Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.
Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.
I know, I know…how else could you be reading this, except on a device?
So, of course, I want you here and I want your attention (hey, over here!) and I want you to keep coming back for more.
But I agree with him that life spent only attached to a screen is a miserable existence:
American car accident rates are much higher now than a few years ago, due to drivers texting while behind the wheel.
People walk into the street, into objects and into other human beings because they refuse to pay attention to where they are in the real world, aka meatspace.
For all the connection it brings, staying tech-tethered also distances us from the people and experiences all around us.
It may be a sign of my generation, or my friends, but when I’m with someone in a social setting, like dinner or coffee or just a chat, we aren’t looking at our phones.
On a recent week’s vacation, breaking my normal routines, I stayed off my phone and computer — and took photos, read books and magazines (on paper), ate, slept, shopped, walked, exercised, talked to friends.
Do I care if everyone else “likes” my life?
If I like it, I’m fine.
Do you take technology sabbaths and turn off or put away all your digital devices?
Wander the halls of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and ask random employees in a black T-shirt with a little blue bird and they will give you a different answer, too. I’ve heard people tell me it’s a place for real-time communication, a second screen for television, a live-events vertical, a place for brands to connect with people and a media communications platform.
The conflicting vision about Twitter may be the company’s biggest flaw and may explain why Twitter has failed to grow beyond its 300 million users (compared with Facebook’s 1.4 billion).
It may also explain why the social media platform hasn’t changed much in nearly a decade.
It’s utterly insane that you still need to put a period before a person’s Twitter handle, such as “.@twitter,” if you want everyone to see it. Could you imagine Facebook doing that? Twitter still uses “favorite” instead of the more universal “like.” And Twitter still expects people to use Boolean search commands.
As a user experience, the product is still a drip-drip-drip stream of seemingly random tweets. It feels like a deranged video game, where players are blindfolded and win only if they accidentally come across a good tweet among a mudslide of drivel.
I started using Twitter — extremely reluctantly — about a year ago. I usually tweet five to 15 times a day when I have time, and I probably re-tweet 55 percent of the time, although less than I once did.
I have a love-hate relationship with it. I hate feeling like I’m spitting into the wind; as Sree Sreenivasan — who tweets as @sree — and who is the digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum in New York told my blogging students this year: Expect to be ignored!
Now that’s encouraging…
What I have come to enjoy most about Twitter are the weekly Twitterchats that create community, allow me to be as playful and/or as serious as I wish — knowing that each tweet is public and permanent — and connect me quickly and easily with some fun and interesting peers.
Every Wednesday night at 8:00 pm ET is #wjchat, which focuses each week on a topic of interest to journalists. Those who show up range from 30-year award-winning veterans like me to radio and digital journos worldwide to young, naive students who mostly lurk.
Only a few short weeks ago, I blogged here about a community I had found on-line, one filled with women of all ages and races and income levels, from Edmonton to Los Angeles to Dubai to Mississippi. It was secret, and had, at the outset, almost 600 members, many of whom weighed in daily to share their triumphs — (work, dating, family) — and tragedies, (dead or dying pets, work frustrations, break-ups.)
They are mostly women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, gay and straight, polyamorous or monogamous and many looking (with little success) for love. I was, being older than many of these women, astonished and often appalled by the intimacy of the many details they chose to share there, with women many of them had never met and never will, women whose character and morals and ethics they have no knowledge of or experience with.
The chickens soon came home to roost…
I was, naively, hopeful that this would be a place for fun, friendship, shared wisdom and a dozen of us living in New York met for brunch in early September and had a great time. The women were funny, lively, creative and I looked forward to seeing them again.
Not going to happen: I was kicked out this week.
It’s been a fascinating lesson in political correctness, tone policing and definitions of “derailment” — taking a comment thread off-message. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what a shitshow!
The group’s small handful of volunteer administrators decided I should be banned for insensitivity. Which is, of course, their right.
I do express my opinions vigorously.
