I could not have imagined that it would go down like this. No, not at all.
I first realized I had a problem when I tripped over the dog jumping off the couch to get to my hands-free to plug into the ringing land line so I could talk to my dad and still carry on the text exchange and work email banter on the Blackberry as well as the two gChats, a Yahoo IM, and several Facebook threads (and some Twitter)on my laptop…all at about 11:30 on a school night. Right then, I bottomed out. I wound down the conversation with dad, turned off the ‘berry, shut the laptop and turned to a more natural, understandable habit by pouring myself a drink.
It was a quick descent. A little over a year ago, my only real issue was a slightly annoying but manageable Blackberry thing, purely for work purposes. I leaned on it too much at times, sure, but I could always stop if I needed to, and I had yet to start dangerously mixing ‘berrying and driving.
But then it all escalated innocently enough. See, I am an eCommerce guy at a big fat financial corporation, and we were starting to max out opportunities to build our topline through your typical display and search marketing. My boss began to ask how social and other emerging media channels might help us out, and embarrassingly, I really had no clue. I had neither a MySpace or a Facebook account, I never texted via cell, and, I must confess…had no idea what Twitter did or why. I needed to do some…research.
I started with MySpace, but…not so much. It felt like David Lynch mashed up with some bad Japanese anime. I opened a Twitter account, but, well, had nothing to say to a group of total strangers in 140 characters or less. I found what the strangers were saying to be less than intriguing. Yeah, I already knew they had new blog posts and I didn’t really care for a play-by-play of the movie they were watching. I tried Facebook and it seemed easy enough to set up, I found a couple close friends and a few random local folks added me on pretty quick. What the hell? This seems like a bar I can hang out in…purely for work and research purposes, of course. This was a young kids’ scene. I was just here to observe and figure out how to sell them stuff. (Don’t mind the old guy over in the corner…he’s a little creepy, but he seems harmless enough.)
At first I was intrigued by how some of the big time web personalities like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, and Hugh Macleod managed multiple social media properties, moving between them seamlessly, shamelessly pimping their services and sites while candidly mixing in chats with close friends. One of the great appeals of the academic life I pursued in the 90’s was the idea that work and personal life could coexist, running in a healthy manner into one another. Running bars, my work and social lives literally became one. Imagine never knowing if two or three of your best friends might be waiting in your cube when you got to work…and that it would be ok if they were. I dug a little deeper, followed several folks’ profiles pretty closely, Facebook deviously turning into merely a gateway drug for the crack pipe that is Twitter. What followed were a couple dark months that I will not go into here. I haven’t posted a tweet in some time now. Day by day…day by day.
But along the way, the network of friends I got connected with on Facebook grew in delightfully unexpected ways, spurred by folks organizing and following up on 20 year high school reunions and all manner of other college get togethers. Names and faces swirled and witty banter ensued. Networks of friends and family from Ohio to Texas to California (norcal and socal) to Rhode Island to Connecticut started to blend together. Some folks I barely knew in person became fast friends in this new medium. Some great people I had lost touch with started up again like we hadn’t missed a beat. This wasn’t research any more, this was my wide-ranging and crazy life all on a web page. (oh, and by the way, there is no way for an insurance company to make money through Facebook. We are just going to spend more on search.)
Now, I am addicted to Facebook because I am addicted to the friends and family I am connected to through it, folks that various grown up duties in my life had pulled me away from. I am addicted to the way old friends remember stories a little differently from me after all these years. I am addicted to the vignettes and scenes that I have forgotten but others can’t. I smile when two great friends from very different parts of my world start conversing like they grew up together. I love how late night Facebook revelations are the more modern equivalent of drunken dialing. I am humbled by how much folks have encouraged and helped me through this last year. As I rebuild a new life in a world where the original owner’s manual no longer applies, I’m now crowdsourcing my strategy to wonderful results.
Given all that has been going on in my life, if Facebook and Twitter and various chats and texts and IM channels…if they all, in the end, merely added up to a harmless distraction from the realities of being a grown up, they would all very well be worth it. I mean, the presidential debates turned into an international drinking game. As I cooked the Thanksgiving Day turkey I noted that the Macy’s parade got rickrolled and what followed was…epic. And the banter. I know some clever, twisted people.
But it has been so much more than a mere distraction. With each reconnection, each new connection, answering the simple question, “how are you?” in a hundred different contexts forces reflection, demands an internal logic among the replies. How I am now – who I am now – becomes exposed in this massively multivariate explanation, triangulated transparently among all manner of friends, family, and total strangers from all periods and places and goofy ass experiences that have made up my life. I can bullshit with the best of them, but I can’t bullshit this many of the best of them.
It’s still the internet, so of course there is some bullshit. That’s part of the game. But with this many people involved, I get called out. Frequently. So, if I say I am good, I am challenged by folks to actually get there. This is so much cheaper than therapy.
But then there is this notion of…cheapening. Does the ubiquity and the lack of filters on what can be said through Facebook or MySpace, IM, chat, text or Twitter…do the 140 character limits or the quick non-grammatical status updates cheapen dialogue, dumb down conversation, create mere illusions of relationships? Are we merely adults playing teenagers, distracting ourselves from the real life we should be attending to if we look up from our laptops?
Well, yes. To some degree. But, on another level, we are all busy as hell. And short of someone being right there to take the poopy diaper to the trash, to stir the pasta, to go pick up the kids, to bang out this PowerPoint that is late…few of us are really there to do much to help out with each others’ lives behind our ever-thinning laptop screens. Fair enough.
That said, the narrow focus of our daily lives is the breaking wave of a much deeper set of experiences and friends and loves and hurts upon that make each of us who we are. Meaning only comes in context. Reminders of that context are, undeniably, good.
Kids play online with words and words and words because they are trying to build a context for their lives. Us old folks can play online with a few choice words that evoke and remind us of rich memories and friendships and experiences.
Now that we are trying to play adult, those reminders, really, take some pretty simple and familiar forms. An old friend affirming that they remember you, assuring you that they are doing well, letting you know they are thinking about you, reminding you of how awesome you really are.
And with a lifetime of context behind it, us adults can usually do that in 140 characters or less.
I remember you. I am good. I am thinking about you. Now go kick ass.
(done. with characters to spare.)