ROW80 Sunday Check-In: Stepping Back for a Wider View

(My ROW80 Check-in is at the bottom of this post.)

Once a young man—a contemporary of mine and aspiring screenwriter who had moved to Southern California for the purpose of furthering that ambition—delivered to me a sort of writer’s curse.

“CJ, no one cares what you have to say.”

I recognized even at the time, even when I was twenty, that this comment was more about him than it was about me. Even so, it has echoed in my mind since then. It won’t go away because it accurately reflects a real fear—the fear that no one really cares what I have to say.

“We need to be known,” writes Alan Jones. “This knowledge of being known we call love.”

One of the ways that we know we are known is through being listened to. If no one cares what I have to say, how can I be loved?

Now, I can employ reason and see all of the evidence that I’m loved and that others want to hear what I have to say (not everyone, I’m sure, but I don’t need to be loved by everyone anyway). But reason doesn’t magically make the fear disappear.

I’m comfortable, at least somewhat, with that fear attending my writing practice because my primary reason for writing isn’t to be listened to. That’s a major reason, but the primary reason is just that I gain understanding by writing through experiences and issues. I’ve spent years journaling and writing stories that I’ve never submitted for publication, writing letters I had no intention of sending; I’m going to write whether I have an audience or not.

Facebook and Twitter are another matter.

In his chapter about “Technology and Media,” from Doris Janzen Longacre’s Living More with Less, Isaac Villegas writes:

“We are lonely people. So with the click of a mouse we try to convince ourselves that we are not alone…with my computer and smart phone I can constantly update my status on Twitter and Facebook just to convince myself that someone wants to know the minutiae of my life. I want to know that someone cares about my life and wants my companionship—or at least a status update.”

I recognize that my primary reason for being on Twitter and Facebook is a desire for connection. As someone who is fairly shy and socially awkward to begin with and busy at home with my children most of every day and living as a relative newcomer to a geographic area that lacks a central community, I find the draw of online community very strong. It promises me connection without the discomfort of in-person interactions. The trouble is that the (virtual) reality doesn’t live up to the promise. The virtual connection just doesn’t fill the void for me like being face-to-face with someone, or even just hearing their voice on the telephone.

Villegas suggests we ask three questions about our technology use:

1) “How can we make sure technology serves our relationships rather than the other way around?”

2) “What do our media habits reveal about our deepest desires?”

3) “What are we not doing when we are in front of a screen?”

Technology can serve my relationships by facilitating in-person connections and keeping strong those connections I have with friends and family who are geographically distant in between the times we can see each other in person. My media habits reveal that I deeply desire a compassionate community with whom I can explore my values and how best to live them. When I’m in front of a screen, I’m not looking my children in the eye. I’m not discussing my values, hopes, and desires with my husband. I’m not having coffee with my neighbors or taking my children to play with their friends across town. I’m not sleeping or exercising or hiking or reading or calling my mom (actually, I’m embarrassed to admit it but sometimes I am browsing the Internet while I’m on the phone with my mom).

This week, when I found myself disappointed that we only lost electricity for three hours because I was so looking forward to the break from technology, I decided that something had to give.

For the next two weeks, I’m going to try making sleep and in-person connections my priority. I’m going to go to bed at the same time my son does (around 7:00 pm) on the nights I can and no later than 10:00 pm on those nights that I have extra-domiciliary activities. This will eventually be more sleep than I need, but I hope that starting with more-than-enough sleep will help me recover from so many years of not-enough sleep and that I’ll gradually work into some sort of schedule. I’m hoping that with ample sleep, some of these other anxieties and disappointments and unacceptable behaviors (the yelling) will disappear on their own or that I’ll feel more equipped to address them.

I am going to keep writing because I sleep better when I’m writing (provided I’m not writing when I would otherwise be sleeping). I don’t know what I’ll do with blogging. I plan to do my Wednesday and Sunday check-ins for ROW80, but I don’t know if I’ll blog outside of those check-ins. Blogging is a weird limbo for me between writing and social media. It’s writing, but with the commenting and stats, it also includes that anxiety-provoking edge that social media has (especially when the trolls show up). I’ll have to observe myself in the next two weeks and go from there.

I’m not going to avoid online connections entirely, but I’m going to try to be mindful of whether they’re supporting my relationships or not. If they’re not, I hope I can step away and do something that does.

