Essays on Technology and Culture

Always On

Though I've been away from social media, more or less, it's hard to stop thinking in a social sharing mindset. I still think in remarks of 140 characters or less. When I see something interesting, the thought is to snap a picture and post to Instagram. Instead, I snap a picture and add it to my journal in Day One at the end of the day. I can't be the only one.

There's enough worry about passive social media consumers, wallowing in what Michael Lopp described as “other people's moments.” He's not wrong, either. However, without people sharing their own moments, those passive consumers of moments would find something else. What is it that motivates us to share so many of our moments for strangers?

Part of it is our nature as social animals. That can't be denied. Something about access to an audience, however, makes so many of us willing to take photos of our dinners, take six second videos at concerts, or just post whatever comes to our mind at any moment. To quote my friend Jonathan Pfeffer, “The Internet is a void.” If so, something must fill it.

What does being always on for our audience, however large or small, do to us? How does it change our relationship to the world, and to each other? If all of our moments are grist for the mill of social media, if we live our lives constantly sharing our experiences—or at least the subset of those we think will be best received—it can distort the very idea of what our lives mean. There's no room for a rich, internal life in a world where even minor matters are shared.

That's not to say that the internal life is gone forever. We're all still adapting to the potential to be always on. The possibility exists that we will push back, as a culture, against the stress of being always on. We'll find the balance. However, it's to the benefit of Facebook, Twitter, et al, that we feed the beast with our thoughts, photos, and links. It's to their benefit that we Like, Favorite, Share, and Retweet, so they know more about us and what we like. They won't give up without a fight.