The battle for who could care less

The rapture is coming.

And, at the risk of being alarmist, the truth is that it’s coming in a way many of us have never seen. This rapture manifests itself in the battle for the discovery of the self – one fought by historians, psychologists, sociologists, comedians, musicians and ordinary people.

The fundamental and most basic question of “who am I?” is now fought on two planes – the online and the “real life”, and the lines blur so constantly, so as to threaten life itself!

Well, not quite. But the truth is that what defines us as people online, is becoming a burden on those who dwell within the ranks of social media sites and networks.

I call this burden “avatar exhaustion”.   The “avatar” we hide behind online, and through the words we write, the objects we share, has started to become such a part of daily life that the once solid line between “real” and “online” is becoming ever more difficult to comprehend. And the battle to be “someone” online, often takes unforeseen victims.

Combine this with the fact that there are just so many places to be online; dozens and dozens of social networks, communities, forums, bulletin boards, blog networks, microblogging sites, streaming sites, sharing sites, most modern Internet users have to manage three totally different and often completely disparate instances of the “self” (“home”, “work” and “online”). And, to increasing numbers of people I’ve spoken with about this – it’s utterly exhausting.

This shuffling subjects the brain is subject to an increasing number of mental calculations, analysis of interpersonal relationships, caution in speaking and sharing, degrees of openness and worse of all, time management.

The debate between managing your online and offline lives becomes even more difficult considering the fact that everyone seems to be connected, most of which have real-time web access and SMS alerts.  The conversation time with offline loved ones is not as sacred anymore.

When I got my first BlackBerry, probably around 7 years ago, the novelty of always-on and instant e-mail was a cool one.  I didn’t have to interface with a full computer to communicate, and it fed the impulsive nature of information adoption and consumption.   This was “cool”, as in I would be the first to know what’s going on, and would be able to inform conversation and decision making.   But this was largely e-mail, SMS wasn’t yet popular in the United States, and turning off the Blackberry just meant a pause from work, and the home life wasn’t really as affected.  Sure, it was annoying to answer an e-mail in personal life, but these were one-off dialogues that usually took mere seconds.

But now, with the rise of Facebook, and Twitter and other social networks, it’s gone from “always-on” work, to “always-on” life.   The Truman Show analogy not withstanding, it’s extremely difficult to turn off the “online” life, since now, the “online” life has met the “work” life in many cases, and the only one left, the “home” life begins to suffer.   And so, “the battle for who could care less” (thank you, Ben Folds Five), is “always-on” too.  This battle involves real-time prioritzation of tasks, people and results at a blistering pace, and those who “care less” in this analysis, usually lose to those who would “care more” at that given moment.    These interactions all contribute to “who you are” – but which bucket (“personal”, “work” or “online) they fall into – grossly unclear.

Now, even with the never-ending pace of technology, some immortal truths remain.  We have a limited amount of hours in the day.  Our brain can only handle so much.  Human nature remains pretty much the same.  People tend not to react terribly differently when we present them with the same situation.

So, what do we do? How do you handle “avatar exhaustion” – does it take you away from what you love? Is it really possible to unplug?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. I have been thinking for a while now that I would like to spend the day completely unplugged. To take a day off from constantly checking my email, facebook, myspace and twitter accounts, to stop checking who is online that I can chat with. I would like to spend that day writing a hand written letter, to craft, to clean the house, to have conversations live and in person to live one technology free day. We’ll see how that goes I’ll let you know if I ever actually do it.

  2. I too have been thinking about this a lot. Been coping by accepting that I’m not going to read/see/hear/comment on/Twitter everything. Mike Arrington seems to try at the expense of sleep. This applies to news stories, blog posts, Facebook and especially Twitter. The sheer volume of stuff out there, as you point out, requires some degree of subscription to the “if the news is really important it will find me” theory.

    Also, I’ve accepted that even cool applications like Brightkite I’m not going to use all the time, simply because I don’t remember and it’s one more thing to do. To try to get the most bang for my time spent in any one place, I like linking a lot of things together. For example, my Brightkite updates go to my Twitter feed which go to my Facebook status.

    That said, I don’t mind having an always-on life — most of the time. Unplugging is hard but can (and must) be done to maintain sanity. I was just on vacation and only checked my email, work and personal, two or three times during the day. But at night if I was just hangin’ out with the TV, I’d still want to get out my laptop and read some things while I watched or whatever.

    In my opinion the ideal is to have your life, always-on or otherwise, be on your terms as much as possible — so when you want to shut off you can, and when you want to be a power iPhone or Blackberry user you can do that too.

