On Unplugging, Flypaper, and Facebook

I realized that I have a love-hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, I love it that my iPad allows me to compose on the fly, or on the bus, or something like that. That finding wifi connections in Athens and Sparta has been so difficult has been something of a blessing, as has the totally onerous transatlantic cell phone rates—which have precluded me from using my data plan to check my email and Facebook page.

People talk about “unplugging” themselves—not using cell phones, email, etc.—as the occasional weekend affair, or something undertaken on long trips that logistically necessitate such lack of electronic activity. Having gone almost 5 days without obsessively checking Facebook, my email, or the dozen blogs I follow, I don’t really know how I did it, nor how I kept sane doing so. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t totally sane; separated from my Internet activities, I see how absurd they are.

How reasonable is it to check every fifteen minutes an entity whose sole duty is to aggregate the random noise of people’s chaotic social lives? What value do such “updates” of “what’s on [my] mind” have when they are crafted for public consumption? The reasons why anyone would post photos of parties or weekends out of town are still, to me, somewhat murky. “To share!” I ask in return, “To what end?”

I know that the following is going to make me sound like a jaded, crotchety old man, but here it goes anyway. There was a time when social lives were carried out privately. Although there may have been parties of dozens, what went on was remembered and discussed with fellow attendees and perhaps immediate acquaintances. Social lives lived in the public eye were something of a curiosity, a comedy of manners and errors reported for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the masses. Think Evelyn Waugh on this one. Now, we are each our own local celebrity, if not actually, at least in our minds.

I call the current mode of social life the “Flypaper Model”. In this model, each individual produces data packets that “fly” in regulated algorithmic chaos about the various media on which they are created. The hope is that one of these flies gets stuck on “feeds”, which prove to be nothing more than “paper” programmed to be “sticky” and insatiable. Flies on flypaper are in themselves not that interesting, and are in fact kind of disgusting. The first goal—getting stuck—complete, most linked data packets languish and fall into temporally irrelevant oblivion with the hit of “Refresh”. The flies that get noticed are the ones that still buzz, and at this point buzzing is futile. Even if this buzzing fly communicated something important or was particularly beautiful, it’s still going into the trash.

The Flypaper Model is a passive way to carry out a social life. As new flies show themselves to be particularly relevant, new paper is unspooled to trap them. How one interacts with trapped data packets is also passive. We poke at, give superficial thumbs-up to, and comment on data we find interesting, entertaining, and incline us to lol. In so doing, we are “keeping in touch”. But if you think about it, this “keeping in touch” is only done with those with whom we actually talk in the “real world”. Some get Facebook accounts under the auspices of “keeping in touch”; this highlights a common logical fallacy. Just because Facebook allows people to see what acquaintances are doing, the social partitions that preclude someone from talking to another still exist. That one knows the day to day activities of someone who refuses to acknowledge them only widens the gulf between the two.

If Facebook were actually a tool for keeping in touch, one wouldn’t preface messages to long-lost friends with, “Hey! I know this is suuuuper randomz but…” because such attempts at contact would be expected. Furthermore, if it were socially acceptable to see what’s going on on other peoples’ profiles, one wouldn’t lead into a conversation, “So I was doing some Facebook stalking the other day…”.

It strikes me as odd that people take a perverse pleasure in acknowledging their prying into others’ private lives, behavior that was verboten pre-Facebook. Even when gossiping, people sheepishly admit that they were spying on somebody when acknowledging sources of information.

Most of the readers of this blog are over the age of 18, and like it or not, you probably agree with me on many points. You agree with me because you are over eighteen, and herein lies the rub. This 18+ age cohort are non-native social networkers. We were alive to know a time when socializing was done the old-fashioned way, over the phone, face to face, or even over text message. We also felt our social lives slowly fall into Facebook, to the point where they are now selfsame. Deep down, we all feel a little guilty for letting this happen. We let ourselves go, and we are addicts.

Like babies born to drug users, there is no notion of addiction among the 13-17 year old crop of Facebookers. They don’t even know they are. For us old codgers, we felt our social lives become our Facebook; for these young native users, social life is Facebook. They never knew anything different. Discussing issues of privacy and social decency with them is impossible. We are hopelessly outdated, our advice from a different epoch altogether. “What is privacy?” For them it is a question asked in earnest, not philosophically. They are the trash where flies spawn.

Technology has a similar neurochemical behavior to heavy amphetamine use. Buzzes and whizzes and pops from our devices piqué our interest, shifting activity from frontal cortices to our limbic system and deep, “reptilian brains” with a squirt of dopamine and norepinephrine, the same mechanism that shifted our focus from building a shelter to running from a lion ten thousand years ago. With enough whizzes and pops, we acclimate ourselves to the state of high dopamine and norepinephrine levels. These two chemicals are the ones released in response to drugs in the amphetamine group, used to treat ADHD and ADD. When abruptly taken away, either because the psych refuses to write another prescription or because cell phone data service is inaccessible, the brain, acclimated to the “new-normal”, stagnates in a vicious withdrawal.

The single-mindedness of sending a text message is astonishing. The focus required tunnels our vision from school-work, work-work, and driving. But the brains of heavy users can only harness this hyperfocus in 5-20 second chunks. Their brains, awash in focusing neurotransmitters, maintain these levels by checking in for a fix. That’s why every 20 minutes or so, most college students check into Facebook. It’s stimulating. All other mental activities suffer for it. Houses weren’t built next to lions’ dens.

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So, five days clean and sober, how do I feel? For one, I’m writing a lot more, not only for public consumption here but in a Moleskine notebook I keep on me at all times. I’m beginning to regain paragraphic thought, and am able to enjoy the Greek countryside without the distraction of Facebook, email, and the rest. Paradoxically, I’m using smaller words because I’m not focused on the punch of each sentence, but lucidity of the paragraph as a whole. I’m reading more too, and feel like I have more time in my day.

Stepping back allowed me to see the ridiculousness of my online existence, of keeping up an online social presence. We do so at the expense of our offline ones. It’s made me realize how hyper-analytical I’ve gotten about my social life, about quantifying it, about constant maximization of it, ultimately for its consumption by others. I implore you to step back and critically analyze your own online habits, whether you are skittering from one link to another, or maintaining a caricature, prostituting yourself for perusal of your bored stultifying 782 “friends”. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you maintain your Facebook for yourself, admit that you are like a monkey dancing for approbation alone, if you’re lucky. Remember that street performers can be watched for free.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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