I’ve been struggling with what feels like a Twitter addiction for awhile now.
On the one hand, I love and value, even need the sense of community and connectedness that Twitter enables. I feel almost viscerally connected to the core group of people whom I consider my close friends, as well as those who are merely acquaintances and even strangers.
On the other hand, the constant sense of connectedness and the endless stream of updates became a source of discomfort – I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t turn it off. I was constantly “checking in” to see if anything new and interesting had been posted.
That seems entirely strange. One way of perceiving of Twitter is as a river of updates, and you just sample the flow when convenient.
But, there’s the added complexity of intermittent reinforcement. the whole @dnorman (or other) effect, drawing me to check more frequently. Heaven forfend I should miss an @dnorman update and not respond as soon as is conversational! Sure, 99% (or more) of the times I “checked in” there was no @dnorman update waiting for me. But that 1%… Even if there was no @dnorman waiting for me, it made me smile to see traces of what my friends were doing.
I was starting to feel that my Twitter addiction was revealing some kind of deeply rooted character flaws. Why was I so compelled to “check in” even when spending time with my family. When enjoying watching my son play at a playground. When listening to an interesting presentation. I was beginning to feel quite dejected, that I was so weak that I couldn’t control my need to constantly access the stream of updates.
And then it hit me – I had conditioned myself to respond, like a drooling Russian dog after some dork in a lab coat rings a bell. The tools didn’t inherently compel me to check so frequently. The people in my network certainly didn’t want me to be such a junkie. I had done this to myself. But why? Perhaps some strange form of ego boosting? It’s possible that I was using @dnorman as a form of positive feedback? Perhaps as a way to feel connected and not alone? That’s unlikely, because I had the urge to “check in” even when enjoying quality time with friends and family.
I now believe that I had become conditioned to being overstimulated as a result of this sustained level of hyperconnectivity – and that I was needing to maintain this overstimulation to feel calm. And that this overstimulation is entirely artificial – an internally generated response to external stimuli. If so, it should be possible to recondition myself to not require the constant level of stimulation, to feel calm when actually calm. To not have to spread continuous partial attention across various networks and services.
And it’s not just Twitter that draws continuous partial attention. While writing this post, I have checked Flickr for new photos from my Contacts (twice. there were new ones!), I’ve checked my blog’s comment inbox for new comments or spam (no new comments, but 4 spams caught by Akismet and waiting to be nuked). I’ve also checked my email (something about Drupal 6.2 – that can wait for Monday).
When I started my MSc program, my supervisor went on and on about “artifical urgency” – how we seem oddly compelled to check email and respond immediately, even though there is no real need to do so. The sense of urgency is completely manufactured, and only exists if we let it. At the time (now, over a decade ago – even before Web 1.0 had really taken off) I thought this was nonsense. Now, I’m seeing what he was getting at. I suppose there’s a kind of zen motif – connectivity is what we make of it. If I choose to make it something that needs to be responded to immediately, it will consume my time and energy. If I choose to not let it control me, to just be a part of my environment, then it should be a more healthy and positive experience.
Now, to go check out those new photos on Flickr…