  3. I like Danielle’s idea. It’s hard to find time to do the most basic rituals of adult life when we’re constantly plugged in and, as a result, creating and reacting to what’s online in front of us. My absolute favorite time online was back in ’95/’96 when all I did was go home from school, write looong emails and chat on IRC. I had no respect for the line between IRL and IRC at that point and used to print up emails to bring to school to share with my friends that didn’t have internet access yet.

    I remember in the summers, my sister, my cousin, and I would take turns either being on laptops or on the ‘main computer.’ My parents had two phone lines, so we’d plug into those and someone would run next door to my grandmother’s house with the other laptop to get online so we could all be on IRC together. It was a blast. It was real, one-on-one interaction and spending quality time forming relationships and bonds. Mostly now I just use the internet as a from of personal expression, for information, or to keep in touch with people I already know in the real world. I can’t imagine having a career that wasn’t completely web-focused, though I think, sometimes, I’d welcome it.

    In short, I am still trying to find things to love and embrace on the web the way it is now. I don’t have too much trouble unplugging, but I do have trouble finding things that interest me enough to unplug for. So it goes.


  4. One thing I read about that I like is the “internet sabbath” where you spend one day a week entirely unplugged. I’ve been managing it every other week, and it’s really good for me.

    I am never sure how seriously to take concerns about real self vs online self – it seems to me we’ve always altered out behavior to suit the context, and being different online is no different. On the other hand, we spend an awful lot of time online.

  5. I choose not to get overly involved with social networks and having an “online” life because I know that in the end, it’s my offline relationships that matter to me the most and are the most unpretentious.

    I am a part of some of these social networks like facebook, twitter, myspace but I use them only sparingly and not with any real purpose, more for fun every now and then and truth be told I try not to be something that I am not when I am “online”.

    I find life is very complicated in this day and age and trying to be as simple as you can makes me sane.

  6. I tend to boomerang between total abstinence and Twitter-binging. Moderation is difficult and I’m still learning how to integrate “checking in” with my real life activities. It isn’t difficult if I’m not on the computer (since I have no cell phone to tempt me!) but I find it difficult to do my writing on my laptop and not maintain a browser open to see what’s going on online. It is entertaining but an enormous distraction at the same time.

    When I first came on to Twitter in May/June, I actually tried to keep up with my Twitterstream before I just found it too time-consuming and, really unnecessary. At the Social Media Camp NYC discussion on Twitter, a speaker used the analogy (whose source no one remembers) that one can use Twitter as a pond (to float in) or a river/stream (rushing by in which you dip your feet). I was initially using Twitter as a pond, just hanging out but now I just visit, see what’s going on with about a dozen of my favorite people & then step back, dry off my feet and get back to work.

    Facebook isn’t very time-consuming because the people I am friends with there are casual users (i.e. status updates every few days, not hours). I initially tried using social bookmarking sites but for some reason I kept being asked to log in over and over again which is tiresome so I stopped even visiting them.

    I guess that is is like many other things–work, food, exercise–that requires a certain amount of balance & self-control. I think the first step is, like you say, just facing the amount of time we really spend on it…those odd moments of the day can quickly add up to hours!

    I am curious though about your statement about “unforeseen victims”, I’m not sure who you mean. I do know that my recent forays into social networking has resulted in me spending less time with other relationships, online & offline, and, in this case, the victim is the relationships I have with other people in my life. I hope that there aren’t actual victims that have been harmed (physically, professionally, or psychologically) by participating in online social networks.

  7. P.S. Oh, Matt, I didn’t realize I was writing an essay. You know, academics, once we get going don’t really know when to stop talking until we see students fidgeting in their seats. We’re all preachers at heart, I’m convinced.

  8. Before I got a BlackBerry, I gave my husband a hard time for emailing from the dinner table at a restaurant. But now, it’s become habit that we’re both emailing and tweeting while we wait for our food, occasionally directing messages to each other. We do catch ourselves and put away the devices but they’ve become our lives, not just a part of our lives.

    To step away, once a week, I keep the computers off, the phones away and silent, and sit on the deck with my husband watching the sunset in peace.

  9. Matt – Better late than never, right? What you wrote – well it really hit home. You can only do and/or juggle so much before something breaks. Or suffers. As much as I love many aspects of these social networks, they can never replace real life. And my BlackBerry has been both a god-send and a hindrance at the same time. It most definitely enables the “over useage” of online life. So I am taking charge and unplugging (for the most part). Until I can find a balance, then I choose offline. Life.

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