My friend Celeste says our generation’s contribution to evolution will be smaller thumbs. Why? With all the cell phone communication of today, our thumbs will progressively shrink in order to aide us in texting, scrolling, and emailing from the comfort of our mini hand-held telephones. If you live in a bustling metropolis, you’ll know what I’m talking about. While you will still find many riders abord city transport reading the newspaper or, heaven forbid, a book, most people are attached to their cell phones like a druggie on crack. As the world grows increasingly more individualistic and our opportunities for virtual relationships go up, our outlets for real human interaction are reduced to the size of a peanut. Blame it on the Blackberry or the iPhone or Twitter, if you like, but when was the last time you looked your fellow metro rider in the eye and said hello? Here in Paris, such audacious friendliness would get you at the very least an annoyed stare and more realistically, mutterings of “Leave me alone, crazy lady.”
I have recently decided to take a self-imposed social media vacation. Call it amazing willpower if you like, but I think it has more to do with intense exasperation. How could I not be fed up with myself? My morning ritual had become: Wake up to alarm. Check emails on Blackberry. Check Facebook wall. Check weather on Blackberry internet browser. Get ready for work. Listen to music on Mp3 player. Get on metro. Check Facebook wall again. Look at new text messages and respond. Witness funny, interesting or weird event in metro and describe, using witty repartee, for publication on Facebook wall. Arrive at work. Check to see if any “friends” have “liked” comment about funny, interesting, weird event in metro. Put phone in pocket and repeat above steps.
Needless to say, I’ve had enough. Last night, I stayed on Facebook searching friends’ photos and obsessively checking who was on the chat in a last attempt to be connected before I shut off for good. (In reality, all I have to do to get my Facebook account back is sign in, but it’s the thought that counts.) At midnight, I checked myself out. Yet, I still felt I hadn’t done enough. To the Blackberry I went, removing the Facebook application as well as the internet browser. No more impulsive searching for needless information I simply must know rightthisminute. And finally, I set my phone’s email alert to quiet and hid the application in a place I hoped I wouldn’t remember to find.
Three days later, anxiety set in. Of all my media cut-offs, Facebook withdrawal was the worst. I started to fret about what everyone else was doing and had the sneaking suspicion I was missing out. Worse, were there events I wasn’t going to be invited to because I was no longer people’s “friends”? Would I be subject to the dreaded “Out of sight, out of mind” adage? The next day, I got caught in the rain without my umbrella, not having checked the weather from my Blackberry in the morning as usual. And in the metro without my Facebook to check on my Blackberry, I twiddled my thumbs staring at all the bored Parisian faces… who were all on their cell phones.
But then a funny thing happened. The anxiety of worrying about what I was missing in other people’s lives was replaced by the filling up of my own reality. Instead of wasting all this time in my virtual life, I started truly living my real one. That bored Parisian face on the metro wasn’t in fact bored. She was crying, perhaps over a lost lover or sick parent – who knows – but she smiled gratefully when I offered her a Kleenex… something I may not have thought to do if I were attached to my phone. And for the first time in months, I read the whole newspaper on my ride to work, without interruption from one of my many handheld media outlets.
Not only was the mental fog slowly lifting, but so were the needless thoughts about people I really should be forgetting. The frenemy who offended me last week is easier to ignore when I don’t have to see her face on my Facebook wall every morning. And that email from my mother about what meal I want when I first arrive in the US next week? It can wait until I get home tonight.
What disturbs me in all of this is what I thought I was getting out of my virtual social circle. With constructing the perfect witty comment for all my Facebook friends to see, I was also inevitably hoping for a response, a “like” or a virtual pat on the back. It didn’t so much matter that my 407 friends knew about the Spanish tourist who spent five minutes on the Parisian metro floor in his attempt to dislodge an Orangina bottle from the vending machine, as it did that people thought my comment was damn funny. But it’s more than needing mass approval or validation. It’s the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to be a member of a community in the world at large, to not feel so alone in this expanding universe as people get more spread out by globalisation, and increasingly disconnected from one another. Why else would people feel the inescapable urge to post things like, “I ate strawberries for dinner tonight!” or “Go Bears!”
But being connected isn’t always so rosy. The need to “Keep up with the Jones’s” is palpable, what with the bombardment of friends’ beautiful baby photos, wedding announcements or news of new houses, jobs or clothes. You’ll be hard-pressed to find friends who will publicly announce their parents’ divorce, alcohol addiction or daily unhappiness. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and the like, grass on the other side always seems better manicured, mowed and watered. On this side, there’s always something that needs improving, which I suppose is fine if that means being more motivated to make positive life changes, but if every friend’s beautiful baby photo makes you less and less happy about being without child, your mood is doomed to go sour.
Now a week into my social media break, I feel better. Calmer, more in control. Present. When I’m at the grocery store checkout, I’m not simultaneously festering over the photos my ex-boyfriend has posted of him and his new girlfriend on Facebook. I’m just looking the cashier in the eye and taking my change. Life feels simpler, less chaotic… strange. It will take me a few weeks to get used to this. Already the urges to get reconnected are trickling in. I almost cracked yesterday but I resisted, with the help of my friend here in Paris. That’s the difference between a Facebook friend and a real one. When the shit hits the fan, your virtual community can only help you so much.
Maybe someday I’ll go back. Maybe that someday will be next week, or even tomorrow. But living in the present seems pretty good to me right now, so I’m holding my ground. After all, despite what this bustling world might emit to the contrary, all we really have is right now, this moment, in the place where you are reading this very article. And if you’re playing Sudoku on your cell phone instead, you just might miss it.