Oh, and the original purpose of this blog post, my ROW80 Sunday Check-In: I’ve written four nights out of seven, meeting my minimum goal for ROW80 for this week.

The Belly of the Beast, or Why I’m Back on Facebook

Last summer, after debating it for months, I deleted my personal profile on Facebook (when I typed that word the first time, I ended up with a typo that read, “Fecebook.” Perhaps my subconscious is still not happy with my decision to return to the world of social networking).

For the most part, I liked being away. I kept my Page, and Facebook converted all of my “Friends” to “Likes” for my Page. It was fun to see my “Likes” jump so quickly (even though I realized it was artificial). I enjoyed not having a News Feed, too, since that’s where my willpower often broke down. Consumed by a need for escape, I would stay up ’til all hours commenting on everything my friends posted and reading (and…ugh…commenting on) often inflammatory posts from friends-of-friends, including the one woman who made remarks about my daughter (whom she does not know) and suggested that I might not have a bible in my possession (me, the religion minor. I counted, and I had no fewer than FIVE bibles on my bookshelf, not to mention innumerable other religious texts—from The Book of Mormon to the Bhagavad Gita—and books about religious texts. I had to force myself to stop engaging in that comment thread). When I finally went to bed, I would lie awake for hours, agitated and anxious about the comments I’d made, sure I’d said something very, very wrong. I’m prone to anxiety and I do this after social gatherings, too, so it’s not new, but I also don’t attend social gatherings every single night.

So, not being on Facebook stopped this pattern, and that was nice.

But there were downsides, too. For one, I found myself isolated socially in a way that I hadn’t expected. When I first deleted my profile I thought, “This will be great! I’ll just go back to what we all used to do before Facebook. I’ll call friends. I’ll get together with people in person. I’ll send birthday cards and write actual, physical letters!” What I didn’t bank on was how completely everyone else’s social interactions centered around Facebook. I didn’t get notes about people having babies. I didn’t know when people had moved or lost their jobs or experienced serious illnesses. I was out of the loop.

For months I decided I would just try harder. There was a bit of improvement, but I still felt disconnected from my friends. I started to wonder if my friendships had been as close as I’d thought they were. And I started to wonder if, perhaps, I just needed to meet my friends where they were. Which was on Facebook.

This month, two things happened that pushed me over the edge to opening a new personal profile and re-friending all (well, some) of the people I’d lost touch with last summer. First, two members of my extended family passed away. At the memorial service for the first relative (which I was not able to attend; all of my family are hundreds if not thousands of miles from me), one of my cousins told my mom that she was interested in reconnecting with me after 16 years. I had no idea it had been that long. She mentioned she was on Facebook and maybe she could connect with me through my sister. But I wasn’t on Facebook anymore. I realized that when I lost access to my “Friends'” profiles, I’d also lost access to the only contact information I had for some of these relatives I’d not seen in years.

The second thing was a very pleasant hour-long telephone conversation with a friend from Utah. She told me she was getting ready to have fairly involved surgery. We talked for a long while and then she said, “Well, I’ll update Facebook and let everyone know how I am after the surgery. [pause] Oh, wait…you can’t see that stuff anymore, can you?”

That was it. I wanted back in.

My compromise was to join using a variation of my name. Anyone who knows me will know who I am, but even if my profile ends up being publicly searchable (which it’s not supposed to be based on the super-duper-lockdown privacy settings I have), people who don’t know me fairly well hopefully will feel enough doubt that if I ignore their friend request, they’ll just think I’m not who they thought I was.

So, here I am, back again. We’ll see how this goes.

[Insert Awesome Post Here]

This was going to be a really awesome post I’ve been planning since Sunday. But when I sat down to write it tonight, I couldn’t figure out what my point was and worried that I was just meandering and complaining and perhaps even insulting some people unintentionally.

I was certain that I was going to link to this post on “Live Your Bliss” (entitled “When ‘Paying it Forward’ Really Matters”). That is an awesome post, and I had something really profound to say about it that worked in This American Life and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Oddly, when I sat down at the laptop tonight, the post didn’t really come together like I thought it would when I mentally drafted it in the shower this evening.

