It’s what we all used to laugh about. “I close a Facebook/Reddit/Twitter tab, and then open another”. “I can’t stop refreshing my GMail app”. “I open Reddit and all the links are purple”.
And then I thought I got over it. I wasn’t in grad school anymore. Social media had gotten a little old, and I didn’t really enjoy looking at people’s Facebook and I lurked more than I updated. I did tweet often, but my timeline wasn’t anymore some small tiny in-joke niche thing that each tweet merited importance. Google Reader had died, and though I love Prismatic, it didn’t quite replace it. I did Reddit more than I used to, but it wasn’t a big deal.
It came back though. In a form more insidious and hard to get away from than before.
See, frivolity on the Internet was more an escape from reality, kind of like Kimmy Schmidt chanting “I’m not really here”. So to disentangle from it, all you had to do was commit to work.
But now the Internet isn’t just for fun and games.
Sometimes you’re waiting for important updates to come in the email and you want to be alert to answer them immediately. Say, when you’re on a job hunt. Or when you have paperwork that needs processing. Or when you’re awaiting something to be shipped. Or your work email.
And then your serious hobbies go online. It takes only one time you miss responding to an email from your editor within an hour of receiving it for a news story to run cold and your viewpoint to get old, to be on tenterhooks the next time you send out an article for publishing. You can’t seem to get Tesseract to work, and post about it on StackOverflow. You keep checking back every few minutes to see if someone’s responded because you’d like to catch them online just in case you have follow up questions. You’re part-time activisting about some cause dear to you and trying to entice more people to join you. You post on some public forum about that. You keep refreshing your notifications relentlessly because you want to respond asap and keep the conversation going. You organize an improv meetup and want to make sure you don’t fail to respond to anyone who’s RSVPing with questions, because the location is tricky and you don’t want to be delayed because someone got lost.
And then the personal stuff. Your sister is in class and you can’t buy that blue jade necklace without her input, so you text her an image and wait. Your editor asked for a display picture to go with your article, so you text five of your friends ten different selfies and ask them to pick. Finalizing weekend plans with two different Whatsapp groups. Also you want to be prompt in case those Craigslist ads for vintage lamps you responded to get back to you.
Let’s not even get started on our contacts. Your friends understand if you don’t respond to their hilarious pun in a timely manner, but acquaintances just don’t. Especially not people you’re hoping to know better.
There’s just too many things that don’t have a schedule but demand our immediate attention. They all seem small and insignificant and doable in two minutes or less. Either that or important enough to merit an immediate response. Or kind of important but not so important that you’ll actually bother to respond later, so it’s better to respond now before you forget or stop caring or lose context. So it’s not even like we want to put off responding to them. It feels so easy to make the person on the other end happy, or to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment, by providing an immediate response. It doesn’t feel natural to restrict checking your notifications to very specific timeslots.
Unless the task at hand is pretty damn important, it doesn’t feel natural to switch off on all notifications. If you’re in an important meeting, or trying to get something done, or hanging out with someone, then yes, without question you don’t bother checking your phone. But when we’re doing things that don’t merit that much attention, we end up getting into waiting-for-notification mode.
Like doing a Coursera course. Or watching a movie on Netflix. Or when you’re unwinding after work. I suppose things get easier to compartmentalize once you have a spouse and children, but for the rest of us, there aren’t any clear demarcations. Especially if you access your hobbies and friends via the Internet.
The other problem is, there isn’t anything that prioritizes your notifications. Your phone makes the same sound when you get an email from some spammy entity, or from a prospective new employer (GMail Priority inbox doesn’t make things all that much better). Your sister could be texting you something important, like “I’m talking to Arundati Roy’s ex-boyfriend, anything you want me to ask him?” (sorta true story), or something like “Check out this transcript of my chat with our crazy third cousin twice removed”. So when there’s something important you’re waiting for, it’s easy to become a notification fiend.
Sometimes you aren’t even ‘waiting’ for anything. Your apartment complex texted you about a noxious fumes thing after which you were able to quickly make plans to stay out the rest of the evening. Or you got notified by local government alerts that warned of protests around your workplace getting violent after which you changed your commute plans quickly to a route not as plagued by protesters. You don’t want to miss out on these things.
If you end up doing this for a long enough period, it starts to feel weird to switch your mind off of notifications. For a while, I couldn’t watch even the most riveting flick on Netflix without doing something else, so to stop getting the heebie-jeebies, I began knitting, and I can say things like “This scarf lasted Kimmy Schmidt” or “That’s my Parks and Rec beret”.
Fear of Missing Out is bad enough already. But when you actually throw in real things you greatly fear missing out on, like job opportunities, short windows of time to book tickets in, free book deals that last only for a couple of hours, chances of publishing the next viral article, or important updates from your family seven oceans away, it becomes even harder to get away from or have rules about.
This kind of mentality ends up corroding other things unless you’re strict with yourself. If you’re fixated on a Whatsapp text from one sender, you might as well look at the notifications that are coming in by the minute from the Whatsapp group of your high school friends. If you’re refreshing Reddit anyway in hopes of getting good advice on whether or not you should attend the Ball Drop (short answer: don’t), it’s easy to get suckered into some insane back and forth that gets you riled up.
Sometimes it’s even crazier. During Hurricane Sandy, I couldn’t stop refreshing my Twitter because I wanted to know how bad things were (short answer: not so bad if you weren’t living in the Rockaways or below 42nd Street) and if I needed to act quickly. And I ended up not doing anything all day except knowing every single incident of damage Sandy had caused, and terrible jokes about hurricanes. Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but imagine every day being like that, only, instead of a hurricane, it’s some combination of plans with friends, professional development stuff and daily deals.
It feels often like I’d like a personal assistant who takes care of prioritizing my communication and notifications and interrupts me only when it is absolutely necessary. I just want to repose my trust in some entity that interrupts me only when I absolutely need it.
You know the problem? There’s an app for that. And it isn’t very good.
So instead of ten annoying things that might interrupt me, now there’s eleven annoying things that might interrupt me.