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The Internet Monster: Brain Training

October 22, 2011

For those who don’t know, every Friday (or so) this blog posts a list of “What We’re Reading”–the most compelling stuff that’s popped up on our internet radar in the past week. A lot of these are news posts, but there are other pieces too–essays, recipes, or videos. While I have always been engaged in reading up on current events via the internet, the “What We’re Reading” series has motivated me to engage in social media to an extent that I had not previously done in an effort to find more, or simply more diverse media to bring to this blog. Along with that engagement have come several questions about social media consumption that have, up until now, seemed only abstract.

By far the biggest supplier of stories to my “radar” is Twitter. What I used to use for updating friends about where I might be going I now use to hear about news from my favorite organizations and publications. I like using google reader as well, but whereas Twitter notifies me of new posts and status updates, Reader only does the one. It is twitter I blame for my recent descent into the rabbit-hole of social media, creating the kind of 21st century symptoms I had read about but never experienced.

To start, there is the frantic excitement that results from seeing a buffet of salient links spread out before me. I scroll down Twitter as fast as I can, “command clicking” every third or so link into a new tab. When I’ve at last reached the bottom of the feed, I scan the headlines in what I’ve just opened, bookmarking the most interesting articles for a later time. By week’s end, the result of this is a stuffed bookmarks folder called “this week” that brims with more articles than I could read in a month. I will make my best attempt at this list, speed reading the more basic news clippings, setting aside time for the long-reads, deleting some I know I’ll never get to, all while constantly interrupted by the Twitter tab I have open, the number in parenthesis of unread (5)tweets growing (23) by the second (51).

Besides the bizarre gusto with which I devour Twitter every morning, there is then the itch to keep up with what’s going on. How long can you go without checking the pulse of the internet? Two weeks ago I was without my laptop for a weekend, and I found myself with minor anxiety, a feeling that I was missing something. I could imagine streams of data passing me by as I went about my day, equally desperate for news from from Occupy Wall Street and an update about what Alex Guarnaschelli was eating.

The third symptom I diagnosed myself with on that weekend without a laptop is of course the compulsion that grabs ahold of you even if you can manage to keep up with what’s happening in a way that is satisfactory, this  feeling that results from having spent a week digesting so many new pieces: the compulsion to share.

I’ve been using the internet enthusiastically since 1994, and near as I can tell, the concept of sharing is a relatively recent phenomenon. The fact that Google’s latest (albeit botched) attempt at a social media service was built entirely around sharing speaks of how pervasive it has become. No pretense of “personal connection” was employed as was with Facebook, this idea that you could keep up with friends new and old. On the contrary, even features like video conference-style “hangouts” were touted as a way to make sharing “more like real life.” Is sharing really what online interaction has become all about?

I’ll be the first to admit, the temptation to share is huge. When I am done reading an article, I don’t know what to do with it. If it has been illuminating for me, if it has increased my knowledge or humanity in some way, I feel the need to hang onto it, to possess it as I would an important book. But the volume is unsustainable; I would be unable to manage a bookmarks folder full of all the interesting articles from the past six months, let alone a year or more. To liberate myself from this compulsion to possess what I have read, I share.

The desire to share and the desire to keep up with the internet both stem from our inability to control or conceptualize all of the stimuli the internet feeds us. For so long the internet seemed to us as an incomprehensible vastness; “you can look it up online” was easy to understand–everything seems to be online–but seldom did we ever encounter the endlessness of the internet palpably. Millions of people put billions of things online, but that is as intangible a notion as a room full of a trillion $1 bills.

With Twitter and other sharing services, for the first time we are provided a small window into that room. We can glimpse, even if we are limited to the tweets that interest us, the deluge of information that is posted every second. It’s overwhelming and compelling at the same time. We want to keep up–after all, we’ve subscribed to these tweets because we are interested. Interesting people everywhere are doing amazing work all the time, and now, if you try hard enough, you can experience as much of it as you want. But of course we can never truly keep up with everything. And so tweets and status updates eat our attention, cause us to constantly tab over to see a new tweet even as we are trying to read an article from another.

Sharing then seems a result of this anxiety, this inability to keep up. By sharing we validate the pulse we have felt online, we concretize our new knowledge by giving it to someone else. We build structure and community by sharing what is of common interest.

But is anyone reading all the crap you throw on your newsfeed? If everyone begins sharing everything they read, where is the threshold of over-saturation? And how can we possibly find time to read what has been shared with us if we are so engaged in finding material to share with others? Is your or my constant sharing doing damage to our reputations by bugging the crap out of people, or is it simply something that everyone does? And does it matter if anyone reads the articles we care enough to share? Is the illusion that people read enough to satiate our desire?

Perhaps all of these questions are secondary to the question of how we are to manage our online and offline lives. We can’t read, write, interact, or do pretty much anything else effectively while we are scanning newsfeeds and twitpics. Yet at the same time, so much of our personal and work lives live online. A balance is needed, but the question remains: how?

I was struck recently by a Poetry Magazine Podcast interview with Xeni Jardin, co-editor at Boing Boing in which she said:

I believe that that uncontrolled velocity of information that the internet represents is a wonderful thing for any kind of information and for any kind of art. And at the same time, the same kind of  uncontrolled velocity of information that allows us to access the complete published works of the great masters of the last few centuries online I think also gets in the way of the kind of trance state, that kind of creative bubble that you need to immerse yourself in to write…You can’t do that if you’re constantly twitching towards social media…So there’s a new kind of skill, a new kind of processing reflex that I think we need to develop to sort of be greater than that gravitational pull.

We have known that the internet can alter our brains for some time. Is the solution to this problem simply another task for our adaptive minds to tackle? Will we, in a decade or more, look back at this time as a period of transition in which humans were still struggling to adopt a lifestyle that makes managing online and offline life possible, necessary? The alternative–to simply cut down on internet consumption–seems increasingly impossible.

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