“You have to get offline. I’ll say it again. You HAVE GOT TO GET OFFLINE. YOU HAVE TO GET F***ING OFF F***ING LINE.” – advice from legendary E. Jean Carroll, of Ask E. Jean, America’s longest currently running advice column
Better advice could not be more emphatically expressed. I took it to heart for 4 months. 4 months of purposeful separation, living life offline, unplugged…or at least as unplugged as life can be when you have a smart phone and still tweet and email and you know, do almost everything except Facebook + Instagram. Still, give a girl some credit: pulling the plug on Facebook was a big deal, kind of like moving to a desert island. I even wrote a goodbye letter. (melodramatic twentysomething)
I remained pretty social on the island. Before I knew it, 3 months had gone by. One night I thought about the social network and tried to log back in. There were several tell-tale signs I had been gone for a while; for one, I couldn’t remember my log-in. My web history was clogged with news articles instead of the usual Facebook photo albums and in fact I momentarily forgot who some people in those albums even were. Months before, merely typing www—>> triggered automatic completion of “site-thou-shall-not-be-named”.com, and now… LinkedIn has replaced it as the most frequently visited site. If ever there were a sign of professional maturity (or boringness)…
Upon sailing Home a few days ago, Facebook almost seemed foreign, like returning to college after being abroad for a couple months. Soon, though, the falsely jolly, slickly disingenuous first-world details that had ceased to exist during my time away came trickling back into consciousness. Bloop! There went the little red notification. And here we go again…
Ignorance is bliss, I had told myself. But what I’ve realized is that the problem was never really about Facebook or the technology or all the obnoxious statuses out there; the problem was me. I needed to clear out my own cache of judgement.
I deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts on 12/12/12. Since it was supposedly the end of the world, I decided to enter the ‘new’ world with a clean slate. I wanted to return to the root of being social without the distraction of a buzzing phone, without feeling compelled to take pictures of my brunch, and without the aid of a red Facebook notification to alter my serotonin level. I entered detox mode.
My primary justification was personal. I thought that my personhood – the very root of my identity – had been reduced to a set of data points on Facebook. I was living my life out online. How could I allow a single website to simplify my life to a bunch of photos, text, and information? It was naval-gazing for sure, but I couldn’t shake it. So, I left to return to my offline roots but not before posting a status on Facebook asking people to send me their email; I would write occasionally with life updates, philosophical meanderings, and other angsty Thought Catalog-like topics. Several people did reach out and I was happy to keep my social network limited to these newfound thought followers, family, and close friends. It was my way of keeping in touch.
Life offline was revolutionary & simple. It gave me greater appreciation for things beyond the digital realm such as parks, museums, and coffee shops with no wi-fi. I spent a month at home in Tennessee, a month in San Francisco, another month eating a bunch of really really good food for my job back in New York. Normally, I’d be sharing & posting like it was my job but I restrained. I just ate, just observed, just explored. The ‘justs’ were more than enough. No one was validating the awesomeness of my adventure, so I could focus on the actual act of exploring. It was great. There were moments when I wondered if I was missing out (and for sure, I later found out there was A LOT) but I was aware of the really important things. In fact I remember secretly gloating that I knew about the new Pope before some of my Facebook-hounding friends did. (Twitter – 1, Facebook – 0)
Ultimately, however, I discovered a glaringly simple truth through deeper offline conversations : we’re lonely. Some more than others, but at the end of the day, it’s a large reason why social networks like Facebook and Twitter have taken off. Introvert or extrovert, we’re all searching for some form of connection.
Yet connection is thrown around like free lunch these days. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook mission, “to make the world more open and connected” is noble. But just like lunch, real connection never comes free. You don’t amass friends and spit stuff into the never-ending stream of content and expect connection to magically appear. (You also don’t sell that information to marketers, but that’s another topic for another day.) Facebook is not the magic ingredient. If we truly want connection, we must first change ourselves.
When I logged back onto Facebook a few days ago, updating my profile with an affirming Facebook status “They always come back”, I found myself digging back into connections – weak, strong, and the many in-betweens. While catching up with the lives of those I had almost forgotten about, I was reminded of life’s continuous march. Over the course of our lives, things happen, people change. In this digital age, social platforms are there to document it all. While I traveled coast to coast, going from San Francisco to New York, life for others did not stop and wait for me to press ‘play’ to be reenacted. People continued to post, comment, like, and tag whether I was there to participate or not. I had missed a Canadian friend’s trip to New York with her band. I had missed lovely photos from an acquaintance’s wedding. I had no idea the company I worked for had uploaded and tagged an embarrassingly hilarious video of me. (Self-scrutiny commence.)
Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that my view of personhood must evolve like the times. I am nostalgic for a Web that no longer exists. I’d like to think of myself, as author Zadie Smith puts it, “a private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and to herself.” But I am naive. I’ve taken 4 months time (and an entire Facebook timeline of inner sciamachy) to set aside this identity crisis. I come back because I want to write. Truthfully. Part of that means knowing people. Social media is a way to be part of a conversation you’re creating together with fellow beings. For all its clutter, social media can be rich and multi-faceted. On other days, it can be also be self-glorifying, artificial, and so damn annoying that I wonder if I should just disconnect again.
But that’s life. Life is not always beautiful. Take it or leave it; I choose to take it. Not being on social media means I will simply know less about what is going on with other people. That is not a bad thing. But even so, I firmly believe humans are not made to be fully removed from each other, whether that is physically or virtually. Do you want to participate and steer the conversation toward good? Yesterday’s Boston Marathon terror serves as an example. People gathered updates and news real-time to help those in need. Coverage through social media was a mix of qualitative and informative, creating a complete (while heartbreaking) picture of the unfolding scene. The Internet, if we choose, really can be a useful tool for good.
For all its good, though, we must be reminded that the data points we generate can underrepresent reality. Living offline is messier and more complex. Walking away from social media, at times, is not necessarily practical, as we live in an age where many of our communities and lives are built on these platforms. So what I’m granting myself is an approach, a mindset: one of connection rather than comparison. It’s easy to look at the filtered photos and artuflly written statuses as gunk that clogs our news feed. But lighten up. On the days you peer into the screen of your laptop and simply can’t find any semblance of relation to your perfectly posed fellow human beings, just remember that what you see is a mere half-reality and carefully selected portion of life. Life isn’t simply the story you tell about yourself on the Internet. It’s merely one of many.
This is my relapse. I’m back to listen, contribute, and document the evolution of our virtual selves. This time, I realize I am not above it all. While I can’t promise zero judgment, I welcome your sharing. In a sense, I agree with Zuckerberg: our selves evolve and like it or not, it’s a story worthy capturing.
I look at my calendar for this weekend and my head swarms. There are visitors galore – all cool people who I want to see – and I plan to see as many of them as possible. However, I can’t help but get slightly anxious, knowing that running from one social engagement to the next will prevent me from fully focusing and achieving excellence in my output.
Here’s the thing. Success boils down to two things: relationships and execution. These go hand-in-hand: building relationships provides links that can help you execute. But both take time. When one starts to dominate, the other will weaken. It’s simple logic. So, how do you craft a perfect balance so you can be a good friend, yet also get shit done? (and exercise and 8 hours of sleep)
I’ve never doubted my ability to maintain connections because I naturally place a high premium on relationships. But the trick now is not allowing it to affect the quality of my work. When it does, it’s time for balance to be restored.
Tonight I had a delightful dinner with a friend. I was home before 10 pm (the first time this week). I was able to bang out a few emails, write this post, and now I’m eagerly looking forward to cuddling up to my new read: ‘By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop ‘. I’ll learn about e-commerce and flash sales. Or I’ll just sleep. Either way, this is my version of balance.
To add to the social blitz, it’s a #MOWAweekend. If you don’t understand what that means, check out www.mowa.me, and get invited.
“Nothing of me is original. I am a combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known.”
Though this tramps rudely on my artfully formed identity, it does remove some of the pressure. I am a skilled shopaholic only because my middle school friends would berate people who left the mall empty-handed. (Thus, my impressive amount of debt now can only be attributed to them.) I am quick with “that’s what she said” jokes (if those can be even considered jokes anymore) only because my college roommates and I flung them around all senior year. I am a terrible bowler because…well, who cares about bowling anyway. No one I know likes it, so I don’t need to.
We can use this reasoning to deflect individual responsibility for character deficits, or things we’re ignorant about. On the same token, we can’t take credit for our seemingly original insights. If I am a mere mishmash of the people in my life, my character is really just a representation of my taste. To that end, I try to surround myself with people I strive to be like.
