through Google Calendar).

Whether you err on the side of over- or under-investing in your online life, you’re equally in need of a digital immune system: a set of indicators that serve as early warning signs of a potential (but still preventable) problem. Here are 10 signs that you may need to increase (or decrease) your Daily Dose of Internet:

You may need to gear down if…

  • You get upset if your friends get beta invitations to a new web service before you’ve joined it.
  • You haven’t been offline for more than 24 hours in the past 6 months.
  • You have more friends you feel emotionally connected to online than you have offline.
  • You can’t enjoy an experience unless you can blog, tweet, Facebook or otherwise share it.
  • When you hear about a new digital trend, product or service, your first thought is, “How can I get that?”

You may need to gear up if…

  • You feel anxious when someone asks you to use a new gadget or piece of software.
  • You are frequently confused by conversations in which other people are talking about websites or tools you’ve never heard of.
  • You have missed more than 3 party, event or meeting invitations in the past year because you don’t use the social network, calendaring system or invitation service used to organize it.
  • You have no idea what your kids are up to online, and when they reassure you it’s the same as all the other kids in their school, you have no idea if that’s true.
  • When you hear about a new digital trend, product or service, your first thought is, “How can I avoid that?”

Even if some of these signs apply to you, that doesn’t mean you have a problem. What it does mean is that you need to step back and look at the time you spend online, and whether it’s helping you meet your personal and professional goals. Maybe you need to gear up in order to stay engaged with your colleagues, friends and family. Maybe you need to gear down in order to remember that you have colleagues, friends and family.

Either way, it’s important to identify the early warning sign or signs that will prompt you to ask yourself about your online habits, before they get you in trouble. Just make sure it’s a sign that will appear more frequently than the Best Error Message Ever.

For Lent, I’ve decided to give up reading about digital fasts

Gosh, how I love digital fasts. And Lent 2011 has given us a bumper crop of digital fasters who now find 40 days without Facebook (or Twitter) more profound and painful than a month without booze, TV or smokes. Well, if they can live without us for 40 days (sniff!) then we can live without them.

And apparently I’m not the only one who’s ready for a digital fast fast. Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like — how did I not know about this incredibly funny, tech-smart blogger? — has a truly awesome post providing the essential steps for digital fasts. He notes it’s an especially tough challenge for Christians, because

The Bible is very thin on the best way to wean yourself off of a Twitter addiction. Not once does Peter say, “Follow me on Twitter, I’m @Rock.” Or better yet for all you old school rap fans out there, “@PeteRock.”

He then goes on to spell ou the 7 steps of fasting, including the pre-fast web overdose and the post-fast triumphant return. But my favorite is step 2:

Write a blog post about taking a digital fast. The irony of writing online about how you are going to take some time from being online is so rich it’s like a delicious sandwich spread made of boysenberry and irony. Technically the Bible says we’re not supposed to tell people when we fast. Maybe posts on your blog don’t count. Maybe.

As you can gather, Acuff’s steps have a Christian spin (a delightfully humorous spin, at that) but they apply to anyone who is trying to unplug, whether for 4 hours or 40 days. Or more particularly, they apply to my feelings about anyone who is trying to unplug: if you think it’s useful, take it for a spin. And do tell us what you’ve learned about your relationship to technology as a result. But please, please, can you keep your revelations from taking up more online space than the fast cleared out?

How I do it: Internet edition

“How do you do it?”

This is one of my favourite questions, and I get it pretty regularly. It usually comes up when I refer to my kids — as in, how do you manage to parent two kids and have a career? Or it comes up when I make a reference to my occasional moonlighting with Social Signal — as in, how do you manage to work with clients when you’ve got a full-time job? Or it comes up when I talk about all my various social media activities — as in, how do you write five blog posts a week and still get any sleep? But most often it comes up in its composite form: how do you do it all?

I love this question because it’s a major ego trip. It’s a chance for me to just sink into the gratifying sense that yes, I have achieved my goal of appearing superhuman, of overachieving, of fitting 28 hours into a 24 hour day. Whenever somebody asks me how I do it?, I get to make some kind of gently self-deprecating denial while gloating over the recognition that yes, I’ve managed to stump another one.

But how do you do it? is one of those unhealthy byproducts of online life. As I discussed in my recent post about coping with the #sxsw backchannel,

if there is one thing the Internet (and especially Twitter and Facebook) are good at, it’s letting us know about all the things we aren’t doing. Conversely, it’s pretty terrible at letting us know about all the things other people aren’t doing. So when you read the 140-character tweet that says “Just had great chat with @worldfamousguru at #ExclusiveConference that will make me stronger, faster & more attractive to same/opposite sex,” what you’re not seeing are characters 141-180 that would have read: “….while my children cry themselves to sleep and my partner berates me for once again leaving town, work, home and family responsibilities.”

