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Media Technology

Detox your digital life without giving up your digital life

We’re coming out of digital detox season, where newspaper columnists share the incredible insight that you can get a lot of stuff done if you don’t spend all your time dicking about on the internet. But as the developers of the excellent iA Writer app point out, taking a break is good but going offline permanently is hardly desirable or practical.

…you can’t escape digital culture as long as you live in a society that lives on digital fuel. If you block email you’ll have trouble holding onto most jobs. If you have no cellphone people just won’t get in touch with you anymore. Who calls landlines these days? However long your digital Sabbatical, you will inevitably get sucked back in. And so will your kids.

What you can do, they argue, is to make your digital life more meaningful. They use the analogy of being a tourist walking down a busy street in a foreign city: the people yelling to get your attention aren’t generally the people you should be paying attention to. As in life, so online.

The challenge when you are in is to not become passive. To change from consumer to maker, following to self-thinking, quoter to commentator, liker to publisher, but mostly, from getting angry about headlines of articles you haven’t read to reading precisely, asking questions, researching, fact-checking, thinking clearly and writing carefully.

These are the developers of a writing app, so they’re talking primarily to writers. But it’s sensible advice generally. It’s easy to fall into a passive role online, to consume only the content that’s pushed to you. In the era of social media that’s often the lowest quality content.

The article talks about blogs, and the changes to blogging culture that have seen blogs and blogging become very much a niche activity (incidentally, almost 20 years ago I wrote my first ever piece of published journalism about the then-new niche trend of people publishing online “journals”. It’s come full circle and is a niche once more).

One of the reasons blogging has fallen from favour, and there are many others, is that commenting – what used to be the lifeblood of blogging, the conversations that began when your post finished – became poisoned. Drive-by bullshit from complete strangers. Spammers and hackers trying to drive traffic to other websites. And marketing.

God, the marketing.

Even now, there isn’t a single day when I don’t get approached by somebody wanting to publish a guest post to my blog, or asking me to replace a dead link from a post I published in 2005 with a link to their site, or an offer of an infographic, or any of the other things that I say I don’t publish on the sodding contact page of this website.

So the comments had to go.

Comments were the first core function that got gamed. For trolls, PR companies using persona software, SEO blackhats, spammers, and dogs pretending to be humans the comments section was free sex. Commenting costs nothing. Managing comments sections is so expensive that even big media organizations can no longer afford them.

I also stopped blogging here for some time because I felt I was saying what I wanted to say on social media. But whether that was true or not, what I was saying wasn’t being read. Unless you upset somebody famous a tweet is just a drop in Twitter’s Niagara Falls, a Facebook post something that a handful of people will see if Facebook deems your post worthy of their attention.

iA again:

it’s writing as opposed to liking, thinking as opposed to reacting, owning your traffic as opposed to building up your Facebook followers that one day a Zuckerberg will take away from you when it suits his needs.

What I’m finding works best is to mix things up, to continue with short, sharp, knee-jerk stuff on social media and to post more interesting things by others here (as well as to post my own longer, more rambly thoughts). I still share the links on social media, but I don’t hand over the entire content to Facebook or Twitter: it remains here, where it can be discovered long after social media sites’ short attention spans have moved on.

Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters.

A dream in letters. I like that.