Author Courtney Martin used the term ‘friend crushes’ in her latest piece about being your own mentor in a freelance economy. Since freelancers don’t have an easy structure to guide their work flow or career path, they must learn how to hold themself accountable to personalized goals and deadlines. This involves seeking ‘friend crushes’:
Sometimes you have to go after a collaborator or a work gig. I’m not big on “networking”—at least the version of it talked about in women’s magazines and at some alienating conferences. But I do believe in “friend crushes.” If someone does particularly awesome work, or has a way of looking at the world I find really unique, I will go out of my way to get to know them. It’s never with a set goal in mind, but more with the faith that putting a bunch of amazing people in my orbit will guarantee cool opportunities arising down the line.
It’s an interesting balance of individual initiative and creative collaboration, something which will become an increasingly important skill to cultivate as our world becomes less streamlined.
One of my biggest friend crushes is Joanna Galaris, a cultural chameleon who’s lived in 8 countries. By some stroke of luck I selected her as my mentee in a college organization. The tables have since turned and she’s now more like my mentor. Though she is just a junior in college, I think she has a much more solid grasp on the purpose of college than most people. Here’s something she wrote recently on her blog:
In college, we are constantly bombarded with people telling us that we must follow certain academic tracks and what the complementary internships and volunteer experiences to those tracks are and that our GPA is somehow related to our self-worth. I think this is nonsense. I would like you to un-learn that information. Yes, what you study in college, particularly if you are a STEM student, will probably determine the job you get paid for at first. But there are unlimited possibilities to expand your knowledge and your skill set so that you can be competent in many fields. I am a passionate Anthropology student but I have no intention of being an Anthropologist for the rest of my life. I do hope that I will get the opportunity to do public health research in Eastern and Western Africa and find incredibly creative ways to work within local health cultures to implement public health campaigns in under-developed areas. I do want to be a medical anthropologist. But I also want to be a carpenter, a musician and a writer. I want to speak French, Swahili and Arabic fluently and improve my command of the English language. I want to better my public speaking skills and learn more about where my food comes from. And I am 100% confident that I will be successful in all of these things.
Of course, this raises the age-old question of whether it is better to be a jack of all trades or an expert in one subject. There is value to both focus and well-roundedness. Regardless, she touches on a fundamental component of college that is too often failing to be ignited – curiosity.
Many have criticized American universities for becoming overly social, a wasteland of drinking escapades and drunken epiphanies. That is true, but social is not always bad. For some, the classroom is too formalized and contained for curiosity to flow. Learning thrives instead among candid discussion with peers. This does occur in the classroom, but personally I am more comfortable discussing serious topics among a trusted group of friends who won’t judge my oversight or lack of knowledge in a topic. This is why I think the concept of ‘friend crushes’ cannot be underestimated. Joanna, again:
Most of us in college right now are frustrated with the quality of education that we are receiving because we are failing to personalize our college experience. If you hate being in college and you can’t wait to graduate then it’s probably your own fault. If you are studying something that does not interest you and aren’t stimulated by the classes you are taking, then change your major. If you’re failing in your area of study and your classes make you feel dumb or incompetent then you’re probably in the wrong field. You are neither dumb nor incompetent. Dedicate the majority of your time here to something that you think you’ll be excellent at. It will make you happy and make it easier to tackle the harder stuff.
For those who don’t know what they’re good at or what makes them happy, fear not. That’s what life is for. College is just one of those unique social environments for you to experiment and ignite that curiosity alongside others who are also trying to figure it out. It will come easier when you’re exposed to those ‘friend crushes’ who you admire, perhaps cooler than you, but eager to share a bit of their insight with you, and vice-versa.
My social life is one of my top priorities because I surround myself with people that are talented and have skills that I don’t have. When I spend time with my friends, I am learning from them. I am taking in who they are and absorbing all of the things that I love about them and taking notes. Having lunch with a friend can be just as inspiring as sitting through a great class taught by a brilliant professor.
My life mantra is ‘everyone has a story’. Everyone can teach you something. So don’t be afraid to seek out those friend crushes and spend time discussing and honing the skills that will make you successful together.
How can you not have a crush on her when she takes you around the Greek islands?
Aegina, Greece, August 2011
February 24, 2012 | Categories: Education, inspiration, Internet, mentors, personal | Tags: #joanna galaris, #lynne guey, courtney martin, curiosity, education, freelance economy, friend crushes, friends, mentors, social | 1 Comment