But how amusing that women there could rant for hours about others’ being mean to them — yet turn in a flash on anyone they felt wasn’t being sufficiently sympathetic to their cause(s.)
It soon — why? –devolved into a rantfest. Women raged daily about their oppression and others’ privilege, swiftly chasing down, or simply banning, with no notice to the larger group of their actions or why they took them, those who dared to disagree with them or whose opinions were deemed…unwelcome.
One woman I liked very much was dismissed from the group for her allegedly racist remarks.
Then another — anonymously, of course — took a screen-shot of someone’s comment and sent it to her freelance employer, costing her paid work and a professional relationship. Members legitimately freaked out at such a creepy betrayal of their mutual trust.
Why on earth would you even trust a bunch of people you do not know?
For a group of women so oppressed by patriarchy, it was too ironic that one of their own proved to be such a vicious and cowardly bitch.
Membership had dropped, rapidly, by more than 40 people last time I looked.
I’m glad to have made several new friends through the group and look forward to continuing those online relationships, several of whom I’ve also met, and enjoyed meeting, face to face.
But it’s been a powerful and instructive lesson in group-think, competitive victimhood and endless, endless draaaaaaaaama.
I’m well out of it, sorry to say.
Have you been a part of an on-line group like this?
How long did it last and how much did/do you enjoy it?
Walking through an airport newsstand this year, I noticed a novelty. The covers of Inc., Fast Company and Time all had female executives on the covers: Sara Blakely, Angela Ahrendts and Janet L. Yellen. I quickly snapped a photo and sent out a tweet to my modest list of followers: “Women on the cover. Not just for girlie magazines anymore.”
Then I waited for the love. I checked the response before passing through security. Nothing. I glanced again while waiting for the plane. Still nothing. I looked again before we took off. Nobody cared. My little attempt to pass a lonely hour in an airport with some friendly interaction had turned into the opposite: a brutal cold shower of social isolation.
A few days later, I mentioned this story to my wife. “What a great tweet!” she said. She then retweeted it to her larger list of followers. Within seconds, it scored. Some Twitter bigwigs picked it up, and soon hundreds of people had passed it along, added their approval and otherwise joined in a virtual bra burning. Though I should be above such things, my wisp of loneliness was soon replaced with a gust of self-satisfaction. Look, I started a meme!
We are deep enough into the social-media era to begin to recognize certain patterns among its users. Foremost among them is a mass anxiety of approval seeking and popularity tracking that seems far more suited to a high school prom than a high-functioning society.
It’s interesting where this stuff ends up — one talented young photographer, a friend of ours working in Chicago (who has not even finished college) — was recently offered a full-time staff job by a major newspaper after editors kept seeing his excellent work on Instagram.
For many urban creative professionals these days, it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness:There’s one friend paddling in the surf at Positano under a fiery Italian sunset. Another is snapping away at a sweaty Thom Yorke from the third row at an Atoms for Peace concert in Austin. Yet another is sipping Champagne in Lufthansa business class en route to Frankfurt, while a fourth is huddling with friends over omakase at Masa.
Members of the Facebook generation are no strangers to the sensation of feeling a little left out when their friends post from that book party they weren’t invited to, or from someone’s latest transporting trip to the white sands of Tulum. Yet even for those familiar with the concept of social-media envy, Instagram — the highest achievement yet in
social-media voyeurism — presents a new form of torture.
I confess, I have yet to start using Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram. I’ve been enjoying photos snapped by a young pro photographer pal in Chicago on Instagram — but only when he posts them on Facebook as well.
Facebook is bad enough, thanks.
I have a few acquaintances or professional contacts whose updates are sufficiently envy-inducing as it is — the best-selling authors crowing about their latest Hollywood movie deals, a writer friend who boasts, almost daily, about the deluge of assignments landing, unbidden, in her lap, and a therapist who seems to spend all her time on vacation in places like Venice, Africa and Paris.
I love how every new iteration of status markers simply keeps evolving — from Chinese rank badges to the sedan chair to nose-thumbing via pixel. It seems as primal as breathing to show off how fantastic your life is.
