A while back I wrote an Medium post arguing that the only way to “do Internet” well is to embrace complexity and made an objective choice to apply ourselves to intricacies, rather than allowing ourselves to be washed away in the deluge of trends and distractions. Last night, I finally managed to watch Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” and was again struck by what I thought was a recurring message at the end of the movie.
The web is a squandered opportunity: it gives us a way to never apply ourselves thoroughly to anything, while at the same time being, in itself, the most compelling instrument we’ve ever had for doing just that. In the past, if you wanted to become a specialist in a field, you needed to go to libraries, move country, travel. Today, we have all of that at our fingertips and yet we choose to gloss over volumes of unrelated tweets, photos and posts without ever thinking about the actual substance that is adding to who we are.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this about 7 years ago when I was in the early stages of my love-hate affair with social media. Back then, I used to wake up at 5 am every day to be the first one to read the overnight tweets and retweet the most relevant ones. It took me about 6 months to burn out completely. I had jumped in fanbase to over 5 thousand, but I was exhausted and felt like I had accomplished nothing. I was not getting better at anything — my job, being a digital specialist, being a more informed or smarter human being, I was just the person who found out about more of everything earlier than anyone else.
A friend saw my state and asked a simple question “What do you think will happen if you don’t do this?”. I immediately imagined disaster, end of my career, end of my relevance. He laughed and dared me to try to stop for a month. I did and nothing happened. I just slept more.
Fast forward to today, and some of that behaviour remains. I still follow a lot of people and skim through their tweets and retweets hungry for a headline that I can retweet myself. The thought behind that is I am building an image of who I am through my “content associations”, and up to a point that is a valid point. You are what you retweet. But what does this add to my know-how and my capabilities? I know a little about a lot but don’t know enough about certain things.
And this is a very tortuous way into the big point of this: the web gives you a simple way to reconfigure your sense of self-worth while at the same time not building any self-worth to speak of. It, the web, has elevated the idea of aggregator and curator but the actual skill and value behind those is being pushed to the limit. It, the web, puts more value on individuals that perpetuate the attention-grabbing element of technology than on those who add to non-attention grabbing topics. The web values that which perpetuates it.
And that’s not ok.
What is okay is application to a subject which is of value to you and which adds value to those around you.
For instance, for me that would be attention and persuasion because I work in digital marketing and those are two essentials of what I do. The trouble is I get distracted and I bet you so do most of you.
So, how do we develop ourselves as human beings in the face of this deluge of unfocused interestingness (please note that I am NOT talking about the distraction that cat videos provide, but rather those things that seem laterally related to what you think defines you and turn out to be mere distractions)?
- Start by deciding what your focus of interest is, and try to understand if it’s narrow enough. I used to say I love the Internet, which was a ridiculous cop out, since that is so big it really, again, means I am interest in everything. So I’ve made a point of focusing that to persuasive and attention-driving technologies and their sociological implications, because that interests me and also because it bears heavily on my work.
- The second thing you should do is actively seek out sources that have bearing on this focus of yours, rather than allowing the web to bring those sources to you. Having a generous Twitter feed that sometimes pops up something related to what you’re into is not enough. I make a concerted effort to organise my feeds according to what I’m interested in and keep distractions (again, these are NOT cat videos) into a feed called Miscellaneous.
- Finally, be tough on yourself. It’s so comforting to go with the suggested content, and your brain probably gets the same level of stimulation from scrolling or clicking on the next suggested video as from half a chocolate muffin, but you have to be focused. I set myself times of scrolling and times of in-depth research on the topics I follow. I also quarantine the scrolling time to limited amounts of time(in the past my YouTube suggested video addiction sometimes saw me watching for more than 2h at night when I had originally started with the goal of looking at ONE 2 minute video).
I’m just starting with this but I think I need to keep reminding myself that we are at a turning point where we need to take control and be fully aware of how we use the web, lest we become mere re-tweeters for the web itself.