End those digital fasts with these 5 April Fool’s Day pranks

Well, folks, it’s almost that time again: Easter. Also known as the end of Lent. Or what should be known as national coming out day for all the people who’ve just spent the past 40 days doing some kind of digital fasteaster egg on computer key. They inevitably come back with a desire to enlighten us with their Enormous Insight Into The Nature of Digital Existence And Everything, before they return to tweeting their latest random thoughts just like they always have.

This year, however, the calendar has afforded us a delightful opportunity: since Lent ends just before April 1, we can and should play some collective pranks on the newly re-digitized. After all, they’re not online to read what we are planning. Here are some options:

  1. Invent a new YouTube meme that, like the Harlem Shake, requires you to dance like a crazy person: but this time, solo, unmasked and in your underwear. Pay for targeted online ads that tell people about the latest must-join meme as soon as they blog, tweet or Facebook the words “digital fast”.
  2. Pretend that Facebook changed its privacy settings at the beginning of Lent, and all their ultra-private content has been publicly displayed on their wall for forty days without them knowing it.
  3. Send them a link to the new app that everybody is using and which is going to leave them friendless and alone unless they immediately sign up, too. The sign-up form should be a web page with a sign-up form that goes exactly nowhere; clicking “submit” should tell them that they have been added to the beta wait list and will be informed when it’s their turn to join.
  4. Tell them that Twitter has now extended its post length to 200 characters. Let them write their verbose tweets, and we can all mock them when their tweets get awkwardly truncated. What could be more humiliating?
  5. Convince them that while they were offline, Google Reader shut down, and they will have to find some other way to access online news. This one is particularly hilarious if your digital faster accesses the Internet from within an authoritarian regime, and relies on Reader to get news from beyond the firewall. Tell them they’re now going to be limited to the same censored content as all their neighbors, and ROTFL!

Using the Internet to find empathy in solitude

Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually  agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

So writes Adam Brault in a very thoughtful blog post, I quit Twitter for a month and it completely changed my thinking about mostly everything. Just when I think that I have read as many blog posts about digital fasts as I need to in this lifetime, along comes a deeply reflective piece like Adam’s to make me once again evaluate the merits of taking a break from one or more online activities.

Adam’s key point is that by engaging us with people we care about through a constant stream of updates, Twitter subjects us to recurring distractions that preclude sustained thought. As Adam writes:

I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces—lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths. I am perfectly fine with unfinished work—in fact, I doubt I’ll ever be a better finisher than I am a starter. But I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.

I couldn’t agree more with his focus on focus, but what is really interesting is the way he struggles with the tension between focus and empathy:

Empathy is, in one sense, the mental capacity to run a (poor) simulation of someone else’s thoughts and feelings inside our own head….From my experience, Twitter taps into this same mental capacity very well….But the problem that occurs is that it can be a huge mental lease we’re signing when we invite a few hundred people into our Twitter life…Mentally, we just aren’t capable of simultaneously empathizing with hundreds of people—let alone thousands or millions. The result is we either build up a calloused, jaded, or cynical defense against empathy or find a way to block out more.

This is an argument  that gets us way beyond the now-tired argument that the Internet makes us distracted and disconnected. Brault is arguing that it’s precisely because the Internet is so good at fostering real, meaningful connections that distraction becomes a problem. We’re not distracted by meaningless noise: we’re distracted by meaningful engagement.

But distracted from what? In Brault’s case, it’s distraction from projects that require sustained attention, like writing or any form of creative output. Goodness knows, it’s a problem I can relate to, since I never tweet more than on the days when I’m doing focused writing, but find myself continually hitting the mental refresh button by popping into HootSuite.

There’s a more intriguing possibility here, however. What if our model of focus — and especially, our model of focused creativity — doesn’t have to revolve around the solitary artist in his garret? After all, a garret isn’t so different from a fortress, or an ivory tower, or any of the other lonely-buildings-turned-metaphor, all of which are used to describe the state in which someone cuts off from the world — cuts off from people — in order to do their own thinking, writing or creating.

The Internet allows us a new model of solitary focus: one in which we are both alone and with others; both focused and engaged. Perhaps it’s precisely that unceasing engagement — that unceasing renewal of empathy — that will let solitary creatives create in new ways. I can’t wait to read the novel, hear the song or revel in the painting that emerges from a dual immersion in solitude and empathy.

5 commandments for your digital fast this Lent

I’m not really a Lent kinda gal. (It may have something to do with me being Jewish.) But for the past few years, I’ve felt increasingly Lent-aware, because of the sheer number of people who now seem to give up Facebook for Lent (but then tweet about it), email for Lent (but then blog about it) or even the entire Internet for Lent (but then double-up on their online postings the moment they’ve bitten the ears off a chocolate bunny.)

If you’re giving up the Internet (or some part of it) for Lent because you think it will be good for you to unplug, I hope you’ll read the piece I wrote for The Atlantic last week on smarter alternatives to unplugging.

