I've discovered something radical! Cuticle maintenance is the new Twitter! Well, in my world, anyway.
Let me backtrack. A week ago, someone posted on Twitter a link to Vancouver publisher Adbusters' "digital detox" initiative. It seems trendy these days, in a very contrarian way, to quit Facebook and then rave about living a fulfilled life. Like most displays of wholesomeness, this made me uncomfortable.
For one, our glutted culture seems hooked on useless binge/purge cycles: juice fasts, rehab, extremist diets - this was just another manifestation. Also, I cringed at the self-satisfied reports about what was regained: Actual conversations! Gardening! A new-found block of time in which to weave hemp garments and cook steel-cut oats for breakfast! Pffft - as if I wasn't doing all that already.
Nevertheless, I was curious about life without the Internet, especially in light of a recent study.
Are you a digital addict? Do you think you'd have trouble giving up texting, tweeting and scanning Facebook for a week? Join Lisan Jutras at noon for a chat about how much time we spend socializing online.
Two weeks ago, a professor at the University of Maryland challenged her students to go without media for a day: no Internet, but also no phone calls, no texting, no TV, no iPods, no radio, newspapers or magazines. Needless to say, students had a hard time with this. Who wouldn't?
What I found more interesting is that they described their experience in terms you would expect a junkie to use: "addicted," "suffering withdrawal," "craving," etc. Was this what I was in for? The DTs?
I'll admit - I was pretty hooked. It was so Pavlovian, it was embarrassing: The tiny neurological jolt I received from a fulfilling interaction on social media - whether I was arguing or bantering - was quickly associated with the action of clicking the refresh button. So I'd click it. A lot.
But was it really an addiction? The media seemed to take the university students at face value. But before getting on the blower to Chicken Little, let's break it down: This wasn't a psychologist's assessment. It was coming from a bunch of university kids, one of whom described the experience as "the single worst thing that's ever happened to me." (There's a hashtag for that: #firstworldproblems.)
To find some perspective, I talked to John Macdonald, an addiction therapist and youth specialist in the problem gambling service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
"The word 'addiction' is bandied about very freely," said Mr. Macdonald "and it's a very loaded word."
Facebooking, tweeting, texting: These are social activities. We think nothing of our need for human contact (in our workplace, at parties, in bars, with our neighbours) until it becomes digital, and then it's surrounded by a miasma of alarmism and mistrust. We're no longer "highly social," we are "addicted to social media."
Mr. Macdonald agreed that, particularly in this realm, defining actual addiction could be tricky. Instead, he suggested looking at things on a continuum, where on one end "no problems are stemming from that behaviour" and on the other end, "a wide variety of serious problems are associated with the behaviour."
Which brings me to my own experience. On the problem front, I had noticed that something was undeniably happening to my attention span. Having Twitter or Facebook open while I worked, it felt as if the room were constantly erupting with cocktail parties - and all their fascinating conversations, hilarity and dramas. It was riveting. I hated to miss a moment.
The effect of this on my psyche didn't become clear until I was midway through detox.
The first day of my digital-free week was the most difficult. I was constantly interrupted by an impulse to tweet or Facebook, which I sublimated into mad cuticle-trimming sessions, which I replaced eventually with a studious look at what sparked the urge to log on.
What was I avoiding? The list was predictable: laundry. Vacuuming. Filing bills. And then, once those tasks were out of the way - with time to spare! - I realized what the social-media experience had in common with addiction: addictive activities draw our attention away from larger, long-term visions to a myopic view where all that matters is what pops up in front of us.
I felt fulfilled after conversing online, but it was a short-term satiety. What about that book I wanted to write? The old thinking said: How can you find the time to write a book when you can't even find time to do laundry? (And also, simultaneously: I wonder if I should tweet that thought?) The new thinking said: Okay, your laundry is done. Now what?
I began to experience thoughts that were less like Morse code messages, broken and urgent, and more like continuous parallel lines that narrowed sometimes but seldom broke. I began to see subtle patterns in things and notice small coincidences. I'd become an annoying smug person! I had arrived.
But now it's over and tomorrow, I'm going to start fresh. I'm starting a Facebook group: I bet I can find one million people who would rather go without the Net for a week than clean out the fridge. First member: me.