When did I become the kind of person online who annoys the hell out of me?
You know their behavior -- self-centered, overly promotional and, yes, devoutly narcissistic. There, I said it. It's like my computer monitor had become the mirror from Snow White and I wanted to be the fairest one of all. I'm not sure I can pinpoint exactly when it all started but I can tell you when I started to change it -- New Year's Day, 2010. Kind of a resolution. That's the day I quit social networking sites cold turkey for at least a year and maybe for good. No Facebook, no Twitter, no MySpace. No, really. I'm ready to leave the "me" decade behind. (My wife asked me to throw in video games for good measure but that seemed a bit excessive.) I had become a satellite streaming read-only data back to Earth. It was time for a reboot.
Since early 2007 I'd say I was a moderate-to-heavy Facebook user with 1,664 "friends," a minimal Twitter user with 866 "followers," and a rare MySpace user. But combined I spent anywhere from 8-10 hours a week perusing these sites, reading updates and sculpting my own internet Adonis image. That's about 500 hours a year or close to 20 days. 20 DAYS. And what had I truly gotten out of all that surfing around? I was at a loss. Sure, I'd reconnected with a few people I knew in high school (regretted it shortly thereafter with some), shared contact info and messages with colleagues and sources, and checked out the updates and photos provided by my family and friends. And I don't mean to say that there aren't plenty of positive things to be gleaned from social networking. It's opened up borders, rekindled romances, and allowed people to become virtual farmers and mafia hitmen. Heck, Twitter may have even helped spur political uprisings in Iran. And I realize this decision could be viewed as rather hypocritical since I've done plenty of stories about the benefits of social networking but I've discovered that it just may not be right for everyone. This break-up might be more like: "It's not you, Facebook, it's me."
The idea of quitting really got traction over the holidays when I took a break from Facebook and spent face-to-face time in Canada with those same family and friends. As we began to share our lives via the spoken word and not the keyboard I realized how little I really knew about them. The great irony is that they all have Facebook profiles and some even read my Twitter feed and vice versa. But the epiphany for me was that I'd become a terrific "broadcaster" and a terrible "communicator." Somehow in our 140-character Twitterverse the intimate details of their lives had escaped me. And isn't that the important stuff? Not constantly sharing our geographical location or which restaurant we ate at or in my case when I'm appearing on a certain news program. It seems to me there was an awful lot of "telling" going on and not a lot of "listening." Certainly this isn't revelatory for the people who never use social networks or have rebelled against them from the start.
But me and my ego got sucked in. Big time. And my relationships suffered. I allowed the passive acceptance of strangers to replace meaningful interaction with the people I know and love. I had become more interested in a wall post here or a poke there.
I'd also become a "friend voyeur." On Facebook I'd pour through people's photos and read about what they were doing and sometimes get jealous. I was torturing myself and trying to compete by constructing my superficial self. That's because social networks are like Pleasantville. Smiling faces, wonderful experiences, and happy happy happy all the time. OK, there are the occasional posts that admit "I'm feeling blue today" but by and large it's like a sprawling "digi-topia." And who wouldn't want to live there? But there was too much peering over the fences and the last thing I really need is less privacy. My social network sites had become this odd hybrid of personal and professional and I think I was partly getting an identity crisis. It wasn't time to refurnish the house it was time to find a new neighborhood. A real one.
I'm also quite sure I don't care about "celebrities" who Tweet about their favorite cappuccino or whether they burned the chicken in the oven or if they're enjoying the beaches of St. Barth's. Gimme a break. Why do we feel the need to share all this stuff? We're not learning anything here. Often it does little more than expose how many people can't spell very well and makes them sound childish and self-aggrandizing. On social network sites you don't expose that you had a fight with your wife or that you're having job anxieties or that you're stressed out from financial pressures. But these sites can lull you into feeling like you've fulfilled your actual relationships or self-reflection with a quick sentence or two. We are now just SO busy in life we can only blast out a brief snapshot so why not make it a rosy picture to placate the people around us. But that's not nearly enough to strengthen our familial or friendship bonds. Social networks make us think we know people or that they know something about us. And the bottom line is that I was not being the son or the brother or the friend or even the husband that I thought I was.
