Digital Connections: Reality, Addiction, or Something Else?

Over the last couple of days, I’ve spontaneously bumped into several conversations about “being online.” People are wondering, as they have since online was a thing, whether being online is a good thing or a bad thing. Is there such a thing as being online too much? What do we miss when we’re not online? What do we miss when we are? I’m writing this in bed, and both me and Mr. Geeky are online, as we often are, many hours of the day. Our kids are also online many hours of the day. We think about these things a lot. I don’t have any easy answers.

My first encounter this week was with an older post by Dean Shareski that was retweeted. Just the way I found it should tell you something. :) Dean argued that there is no difference between being online and offline in terms of connecting with people. I mostly feel the same way, but as I said in a comment there, I think the whole thing is complicated. There is a slight difference in connecting online and offline. Right now, I think that connecting online in a deep way takes a lot more effort than face-to-face. In a short amount of time in a face-to-face conversation, you can get facial expressions, tone of voice, body language that you just can’t get in an online conversation (although hangouts and skype do come close, but I have very few of those). To capture that same depth online requires more than 140 characters and usually more back and forth. In fact, I would argue that in the days of just blogs (no FB, no Twitter), in depth was easier than it is today. We really did do what I’m doing right now–connecting blog posts together via another blog post–more often. Nowadays, we just tweet it. I do it too. I don’t take the time to comment on the article I tweeted. It’s worth reading the comments on Dean’s post. It is representative of the way a deep conversation/connection can happen online. I’d argue, however, that those are rarer than they should be.

My next encounter was with Rob Cottingham’s comic, which I’ve loved since I first found out about it through Northern Voice 6 years ago (where I presented a video and conversation about this very issue). He, too, thinks this idea that the online world doesn’t matter or isn’t real is a silly one.

Put the online world’s role in your life into perspective — not just where it distracts you from what matters, but where it connects you to it.

And that is where I think most people miss the point. It’s also not what everyone is doing online. Ever since I ventured online, I was doing so to find connections to people. I felt isolated, alone misunderstood, but through my online connections, I found meaning and connection, and eventually, a new career. But many people are online not to connect in a meaningful way but to promote, to stroke their ego, to get the shallow satisfaction of having thousands of “friends”. And these people bother me and they are bringing along with them a way of looking at the online world as a shallow place. Our students seem to start there, in the shallow end. In part, that’s about cognitive development. They’re all about the ego well into their young adulthood. But some will make meaningful connections and we, as educators, can help them do that.

My final encounter was a link from Rob’s site about a 25 day vacation from being online. Thurston sounds like someone who needed a break, who had lost that sense of balance between interacting offline and online, feeling the need to tweet, check in, or post to Facebook every moment of his life. In fact, if I’d seen Thurston online, I dare say I’d have categorized him as one of those people using online spaces just for promotion and not for real connection. And perhaps that’s why he burned out and needed the break. Twice in my life I’ve gotten to that point. The first is documented here. Here’s what I said then:

I just need to think about why I began blogging in the first place and what I really want to be writing here and how it fits into my life. I think in many ways, blogging has been a substitute for the lack of support and recognition I feel in other aspects of my life. That’s not to say that I think blogging is to blame for the imbalance I feel right now. It’s not. It’s just that what I do here has become something different from what I want it to be. . . . The connections I made here are real. I enjoyed reading about other people’s lives and sharing in births and deaths, tenure and job searches, struggles with children and parents. It felt like a community here, a virtual neighborhood where we did more than just wave at each other across the street.

That was one of the worst times in my life, and for whatever good I got out of having an online community, it could not support me enough to help me through my difficulties. There was a clear qualitative difference between the people I was connecting to there and the people around me physically. For a time, I gave the online community more of me and that broke the relationships I had with those around me. The damage from that, in fact, still lingers. I don’t blame the Internet for it. It was just what I happened to turn to.

So what am I trying to say? I will say that I value my connections online. I value that I can write here and people read it and comment and send me email. I value that other people write things that make me think, cry, laugh, etc. I value my connections on Twitter and that we can share resources, have brief chats and help each other there. But when I’m at dinner or in a meeting or sitting with friends talking, I don’t check my twitter feed or my email or my blog. When I go for a walk around town, my phone stays in my pocket except for the occasional photo. Being online is a huge part of my life and part of my work. But it can’t be everything. Here’s how Thurston put it:

I am still a creature of my technological time. I love my devices and services, and I love being connected to the global hive mind. I am neither a Luddite nor a hermit, but I am more aware of the price we pay: lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness, and mental exhaustion, to name but a few. In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them. We have collectively colluded to take this journey, but we’ve done so inches at a time, not realizing that we have traveled leagues in the process.

We’re still figuring this stuff, individually and as a society. There’s a lot more thinking to do, a lot more connecting dots, wondering, critiquing. These are interesting times.

3 thoughts on “Digital Connections: Reality, Addiction, or Something Else?”

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to put into words some of the internal dialogue that you (and I) have been having about online time. Because my kids are not at the age of being online socially, offline time is even more crucial and precious. I have to tell myself that different seasons always require different approaches.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sean. I keep revisiting this issue, for myself, for my kids, and for my students. I think you’re right that different approaches are needed, and I find that depends not just on the season, but the individual person. Some people need help with balance; some need to take advantage of online connections more.

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