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.

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