Why is this interesting? - The Waldenponding Edition

On social media, calls to abandon technology, and FOMO

Noah here. As I’ve written before, my most fertile spaces for WITI topics are always those things that I share most often. To that end, one of the links that has topped my list for the last few months is this post/email/expanded-Tweetstorm about “Waldenponding” by Venkatesh Rao. As the Thoreau-inspired name suggests, “Waldenponding” is the act of dealing with our technology- and data-rich world by leaving it behind. Or, as Rao puts it, “The crude caricature is ‘smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms.’”

Now there’s no problem with finding distance from technology or trying to find time to break its spell on us, but there’s a pretty good argument that many of the folks arguing most stringently in favor of the extreme version of this approach—people like Jaron Lanier and his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now—are mostly arguing against one religion by offering another. In the book, Lanier writes that these tools are set up to trigger things inside us that make us feel as though we are missing out if we don’t hit refresh one more time. He calls Facebook et al. “BUMMER” tech: “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent.” 

It’s not quite that simple, though. As Rao explains, “… retreating from information flows is just a different way of having your attention hacked by others. … If FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, is the basic fear exploited by third parties that want to drown you in information, the basic fear exploited by people telling you to unplug and retreat is FOBO: Fear Of Being Ordinary.” 

That distinction has framed a lot of my reading and thinking about the social media and the possibility of a broader tech backlash recently. By and large, the recommendations that come along with these thought pieces is a return to the slow(er) media of newspapers, magazines, and books (which also happen to be where the writing appears). “That is in fact the original attention hack,” says Rao. “Powerful religious leaders telling smart people to check out and unplug from information flows. That way, they get the power.” While I’m not sure I’m ready to go quite this far, I do think we should view this advice far more suspiciously than we do. 

Why is this interesting?

On Tuesday the New York Times Privacy Project (which is excellent) published a piece by Bianca Vivion Brooks that is a far more self-aware take on the reasons behind leaving by social media.

Though I thought disappearing from social media would be as simple as logging off, my refusal to post anything caused a bit of a stir among my small but loyal following. I began to receive emails from strangers asking me where I had gone and when I would return. One message read: “Not to be over familiar, but you have to come back eventually. You’re a writer after all. How will we read your writing?” Another follower inquired, “Where will you go?”

The truth is I have not gone anywhere. I am, in fact, more present than ever.

Over time, I have begun to sense these messages reveal more than a lack of respect for privacy. I realize that to many millennials, a life without a social media presence is not simply a private life; it is no life at all: We possess a widespread, genuine fear of obscurity.

She goes on to make some other worthwhile points, most pointedly about how we use these platforms to relate to others. But beyond that, there’s a real power in these platforms. That, more than their ability to take advantage of us, is how they found themselves with billions of combined users. That’s not to say that there aren’t a host of other issues they raise, or even an argument that the secondary or tertiary societal effects are worth the tradeoff, but at a personal level many of us (myself included) find a tremendous amount of value by being plugged in. Not surprisingly, that’s also Rao’s anti-Waldenponding thesis:

Premise: FOMO is good. Being plugged in is good. There is valuable info at all levels from twitter gossip to philosophy books. You should stay plugged in. You can manage anxiety and beat the House without resorting to shaming social platforms into managing attention for you. That's a terrible yielding of agency.

What theoretically exists on the other side is books and longform journalism and long conversations over coffee with friends, except I find all my books and links in these flows and the friends are kept up with through the platforms. As a result, I read better stuff, see people more, and have better conversations when we meet. Rather than stepping away from the streams, I think there’s an opportunity to better control them: Optimizing for both personal happiness and intellectual fodder. On Twitter, for instance, I’ve got 30+ words muted that range from TV—#gameofthrones—to boring conversations—millennials—to the obvious political keywords that make us all shudder. That takes upfront work, and ongoing maintenance, but it also points to a specific area these applications can focus on building helpful functionality. Interestingly, this approach also dovetails nicely into the broader call for increased algorithmic accountability and transparency, so maybe they can even kill two birds with one stone.

CSS of the Day:

This pure CSS animated “Moustached Nanny” by Julia Miocene is delightful. It’s based on an animation by Bersenev. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)


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