TechCrunch published an article yesterday entitled “Technology is the New Smoking.” The basic point of the article is to illustrate the point that our culture is becoming increasingly reliant, almost like a drug, on social media and technology. However, one quote stood out to me: “Out of 1000 people surveyed after being cut off from the Internet for 24 hours, 53% reported feeling “upset” about being deprived of online access and 40% said that they felt lonely after not being able to connect to the Internet. Participants described the digital detox akin to quitting drinking or smoking and one even said it was like having his hand chopped off (!).”
This reminded me of a study I did for one of my classes in school. Called “The 48 Hour Disconnect,” the 15 members of my class were required to disconnect from all things technology. This meant no texting, no emailing, and no Facebook/social media sites. We were then required to right an essay on how these different forms of technology affected how we communicate, based on our reaction to the disconnect. The funny thing is that I actually entitled the essay “Addiction.” The essay is attached below.
With the recent release of the hit movie “The Social Network,” a spotlight has been put on the idea of using media to create an integrated network of people. Mediums such as the Internet and Smartphones have somehow been able to generate an interconnected group of people that function as a self-determining domain. Whether it be through phone numbers, email addresses, or profile pages, these mediums give one instant access to a network of people. But, what’s the attraction? Is it with the medium itself, or to the feeling of being part of a larger social network? Through the 48 hour disconnect, I’ve realized that I’m not so much attached to the medium itself, but instead the ability to access an established social network instantly at freewill. Though the disconnect only really affected two mediums—my phone and computer—the networks associated with the two through email, texting, and Facebook seem to overwhelm my life.
I strategically planned the disconnect to occur on a Sunday and Monday. For approximately 48 hours I disconnected myself from all social media use. Sunday is usually considered my day of relaxation, where I stay in my room/dorm and do homework or simply lounge. I knew this wouldn’t require many people needing to contact me. The following Monday I would be so busy and preoccupied with work, trying to readjust to a new week of classes, that I wouldn’t be too caught up in the experiment. Essentially, the disconnect was scheduled at a time where it would be least intrusive. This says something as to how controlling social media can be to one’s daily routine.
One of the two mediums I had to disconnect from was my phone. With a Blackberry Curve, I keep my Smartphone on hand at all times as it holds two of my biggest social networks: email and texting. Because it holds two of my biggest networks, I had to completely neglect it in order to be successful during the disconnect. I knew that if I were to even look at whom my unread texts were from, I would be seduced into responding. For this reason, my phone was completely useless except for keeping time, which a watch could easily replace. But while it was incredibly difficult to prevent myself from emailing and texting, I realized that I had no need to call people. For the entire disconnect I only made one phone call. It’s then ironic to consider that I didn’t actually use my mobile phone for its fundamental purpose as a way to call others.
Out of all the networks, my email was the easiest to be without. After 24 hours, I was left with 17 emails, and after 48 hours, it increased to 34 unread emails in all three inboxes. I have one account through Comcast that I consider my junk email, my Gmail account that I consider my most formal (that I used during college applications), and my Northwestern account that I use for strictly educational purposes. Because of the amount of spam mail and mailing lists I’m subscribed to, it’s my largest and least exclusive network. My email addresses—all three—are also easily accessible to others. The messages I receive can range from large group emails to a personalized response from a professor. This is especially relevant with my Northwestern account, as any Listserv from the dean, the department, or student groups has the ability to contact me. The messages I receive vary greatly, and I made sure that during the disconnect, I at least read the subject lines of the messages to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important. In a way, email is what I consider the most proper or guaranteed way to reach me. In my mind, it’s somewhat equivalent to sending a letter as an inbox now holds the same kind of clout as a literal mailbox. It’s associated with more formal messages relating to business, announcements, and school; hence why I’m not as attached to this network. And, while I can access all three inboxes on my Smartphone, I rarely use my email unless I need to. It is the social media that I turn to less frequently to connect to a social network.
But while email may not be an important aspect to my phone, another social network is: texting. The phrase “texting” ranges from sending text messages to picture messages to BlackBerry instant messages to any one of my 159 contacts. I would consider it my smallest, or most elite, social network, as acquiring someone’s phone number is somewhat personal. There’s a barrier of intimacy that is broken once you obtain someone’s number. I think this alludes to the fact that a phone number gives one almost instant access to communicating with another person.
Throughout the disconnect, I felt a withdrawal from the immediacy texting can provide one with. After 24 hours, I was left with 12 unread text messages. After 48 hours, I was left with 18. Going through and reading the texts after the disconnect, I noticed that all the messages were topics that expected or warranted an immediate response. If I didn’t respond, people continued to text me, hoping to finally get a reply. There appeared to be something wrong if I didn’t respond immediately. The delay in response to a text message almost alludes to the same awkwardness that can occur during a phone call: there is a pause or silence and one is unable to read where the conversation is going because of the lack of personal interaction. The messages I received ranged from simply asking, “what’s up?” to little stories and anecdotes. These little stories I not only received, but also felt compelled to send. I would reach for my phone, and then realize I couldn’t use it. This was where the biggest feelings of withdrawal came in. During the 48 hours, I saw and heard things that I felt compelled to text to a certain person in my social network. Whether they were little jokes or small sentences to vent/complain, I wanted to share them with someone who hadn’t experienced it with me. I wanted to instantly reach out to another member of my social network. I wanted to use that message to connect, and reestablish my relationship with that person through an interaction of less than 160 characters.
