Posted tagged ‘smartphones’

Long and self-indulgent post about my month off Twitter

February 2, 2017

This year I decided to do Twitter-Free January. (I just googled it and apparently it’s not a thing. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I did it.) I would like to share what changed in my life and what I learnt during that month off Twitter.

My anxiety noticeably reduced. I still get anxious, but I discovered that if you stop spending huge chunks of your day reading bad news and people’s angry/terrified reactions to bad news, you feel calmer. Who knew? A friend wisely commented: “If you’re going to take a month off Twitter, this was a good month to choose.”

Almost certainly related to this: I became less politically aware. During my month-long Twitterbreak, my main sources of news were BBC radio, the BBC website, the LRB, Private Eye, the Guardian (online), Facebook and tumblr. That sounds like enough to be going on with, but I honestly think that being off Twitter meant I still missed a lot of important news and perspectives.

I also missed out on friends’ news. People update Twitter on their lives and think that’s the same thing as updating their entire friend circle. I think some people were a bit confused or annoyed with me for not keeping up with their lives. But that didn’t apply to more general news, because:

People enjoy sharing news from the wider world with people who haven’t heard it. Remember at school when one person was off sick and everybody would ring them in the evening to “ask how they were”, which meant “fill them in on the day’s gossip”? That doesn’t seem to be a thing any more, because even if you’re ill enough to be hospitalised you’ll probably be taking your smartphone with you. But people like being bearers of news. Saying: “I’m taking the month off Twitter so I’ve been missing loads of news, what’s been happening?” turned out to be a great conversation-starter.

Twitter drains your social batteries. I’m an introvert, and I’ve always seen Twitter as the easy alternative to “real” social interaction. What I didn’t realise until I stepped away is that Twitter drains your social batteries too. Twitter-free me was way better at coping with things like work-related networking and house-guests arriving at short notice, to the point where I actually enjoyed things I would normally dread.

I made more social effort during my time off Twitter. Instead of hanging out on Twitter hoping vaguely for connection, I reached out to specific people. I went out a lot more than I’d normally do in January, I made more phone and Skype calls and I sent more emails. I was expecting to feel a lot more lonely but that didn’t happen.

It’s still lonely and boring being the only person in the room who isn’t staring at a screen, but I knew that before the Twitterbreak, because I already thought it was rude to stare at your phone in company and tried not to do it. During January I accidentally discovered a positive aspect to having everybody around you glued to their phone – you can eat really messy food without being embarrassed, because it’s basically the same thing as eating alone. Nothing to do with my Twitterbreak really, but a good revelation to have as you scoop up the fallen filling of a collapsed burrito with your hands.

(Sometimes I wonder if being the only person in a social group who isn’t occupied by a screen is like being the only person who isn’t drunk. Hard to judge because I’ve been the only person without a phone or tablet in their hand literally hundreds of times, but I’ve been the only sober person at a party maybe twice in the past 15 years. Now looking forward to the comments suggesting that I should have done Dry January instead of a Twitterbreak.)

Yes, if your friends use Twitter to organise meeting up, being off Twitter means you’ll miss out on seeing them. I missed out on the kind of casually-organised thing where someone says “Hey, who’s coming to the pub tonight?” But that was OK, because overall I had more social interaction than usual and it felt like the interaction I did have was more enjoyable.

Facebook is still quite boring. I will never get addicted to Facebook in the way I was addicted to Twitter. There’s something intensely un-addictive about it. I think it could be because the content keeps being moved around and hidden. If Twitter ever switches to a Facebook-style dicking-around algorithm, I think lots of people will find it very easy to leave.

Most of the good stuff on Facebook is screencaps from Twitter. The best stuff on Twitter is screencaps from Tumblr.

I went to four protests during January, which is more than I’d usually do in one month, but I think the Twitterbreak meant that I was slow to hear about things happening locally. So I guess I’d say you feel more motivated to get out and do activist stuff, but you don’t hear about things so quickly.  The fourth protest I would never even have known about if my partner hadn’t mentioned it a couple of hours beforehand.