Do you end up gnashing your teeth, (even just a little), at all the too-perfect photos of smiling babies, immaculate houses and glam vacation spots cluttering your feed(s)?
Broadside now has more than 8,060 readers worldwide, adding new followers daily.
Here are are 10 of the 30 tips I shared yesterday with the students in my webinar, “Better Blogging.” I hope you’ll sign up for the next one. I also do individual coaching; if you’re interested in learning more, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please use photos, videos, drawings — visuals!
I wish more bloggers consistently added quality visual content to their posts. Often, a well-chosen, quirky or beautiful image will pull in a curious reader more quickly than your very best words.
Every magazine or newspaper, and the best blogs and websites, uses illustrations, maps, graphs and photos — chosen carefully after much internal debate by skilled graphics and design and photo editors and art directors, each working hard every single day to lure us in. A sea of words is both daunting and dull. Seduce your readers, as they do.
Think like an editor
When you write for an editor, (as every journalist and author does), your ideas, and how you plan to express them, have to pass muster with someone else, often several. Their job is to ask you why you think this story is worth doing, and why now. (Just because you feel like hitting “publish” doesn’t mean you should.)
Who is this post — and your blog — written for? Have you made your points clearly?
Would your next post get past a smart editor or two?
Your readers are busy, easily bored and quickly distracted
All readers resemble very small tired children — they have short attention spans and wander off within seconds. Grab them fast! Keep them reading to the very end using “golden coins”. (Tip No. 30!)
Woo me with a fab headline
Magazine editors sweat over coverlines, the teasing short sentences they choose to put on their magazine covers, hoping to make you buy their edition over that of their competitors. Newspaper editors know they need powerful, succinct or amusing headlines to catch our eye and pull us into a story.
Have you ever studied some of the best heads? “Headless body found in topless bar” is a classic. This is an excellent headline as it immediately made me read the post — it’s bossy, very specific and focused on a place I know well. Sold!
Break your posts into many paragraphs, and keep them short
Don’t force readers to confront a huge unbroken block of copy! It’s lazy and editorially rude. They’ll just click away, irritated. (I see this on too many blogs.)
Post more frequently
A blog that only pops up every few months is the sign of someone who just isn’t that into blogging. Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it takes time. Once you’ve found an audience, your readers want to read more of what you have to say! Don’t disappoint them.
Some bloggers, giddy with the delicious freedom of being able to hit “publish” after every thought flitting through their head, post constantly. Do your readers really have that much time or interest?
We’re not writing for ourselves, but our readers’ pleasure.
Your readers probably don’t live nearby, and may not get your points of reference
While you assume we know the cafe/restaurant/politician/streets you’re referring to, we probably don’t. Remember that your readers — and potential new followers — are coming to you from all over the world. Which is incredibly cool! But consider including links or a helpful brief explanation so we feel included, not shut out by our (natural) ignorance of what’s super-familiar to you.
Edit, copy-edit and proofread
Lightning — not lightening.
Palate — not pallet.
Spell-check will leave plenty of terrible errors in your posts. Read each one over carefully at least three times before hitting “publish.”
Is your “about” page still empty? Why?
In a world jammed with competing voices, why should readers choose to listen to yours?
Who are you? Where do you live? Have you any specific experience or credentials that add authority to your posts?
The best “about” pages include an attractive photo of you, some fun facts and a few paragraphs that give us a taste of your voice and point of view. It’s your very own editor’s page or movie trailer, and ideally makes us eager to dive into your archives.
I love the one here, at key and arrow, written by a young couple in Austin, Texas — it’s quirky, charming and informative. (Their logo and header are also terrific.)
PLEASE SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT WEBINAR — LEARN TO THINK LIKE A REPORTER — 4:00 p.m. SUNDAY NOV. 17 AT 4:00 P.M. EST.
I recently took a week-long break from blogging here, the longest since I started this in July 2009.
I got a lot done in real life, mostly work-related, with a few meetings with new contacts and possible clients.