The second medium that I had to disconnect from was my laptop, specifically, using the Internet for social media purposes. This only really forbade me from going on two sites, but I found going on the Internet irresistible. For the first time, instead of staying on Facebook, I actually surfed the web and Internet sites to distract myself. To fill the time that was normally filled with Facebook, I listened to music and searched Google aimlessly. I fabricated and made up ways to stay on the computer and yet still distract myself from drifting onto social media sites.
Though I use Skype and Tumblr occasionally, Facebook is the social media I use most frequently through the Internet. It is neither the largest nor the smallest network, but it is definitely the most overwhelming. The site itself provides one with so much information on a single person (much more than texting or emailing) that its efficiency as a social network site is much greater as you are closer to the idea/impression of a person than a phone number or email address. A profile is simply an artifact or advertisement of a person, as it is a page representing who they are, not a direct link to the person themselves. The difference is that through email and texting, one still communicates directly with a person. On Facebook, you’re commenting on a symbol of a person. Commenting on a photo is not communicating with the person tagged in the photo; rather, it’s quite literally like posting graffiti on a wall with a message for the public to see. The network that has access to the wall is then able to share their thoughts on the symbol of the person, not to the person itself. So, while a profile may be a kind of icon for a person, it is a more indirect way of communicating.
But this is also why I find it most intriguing. While being indirect, it also happens to be the most instantaneous way to stay updated on other people’s lives. Facebook is a constant stream of information and communication, but all indirectly. When one posts a status, he/she is not attempting to communicate with just one person. Instead, he/she opens up a kind of discussion for everyone in that social network to comment on. Essentially, it’s a way to kick start communication throughout a social network. It was then somewhat surprising to see the missed notifications from the disconnect. After 24 hours, I was left with 1 friend request, 1 message, and 16 notifications. At 48 hours, it increased to 3 friend requests, 1 message, and 23 notifications. But very few of these were actually attempts to communicate with me. All I really missed out on was staying in touch with the thoughts and anecdotes of others in my network. Being and staying on Facebook makes me feel like I’m essentially part of an organized forum or chat room. I feel as if I’m eavesdropping on a conversation that is constantly being updated and constantly keeping me in the loop on everyone in my social network.
Perhaps the biggest realization is that in a time span of 48 hours, I don’t even notice that I am receiving such an overwhelming amount of contact through social media. Because it has become so instantaneous, I’ve become numb to its affects. I instantly respond to people without a second thought. I do not count the number of texts I send, and instead treat texting as informally as conversation. I do not keep track of the number of photo comments or wall posts I leave in 48 hours. But this is why it seems to overwhelm my life. Social media takes precedence over face-to-face conversations because it’s less demanding and more unembellished. With face-to-face conversation you have facial expressions, tone, and body language to interpret. There are fewer nuances to communicating through social media. It’s so quick and effortless that it holds little personal investment.
And yet, while it may seem effortless, there’s a very methodical and unmentioned code to it all. These social networks each function as unique environments and habitats with their own rules and codes of conduct. We discussed that these mediums seem to avoid awkwardness, when there’s really levels of awkwardness built into these social mediums as well. Take, for instance, when one doesn’t respond immediately to a text message, or tag people appropriately in a Facebook photo album. Some parts of the network become uncomfortable and tricky to maneuver, much like the natural awkward slips and miscommunications of face-to-face interaction. The 48 hour disconnect disrupted my social networks in that it disrupted the fundamental nature of social networks in today’s media. These networks are built around people continuously and instantly being connected at all times. To disrupt or disconnect from the network would essentially make the entire thing irrelevant and eventually collapse.
But this reveals an underlying theme to staying “connected”. During the 48 hours, I was not only physically disconnected, but I literally felt disconnected. I felt left out and unaware of what was going on. Even though some of the people who were texting me lived only two floors down, I felt separated. This is rooted in an insecurity that I am actually alone. No one likes being left out or feeling like a stranger. I like maintaining a connection or tie to a social network at all times to prevent this from happening. Hence the fact I keep my phone on me at all times—that’s two different social networks in one. The various forms of social media seem to validate my relationships with others. I’m always kept in a sphere of familiarity and comfort, even if I am in fact alone. Being disconnected made my relationships seem more frail and vulnerable, as I wasn’t able to instantly communicate with those in my social network at any time. They didn’t feel nearly as stable or secure. My connection to the people within my various social networks was severed and retarded. Without the seemingly effortless communication that these social media outlets provided, I became completely disengaged. What’s even weirder is that face-to-face interaction didn’t even seem like a suitable replacement.
Through the 48-hour disconnect, I seemed to answer the question of how these social networks actually function in my life. It appears that my dependency on these social networks is a kind of snowball effect. It becomes creepily similar to an addiction. Once you give in to one, you become addicted, and nothing can quench the addiction but more of the same thing. The satisfaction one gets from the instantaneous nature of the social medium even resembles the addictive hits of a drug. It is satisfied only ephemerally, and one cannot wait until the next opportunity to reconnect with a social network. One is then left unable to turn back to a life without the communication. Thus how mail evolved into email that involved into instant messaging, and so forth, until the previous method became antiquated and inefficient. The cycle will always continue. It’s an addiction that cannot be cured, and will only be made worse by the continual advancements in technology and by our willingness to stay connected.