We’re slaves to Twitter, ensnared in Facebook’s mighty jaws. We Instagram each meal we eat. The moment we get distracted from a task at hand, every second we spend waiting for our train to show up—we grasp at every opportunity to whip out our cell phones. We wake up to blink blearily at WhatsApp messages our friends sent us at 3 AM. Maybe they’re out drinking; maybe they’re in a different time zone. Hell, maybe they just felt like texting us in the dead of night. “It’s always beer o’clock somewhere,” has turned into “It’s always social media o’clock somewhere.”
Sources in support of this claim are everywhere. Can’t take a step without stumbling straight onto a heartfelt complaint about the superficiality of communication in this age of constant connectivity. See also: YouTube.
And sure enough, on my daily commute to university I see many more people with cell phones in their hands than without. Sure enough, I’m one of those people. Sure enough, when we go out for a family dinner I sometimes make a point of either bullying everyone into leaving their iPhones at home or collecting them once the menus arrive, stashing them safely in my purse so my brother won’t be able to pull up a Google page to prove his point in the middle of a conversation.
Clearly, we’re all turning into shallow, self-centered, desperate-for-attention individuals—and clearly, the smartphone is at fault. WhatsApp is at fault. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter are at fault. Above all, we are at fault. We who have collectively become hopelessly dependent on the instant gratification of messages and likes, mentions and retweets. We who place so much value in constructing and maintaining our online selves that our connections with the real world steadily continue to dwindle.
Hold up. Don’t nod emphatically just yet.
I’m not denying that “the internet is a central and indispensable element in the lives of American teens and young adults” (x) and “around 80% of GenYers logs on daily” (x). But I do think there should be room for qualitative explanations alongside those quantitative statistics. Because I am one of those Millenials who checks various different social media accounts and a news app every time she’s got her phone out, which is pretty much every other second. I fit the stereotype perfectly. But you know what?
Part of me hates it—all of it.
I hate Facebook. I hate WhatsApp. Above all, I hate email.
I hate the expectation of immediate response many of these services generate. I hate getting emails I’ll need to sit down for and form a thoughtful response to (I’m a linguist, all right, my every comma requires a minute’s consideration), and I hate the fact that it’s socially unacceptable to take over 24 hours to reply. I hate the way everything is scattered across various platforms, that messages can reach you via text or WhatsApp or Facebook or, God forbid, email—so that when you boot up your laptop to deal with the countless demands for attention you read and received on your phone throughout the day, you’ll inevitably forget about some.
Okay. So I’m a special snowflake. Good for me. Now, why not just get rid of all my accounts and leave the social media to people who actually appreciate them?
Because it’s not that easy.
Until recently, it was physically impossible to delete one’s Facebook account. But that’s not even what I’m talking about. Theoretically speaking, I could deactivate my email account. I could quit Twitter and remove WhatsApp from my phone. I could limit my news consumption to reading the morning paper, nice and old-fashioned.
Realistically, however, this is completely unfeasible.
These days, all non-real-life interaction goes via WhatsApp. The only person with whom I text is my brother, and that’s only because we’ve both got iMessage and I love its sleek blue style. Everyone else? WhatsApp. Here in the Netherlands, WhatsApp has replaced texting entirely. I remember some of my friends threatening to boycott my text messages if I didn’t install WhatsApp instead. And the thing is, I like my friends. I revel in the daily food pictures one friend sends me. I love being able to text my friend in England without it costing us both handfuls of money.
Then there’s Facebook, which is pretty much a fossilized version of one’s entire social network ever. Whereas back in the day we might have met someone in the sandbox and grown apart after elementary school, never to see each other again, now there’s Facebook. Not that this is a bad thing. Facebook is a noncommittal way of keeping the lines of communication open. It’s also a way to keep up with family in far-flung places and friends who are out there living exciting lives, doing exciting things. I rarely post anything on Facebook, and my privacy settings are set at Fort Knox levels, but I wouldn’t want to miss my friend’s updates about her cat for the world.
Unfortunately for me, email is most indispensable of all. Whereas I could quit the services mentioned above, which would drastically reduce the scope of my social circle but (I hope) not annihilate it altogether, getting rid of my email account would be equivalent to committing professional and academic suicide. I would have no way of communicating with current clients, let alone potential future clients, and I would miss all deadlines for registering for courses and exams.
I truly am ensnared in the mighty jaws of various social media. And to some extent this may be because I don’t actually dislike them as much as I sometimes feel like I do. But it’s also because our contemporary academic, professional, and (above all) social culture demands it of us. We’re all keeping each other in this vicious—or virtuous, depending on whom you ask and when you ask them—circle.
I’m not necessarily representative of people my age. But when I commented on the draining, taxing nature of social media yesterday (and yes, I used social media to do so), a fellow Millenial—one who works in IT, no less—immediately got back to me with the following message: I went an entire week without the internet, it was fantastic! Recommend it to everyone!
The stats don’t lie, but they don’t show the whole picture either.