But here’s basically what I was trying to get at:

The “Live Your Bliss” post helped me realize that, while online connections and keeping in touch with geographically distant friends won’t help me feel connected to my local community (and won’t give me someone to have tea with on occasion), I can use my long-distance connections as inspiration for relationship-building, compassionate action in my everyday life.

I might not be able to take a meal to a sick friend in Utah, but I can take food to a neighbor here.

I can’t give a friend a ride to SFO, but I can drive a recent immigrant to the grocery store.

I can’t drive my mom (who lives 11 hours away by car) to her post-surgery doctor appointments or clean her house for her while she’s recovering, but I can nag my younger sister and brother to do more for her.

Okay, that last one wasn’t really a good example. But I’m confident that I’ll improve with practice.

And I might just have a stronger local community when all’s said and done.

The Social Dilemma

Here’s the deal: I watched The Social Network the other night. I realize that it’s a fictional portrayal of Zuckerberg and the real life of this real person was Hollywoodized for mass appeal. However, it served to rekindle the undercurrent of ickiness that I feel when I use Facebook.

And I use Facebook a lot.

My friend, Jenny, introduced me to Facebook about three and a half years ago. She and I were friends in middle school and she tracked me down through LinkedIn. She shared her blog (Something Made Different, which showed me that her quirky sense of humor had survived adolescence intact) and suggested I check out Facebook.

Even back then, I had an anti-Facebook stance. Jenny understood, but still encouraged me to join.

“The dark side, though, has turned out to be pretty fun,” she wrote. “Even a little addictive, so watch out…”

Is it just me, or is this like something you’d see in an Afterschool Special?

And of course the next e-mail I wrote to her lamented the fact that I was letting my anti-Facebook ideals languish in a corner while I set up a profile for myself.

In the dramatization of my life, this e-mail exchange would be followed by a musical montage of me sending hatching eggs, poking people, playing Facebook-based games, updating my status 57 times a day while getting angry at my daughter for interrupting me, and going on an orgy of finding and friending people I’d not talked to in nigh on twenty years, including some I didn’t even remember after I looked them up in my high school yearbook.

My addiction to Facebook, however, never will be dramatized because it’s not a unique story. Not remotely. If my life gets dramatized it will likely be for being the last person under age 70 without a smart phone. I just have to hold out for another year or two.

So, I’m thinking again about deleting my Facebook account. Even this isn’t unique, even to me. Every few months I think about deleting my Facebook account.

It used to be that even a deleted Facebook account would lie dormant on the site, just waiting for the escapee to reach the nadir of their exclusion from online social life and come crawling back. When they did, they found that all of their friends were right there waiting for them. They’d start back up on Facebook and it was like they never left.

Their escape really was no escape after all.

Then there came the apps that helped you commit “Facebook Suicide”, allowing you to watch as each of your friends was unfriended, all of your photos were deleted, each of the tags mentioning you were erased. One, Seppukoo, even created a memorial page for you. These apps themselves were quickly killed by Facebook.

Now, so Facebook says, they’ve made it easier to leave the site and delete your profile. I’m not sure I buy it, and I suppose there’s just one way to find out.

But…

I stopped posting photos of myself and my kids about a year ago, but there are still dozens of photos of us on Facebook (and elsewhere) that others have posted. Even if I leave Facebook, I’ll still be on it. I just won’t know what about me is on the site anymore.

If I leave Facebook, I can no longer promote my blog there. That would be a blow since I still get most of my page views via Facebook. I can’t commute my personal profile over to my blog Page. The only way I could have my Facebook Page without having a personal page is if I delete myself and the page, then go back in and create a new blog Page from scratch. Which is possible, but kind of a lot of work. And I’d still be on Facebook.

Then I think about all of the other positive things Facebook has brought me.

It’s let me reconnect with dozens of people I barely knew in school and stay connected with the people with whom I actually want to keep in touch and with whom I’ve not kept in touch actively since we parted ways in the real world. Which I think includes about three people.

It’s helped me to get rid of possessions when we were moving away from Utah. I posted a note with the things we wanted to get rid of and within 48 hours, it was all spoken for (well, except for a table and a trunk, which I donated to a yard sale for a local nonprofit). I could have listed those on Freecycle or Craigslist, though.

It’s alerted me to nurse-ins and other protests, allowing me to give vent to my righteous indignation about a host of issues.

