Unplugging from the social networks

After some soul-searching, and a prod from my dear friend and inspiration role model Sam Dorman, I’ve decided to unplug myself from “web 2.0,” “the social nets” or whatever we call the rapidly-expanding tarpit of social networking sites these days.

Long story short: I’m increasingly convinced that the constant stream of tweets, status updates, Facebook wall posts and the like are causing me more cognitive harm than professional or personal benefit.   And I deeply suspect that they’re harming us as a society, too.  (See “Skinner Box?  There’s an App for that!” for more on this.)

I’m not going cold turkey from the internet.  That’s not what this is about.  I’m going to continue reading email, surfing the web, and maybe taking in a few RSS feeds, since that’s a very convenient way to follow the news.  I will continue to blog (and hope to write more in the future since I won’t be as distracted by constant consumption!)  I might even keep my Facebook account after paring it down to people who are actually real-world personal friends.  But I’m ditching Twitter, unsubscribing from most of my “professional” RSS feeds, and am going to basically pull out of the “real-time web.”  Our brains just aren’t meant to work this way, and I can feel it harming my work, my personal life, and my happiness.

“Surely you just need to manage this stuff better, Jon,” you might be thinking.  Well, maybe, but if you know me, you know that I am an extremely disciplined person and am about as far from an “addictive personality” as it gets.  Heck, I didn’t even have an internet connection at home until 2001, and then only because my wife made me!  If I am suddenly finding myself experiencing addictive behaviors with web 2.0 tools, I’m pretty sure it’s because these qualities are deeply wired into the technology, not into my personality.  Also, if you think that “technology is completely neutral, it’s just about how we use it,” then please go stop and go read “In the Absence of the Sacred” before deciding whether you really want to pursue that line of argument.

So, in short, I won’t be seeing you on Twitter or Facebook so much anymore.   But please do drop me a line, give me a call, let’s go get some coffee or a hoist a pint.  Let’s go for a walk, a hike, a bike ride.  Let’s play some music together, or cook some food.

And if you’re feeling a little stressed out by the constant chatter of your online “friends,” then I invite you to join me in easing back out and into the sunlight.  See you in the real world, person-to-person!

24 thoughts on “Unplugging from the social networks”

  1. Jon,

    I heartily, heartily applaud your decision. I think about this frequently myself, and have reached the same conclusions. I suspect I have less self-discipline than you, however, and I find myself genuinely anxious about the prospect of actually stepping off this particular treadmill. Which in itself says a lot. Last week I took the step of deleting Twitter apps from my phone, which has been positive. I still stare at the web version constantly while at work though!

    Good for you for taking the plunge. I am going to reflect on this and just may join you. Maybe.

    All the best,
    Sarah

  2. Hi Jon,
    That’s brave, and I applaud you. I haven’t made that move (the fact that you have makes me ponder) but I did make the really important move to completely separate my 2.0 streams. It made an enormous difference in my life for Facebook to become only about the real, live, physical, non-work-related friends and family.

    As to whether or not this is all harming us as a society – I think it’s all more a symptom than a cause. And that conversation, I’d love to have with you over a pint, sometime. :-)

  3. Sarah, Michelle — thanks for the encouragement! It makes me nervous too, and when I tried to write down why in an email to Sam, it made me realize that there’s nothing to be nervous about. And indeed, there is much nuance to this, which I am mindful of, but obviously failing to do justice to. See you both next time I’m down East Bay-way!

  4. Hey there Jon,

    Well, it’s good to know that there will be room on your dance card when we’re next in Seattle. :-P

    And, it seem to be a group consciousness thing going on here — a “meme” perhaps — as I note that Melanie had similar inklings earlier this week, and I tried a “social media fast” before heading off for the holidays.

    Like you, now that I’m back to work and ready for 2010, I’m continuing to ponder and evaluate each distraction that pops up throughout the day, week, and month and continually try to improve the mix…

    Anyway, good luck and keep us updated (well, er, posted… er, you know what I mean!).

    Phillip.

  5. Good on ya, JS. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    When I returned from sabbatical, I did not re-subscribe to the RSS feeds and hordes of email lists I had unsubscribed from before I left for my 3 months of, well, bliss. I haven’t missed that stream of information for a moment. I rarely tweet, but am subscribed to some tweet-streams I find either very amusing or informative on a narrow range of personally-interesting topics (namely professional bike racing, vegans, and creative commons).

    I’ve kept my facebook friend list to people I actually know, and separate that list to “work” and “family” (you are “family” to me!). I find keeping in regular touch at the mundane, everyday level that facebook affords with chosen family members that are far flung to be immensely enjoyable, so I won’t be leaving facebook anytime soon.

    I think it’s a matter of controlling your own information flow, and knowing what matters and what doesn’t. I don’t need to know up to the minute who is resigning from congress, but I sure do like to see pictures of my friends in far-off places having fun with their kids. I don’t think it is harming my little version of society. I’ve reconnected with people I have not seen for 30 years and had no way of contacting on facebook. This has truly enhance my personal ecosystem.