It was an interesting experience to turn away from the putative gaze, and potential approval, of Broadside’s readers. I know that some bloggers like to post every day. I just don’t have that much to say.
More to the point, I try hard to maintain a balance between my life online and my life…in real life.
Social media is ubiquitous, and for some wholly addictive. We all like a hug, even if it’s virtual. We all like an ego-stroke, and getting dozens, or hundreds?
How can that be a bad thing?
I still prefer being liked in person — last week over half-price cocktails with my friend Pam, trading notes about high-end travel with a new client, wooing a local PR agency, hanging out with my husband.
It’s Digital Detox, a three-day retreat at Shambhalah Ranch in Northern California for people who feel addicted to their gadgets. For 72 hours, the 11 participants, who’ve paid from $595 for a twin bed to $1,400 for a suite, eat vegan food, practice yoga, swim in a nearby creek, take long walks in the woods, and keep a journal about being offline. (Typewriters are available for anyone not used to longhand.)
The ranch is two-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco, so most guests come from the Bay Area, although a few have flown in from Seattle and New York. They’re here for a variety of reasons—bad breakups, career
troubles—but there’s one thing everyone has in common: They’re driven to distraction by the Internet.
Isn’t everyone? Checking e-mail in the bathroom and sleeping with your cell phone by your bed are now
considered normal. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2007 only 58 percent of people used their phones to text; last year it was 80 percent. More than half of all cell phone users have smartphones,
giving them Internet access all the time. As a result, the number of hours Americans spend collectively online has almost doubled since 2010, according to ComScore (SCOR), a digital analytics company. Teens and twentysomethings are the most wired. In 2011, Diana Rehling and Wendy Bjorklund, communications professors at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, surveyed their undergraduates and found that the average college student checks Facebook 20 times an hour.
Twenty times an hour?
This is just…sad.
There was a time when being with other people meant actually being in the same room — and that meant possibly having to walk, run, bike, fly, cab, drive or climb to access their companionship.
You know, make an effort.
We also used to live lives that we decided were intrinsically satisfying or they were not. We didn’t spend hours seeking the approval of thousands, possibly millions, of strangers — people who we’ll never meet or have coffee with or visit when they are in the hospital or attend their wedding or graduation.
There is genuine affection on-line, I know — but I wonder how many of us now do things now just to see how much they are “liked”.
Much as I enjoy social media, I’m old-fashioned enough to want to be in the same physical space as the people who “like” me and want to hear, first-hand, what I’m up to and how I really feel. There are many things I’ll never post here or on Facebook, where my “friends” include several high-level professional contacts for whom a brave, competent face remains key.
To me, face to face “liking” is truly intimate — like the seven-hour (!) meal at Spice Market that Niva and I shared when she came to New York and we finally put faces — and lots of laughter — to our names for the first time. (She writes the Riding Bitch blog.)
We had a blast.
It was much more fun than endlessly hitting a “like” button.
SPEAKING OF SOCIAL MEDIA — DON’T FORGET TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEXT WEBINAR, BETTER BLOGGING, ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 10 AT 4:00 P.M. EST.
I know, from checking the gravatars and profiles and blogs of every new follower, that many men also visit Broadside and some consistently comment, like New Zealand author Matthew Wright, DadofFiveboys, Rami the student/writer, Nigel, an Australian writer, and Kentucky schoolteacher Paul Barnwell.
But there are legions of you who still — silently, comment-less — remain ghostly presences…
— If you’re in college or university, what are you studying? Are you enjoying it? If you’re a teacher/professor, what do you teach?
— Who are your three of your favorite bands/musicians/composers?
— Do you have a pet? Type? Name?
— What’s the view from your front window?
— Your favorite food?
— Dream job?
— Favorite author(s) or books?
— What’s a perfect Sunday morning?
I’ll go first…
— Tarrytown, New York, a village of 11,000 people 25 miles north of New York City, right on the Hudson River. It was named one of the nation’s 10 Prettiest Towns by Forbes magazine.
