It’s Time for a Digital Intervention

Take control of digital technology before the digital world takes control of you.

That’s a key message of a July 16 Newsweek article by Tony Dokoupil, “iCrazy,” as well as an August 6 Forbes article by Kashmir Hill, “Beware, Tech Abandoners,” both of which warn that excessive use of digital is flat-out bad for you. Dokoupil cites recent research to claim that digital usage, when unchecked, can lead to disorders such as addiction, depression, and compulsive behavior. “The current incarnation of the Internet — portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive — may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic,” Dokoupil writes, noting that the forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will recognize Internet Addiction Disorder for the first time. Adds Hill, “We’re all addicted to technology now . . . we the users are starting to question how technology is changing us: making us fat, making us unhealthy, making us depressed, making us lonely, making us narcissistic . . .”

Those articles are just the latest in a series of recently published insights (such as a Huffington Post piece about social media addiction and a Haydn Shaughnessy column on saying no to social media) that should give digital enthusiasts a reason to rethink how often we use digital and to what purpose. Dokoupil in particular issues a searing indictment of the self-absorbed habits of digital devotees — and he doesn’t even mention the blatant narcissism prevalent among Klout users.

But it’s not just the articles that have me worried — my personal use of digital does, too. I manage 30 social media sites personally and professionally, and a few email accounts. It’s not uncommon for me to be online from early morning until late at night posting content or responding to someone else — usually via short, staccato-like bursts of activity. To be sure, the proliferation of digital platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest generates more opportunities for sharing content (such as my own blog) and has created a professional livelihood. I am better off for having digital in my life. But constantly bouncing across the digital world — whether I’m posting a news article on my Facebook wall, uploading a photo on Instagram, or following news breaking on Twitter — is a fragmented experience that creates stress as I process the information swirling around me in real time.  Responding to other people 24/7 creates its own kind of stress (as well as a self-perpetuating cycle of activity).

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We are all content hustlers

It’s ironic Google+ allowed the digital elites such as Chris Brogan early access to Google+ while asking corporations to hold off creating brand profiles. Just about everyone I know on Google+ (including me) uses the social platform to hustle their own content as well as any corporation could.

We are all content hustlers now. In fact, it’s the proliferation of platforms like Google+ and check-in sites like GetGlue that continues to transform everyday consumers into marketers of our own content.

You check into GetGlue on a Friday night to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the next thing you know, someone responds to your check-in by asking for your opinion, and then you write a mini review in reply. In a matter of minutes, you become both moviegoer and amateur critic.

Case in point: yesterday morning, I needed to do some quick online research to find a business and its street address. I visited Google to do a simple search. Immediately I encountered a Google Doodle that cleverly honored Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday by playing snippets of I Love Lucy via the image of an old-style console TV. How cool! I just had to share the Google Doodle with my friends.

But sharing wasn’t enough: I needed to add my own opinion (my contribution to your content stream) about how the Google Doodle brilliantly synthesized utility and entertainment. Within minutes, I posted a CBS News article about the doodle, plus a brief comment on my Facebook, Global 14, and Google+ content streams. I also wrote the obligatory tweet.

And I wasn’t even working up a sweat – or tapping into the many other platforms I could have used to spread my content (however brief it was) across the digital world.

Within minutes, my mindset had changed from searcher of information to publisher. And then I did what any good content publisher does: checked my metrics. Did I get any retweets? Facebook Likes? +1s? Had I found a responsive audience for the content I was hustling?

A few take-aways:

  • A Google search became an exercise in content publishing. But I also forgot to complete my original Google search, ironically. The content publisher lurking inside me was competing with the simple reality of getting on with my life.
  • Although access to social media sites makes it easier for us to hustle content, not all the content we create is worth hustling. As guitarist Jack White said in the documentary It Might Get Loud, ease of use does not make us more creative.

Yes, we are all content hustlers. But just because we can does not mean we should. Fortunately we can block and manage content, too, by paring our friend lists and curating our information streams (e.g., with Google+ Circles), although doing so is not always as easy as it looks. I’ll let you judge whether I’m hustling content you care about.