Nothing bad happens if you take a social media break. A couple of people used Twitter direct-messaging to contact me while I was away, but I’d set up email notifications for that, so I didn’t miss any attempts to get in touch with me specifically. But most people didn’t notice I was gone. And that nebulous feeling that the world will somehow collapse if you’re not keeping up with the shitstream of terrible news in real-time? That feeling fades after a few days away from it. And the world doesn’t collapse. Well, it’s collapsing right now, but I truly don’t think it’s because I took a 30-day break from refreshing my feed.

Towards the end of my month off Twitter, the internet connection to my house was disrupted by dickheads digging up the road outside. Those four or five days with a flaky connection were very stressful and reminded me just how much my work depends on the internet, how much important information I keep online with the expectation that I’ll be able to access it pretty much instantly. I think I could easily live without Twitter, but my life without an internet connection would have to be wildly different. And that’s partly because…

You can totally waste time on the internet without Twitter. I would love to say that my Twitterbreak freed up the time for me to double my billable hours, write a sonata and embark on a round-the-world yacht race. Instead, I archive-binged on blogs, browsed Tumblr and Facebook and Pinterest, read lots of online news. Yes, I did get more real-life stuff done, but I still spent plenty of time staring blankly at the internet. However, I felt as if I was making a slightly more conscious choice about what I read. My habit of going automatically to Twitter meant that I’d been using it as a news source, a feed reader and a social club. I’ve decided I don’t want one social media channel to be all those things for me any more.

Could I break the staring-at-the-internet habit entirely? I don’t think so. I was getting into trouble at school for daydreaming before the web was even a thing. I still find it easy and frankly tempting to just stare into space for longish periods. This is just the person I am. I need to gaze vaguely at things. If the internet stopped existing tomorrow, I would just gaze at other things. When I’m not on the internet and my brain goes into dreamy mode, I stare vaguely at things like trees and passers-by and my snoozing cat. Maybe it’s “better” to gaze at those things than at a screen, maybe it isn’t.

What’s he been in?

August 31, 2016

I’ve just discovered that the main actress in My Fair Lady is Audrey Hepburn! The same Audrey Hepburn who was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s! I’m assuming this is one of those things everybody else knew except me. I guess it doesn’t help that I’ve never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s or knowingly seen any other Audrey Hepburn film, so I didn’t have much to go on.

I don’t think I’m too bad at recognising faces in real life, but I have an absolute blind spot about actors. I can recognise actors I’ve seen many times, and I can recognise very distinctive-looking actors, but that’s about it. When  I’m talking about a film with my friends and they use an actor’s name to refer to a character, I’ll often feel surprised because I’ve heard of the actor but had no idea they were in the film I’ve just seen.

I’ve been wondering why this is, and I think it’s partly because I don’t watch much telly (I don’t have a telly) and I hardly ever watch films, so I don’t get to know actors. But it’s probably also because I’m pretty literal-minded, and my approach to a film or a telly programme is basically to accept that everybody is who they’re supposed to be, for the purposes of watching it. Whereas I think other people enjoy the extra layer of recognising actors and comparing this role to past roles.

When I was a kid, the appearance of an actor on the telly in our house would occasionally prompt the dreaded words: “What’s he been in?” Then the discussions would begin.

“Was he in that thing about the hospital?”
“No, you’re thinking of the other feller who looks a bit like him.”
“Well, who’s the feller who looks like him?”
“Well, I can’t remember what he’s called but he was in the thing about the hospital and that other thing, the really moving thing where he was a soldier and he died, remember?”
“Oh, him. Well, that’s not him.”

I remember longing for some magical device, something a bit like a book maybe, that would give you that info. Not because I cared about actors’ names or what they’d been in already, but because it might cut short the boring conversations on the subject and let us get on with actually watching things.