    Thanks again for spurring this rather ironic conversation. But, wasn’t one of your names, along with “smart boy,” “ironic boy” at one point? :-)

    dj

  6. Interesting! Please do write about how this works out for you. I’d love to read updates of how your time usage changes as you adjust to this. And how your analysis of social networking’s pros and cons changes (or doesn’t) over time, after you’ve unplugged.

    I’ve thought about doing this more than once, but each time I’ve concluded that the benefit outweighs the time-sink. I’ve been able to not let the social network interactions affect me too negatively, nor interrupt my train of thought.

    I’d like to say more about this but Tweetie says that someone just mentioned me in a tweet, so I gotta go.

  7. This is and was always completely obvious to me…who didn’t get that killing hours and hours in front of a computer screen, alone, sitting in a chair, ignoring the real world wouldn’t end up making you feel lame? What took you so long?

  8. Jon,

    I must say I am not in the least bit surprised by your decision to unplug from the most frantic of the online micro-social channels. I myself check in on the micro-social-interwebs four or five times a week and find that’s about right. I do think our culture is in the process of testing the line between quality and quantity. The fact of the matter is, the massive human sorting and people connection building experiment that is twitter and micro-blogging will change and morph. It will prove useful for somethings and useless for others. It will do good and it will do harm.

    I am constantly looking for the places and ways where it adds real value to my life while avoiding the perils of garbage-in-garbage-out that seems to be the gravitational center of the always on micro-connection lifestyle.

    I for one have no interest in being the good, always on, netizen that is constantly feeding and sorting the big brain that so many people seem to be slaves to. Good luck and bless you for making thoughtful decisions about the quality and quantity of information and connections with people in your life.

  9. Well I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve actually been mostly upset with social media and have resisted it at every turn. I could see from that start that these networks would tend to make important things trivial by selling the idea that interacting with humans is “easier” this way. Real problem solving is hard and requires a lot more attention than social networking is capable of providing. I am an old-fashioned sort who gets a lot more satisfaction from real long-term friendships and rich, face-to-face interactions. The thing about social media is, like cable TV, it’s actually very easy to ignore. You lived without it before and you can live without it now. At present I post to Facebook every couple of weeks and only check what others are saying maybe once a week (and that’s only to check up people I actually know). In short, don’t feel bad about what you’re doing!

  10. Jon-
    I think that the hive is only valuable if you convince yourself it’s valuable – or convince yourself that you might be “missing something.” The people that truly value the Web2.x version of Jon Stahl are the loosely connected consumers of your output that don’t have your email address. Your decision makes sense, viewed through your reality, but there is now a Jon-sized hole in the twitbook social fabric. Not everyone will notice it, but it will be there.

    Enjoy your vacation.

  11. Jon – First, thank you for this post and the link to Jim Stogdill’s amazing opus. While you articulate a far more thoughtful process than my own, it is a question I’ve struggled with. It starts with the value of distraction. Does the onslaught of constant information add or take away from my life and work? Some days I do a great job at moderating and applying the info delivered via the firehose – it adds greatly to my knowledge of our work and connecting with others doing that work. Other days I completely suck at it – using it to fill the gaps of my lethargy and inability to motivate.

    What Jim rightly refers to as the Borg is all that he says it is…snarky, narcissistic, self-serving and downright stupid at times. But for me it fill two important needs (which no doubt are filled with an abundance of bullshit self-serving rationale/logic): 1) A connection to a group of peers that provide a flow of information that informs my work. 2) A connection to a dispersed group of people who I care for/interested in who I I rarely get to see…locally, nationally, globally.

    Here’s the deal. I’m a single dad living in a tiny town in the middle of Vermont. I work in technology which is isolating in and of itself, but I’m most likely drawn to tech because my social skills aren’t…let’s just say no one is applying the charismatic label to me.

    In the almost three years that I’ve been plugged into the Borg, I feel like it has connected me to parts of my life that were impossible to be connected to: Local parents, Friends from lives past, peers from around the world. Additionally, it adds dimensions to people that I formerly had a only a single-dimensional relationship with. Ms. Murian is such an example…I have to admit that while I respect parsing the networks between professional and personal, I’m sadden that I don’t get to be connected on those other levels.

    I think there is a lot validity to figuring out if you are a moderator or abstainer. I’m still trying to ride the moderation line. It’s an ever evolving relationship…like the technology itself. I have to say your post inspired me to take some moderation moves: Unfollowing Twitter people i really don’t get value from and hiding feed updates in FB of people who i don’t really feel connected to.