— I attended Victoria College at the University of Toronto, studying English, French and Spanish (English major), with a goal of becoming a foreign correspondent. I loved the intelligence of my peers and the high standards of my professors. The school is huge, with 53,000 students, which felt impersonal. I worked as a reporter for the campus newspaper, which jump-started my journalism career.
— Tough one! Joni Mitchell, Bach and Aaron Copland. (Also, Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, Keb Mo, et al.)
— Just my husband!
— The Hudson River, the west bank of the river and the towns along the water’s edge. We also see the Tappan Zee Bridge, now under re-construction, with the noisy hammering sounds as they dredge the river bottom.
— Maple syrup, closely followed by very good, creamy Greek yogurt. Great combo!
— Running my own magazine with unlimited funds and a super-talented staff.
— Alexandra Fuller, Jan Morris, Edward Abbey (non-fiction); Tom Rachmann, Richard Ford, Balzac (fiction.)
— Waking up healthy beside my husband…cranking up some blues or rock and roll…blueberry pancakes and bacon…the usual three newspapers, in paper: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
So this little box arrived on my doorstep, with a return address in Los Angeles and $11.25 (!) in postage.
It rattled deliciously.
Improbably and very generously, Niva, who writes the terrific blog, Riding Bitch, had sent me some of her home-made granola — yes, really — all the way from L.A. to N.Y., a six-hour plane ride. She’d mentioned on her blog that she’d made too much.
I, of course, said: “Send me some?”
And she did.
Too funny. How completely bizarre, and lovely, that blogging made two women connect enough to send cereal winging its way across the vast fruited plains of the big ole United States.
This is the fourth present I’ve been sent by blogging pals, each of which was deeply touching and completely unexpected.
Elizabeth Harper, a fellow ex-pat, an American now living in Cornwall, who writes Gifts of the Journey, saw this bar towel and sent it to me across the Atlantic.
Danielle, a young American lawyer who writes I Heart the Brazil, from Auckland, sent me (!) a gift card to my favorite New York City indie bookstore, Posman’s. Which I promptly spent, and am still loving the books I bought with it.
And C., who writes Small Dog Syndrome, (and who’s been working as my [stellar!] part-time assistant for a few months), sent a box of calming tea from her then-home in far-away Utah. More than anyone, perhaps, she knows when I’m on my absolutely last nerve. (Of course, this might have been a gently — ahem — worded suggestion I chill the hell out.)
It’s hard to express how touching and lovely this is.
I’ve been writing for a living since 1978, with my work published in books, newspapers, websites and magazines and read by millions of readers — but only blogging has created this sort of sweet global bond, one that prompts us to email or call or send stuff to people we haven’t (yet!) met face to face.
It’s an interesting high-wire act, this calculated exposure, this calibrated intimacy — putting it out there into the blogosphere and awaiting a response. Blogging, more than any other medium, allows us to express some deeply private thoughts and emotions, which, and I’ve seen this for many years, emboldens others to say “Really? Me, too!”
Journalism is usually too structured and commercial a product to allow for this sort of authentic expression.
Whenever I get a paid assignment I consider myself a tailor — someone wants a suit made in gray gabardine or navy pinstripes in size 42 tall. Got it. They do not want me to come back months later with some wildly bohemian and personal Vision of a suit. They just want a suit, their suit, by X deadline, in X size.
Even my most personal of personal essays — one of which won my National Magazine Award for humor — was written for a specific audience, (Canadian women), and might well have read differently if edited by Americans for their readers. Ironically, the same idea was roundly rejected by Woman’s Day, a big American women’s mag.
This essay, written for The New York Times about my apartment building neighbors, was also created for a specific readership.
When I write for this blog, I have no idea who I’m talking to!
Well, to some degree, I do…There are regular commenters: an artist in Arizona, a student in Ohio, a professor in Massachusetts, a mother of six in the States and another mother of six in New Zealand. There’s a florist in Ecuador, a medical student in Lebanon, a celebrity’s relative, a 17-year-old in Ireland, a Maltese movie festival.
But I have no idea what will make y’all happy. I just put it out there and hope for the best.