A Mighty Bloodless Substitute for Work

Stephen Marche, in this month’s cover story for The Atlantic, talks about a subject that I am continually interested in: the balance between being connected on social networks and being disconnected from the ever-present, ever-active World Wide Web.

Marche writes:

Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community. The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude. The new isolation is not of the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic, or that of the astronaut who blasts into new worlds. Facebook’s isolation is a grind. What’s truly staggering about Facebook usage is not its volume—750 million photographs uploaded over a single weekend—but the constancy of the performance it demands. More than half its users—and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break. Human beings have always created elaborate acts of self-presentation. But not all the time, not every morning, before we even pour a cup of coffee.

This is part of the same topic that yesterday’s link to Jason Kottke’s post was about. His point was along the idea that our smartphones are isolating us. And, as I’ve written before, it also seems to be the problem that the marketing teams for both Windows Phone and Google’s Project Glass are trying to solve.

But is it the device that’s the problem? Or is it the access to apps, networks, status updates, and personal analytics that the device gives us? I think we would all agree that it’s access to the latter.

Suppose our iPhones only had apps like Simplenote, Agenda, OmniFocus, the camera, maps, and the SMS and phone apps. If that were the case, would we still be so prone to pull our phones out? How often would we reach for our iPhones if they were absent of any and all apps that are ripe for casually checking (such as email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and RSS)?

Put another way: if our smartphones were only capable of two things — (a) direct person-to-person communication, and (b) content creation/management — would we still be pulling them out at stoplights and during commercial breaks? I think not.

In 2010, I wrote an article about Inbox Zero and how it’s all about the outbox. I’m reposting parts of it below, as I don’t think I could say it any better now than I did then:

Inbox Zero is more about how I approach my inbox than how I process what’s in it. And it’s not just the email anymore. There’s Twitter, Instagram, my blog stats, my RSS subscriptions, my Instapaper queue, and who knows what else. These are all inboxes, and they all want to be checked.

Inbox Zero means I care more about the outbox than the inbox. It means I choose to focus my time, energy, and attention on creating something worthwhile instead of feeding some unhealthy addiction to constantly check my inboxes. Pressing the Get New Mail button or refreshing my Twitter stream is like pulling the crank on a slot machine. Did I win? No. Did I win? No.

It’s not that these networks are bad. On the contrary. I get a great deal of personal and professional value out of Twitter and email. But Inbox Zero means I care more about building relationships and getting real work done than I do about my narcissistic tendencies of knowing who’s talking about me on Twitter. It means I care more about doing my best creative work than about keeping up with the Real-Time Web and being instantly accessible via email.

To be addicted to our inboxes is the path towards errors of omission. Or, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson: Inboxes are good enough in their own right, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for work.

Publishing this site is my full-time job. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting the site by becoming a member. There are some great perks.