    Thanks again Jon for you continued thoughtfulness. Would love to have that pint in VT if you have some time.
    -sc-

  12. I think I’m going to be about a month behind you Jon. Especially with an iphone, I find myself dipping my consciousness into the Vast Pool with too much frequency. I’ve noticed my kids noticing me doing this. I find I’m consuming information without taking action, and most of the information is therefore meaningless. I think there needs to be a “Slow Information” movement, akin to Slow Food. Deeper, intentional information gathering and use (and creation), with purpose.

    In addition to close friends, I think I’ll stick with the sources of information that consistently make me laugh. Often, these are the same.

  13. Good on you, boy, as they say Down Under. One un-Facebooker down, a bunch more to go. I have serious reservations about the use Facebook puts to all the info unthinking users splotch on their Walls, anyway, which is why I still resist drinking the Koolaid. As in: http://therumpus.net/2010/01/conversations-about-the-internet-5-anonymous-facebook-employee/?full=yes

    And while I remember, Jon, my memory is that during the Vance Open House last week one of your Groundwire cohorts mentioned you were absent due to your grandfather’s death. Maybe his passing was sort of “expected” but the sense of loss and disorientation never can be–my condolences to you and your family.

  14. @DJ — yeah, in retrospect, I definitely should have done this before sabbatical, not 3 months after. Guess that makes me “not really that smart, but does learn slowly boy.” ;-)

    @Dean, @DJ, @Sonny, others who made this point, yep — I do think there is some value in Facebook as an efficient tool for maintaining your “family ties”… and I’ll probably continue to use it for that. So, I suppose I’m technically moderating, not abstaining.

    @Sonny — you’re hitting on the issues I’ve wrestled with as well, and one of the hardest parts of this is doing that “personal/professional” divide, especially when I have such strong personal relationships with so many of the folks I know professionally (like you!). As Denise says, so many of you are in fact “family” and I’ll almost certainly keep those folks on Facebook, as long as your content is more personal than professional. ;-)

    @Sophia — thanks.

  15. Good luck! Please let us all know how it goes. There is absolutely something to be said for unplugging, when it all gets to be too much. And I believe that you are right about humans not being particularly good at managing numerous “feeds”, especially in the context of wanting to, you know, stay healthy and live a well balanced life ;-)

    Bottom line: it never hurts to do what you are doing, and it may just help a tremendous amount. If nothing else, you may come back to it one day with a much better sense of how to enjoy the positives, and not be overwhelmed by the negatives.

    For my part, I’m deleting my boxcar app right now. It’s important to set boundaries ;-)

  16. To counter your move Jon, I will never talk to you using more than 140 characters.

  17. congrats jon! i wish it’d be easier to go for a walk with you. or a pint, for that matter… :)

  18. Jon, it sounds like a good decision for you and I too need to often moderate my use of it, but I don’t agree wholeheartedly that it may be bad for society. Like society, there are higher purposes and drivel in social media, and like society, the latter is often the majority. Things like FB connect me more to than just people–I get updates and easy involvement in causes I care about, groups that I interact with, etc. I have learned about movements that I never see in the news, made connections with mentors and people I mentor on issues/work/life.

    Yes, a great deal of the content is self-absorbed chit-chat, but honestly, is that really any different than your average cocktail party or trip to the pub after work? At least with FB, I don’t have to get dressed up or get cornered by someone i don’t even really like to hear about their latest medical procedure. And people who don’t want to hear me blather on about chickens and organic gardening can tune me out, too (Like YOU :p ) As someone who doesn’t thrive off of a lot of human interaction, I like being able to pick and choose, something the real world doesn’t always afford one. Probably anti-social, but, well, you know…

    Thanks for your insight–good stuff, as always. See you Monday night! Hope you don’t tell all of us FB is awful, or I will be out of a job!

  19. Barbara-
    You misunderstand the thrust of my argument — it’s not that the “chit-chat” is bad — quite the opposite! “Phatic” communication like this is super important, and is actually one of the things I value.
    I also don’t think it’s all bad for society, for all the reasons you mention.
    What I do think, though, is that the extremely short, random reward loops (the “skinner box” aspect) are very dangerous to us cognitively. Short version: easy to tip over into very addictive behaviors.
    And don’t worry, you will like what I have to say on Monday, I’m sure of it! :-)

  20. Jon, I don’t know you but it is good to know there are more of us day by day. A few of my most powerful friends, interestingly, have declined the facebook way of life. The rest of my international sprawl I do miss staying in touch with a little, but overall I am quite happy with my decision to leave Facebook, simply because the contact I had with many ‘friends’ was shallow / superficial contact, as opposed to the real contact and connection I value. It’s a quality over quantity sort of thing. Mostly, I think the ‘rich’ developed world is slipping into a kind of matrix-metaphor, virtual reality coma about the things that really matter. It might be different if people really did live in small communities where they grew their own food – if your life is actually sustainable – go ahead, indulge in cyber-chat! If not – stay away! You are in danger of living in a rapidly disappearing world…gone from under your feet whilst you ‘poke’…

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