And then the world wide web was invented, and IMDB was invented, and tablets were invented, and now millions of people can just pause what they’re watching to look up “what he’s been in” on a device small enough to hold in your hand. And they do! And it’s wonderful. No more conversations about “you know, the one who was in the thing with that other woman who was in the police thing”. The person who is deputised to find out the Facts looks it up on their tablet or phone and then enlightens everybody else.

But I’m still happy not to care. I’m still happy to watch a film and then find out five years later who played the lead character. I’m happy that if a character starts being played by a different actor, I probably won’t even notice, so I won’t be troubled by the discontinuity. Maybe I’m missing out on an extra level of the viewing experience. But maybe I’m not.

Your not really here

February 24, 2016

Recently my Facebook feed erupted in pedantry when someone shared an inspirational post about how Harrison Ford at 30 was still making cupboards and Kurt Cobain at 30 was still washing dishes and Rimbaud at 30 was still working in SpecSavers, or whatever. It was one of those posts that puts a load of text into an image for no reason because hey, blind people don’t need inspiration.

trust me your good

Anyway, the issue was that the poster muddled up “your” and “you’re”, prompting multiple comments on the error.

The poster was Scott Alan, who apparently is a well-known musician.He defended himself by saying:


Yes, we all know it’s suppose to say “You’re.” This was a simple repost while waiting in line at Disneyworld. I never expected a million people to see it & call me dumb.

Grammar aside, as an artist I find the sentiment to be what’s important. Especially being 37 now and often wondering when all my hard work and tireless dedication to my craft will pay off. I know I’m not alone in this thought.

Take what you will from it. Either a grammatical lesson or a life lesson to not give up hope. Or just keep calling me dumb. I’m at Disneyworld in 82 degree weather. I can handle it.

Ps. Don’t comment on the haters below. Don’t involve yourself in hate and anger. Trust me.

I see this kind of thing all the time online: “Hey, don’t judge me for the stupid thing I said! I’m actually busy doing something else!” So many forum flounces take this form. Sometimes it’s a self-righteous thing like: “I’m too busy looking after my children for this nonsense!” Sometimes it’s more along the lines of “You’re the fool for getting upset by this flamewar, because I’ve been watching telly the whole time! I invested nothing in this discussion, which I have nevertheless been prolonging, while you have been paying attention to what I say and responding accordingly, and therefore somehow I WIN!”

The thing is: if a discussion isn’t happening face to face, participants initially have no way of assessing what the other person is bringing to it. Yes, you pick up on cues during the conversation but initially you just have to make assumptions about the level of attention and engagement the other person has. Why is it unreasonable to assume that there’s a certain baseline level of engagement below which they wouldn’t be joining or starting a conversation at all? Why is it unreasonable to assume that a famous-ish person would check the grammar of a post before sharing it with the 16,000+ people who follow his Facebook page?

So many justifications for making mistakes online boil down to: “Yes, I’m being rubbish at this, but it’s because I don’t think this thing is important enough for my full attention.”

This bothers me partly because it seems to be part of a broader trend to be online even if you can’t pay attention properly, even if you have a solid reason for not being online at all (you’re travelling, you’re in hospital, you’ve got a day off to go to Disney World). And that in turn bothers me because it seems to be part of a smartphone-enabled blurring between public and private, between work and play, between “on” and “off”.

I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with people who simply didn’t believe that my out-of-office meant that I was really offline for the stated period. Even if the out-of-office message specifically says that you’re not checking email and gives alternatives (speak to my colleague, ring this number to speak to me in an emergency), people will still make decisions based on the assumption that you will see their email in the next day or two.