It’s provided a more reliable means of e-inviting people to parties and recitals.

It’s allowed me to quickly poll my Facebook-using friends about the best housecleaners and babysitters in the area.

It’s been a place where I could ask my friends to have their kids write my daughter letters to ease her loneliness after our recent move.

It’s reconnected me with my cousins.

It’s how I learned that my great-aunt had died.

On the other hand, it’s sucked hours and hours of my time away as I comment on even the most mundane topics and refresh endlessly throughout the day. It’s led me to yell at my kids for interrupting me while I’m trying to comment on something. It’s ruined my sleep when I’ve been unable to calm down after a particularly contentious comment exchange. It’s triggered arguments with my brother about homeopathy. It’s caused me to be proselytized by members of various Christian religious sects. It’s made it easy to be rude to people I care about.

I want to think I want to leave Facebook to uphold some kind of pure ideal. I would be leaving in order to hold myself to a higher standard. But really, I’d be leaving to fight this addiction I seem to have to the network.

And if I stayed, it would be for the sake of page views on my blog and because I worry about being left out of the loop. I worry that, if it’s not easy for my friends and family to keep in touch with me, as it is on Facebook, they simply won’t.

So the question really is, do I feed my insecurity by staying on Facebook, or do I cut myself loose and force myself to make personal connections or none at all?

Would deleting my Facebook profile help or hinder my pursuit of a more positive public life?

I suppose there’s always Google+.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

via Flickr”]Never have traffic lights looked that good.......

On Friday, I celebrated Earth Day by going screen-free for 24 hours. I did a Facebook Fast for the month of November and quite enjoyed it. The Earth Day screen fast took it a few steps further and involved fasting from both the computer and the television.

To help my daughter understand nutrition, we talk about green light, yellow light, and red light foods. Green light are things like veggies that we can eat as much of as we want. Yellow light foods are things like meat and grains that provide essential macro- and micronutrients but which can be unhealthy in excess. Red light foods are those that provide little to no nutritional value but which we eat for flavor or to participate in cultural rituals.

Facebook, is a red-light food: fine in moderation but it’s all too easy for me to overdo it.

Blogging is more like a yellow-light food. It provides enough value to me it could be a green-light food were it not for the blog stats. I refresh blog stats dozens of times a day, if left to my own devices. They are a source of anxiety, and while blogging itself is a nourishing experience, I need to watch that I don’t go overboard. I think of it like a ribeye steak. Even having been a vegetarian for seven years, I recognize the nutritional value of a lean-ish cut of meat from a grass-fed cow. But ribeyes have that yummy marbling of fat through them and often have that tasty ribbon of fat around the edges, too. That’s good energy, but too much is going to raise my cholesterol in the long run and give me a bellyache in the short run.

I think Twitter is another red-light food. I think of it like marshmallow Peeps. I understand that it’s a cultural phenomenon and that many people really love it, but I personally don’t really understand it. I’m pretty sure that this lack of understanding is protective and that if I truly understood Twitter (or Peeps), there would be no stopping me from becoming totally immersed.

E-mail is darned near a green-light food now. Back in college it used to be fluff. It was a way of passing around Smurf-related pornography and keeping in touch with high school buddies. It was sort of the electronic equivalent of writing notes: fun, but not at all necessary. Now, though, it’s practically vital to have interactions via e-mail. Even during my screen fast, I needed to check e-mail once to pick up an important note from my daughter’s accompanist. For better or worse, e-mail has become a necessity in my life. And most of the fluff has been moved to Facebook, so there’s little unnecessary stuff in my e-mail inbox anymore.

All this is to explain that I have a nuanced view of technology. I don’t think that new technology is inherently evil. Neither do I embrace new technology immediately (but mostly because I’m cheap and paranoid and still haven’t figured out what the heck Twitter is for).

But once I go for the new technology, I have trouble creating balance.

I discovered three things from the screen fast this Friday:

  1. My kids and I get along with greater harmony if I’m not distracted checking my blog stats and commenting on Facebook twenty-nine times an hour.
  2. I can’t really get by without some online interaction. To do so, I would have to rearrange the way I interact with my friends and many of my relatives, and I would have to change how I receive information. I look up schedules and directions and operating hours online. I download recipes and coloring pages and craft ideas. Yes, I can do all of this with a library, a road atlas and a phone book. But that’s not how I’m used to doing things now, and it would take a pretty significant shift to move back to this way of operating.
  3. I have trouble engaging with online media with moderation. I do better with all-or-nothing scenarios, much like I do in the food world with refined sugar. I do pretty well with a complete prohibition against sugar; I did it for two years and didn’t feel like I was missing out at all. But give me the go-ahead to eat any sugar at all, and I go nuts.