In the movie Up In the Air, George Clooney's character gives a motivational speech and asks people to fill a backpack with everything they own -- and then light it on fire. Which items would you save first? Well, I have a different spin. Take all your so-called friends from Twitter and MySpace and Facebook and put them in the backpack. OK, I know it's a bit morbid to light it on fire so think of it another way-- which ones would you actually want to go see a movie with? Or reveal your innermost thoughts to? Or trust with your children? And I worried how other people saw me, too. No doubt sick of my propaganda. I know not every social networking encounter is meant to become a meaningful relationship. But maybe another way to measure its value is to think about how much time you've spent interacting with those people inside a social network versus outside. Isn't there something wrong here? Does the emperor have no clothes? I don't think it's just me. Basically, I'm not sure I see the point anymore. I imagine this long line of people passing buckets of water to each other to put out a fire. But where is this fire? And what exactly is burning?
By the way, I'm under no illusion that my experiment will bring Facebook or Twitter or MySpace to its knees. There are tens of millions of registered users between those three sites alone. Of course there's some overlap, but that's a lot of noise and people and birthday reminders floating around. In fact, on Christmas Day Facebook was THE most popular site on the entire web. The entire web. Is that because we're all so scattered around the world that we use it to keep in touch? Or is it because we can't wait to share our own stories and "broadcast" them outwards? Isn't Christmas Day when we're supposed to be physically WITH the people we care about? I don't get it. We must be awfully lonely.
I did consider simply not using any social networking sites but then I realized the temptation was just too great. I needed to de-activate my profiles entirely. It wasn't hard to get rid of Twitter or MySpace but I actually did get nervous when I clicked the "de-activate" button on my Facebook account. I think I even got the sweats. After all for nearly three years I'd gathered these photos and collected these so-called friends and Facebook repeatedly asks you "if you're sure" before taking the plunge. I posted a goodbye message (not that anyone could read it once I de-activated my page) and I did it. I did it. It's only been a short while but I've survived -- so far. (Though Facebook makes it frighteningly easy to go back by simply re-logging in again.)
The reaction to my announcement to quit was swift and intense -- I've heard everything from your career will fall apart to "why the CBS sci-tech guy?" to "I give it a week." Some are supportive. Some are probably laughing. Some may think it's a mid-career crisis. But the weirdest part is that so many people reacted like I was, well, DYING. "We'll miss you!" "What will we do without you?" "Don't go!" It actually did make me feel a little sad until I thought about how I'm not actually going anywhere. The only thing that died that day was a bunch of ones and zeroes. I'm still on TV and still writing online and still on the radio. The only difference is that I won't be so obnoxious about it and my personal relationships will require some additional effort. As they deserve.
To be honest, I'm kind of excited. It's like when I was a kid, and my parents had a loud party going on downstairs, and when I could finally retreat to my room and close the door-- the silence was wonderful. But don't get me wrong -- I'm not going underground. On the contrary, I'm hoping that my lack of reliance on social networks will force me to do things like send more one-on-one e-mails. Have you noticed how nice it is to get one of those? It's like they've become the 21st century equivalent of getting a handwritten letter. Or pick up the phone more often and have an actual conversation. Did you know that the majority of cell phone customers don't use up their monthly minutes? And I'll still be as plugged in as ever thanks to my personal gadgets and the sites I read on a daily basis. Plus I'll be blogging about my experiences on the CBS News dot-com blog Tech Talk. (By the way, whatever happened to blogs?)
Initially, I thought of this experiment as "My Year of Living Anti-Socially." But I'm not becoming a hermit. I want to IMPROVE my social interactions across the board. Socrates famously encouraged us to "know thyself." But as we're all becoming attached to the idea of shouting our lives to the rest of the world perhaps the phrase should be amended to this generation of "show thyself." I'm vowing to be less of that annoying person online. It won't be easy -- as someone who makes his living appearing on TV the quick vanity boost provided by positive feedback on social networking sites is pretty alluring, if not kinda sickening. Maybe I'm making a huge mistake but so far I feel more grounded -- and connected -- in my real life than I have in a long time. Not that I haven't been tempted to go back ... I guess we'll see.
I'm Daniel Sieberg. I'm a recovering social network addict. And my life is not a status update.