The gratification we get from amazing people with all the things we are doing is part of what feeds this dynamic. When we are read, or followed,  or retweeted, or mentioned, it tells us that whatever we are doing at this moment has in some way been counted. We get a little dose of attention for whatever we’ve just shared, and like rats, we share the next thing in pursuit of another hit. We share and we share until our whirlwind of activity is enough to prompt the question, how do you do it?

But for all the satisfactions of how do you do it?, it comes at a cost. We fill up our social media streams with all the news of our activities, instead of seeking out and celebrating our undocumentable moments: the moments that are too exciting to stop and tweet, or too elusive to sum up in a blog post.

I’m not suggesting we stop sharing, but rather, that we wean ourselves from the how do you do it? The next time a blog post or tweet tempts you to ask that question, try filling in the blanks: not with the assumption that each reported accomplishment but a drop in someone’s ocean of achievement, but with the possibility that it’s the only thing they have to share.

As for those of us who are addicted to hearing the question, we have even more work in store. We need to lose our dependence on projecting superhuman activity, and acknowledge the merely human reality that we are all constantly making choices about what to do and what to neglect, about what to share and what to hide.

Sharing more online about what we’re not doing offline is one way to kick the how do you do it? addiction. In which spirit, here’s what our living room currently looks, while I sit here writing this blog post:

sofa, floor and coffee table covered in mess

The horror, the horror!

But the other way to let go of how do you do it? is to actually answer the question. In which spirit, I’m going to spend this week sharing the secrets of how I do it, at least online. I hope they can help you do it…without getting you addicted to the question, too.

Could you imagine life without Facebook?

Progressive Media Concepts recently posted an interesting question: What Would You Do If Facebook Shut Down Tomorrow?

One I recovered from my blackout (it’s my body’s automatic self-defense mechanism when faced with the unthinkable) I read on, curious to hear PWC’s analysis:

Moral of the story here is that so many people have developed such an attachment (and often an unhealthy one) to Facebook that, if it were to vanish, they would have a hard time adapting to what was once called normal social etiquette. Technological dependance as a whole has crippled us from our former selves, leaving us ever so vulnerable in an instance of its destruction.

Hmm, not buying it. PWC was far closer to the mark in speculating that:

Facebook’s connectivity would very likely be replaced by Twitter. Twitter would inevitably become the go-to social media site, where people would stay up-to-date with their friends by way of tweets. Twitter, as is, would simply not be able to fill the giant void that Facebook would leave behind.

PWC is right: Facebook would be replaced. Twitter wouldn’t do the job (quite) but dozens of other also-rans would get their opportunity to step into the Facebook void, and one (or several) would likely succeed…maybe even while resolving some of the major issues (privacy, anyone?) that continue to plague Facebook itself.

But the inevitability of a post-Facebook social network isn’t evidence that we’re “crippled” by technology dependence: it’s evidence that we’ve learned to use technology in ways that are so profoundly valuable that we are no longer prepared to imagine life without them. Yes, we use Facebook to farm imaginary farms and evaluate who is hot or not, but we also use it to sustain friendships and share personal moments and cheer each other on. We use it in thousands of ways that are so affecting that yes, it would be hard to adapt to their absence.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Rather than casting our affection for social media as dependence, let’s embrace it as evolution: evolution towards a society in which we can celebrate all means of connection, on- and offline.

Addicted to Internet addiction

Thanks to Tonic for pointing me towards Mark Malkoff’s unusual retreat from supposed Internet addiction: by spending 5 days offline, in the bathroom. Malkoff’s stunt was clearly more relevant as fodder for his online videos that as an insightful investigation into Internet compulsion. If anything, it left me even more convinced that this whole flurry of professed “Internet addiction” and “Internet fasting” is the wilding of our time: a phenomenon that exists primarily in the form of media. Except this time, the media flurry isn’t driven by print and broadcast: it’s driven by bloggers, tweeters and YouTubers who are happy to use the tales of addiction and recovery as their latest round of material.

The Dirty Truth About Digital Fasts

This blog post originally appeared at the Harvard Business Review.

Last year it was the staycation. This year it’s the digital fast. “How I unplugged” — from Twitter, from a Blackberry, from the Internet, or at the behest of the New York Times — is the new “what I did on my summer vacation.”

As people trade stories about how they survived, or even thrived, offline, I’m troubled by the underlying narrative, that our ability to unplug is necessary to prove that we’re not Internet addicts. We’re supposed to demonstrate our grasp of human relationships by our ability to relate face-to-face, as well as online. We’re supposed to show that we can be present by being absent from the web.

Scan the diaries of the unplugged and you’ll find them self-described as “the journal of a recovering addict“, writing about offline vacations as “time away from the madness.” But why do we have to describe our time offline as if we’re going into some kind of recovery program? The very idea of a digital “cleanse” implies that our time online makes us dirty; the idea of a digital “fast” suggests that there’s a virtue in going without.

Here’s another framing: We plug in because we like it.

When we’re online — not just online, but participating in social media — we’re meeting some of our most basic human needs. No, not the need to read the latest Lindsay Lohan update.

