Refresh and Engagement Addiction

An alcoholic looks for his next drink. A heroin junkie looks for her next fix. And a social media user constantly hits “refresh” to see what the next “update” will be.

We’ve created a culture in which people are afraid not to be engaged with something. I’ve seen this on the subway, in waiting rooms, pretty much any place where there is idle time. Someone whips out their phone, checks their email, looks at twitter, facebook, instagram, and so on, and when (in the majority of cases) all of these avenues turn up dry, they might repeat a few rounds of the cycle before settling on a game. In the instance where there is something that brings value– a news article linked on facebook, for example– the person taps on the link, loads up the article, and reads a little bit. Then comes the moment of evaluation: scrolling through the article to see how long it is, and debate whether to devote to time to reading it or race back to facebook in case an even more important article was posted.

I’ve seen this exact scenario play out many times while shoulder-surfing. I do not have a “smart” phone, so the habits of people who do interest me. It might take different forms: maybe someone sees a blog of text in a tweet that sounds agreeable to them, so they tap “retweet.” The only issue is that they never bothered to check the link, the “source” for the assertion, so that either they realize their error and delete the tweet (or post a correction), or someone else corrects them, which leads to embarrassment.

What is it that compels people to be constantly hitting refresh, on their twitter or inbox or anything else? I actually suspect that the need to be engaged is separate from the refresh addiction. In the need for engagement, it’s worth exploring what happens if you are NOT engaged. Before the nanny-state laws started banning smoking cigarettes, people would light up and smoke. Beside the temporary stress relief, it creates an engagement, and answer to the question “what are you doing?” Because we must have a purpose in whatever we do. If you’re waiting for the bus, you are stuck in a limbo state of idleness while waiting for the bus to arrive, and the last thing you want to do is engage with your environment. Likewise, the phone is a good counter-measure for those awkward moments on the train when there is someone sitting in the seat directly across from you. Perhaps there’s also an allure of “I’m important” with these engagements; or more specifically, if you are not engaged with something, it’s because you’re not important enough to be. Reminds me a bit of the people who fill their entire day with meetings.

When you hit refresh, there’s a moment of anticipation, waiting to find out whether something interesting is coming your way. Are you important enough to receive some bit of news? Maybe there’s an argument and you want to see the sides and weigh the evidence– because you, of course, are able to qualify how valid the evidence is. On a similar note, there could be a bit of dread. Perhaps you posted an opinion about something, and are waiting to see whether people agree with you, or whether someone will disagree, creating a crushing blow to your twitter self-esteem. Thankfully, when we disagree, these services provide us with “block” buttons, whereas email provides us with delete.

Over and over and over again, never stopping. Waking up in the middle of the night, grabbing the phone, dragging down the email or twitter client with your thumb, watching the “updating” status to see what’s coming next. At least with newspapers, there was a finite end and we could get on with our day.

A new beginning

“We’ve come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you baby,
And now I’ll treat you like I should.”
–What Google should have said right after #nymwars.

Three significant things have developed in the three years since nymwars: the NSA revelations, the decline of Twitter’s quality, and Google’s complete retraction of the “real” names policy. The NSA revelations came as a shell shock, and made me think a lot about data privacy. I can’t quite pinpoint when the quality of Twitter feeds started to fade, but I imagine it was around the time that the outrage economy began to seriously capitalize on it. And, like the healthy skeptic, I didn’t really believe the Google names policy retraction to be real until I saw it enforced.

The NSA revelations made me realize that very little communication on the internet is sacred anymore. While I’m mostly happy with Google’s atonement for their names policy drama, I do also recognize two things: first, I should not post anything on Google that I don’t mind seeing on the front page of the New York Times; second, because Google is granting us access to control our information within, at any moment another policy change might happen to revoke that access. As such, I’ve decided to turn my WordPress account into a proxy of sorts: I can post here, and it will be reposted to Google Plus, as well as to Facebook (I set up an account just for this), as well as to Twitter. This strategy minimizes the work I need to do– write up an article/essay and click publish– and capitalizes distribution so that someone who uses Twitter but not Google can still learn about the post. It also creates redundancy in that the work is replicated in all places (well, Twitter is just a link to the WordPress), so that if one service decides to block access, it’s still available in others. And worst case scenario, the original source is hosted at WordPress, which I am paying for, thus dismissing the “it’s a free service!” argument.

After the nymwars, when I felt I could no longer trust Google not to randomly suspend my account, and leaving Facebook for privacy related concerns, I focused mostly on Twitter. The challenge there is obvious: we learn to work with the tools we have, and thinking in terms of 140 characters both destroys grammatical constructs and ruins nuance. Rather than having enlightened discussions, we have stories reduced to half-assed “headlines” with links, and I imagine the percentage of people who follow through and read the entire link is far less than those who bother to click the link in the first place. Twitter focuses on the immediate, which can be useful for some things, like letting people know you’re still alive after a hurricane. But it magnifies presumption and bias to a degree that any kind of discourse is almost immediately ruined by angry replies, many from people who may have just seen a retweet and have no notion of the entire context. Topping this off, its nature is highly reactionary, and a misunderstanding can quickly turn into an angry twitter-war, which can result in rambling blog posts, escalating to a story on Valleywag (or an equivalent e-tabloid), all of which drive ad impressions up and create a false awareness of concern that is present until focus is robbed by the next outburst. In short, I see Twitter as fuel for what I call id journalism.


A reflection on Twitter

And more accurately, how I’ve begun to use it.

I decided to basically take the month of August off of Twitter. It was partly an experiment– can I keep up with current news and important opinions without it– and partly a therapy. Twitter had become a sort of addiction, constantly checking to see if there were any important updates (spoiler: there weren’t), and I wanted to know whether the dopamine rushes were worth the hysteria.

During the first day, I found myself typing “twitter” into the web browser (I don’t use 3rd party apps) and hitting escape so many times that I installed a firefox plugin called Redirector, catching any instance involving “” and pointing it to a locally hosted page that says, succinctly, “no twitter!” It was sad how many times I saw that in the first couple days.

About halfway through the month, I began to cozy up to direct messages, partly because I had some things to follow up on. I wound up opening twitter in a separate web browser, partly so that I’d have to break routine a bit to visit the site. Since I was doing that, I considered that using twitter as a broadcast was not such a bad thing and posted an update about my upcoming Harvard talk. After a few more days, I noticed some @replies and decided to go ahead and check that. In doing these things, I began to develop a protocol.

And that’s where I feel this experiment has lead me. While using twitter in its native form– constantly checking– I suspected it was emotionally damaging as well as time-wasting. However, if I use twitter to send direct messages, broadcast various thoughts, and use the @reply system to engage in discussion, it keeps the channel open while regaining quite a lot of control over it.

I’ll probably continue to abide by this protocol until I find a better way. For now, I’m pretty satisfied.