I play this odd mind game in which I romanticize pioneer days and say, “Nineteenth-century farmers ate little to no sugar and they were fine. I would be fine without sugar, too,” and “Mormon pioneers pushed handcarts across more than a thousand miles of grassland and mountain ranges to get to Utah. I can do errands without my car.”

Trouble is, in order to buy into this one part of the truth, I also need to buy into the rest of it. It diminishes the effect of this reasoning when I admit that nineteenth-century farmers also routinely suffered from hunger and malnutrition and food poisoning, and that a large percentage of those in the handcart parties didn’t survive the journey. None of those people had Facebook, but neither did any of them have antibiotics or x-rays or indoor plumbing.

I want the benefits of a screen fast while still maintaining my connection with my family and friends both online and off. I want that sense of harmony and connection I get with my kids when I’m not online, and I want that sense of harmony and connection I get when I’m riffing off of my friends’ comments and blog posts online.

I want the creamy middle, but I don’t know how to find it.

Introversion and the Virtual Community

My friend sent me a link to an article from 2002 entitled, “On the Internet, No One Knows I’m an Introvert”: Extroversion, Neuroticism, and Internet Interaction (Yair Amichai-Hamburger, Galit Wainapel, Shaul Fox. CyberPsychology & Behavior. April 2002, 5(2): 125-128. doi:10.1089/109493102753770507.)

The study looked at how forty users of internet chat viewed the importance of online interactions in relation to their personality characteristics (ie, was there a correlation between how people see their relationships online and whether they’re introverts or extroverts?). The conclusion of this small study: “It was found that introverted and neurotic people locate their ‘real me’ on the Internet, while extroverts and non-neurotic people locate their ‘real me’ through traditional social interaction.”

While I bristle a little bit at the grouping of “introverted and neurotic people,” this conclusion makes intuitive sense to me, at least as far as the “introvert” part goes. If someone does better with less stimulus and more processing time, it would make sense that online interactions would help them feel like they could be more like themselves (if, in fact, that’s what it means to locate one’s “real me”).

I generally think of my interactions online as “fake” and my interactions in person as “real.” But then I remember the number of times I’ve been misunderstood or negatively assessed by others based on my in-person self, and the number of times that a social situation has turned out very differently than I expected and I just could not figure out what had happened. I think about how disconnected from people I often feel in real life, despite Herculian efforts to push myself towards being a more social person, and I think online interactions can’t really be much worse, can they? It’s not like the alternative is a fruitful, amazing social life filled with warm and loving relationships. If it were, clearly online relationships would fall short. After all, when you have a baby, friends three states away with whom you interact hourly on Facebook can’t bring you lasagna.

A lot’s happened online since 2002, though. I wonder what differences would be observed if a similar assessment were made today. What percentage of bloggers, for instance, are introverts? What percentage of frequent Facebook users consider the face they present on Facebook to be their “real me,” and how many of those are introverts?

But I also wonder what that means for me as I put boundaries in place for my introverted child. If she’s likely to feel more like herself online, should I still limit that? Should I encourage her towards only in-person interactions until some as-yet undetermined age? I didn’t have e-mail until college (e-mail didn’t exist widely until I was in college) and still I had few deep relationships. Would access to e-mail have enhanced my closeness to others or hindered it? And would it be the same for my daughter?

I would love your feedback about this, online community. Do you feel more comfortable being yourself online than in person? Is your online community as strong as your in-person community? Is one more real to you than the other? Or do you find that your online and in-person communities fill different but equal roles in your life? I know I have friends I only speak with on the phone, friends I only interact with online but once knew in person, a couple of people I’ve only met online (I’m not sure if I can call them “friends”, but they’re kindred spirits at least), and even one or two people with whom I only interact via letter. (Yes, letter as in writing things down on a piece of paper and sending it through the post so that the person on the other end holds in her hand the exact same sheet of paper I once held in my hand.)