Time online

It’s normal these days to open an article about something within the context of the pandemic. And given our confinement to our homes during the pandemic, the influence of the subject here, social media, is more pernicious than ever.
But the current situation had nothing to do with creating the problem in the first place – it’s been happening for a while, and the amount of time we spend on social media has been climbing every year.
While I run the risk here of sounding trite because the problems created by social media have been detailed numerous times, given that it affects younger people more than it does older people, it’s worth writing about again.
But first, what is the problem?

Well, there are the studies and reports of simple addiction to social media, increased rates of suicide and depression, decreased productivity, and more informal effects such as the colloquial “FOMO”, the fear of missing out.
These are not only well documented in studies, they are intuitively understood, I think, by most of us. It’s a feeling of needing to reach for your phone for no particular reason, almost as if to scratch an itch; of realizing that you are scrolling through Instagram  almost as if waking up from a trance.
How long were you just scrolling for? And why?

I think many of us may roll our eyes at such descriptions (myself included). Most of us are not truly addicted, and I think many, if not most of us, use social media for completely innocuous reasons.
I myself post very little on Instagram, but I use it often to send funny or interesting or shocking posts to message groups of friends.
A funny clip of a dog, an introduction to a study on climate change, coverage of protests in America, something stupid a political enemy has said, a particularly good 30-second clip from The Simpsons, or a funny headline from The Onion.
For the most part, it’s normal, run-of-the-mill information, such as we might share and talk about when seated next to each other physically. I use social media daily, and I don’t think I’m suffering from depression or a (complete…) lack of productivity.

And yet…

Social media’s influence on us is subtle and, as I said, pernicious.
The whole business itself is decidedly nefarious, as you have whole teams of very smart people – business developers, computer scientists, programmers – working together to create algorithms whose purpose is to keep us online as long as possible so that they can slip targeted advertisements in front of our eyes as often as possible, and
it’s hard not to use the word addiction when describing what media giants want from us.

By chance, after I started writing my thoughts here, I came across something from Seneca I thought was relevant.
Seneca wrote, “Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master – thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.
Everywhere means nowhere.
When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner.”

This seems a little odd to us who consider the consumption of books a virtue, but consider the shift in context from the ancient to modern.
To us a “book” might be an article.
And I’m sure we all know what it means to have a dozen tabs open in our internet browser to read a dozen articles in short order.
And I don’t just mean articles, I also mean the passing through many dozens or more posts on your phone by simply flicking your thumb.

I wrote earlier that most of what we typically share is innocuous and might be no different from what we might talk about when seated next to each other.
In this sense I imagine the square or piazza as it might have been in a past century when it was a primary place where people gathered.
And in this context I try to imagine an analog to the sharing of 10 posts with 10 people within 10 minutes.
To take Seneca’s meaning of absorption or exchange of knowledge or thoughts, you might have seen a friend and sit with him for a good while to talk about the past week and really absorb each other’s thoughts and meanings.
To take the today’s meaning of exchange, you would see a friend, run up to him and talk excitedly for 30 seconds. Then you would see another friend, abandon the one you were just talking to, run up to the new one and talk to him excitedly for 30 seconds. And so on.

I think what I’m getting at is that even if you are not depressed by or addicted to or whatever regarding social media, you, I, we are all distracted by social media.
And to what end? Sometimes it’s innocuous, and sometimes it’s beneficial, but sometimes it’s that we are frenetically driving ourselves and others subtly crazy, that we’re constantly whipping each other into some sort of fervor, that we’re addicted to this stimulus, even when ultimately we’d be better off focusing on ourselves, our own livesandour own material situations.

If you need to work on something, yet you often feel an itch in your fingers to pick up your phone for no real reason, then I hope you at least consider my exhortation here.
We are the many who if not explicitly controlled are corralled by the few.
And while it may not be fashionable to heed the advice of stodgy old men such as Seneca, I exhort you to do just that.
Advertisers and platforms profit from our distraction, and in an age where we are all asking again the old question of who should have what power, I think it’s worth considering that the daily, hourly, minutely diversion of our attention should be one of our considerations.

We may think that we use social media for our own benefit, but I think we should be at least on our guard against the opposite outcome.
After all, sellers of self-help books sell self-help books by grabbing holdof potential buyers’ genuine desire for self-improvement, regardless of the whether the book they’re selling improves anything.
So it may be with social media.
We may think it does something for us, but that may (sometimes or often) be a delusion.
I won’t say definitively whether it is or isn’t.
In closing, I merely ask of you that when you feel the itch in your fingers to pick up your phone, to consider who will profitby your picking it up. My sincere hope is that you will move forward on the path that you want to follow, the one that will benefit you.
I may sound as stodgy as Seneca, but I truly believe that we should remind ourselves to empower ourselves, rather than those who are empowered by our constant distraction.