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Back in college I did a case study about something I thought was wild at the time…
It was called Second Life. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It was an online virtual-reality world that connected hundreds of thousands of users from around the globe. You built an entire life — complete with houses, jobs, pets, and spouses — inside this platform. It’s kind of like The Sims, but it’s not a game. There are no fixed challenges or objectives. It’s literally just an online world where people (or their avatars, at least) live and interact with each other.
I was fascinated by the intersection between real-life and virtual reality. I read stories about people on Second Life who played 8 or 9 hours a day — to the point that their “second life” felt more like real life than their actual life.
I read about people whose virtual reality persona married another person’s virtual reality persona … and the legal ramifications that ensued when the real life spouses found out.
I also read about people spending real-life currency on completely virtual products, which was the major question underlying my project: Is there a real-life market for unreal products?
Turns out the answer was yes. Big companies like Coca-Cola were actually considering selling products on Second Life because people would buy themselves (their virtual selves, that is) virtual Cokes! It blew my mind.
Over a decade later, my mind is not so easily blown.
To put it in perspective, this happened around the same time that a professor mentioned Twitter during a public relations class, and a classmate and I turned to each other and asked, “Do you know what that is?”
Facebook was a thing obviously, but hardly anyone had it on their phones yet. Instagram had yet to arise. And forget about Snapchat or TikTok.
It was a simpler time when people’s actual lives and their technological lives were still somewhat separate.
Now I wonder … is there even a difference anymore between “life” and “what happens on the Internet?” Should there be? And where would you even begin to draw the line?
THAT TIME I CALLED OUT A GROUP OF PEOPLE
Kristen and I were on a panel recently, and we noticed something really interesting happening before the talk even began.
Everyone had filed into the room 10-15 minutes before the panel was scheduled to start, so there was a little time to sit and do nothing.
This is what we saw from the front of the room:
Every single person had their head down, phone in hand, silently scrolling. No one was even speaking to each other.
To be clear, this was not a room full of complete strangers. This was a group of people who are all part of the same organization.
At one point during the presentation, the subject of technology came up and I took the opening. I couldn’t help it. I said something like …
“Did you all notice what was happening this morning? Every single person came in, sat down, got their phone out, and started scrolling. No one looked up. No one spoke to each other.
A generation ago, this couldn’t have happened. Unless you were really engrossed in a book or the newspaper, you wouldn’t have had anything to distract you. You would have had to look up and say hello to your neighbor.
And that act of saying hello? That’s how connections are forged. That’s how empathy is cultivated. That’s what makes us human. And it is REALLY important that we not lose that.”
A GOOD OLD FASHIONED RANT
Forgive me, but I’m not quite done ranting about this.
Guys, I am TIRED. Tired of …
- … the fact that everyone — myself included, because I fall victim to this, too — can’t just be bored, We’ve seemingly lost the capacity to just sit and stare into space or be mildly uncomfortable while waiting for someone to join us for lunch. You give us a spare second of unoccupied time, and we’ll pull out our phones.
- … glancing left and right at traffic lights and seeing everyone looking down at their phones.
- … parents who are out to dinner with their kids, and no one’s looking each other in the eye or speaking. The parent is on his phone, and the 4-year-old is playing a game on his iPad.
- … how obvious it is that some people spend 30 minutes taking a bajillion selfies before they find just the right one to post on Instagram (and then filter the crap out of it, anyway).
- … the fact that going to the bathroom without a device in hand makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
- … people posting stuff because of the “likes” they think it will get, not because it’s authentic or true or useful or funny or creative.
- … people comparing themselves to the carefully curated feeds of others … and finding themselves lacking.
- … the fact that people have forgotten to savor their lattes and their food, because they’re too busy trying to get an artful picture before they ever take a sip or a bite.
- … sponsored posts, ads, and shameless self-promotion. I don’t think all self-promotion is bad. I just get skeezed out by celebrities and other people with big followings using intimate pictures of their life to sell people on things like questionable detox beverages.
Do I sound like a bitter old woman who can’t “get with the times” and has lost all of her youthful optimism?
Well, if so, it’s only because I’ve been 80 years old on the inside my whole life, and I have a hard time seeing the bigger point of things that feel so lacking in meaning.
THAT SAID …
For all of these reasons and more, I frequently want to throw my phone across the room and quit social media — and the Internet at large — forever.
(I do realize how hilariously ironic this is, considering I run a completely virtual business and would have no job without the Internet.)
But try as I might, I can’t be an all or nothing kind of person. Because there are really great things about being constantly connected to the world.
I can follow in-depth photojournalism on Instagram and find out about cultures that I would have known nothing about.
I can listen to podcasts that give me deeper insights into every topic imaginable.
I can see pictures and videos of friends and family that I don’t get to visit very often.
And some of those beautifully curated Instagram feeds? They’re not skeezy or inauthentic. They actually bring the user a sense of artistic fulfillment and joy.
There are a lot of good things about our lives — online and otherwise — these days. But even so … I think most of us have lost sight of where the line is between life and our devices (our second lives, if you will). And that’s not good for humanity.
I DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS
I’ll tell you what I’m doing, so that you can decide for yourself where to draw your own line.
- I have ZERO personal social media presence. Just business. And it feels AMAZING.
- When it comes to business, we post things only if we really have something to say or share. Most of the time, I don’t care enough to post. And that’s fine. There are other ways to build a following.
- I try my best to keep my phone in my bag when I’m waiting for something — a meal, the dentist, my car, etc. — and I take the time to look around at other humans. Often I bring actual paper books so that if I want to read, I can.
- I try not to look at my phone while someone is talking to me. If I’m there, I want to be there, you know?
- When I feel bored or uncomfortable or vulnerable, I try not to reach for my phone right away. Sitting with the discomfort is part of what it means to be a human, not a robot.
- I leave my phone in other rooms so that I don’t have the temptation to start mindlessly scrolling.
- I usually don’t reply to emails on my phone. I wait to read and reply until I can actually sit down at my computer and crank it out.
I haven’t felt so strongly about something in a long time. I deeply care about this stuff, and I’ll leave you with one last request:
Care more about your humanity — and the humanity of others — than you care about your notifications and your newsfeed.
Be willing to be bored. Accept the discomfort of just sitting there sometimes. Acknowledge that there’s no room for creativity or good ideas if our minds are already occupied 24/7.
If you want a safer, happier, healthier world, then realize that being able to look someone in the eye or converse with a stranger is the very least we can do to head in the right direction.
If we’re constantly connected to the Internet, we can’t connect to what’s actually happening in our real lives. Let’s make sure we understand which is our actual life … and which is the second life.
Can you relate? Or do you think I’m overreacting? Share your thoughts, in the comments!
Rachel (& Kristen)