Thursday, August 19, 2010

Foursquare Checkin @ Social Media Rehab Clinic

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Like a lot of people my age, I tend to embrace technology and I’m quick to adapt to the new social mediums that have sprung up as a result of technological innovation. It has made communication interesting, exciting and full of new possibilities. But lately, even I haven’t been able to stop myself from asking how much is a little too much?

Recently, I went on a weekend trip to Cape Cod in Massachusetts with my husband. Two other friends were travelling with us and the four of us – all between the ages of 29 to 31– each had an iPhone. The constant access to the Internet, email, news and social media applications made our trip quite convenient and stress-free. We could plan our local sightseeing itinerary by looking up all the relevant information during our trip itself and also easily look up nearby places to eat on Google Maps and search for reviews using the Yelp application. The long drive was also less tedious since we could keep ourselves entertained by listening to music on Pandora and checking out our Facebook updates and Twitter streams, all thanks to our smartphones.

At the same time, I could not help but notice how fidgety we all were. Throughout the trip, all of us were constantly inclined toward pulling out our phones every now and then and checking for new emails, surfing the Web or engaging socially online. Given that we had only one (slow) iPhone battery charger in our car, each of us competed and took turns in giving little bursts of life to our dying, over-used phones. When we stopped at rest areas, we ensured that we refueled not just ourselves but also our phones by carrying our iPhone charger and looking for plug points at food courts.

This may be a little exaggerated, but in some way, the continual survival of our phones seemed to have become almost essential to our existence. As this new reality sank in, I wondered: Are we over-wired, over-connected and over-indulging in all forms of media?

Part of the answer lies in this experiment called 24 Hours: Unplugged, conducted by the University of Maryland in April. Around 200 students from various majors were asked to abstain from all sorts of social media for 24 hours – this included not using any media device such as phones, laptops, iPods, and not engaging over Facebook, Twitter or online chat. The students were asked to write down their experiences during this experiment (which were later chronicled on a blog.)

Some students failed the experiment because they simply did not know what to do without access to media. Others failed because they could not avoid media – it was everywhere and inescapable – televisions playing at the gym, music blaring in hallways or their room-mates playing video games. The common responses among students included "In withdrawal. Frantically craving. Very anxious. Extremely antsy. Miserable. Jittery. Crazy.”

Many students also said they felt uninformed and cut off from others since their friendships and relationships were dependent on technology. At the end of the experiment, many admitted being addicted to technology and said while they felt ‘freer’ and a ‘little happy’ during the experiment, they also felt more disconnected and thus more discontented. Here’s one conclusion from the study: “Overall, a day without media ends up making you feel very uninformed and lost….Not being able to use media also makes you realize how much you are missing and how much time you are wasting. Media has a trade-off between its usefulness and its ability to waste your time.”

Increasingly, I find myself hearing or reading about people opting for a self-imposed exile from media-driven technology to help them overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed and dominated by it. Recently, The New York Times presented a challenge to readers, asking them to unplug for a period of time and share their experiences through short videos. Most readers took up the challenge with the objective of proving to themselves that they could survive without constantly consuming media, and thus feel liberated by that knowledge.

How do you deal with the onslaught of information and technology-driven media, which though useful can be a time-sinker that distracts you from other priorities? Some experts suggest measures such as setting aside specific times and places to use technology, and keeping computers and other devices away from the dinner table and the bedroom. Others suggest maintaining a time log to record one’s daily media consumption and also accept and recognize the fact that there is more information out there than one can possibly consume.

Do you follow a regime to regulate your usage of the Internet/social media and have you ever tried to unplug to avoid it all? How do you balance the need to participate in social media and communicate without over-indulging? I’d love to hear about your experiences.


  1. I have. I have often tried to refrain from social networking sites before or atleast during my exams. And I keep promising myself that I'll do just this once. But it has never worked. Even though, there are times I'm pretty sure that there is nothing important happening. Its like an addiction you just have to check, regardless of what you are expecting.

    That of course worries me sometimes and other times I just shrug it off as a natural human tendency. Part of the problem is how our brain works. When there is a fight happening between any two people, regardless of whether you know them or not, you will be pulled towards hearing what's happening. I think we get the same kind of overdose from social media. There is too much happenings and information around us, and even though it might not be of direct interest to us our mind is pulled towards it. And that's the constant phone, mail, twitter, facebook checking phenomena.

    It has become a part of our everyday (or hour) living. And there is no going back from here. But we surely need to find a balance.To at least save my tea. ( because every other day, I end up burning my tea while I type away something like this! I can smell something....RUN)

  2. @Kulsum I enjoyed reading your comment! It's funny that you should mention burning your tea because I have done that a few times. It's the same story. I put the tea to boil and then start reading or working on something on my computer and forget about the tea on the stove. Now the charred tea pan serves as a constant reminder that I must FOCUS! :)

    In the New York Times challenge that I mentioned in my post, one reader (who took up the challenge) talks about how sometimes she's doing the dishes and remembers she has to look up something online. So she stops doing the dishes and goes to her computer. And very often she forgets that she still has dishes to do. So you and I are not alone.

    You are right - there are too many things competing for our attention. Too many avenues for us to communicate and get information, which often means that we are constantly distracted. Perhaps the answer is just self-discipline. Strictly following a time and schedule for surfing the Web, checking email etc. Of course, with a smartphone that provides constant internet access, this becomes more difficult.

    P.S. That's a nice food blog you have there. The recipes seem quite interesting!

  3. Very interesting post. And the video is hilarious! I saw the documentary you've talked about, on PBS, and was amazed at how the lack of technology makes you feel emotionally. Personally speaking, if I don't have access to a device, I find it very easy to shut off. And I can't deny having a minor ego massage when I get back home and see all the emails from people who want me to answer their questions :)

    On the other hand, having easy access to the internet makes me behave a lot like the people in the documentary. I de-prioritize compulsively and end the day feeling like I wasted my day doing nothing contructive. Even then, I have a constant voice telling me that there is no way I can read everything I need to. My inbox is NEVER at zero at the end of the day.

    It's a struggle. But I think I do better than most other Social Media addicts ;-)

  4. @Sabera Thanks for the comment. The video was actually part of viral video campaign by Sony Vaio.

    Yesterday, I read a tweet that said 'Every time I think about the idea of losing my smartphone, a singular tear runs down my cheek.' The person was joking of course, but it's clear that lack of technology can provoke strong emotions among people. It's amazing how we can get lost in the virtual world and how easily it can push us off-track from our planned priorities. I'm glad though that you are a little more self-disciplined and faring better than most Internet addicts.

  5. I think my husband would sign me up for this.


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