I’ve had even more bad experiences with bosses and colleagues who go on holiday, or off sick, and then proceed to be digitally present for their entire “absence”. But of course, this digital presence doesn’t mean they’re going to sit down in their Puerto Vallarta hotel room and put in a solid few hours of solitary work on their laptop. It takes the form of “checking in”, meddling, fiddling. They’re squinting at a smartphone in the hot Mexican sun because they can’t keep away. The first thing they wanted when they got to their hotel, or their host’s house, or their bed in the hospital, was the wi-fi password. But they can’t/won’t do anything useful with their device + internet because they’re not really there, not really working. The people who are really there are having their energy and focus drained from thousands of miles away by someone who maybe should just be having a cocktail or a nap instead.

It’s getting to the point where the only people who assert proper boundaries about their online-y-ness are the arsehole cousins of the minimalist arseholes I’ve blogged so much about. They go on “data detoxes” and “declare email bankruptcy” and write Medium posts about how they survived six months without Twitter. And again, it’s privilege. How many wage-slaves get to write an out-of-office saying “When I come back, I’ll be deleting every email that arrived while I was away”? You need power and privilege for that, just as you need power and privilege to own just one plate or whatever the fuck it is we’re not owning much of this week.

But I’ll be honest: the whole “hello, I’m here, no, sorry, I can’t participate properly because I’m not really here” thing bothers me mainly because it’s plain bloody rude. Is a professional musician’s official Facebook page not worth the full attention of the musician himself? OK, maybe not, but the real question is: if he doesn’t think his Facebook page is worthy of his own attention, why is he demanding ours?

How was your night?

March 17, 2015

P G Wodehouse says that the first thing house guests ask each other the morning after a party is: “How was your night?” That was probably true up until about 2007. Now it’s: “What’s the wi-fi password?

I miss the slowly-starting mornings where you’d wake up on someone’s floor and talk about the dreams people had last night, or maybe the crazy things people got up to last night. It felt like dead time, waiting for a hangover to subside or the bathroom to be free or breakfast to happen. You’d swig tea or coffee and interesting conversations would start up. I always felt it was a time when you weren’t obliged to be sparkling or interesting, and that meant people could get to know each other better.

Now every guest has brought their phone and probably slept with it within reach. When they wake up, the first thing they’ll do is grab that phone. Because it’s “dead time”, so there’s no obligation to be properly social. But of course, focusing on your phone means it’s no longer really “dead time”.

I guess the phone has replaced the cigarette as a fix for someone who’s just woken up and wants to feel better before they put in any social effort. But sometimes I miss that first-thing-in-the-morning quietness of just hanging out.

Before smartphones

April 12, 2013

I’m one of those people who moans about overuse of smartphones in social settings. It’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: if you’re the one guy who’s got his smartphone out in a social situation, it’s great for you. Dip in and out of conversation with the people who are present, dip in and out of conversation with people who aren’t present. Lovely. But for every smartphone that gets pulled out, the social situation gets that bit less social. And if you’re the one person without a smartphone, it’s downright miserable.

There’s nothing new I have to say about this today. Certainly nothing that Sherry Turkle hasn’t already said better. I just wanted to share a memory. Today someone mentioned smartphones as a tool for amusing yourself when people are late for meetings, and that triggered a memory from the days before smartphones.

I used to work for a small non-profit organisation. Once we had an off-site meeting. Someone was coming to the meeting, a new potential volunteer. She texted me to say she was early. I was delayed, dealing with an urgent issue that had just blown up. So I sent an employee along ahead of me, saying something like:

“I’ve just got to deal with this. But listen, remember me telling you about Lucy? She’s got there early and I don’t want her to think we’re a bunch of flakes. You head over to the community centre ahead of me and I’ll be about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes later, I arrived at the community centre. Lucy (not her real name) and the employee were sitting in awkward silence. Turns out the employee had not even attempted to introduce himself or explain he was part of the organisation she was coming to meet. He had not apologised for my absence, explained my lateness or indeed mentioned me at all.

Lucy hadn’t tried to introduce herself either. She was slightly worried she was in the wrong building, but it hadn’t occurred to her to ask and it hadn’t occurred to my colleague to reassure her.