Needs like creative expression. The need to connect with other people. The need to be part of a community. Most of all, the need to be seen: not in a surface, aren’t-you-cute way, but in a deep, so-that’s-what’s-going-on-inside-your-head way. Put yourself out there online, as you truly are and with what you truly think, and you can have that experience of being seen.

It’s the very fact that the Internet can meet so many fundamental needs, significantly if not completely, that gets people nervous. We are accustomed to defining our human experience in terms of what happens face-to-face: I want you to look me in the eye, bend my ear, scratch my back if I scratch yours. Those aren’t metaphors: they’re reflective of the way our culture sees human connection in fundamentally physical terms. Which made a lot of sense until five or ten years ago.

Now our connections live online as much as off. We can have meaningful emotional or intellectual contact with people that we rarely or never encounter in person. I can bond with you, listen to you and trade favors with you, even if you never look me in the eye, bend my ear or scratch my back.

As much as we now live that reality, we haven’t fully integrated it. Talk to anyone who spends more than a few hours a week on social networking sites, and you’re virtually guaranteed to hear that they’ve had deeply meaningful conversations or formed profoundly important relationships with people they’ve met online. But just like when you’re falling in love for the first time — “is this love?” — we’re in a period of self-doubt and self-interrogation about our budding emotional lives online. Is this a “real” relationship? Is this a valid way of connecting?

We’re not sure, or we’re reluctant to admit that it feels real, because we are trained on connection inherently requiring physical presence. So what do we do? To test our virtual relationships and budding feelings, we go offline. We fast. Disconnect, free ourselves from the hypnotic powers of the screen to know if what feels so compelling online is a meaningful experience or some kind of digital illusion.

But what most digital fasters describe the experience to be like is not a cleansing, or some detoxification — finally, I’m free of that corrupting Internet! — but rather a realization of how online and offline lives are integrated. One. A newly holistic life that includes time for both plugging in and unplugging, in equally conscious and intentional ways.

If unplugging needs to be a part of our approach to living and working digitally, it’s through the daily practice of taking downtime, of opting for reflection rather than distraction. If longer-term digital fasts can remind you how to integrate offline moments back into your daily life, that’s great. But you don’t need a digital fast to justify meeting your needs online, and you don’t need to unplug in order to justify plugging back in.

Your social media friends are your real friends

Diana Adams is one of a growing number of social media junkies who have experimented with taking some time off from the web. She describes “hitting a wall” with her social media use and online relationships, and taking 8 days off from the net so that she could put things in perspective.

What’s refreshing about the resulting blog post, 6 Ways To Overcome Social Media Burnout, is that she’s not preaching withdrawal from the web. Rather, she outlines some useful practices — like keeping in touch with phone friends, and making sure not to eat at your computer — that can keep social media use from becoming compulsive and dysfunctional.

But what I really love is her 6th point: “Your Social Media Friends are Real Friends, Really!” As she writes:

You will read that when you are feeling burned out; you should start to focus on your “real life.” I hear that all the time. It’s such segregation really. There seems to be this theory of real life vs. social media life.

Just like at other times in our history we have had issues with segregation, I think this is a backwards and messed up way to view things which only contributes to the problem because it encourages a feeling of “us” and “them” instead of “togetherness.”

Our online friends are just that, online. However, that does not mean they are second-class friends that are irrelevant in our “real life.” This attitude, to me, just shows that social media is still in the infant stages.

There are real people behind those avatars (most of them anyway), and the relationships you build are real. Social media, in whatever form it continues to evolve into, is an extension of our “real life,” not a separate entity. My social media friends are not the red headed stepchildren of my life, which is how most articles on this topic will spin it.

My Twitter friends are especially very close to me, and I love them very much. Knowing that these relationships are real, and you can treat them as such, will bring a lot of happiness to your life which will help you overcome this burnout syndrome.

Like Diana, I am tired of the false dichotomy between online life and “real” life, and between online friends and “real” friends. Social media pals, it’s time for us to stand up for our own reality! Just because it’s on screen doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog: Not addiction; dependency

Nicholas Carr has genius take on the conversation about “Internet addiction”:

By dismissing talk of “Internet addiction” as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse. In the course of just a decade, we have become profoundly dependent on a new and increasingly pervasive technology.

There’s nothing unusual about this. We routinely become dependent on popular, useful technologies. If people were required to live without their cars or their indoor plumbing for a day, many of them would probably resort to the language of addiction to describe their predicament.

To put this in context, read Carr’s excellent post Not addiction; dependency.  I just finished reading an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Shallows in Wired, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire book now that I see the kind of consideration he is giving to how we live with technology today.

Tips for avoiding social media compulsion

Chris Brogan’s blog post, Your Blog is Not Your Job, contains some great tips on how keep blogging and social media from overtaking your primary work and focus. These include:

  • Use an egg timer. If you’re going to venture out onto Twitter, time it.
  • Keep a sticky note of your objectives in sight of your monitor.
  • Ask yourself for every blog post what your goal with that post should be.

I recommend reading the entire post on his blog.