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Are social media exporting big city restlessness to the rest of the world?

September 10, 2012

Are social media exporting big city restlessness to the rest of the world? That thought hit me as I watched Jena Wortham in a recent New York Times video discussing her struggle with her digitally-mediated existence. She can’t find satisfaction living in her own moments, so she is constantly turning to social media to experience the moments of others. I admire her honesty and respect her struggle, but I was shaking my head while watching the video. Is this really our future? More and more people who don’t know how to be alone, don’t know how to think solitary thoughts?

Wortham interviews Anil Dash, a man who really wowed the social media world with his concept of JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out. In a well-written blog post, Dash presents JOMO as an alternative to FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out. FOMO is a term coined in 2011 by another young lady struggling to make sense of the social anxiety exacerbated by digital technology. Dash says that the birth of his son caused him to discover the joy of disconnecting from social media and living life in the present. Rather than worrying about what he is missing, he is learning to embrace it.

Sitting here in the sparsely populated state of Arkansas, looking out my glass double doors at the squirrels chasing each other across swaying branches that stretch from my back yard to the Arkansas river ten miles away, I get a chuckle out of these over-stimulated folks in New York City trying to figure out how to be comfortable in their own skin. It’s like Woody Allen has spawned millions of offspring, collectively walking around the city wringing their hands and talking obsessively to anyone who will listen, the only difference being that the talking now takes place through a digital device.

It’s the kind of thing that has amused small town folks like me for a long time. Those big city people don’t know how to slow down and savor life, or how to – as my mother always says – “stop and smell the flowers along the way.” And that would be the end of the story, except that this digitally-mediated social anxiety is being exported to every soul in the modern world, including small town and rural folks like me. This isn’t the first such invasion, of course. It started with radio which was quickly followed by television. But social media is different, much more pervasive. We carry the media technology in our pockets and purses now, making it much more difficult to walk away from it. It is with us while we share a meal and conversation with family, sit around a campfire with friends, or take a walk with the person we love.

My 24 year old niece, whose favorite teenage pastime in Tennessee was going bass fishing with her grandpa, now works in public relations in NYC. She sees both sides of the social media phenomena. On the one hand, she says there are countless folks in NYC scrambling to create the next big app that will capitalize on the insecurities of teenagers and young adults. On the other hand, her younger sisters back home are constantly sending Tweets and Instagrams that chronicle high school life and keep their teenage angst on hyper-drive. These addictive apps aren’t just for networking; the most popular ones are feeding on the compulsive adolescent drive for acceptance and affirmation (a need not limited to teens).

In a letter to George Orwell, Aldous Huxley said he believed the “ruling oligarchy” would ultimately steer away from the brute force Orwell imagined in 1984. Instead, Huxley believed “the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude.” It appears Huxley had it right, and we are on the verge of the nightmare he portrayed in Brave New World, as more and more people are “suggested” into giving their time and money to digital products and services that they admit having a love/hate relationship with.

Of course I don’t believe there is a world controller like Huxley’s Mustapha Mond secretly orchestrating the domination of the world via Twitter and Instagram, but I am nonetheless stubbornly combative toward those who shamelessly seek to influence our daily existence through digital technology. In the Wortham interview, Dash – who works in social media –acknowledges that he and his colleagues are in the business of “manufacturing urgency.” Dash says “what we’re asking is ‘how do we interrupt?’” That gets me a little riled up. This brazen strategy to infiltrate our lives and manipulate the way we live minute-by-minute kindles all kinds of resistance in my belly. And why shouldn’t it? A massive lucrative industry centered in New York City and Silicon Valley has commissioned hundreds of thousands of “social media specialists” to work their fingers to the bone for a single purpose: to spread their social anxiety to the rest of us – and charge us for it! As folks around here like to say, “that ain’t right.”

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2 Comments
  1. Marti permalink

    Right on, right on, right on! I really enjoy your writing style and what you have to say! Thank you!

  2. printing for personal use (or dissemination, dist. w/o rights), i will read sunday 9-16-12, but title appears to be very prescient! go g.g.

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