To sum up: neither had exchanged a word. Neither of them had even put the kettle on. Both of them just sat in silence next to each other for about ten minutes until I arrived, full of explanations and introductions, arms full of crisps and paperwork. My colleague had understood my instruction – “You head over to the community centre” – but he genuinely hadn’t grasped the implied instruction to greet Lucy and make her welcome. He was hurt when I asked him afterwards why the hell he hadn’t talked to her.

Now we have smartphones, maybe both of them would have been playing with Facebook or something. But the smartphones wouldn’t be the reason why they weren’t talking.

It’s unusual to find adults with so little social initiative, but there are more of them than you’d think. The younger ones hide behind smartphones, sure. But the older ones are perfectly capable of sitting in blank silence without any kind of electronic prop. I’m interested in the question of whether smartphones are training more people to avoid social initiative, but I wanted to share a story to prove they’re not the only problem.

Toddlers, technology and my inner Puritan

February 8, 2012

One of my friends mentioned recently that her 3-year-old son recognises the Twitter icons of some of her friends. She mentioned it in a “isn’t he clever?” spirit of mild mum-boasting, but the news freaked me out. Then another friend, whose baby is less than a year old, commented that her kid has “seen loads of Twitter already!” and I was weirded out anew. They both asked me why I had a problem with this.

So I’ve been trying to work out: what exactly is my problem here? Why does it feel so wrong and unnatural?

I wouldn’t in any way freak out if somebody told me their 3-year-old can name all the animals in their favourite book. That would seem completely normal to me. And recognising recurring icons on Mummy’s Twitter feed is very similar: it’s just a question of recognising a picture you see regularly. But perhaps some of the weirdness here is because the Twitter feed is for the adult and not meant for the child.

Two things about parents and children that aren’t exactly secrets but nobody tells you:

  1. Little kids are usually more interested in things adults, especially their parents, are using than in the things that are specifically created for the child’s own use.
  2. Parents are frequently bored by their own children, but it’s apparently unacceptable to admit it.

The first “secret” is obvious within five minutes of encountering a toddler in the company of its parents: children will ignore the colourful, interestingly textured toys specifically designed to stimulate their growing brains and instead make a beeline for Daddy’s keys, Mummy’s handbag or, if possible, the most dangerous and unsuitable item in the room.

When a toddler visited us a few days ago, I wasn’t the tiniest bit surprised that she ignored the big fluffy toy rabbit we gave her and went straight for a shelf full of books she can’t read. When her mum pulled her away from the books, I did the usual routine of pretending the rabbit was talking, but the toddler didn’t give a flying fuck. She ignored me and ran into a different room, where she immediately found a box full of batteries to play with. The only time I’ve ever managed to interest a toddler in a cuddly toy is when I genuinely forgot the kid was in the room and started playing with the toy myself. Then, all of a sudden, it was interesting enough. (I’ve noticed that the relationship to toys is very different in older children, especially when they’re socialising in groups, but that’s a different story.)

To move on to the second “secret”: parents have tools for getting themselves through the boredom that dare not speak its name: friends, television, books, mind-games, an obsession with getting kids to sleep and yes, the internet. Combine this with the child’s interest in anything the parent is doing without them and it’s logical that kids will latch on to whatever the parent is using to handle the boredom. So of course it makes sense for a kid to spend a lot of time looking at Mummy’s Twitter feed, even leaving aside my feeling that there’s something innately attention-attracting about anything that glows. (My guess is also that furtive Twitter-checkers get more attention from their kids than those who actively try to interest the child in what they’re doing.) So saying “My kid recognises lots of Twitter icons!” is effectively admitting two parenting “secrets” in one go.

But that doesn’t really explain why it seems so wrong to me. OK, so it’s partly because I grew up in the early Eighties when hardly anybody had a computer at home and I learned to use a computer many years after I’d learned to read and write. So I expect a logical progression that goes: learning to read books, learning to write, getting reasonably good at both reading and writing and then learning to use a computer. The idea that you’d be exposed to computers or smartphones before you could read or write “properly”, using paper, is odd to me because it feels like doing things the wrong way round. (Also, my parents had the vague idea that it would stunt my development to play too many computer games or watch too much telly, so my childhood exposure to glowing screens was limited.)