If you’re giving up the Internet for Lent because you think it will suck to unplug, and the suffering is the point (I am getting the general gist of Lent correct here, aren’t I?) then go for it: suffer to your heart’s delight! But just please please don’t make the rest of us happily plugged-in, Lent-free folks suffer with you. Some guidelines for your Lenten digital fast:

  1. Don’t tweet, blog, Facebook, YouTube or otherwise chronicle how offline you are. That is totally cheating.
  2. Keep all your other screen time constant. If you replace your five daily hours of World of Warcraft with five hours watching action movies, you are missing out on the opportunity to actually learn something from this experience.
  3. Your profound revelations about the true nature of digital life, which are only apparent to you now that you are spending the hour between 6-7 a.m. offline every day for forty entire days OMG!!! are not going to impress those of us who still remember the value of an always-on iPhone. We don’t want to hear about your new digital enlightenment over coffee or while we are in line with you at the ATM.
  4. When you come back online after 40 days, please do not forward us the adorable photo of the cat that got stuck in the dryer with a teddy bear, LOL! We all saw that picture on about nine different people’s Facebook walls in the eternity that you went offline.
  5. Remember: just because you’re giving it up for 40 days doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful part of your life for the other 325.


5 questions that will make the most of your social media vacation

Even in Vancouver, summer has finally arrived. (It’s the three months between the end of our seasonal hockey riots and the resumption of the Rainy Shitness.)  Ahh, summer: once school lets out and the sunshine pours down, it feels like time to take a vacation.

I am told that in some cultures, the term “vacation” may involve such rituals as turning off the computer, putting an auto-responder on your e-mail account and even (shudder) going out out of 3G range. If your spouse or kids or friends are begging you to unplug as part of your vacation together — or if, more improbably, you are taking a self-imposed break from all things online — you might as well make a virtue out of necessity and get something out of the experience.

Your vacation from the Internet may prove much more rewarding if you follow the example of Black Girl in Maine (aka Shay Stewart-Bouley), who has a terrific post today about her experience unplugging from social media for a weekend. I particularly appreciated her experiment because she approached it with a sense of curiosity rather than panic. Instead of the “OMG I’m soooo addicted” tone that often forms the jumping-off point for would-be fasters, BGIM’s post is measured and reflective.

Her post inspired me to think about what would make for a good social media vacation. Not as I’d define it: my idea of a good social media vacation is two weeks spent entirely online. But for those who want a vacation from social media, these questions can make the experience more meaningful:

  1. What do you want to get from your vacation? I often read posts by people who have unplugged for the sake of unplugging. But unplugging can be a lot more useful if you know why you want to sever yourself from the hive mind. As BGIM writes about selling her “spousal unit” on the idea of a weekend offline,  “I won’t say that I was met with resistance but I did have to clarify exactly what the goal was”.
  2. What will make your vacation feasible? Many of us punt on the idea of unplugging because there is some situation that precludes us logging out, whether it’s a painfully-awaited e-mail or a game of Facebook Scrabble we aren’t prepared to concede. BGIM and her partner agreed to allow themselves one hour online per day in case they had to deal with client emails, and while BGIM confesses that she went a bit over her hour, she still largely kept to the spirit of their plan. Setting up an exceptions rule — whether it’s for a limited amount of online time, or for specific types of activities or devices (like games only, or phones only) — may be just the trick to making a vacation possible.
  3. What are your metrics? Before you go offline, think about how you’ll track the impact. Will it be the quality of your sleep? Your mood?  Your ability to sustain an uninterrupted thought for gosh I could use a snack but it’s almost time to pick the kids up hey a tweet.  You may be surprised at both the payoffs and challenges of unplugging.  My favorite part of BGIM’s post is how she describes the way she noticed the impact of going offline:

    When the girl child (I think she is outgrowing the kidlet moniker) asks me something, I found even when I was reading a book, it was far easier to simply put it down and tend to her need. Unlike the times when I am plugged in either to my laptop or Droid, and inevitably I tell her just a moment, baby. This weekend there were few just a moment baby minutes and I loved it.

  4. What did you learn? When your social media vacation is over, take a little bit of time to reflect on your experience and note what you’ve learned. Amazingly, your blog may not be the place to share (all) these lessons, since your blog readers may not appreciate hearing that once you were liberated from their voracious demand for your latest posts, you realized that your life was richer without them. But your social media friends may well appreciate hearing insights like BGIM’s observation that “without the sweet pull on places like Twitter, it turns out that I could churn out a funder’s report far faster than usual because I was not distracted.
  5. What will you do differently? If your social media vacation felt valuably different from your day-to-day life online, you may want to adopt some new practices that reshape how you relate to life online. BGIM noted that her family’s weekend offline led to a discussion about the role of screens in their lives, and inspired them to start a new project of reading out loud together: “We are now starting to compile a list of books that we will read together; looks like the next up will Voltaire’s Candide.” Whether your unplugging leads you to reconsider the habit of reaching for your phone whenever you have a spare moment, or adopting offline hours as part of your daily routine, it’s worth documenting your resolutions — both what you intend to do differently, and why it feels important. Once again, your blog or Twitter feed is a great place for doing that.

Are you taking a social media vacation this summer? If you’re unplugging, I’d love to hear about what you hope to learn. And if you’re not unplugging — if you’re taking my kind of social media vacation — please don’t tell me about it. You’ll only make me jealous.

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.