I was a Brownie leader in the early/mid-90s, a nursery assistant in the late 90s to early Noughties and a school librarian around the same time. So my first experiences of child-related responsibility date from a time before smartphones or tablet computers. More to the point, most of my experience of dealing with kids has involved a specific, time-limited job. It would be inappropriate to check Twitter in the middle of nursery sing-song time, just as it would be inappropriate to get out a book and start reading. But I’ll admit I did enjoy it when the nursery watched a video, or when the Brownies were absorbed in some activity, because I could relax my attention, drink tea and chat quietly to other adults. These days maybe I’d skip the tea and chatting to refresh my Twitter feed on my smartphone. It’s the same kind of light, semi-distracted entertainment.

What I’ve never experienced is the job of actually being a parent, getting past the platitudes of “it’s a full-time job, you know!” to the reality of inescapable 24-hour responsibility. I’ve never done the work of being just around, putting in the tedious hours of quantity time that are actually more important than scheduled quality time. My experience has either been about work (including voluntary work) or it’s been a time-limited social interaction with someone else’s kids. So the idea of long-term, open-ended responsibility for a child is foreign to me, even though that’s the reality of actual parenting. The closest I’ve come to that mix of responsibility and boredom is various jobs where I absolutely had to “man the phones” and “hold the fort” and couldn’t leave the room even though nothing was happening. And in a situation where I had responsibility but little to actually do, you bet your sweet bippy I surfed the web. (And felt a bit guilty despite the knowledge that I was doing precisely what was required of me.)

So that’s part of the answer. The idea of a parent repeatedly checking Twitter in front of their kid weirds me out because it doesn’t match the way I interact with kids myself. And that’s because I’m not a parent.

But there’s more to it than that. My reaction also involved feeling that on some vague moral level, a child being familiar with Twitter is just Wrong. I think it’s partly because boasting about your kid recognising Twitter icons is breaking the social expectation that you shouldn’t admit trying to do other things while “spending time with” your child. Of course there are many other ways of breaking that expectation: talking about your kid getting in the way when you’re cleaning the house, or copying you shaving, or whatever. And, as I said earlier, a parent who is focused on something else is in fact a subject of intense interest to a toddler. If you tie yourself in knots waving colourful toys at them, they’ll probably lose interest and look for something dangerous to play with instead.

But the Twitter thing still shocked me, more than seeing my niece pretending to swipe a credit card or mimicking adult conversations on her toy phone. And it’s taken me days to work out why: it’s because I have an expectation that mothers should emphasise the work they do but play down the fun and relaxation they have. My own mother tells and re-tells the story of how I once tipped her bucket of water over when she was working as a cleaner. That’s an OK story for her to tell because she features in the story as someone who’s working. But she was embarrassed when my sister was asked in primary school to draw a picture of her mum and drew a picture of her sitting down. “All the things I do… and you draw me sitting down?”

Even now she’s a ridiculously hard worker, working at least 20 hours a week even though she’s supposed to be retired, going to the gym several times a week and keeping her house show-home spotless. She hated board games and jigsaws when I was a kid for being “pointless” and “a waste of time” and now things have moved on, she dislikes blogging and Twitter for the same reasons. She’s now, like me, actively trying to have more fun, but I think for a long time she had the idea that fun was what happened when you should be doing something else. And I never realised, until my tech-savvy friend called me on my ick-reaction, how much of that attitude I’ve internalised.

The funny thing about unquestioned assumptions is: when you actually look straight at them, they mostly change or dissolve completely. I’ve had a few days to think about why a tiny child seeing Twitter seems so wrong to me, and now I’ve worked out why, hey presto: it doesn’t actually seem so wrong at all.