Beat the Tweet

Social networking is ruining your summer vacation—just accept it and go outside

Illustration by don button

Social networking is ruining my summer.

Warm weather is supposed to be accessorized by lackadaisical, by a breezy sensibility best enjoyed with a frosty tall boy in one hand, the sloppy product of a backyard barbecue in the other. You’re supposed to perch on a saggy lawn chair, swatting at mosquitoes and waiting for your turn to step up to the beer-pong table and dominate—or at least brag drunkenly about how you’re about to. Instead, I find myself struggling to balance my beer between my knees and my overstocked paper plate on my thigh as I furiously poke at my BlackBerry.

I have responsibilities, you see, an audience of anxious voyeurs who are waiting, breathlessly, for me to update my Facebook status.

Or so you might think by the fervor with which I clutch my cell phone, desperately typing away. “Sara loves the summer!” “Sara is eating a burger with friends!” “Sara is alienating everyone at this party by obsessively monitoring the internet!”

Gone, it seems, are the days when we could simply live, when we didn’t have to catalogue our every movement and monitor others, or upload our photos the moment they downloaded, tagging and un-tagging, making sure to put on a good show. You know, the days when you could put down the pencils, the books, the iPhones, and just relax.

Illustration by Don Button

Instead, in this age of tweeting and blogging and status-ing, our priorities seem to have shifted from having a good time to filling up our moments with frantically telling the world about what a good time we’re having. Or would be, if we weren’t so busy typing.

I know I’m not alone in my obsession—or even hatred, for that matter—of this technological overload. Earlier this summer, I didn’t have to turn on the news, or even look out a window, to know what it was like outside. A maelstrom of furious tweets and updates by my social-networking connections kept me up to the minute on the situation outdoors. “It’s raining!” “OMG, still raining!” “Holy shit, is that the sun? Nope, still raining!” “DEAR GOD IT’S STILL RAINING.”

Who likes this? Do you? Click on “like” to tell me that you like my update on the weather! Re-tweet it! Link to it! Give my utter impatience about the gray, weepy skies some cultural context by treating it like breaking news! Not to worry if you don’t, though, because in five minutes I’m going to tell the world all about it, again, through a different channel! Are you following me? I’m following you! Follow me!

Enough already! Summer is slipping away, and we’re faced with a new conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest and you witness it, but fail to tweet about it, should that tree have even bothered to fall at all? My head hurts.

Friends in need

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam reflected at length about how television and the internet are changing the face of personal interaction and “social capital” and, therefore, the social and family dynamic. Individuals are relating increasingly to virtual and global comrades, he said, engaging more in theoretical socialization and bridging relationships that, while they should be lauded for their ability to transcend geography, will likely rarely, or never, come to face-to-face fruition.

Nine years later, acquisition of said social capital seems to exist for the 18-to-30-something set primarily on a virtual plane.

Illustration by Don Button

The question, of course, is: Is this a bad thing?

My inner tree-hugging yet Web-savvy hippie used to think no. I marveled over the ability to connect with a diverse array of users from across the globe over common social ground, like the TV we watch or the headlines we had something to say about. But this constant injection of minutia, like what kind of cocktail my college friend is currently sipping or which Buffy the Vampire Slayer character some Facebook quiz has deemed my cousin’s personality to parallel, now just seems like too much exposure, too much super-personal-information nonsense.

And yet, we’re still buying into it. Perhaps because we genuinely enjoy it, but more likely because it feeds our growing need for instant gratification and desire to soothe our rampant insecurities, fostered by our pitiful need to matter.

When you post trivial nonsense about what you’re eating or watching, or how you’re feeling, after all, and your virtual friends have something to say about it, it indicates that, to them, your life is noteworthy. Or, at least, online comment-worthy. When the constant updates stop, you risk no longer being relevant.

It’s messed up—all the more so when you realize that even though you’re constantly sending out your own press releases, you’re hardly in control of your online MO. Especially now that everyone and their mother, and your co-workers, and your co-workers’ mothers have signed on to tag “old school” photos of you, and tweet about the stained yoga pants you accidentally wore, forever undoing that cool-as-can-be persona you’ve spent so much time building up.

Hell, even my company is working its converged ass off to create a Facebook “identity” and wants me to be its friend. Goodbye, damage control. Somewhere, somehow, the ghost of George Orwell is having a hell of a laugh.

Illustration by Don Button

Goddamn it, all I want to do this weekend is get shitfaced and silly with my friends without having to worry about what people at work are going to say. Not because I’ll be hanging out with them, but because, inevitably, somebody will post an unflattering picture of me on Facebook and tag it with my name. Then I’ve got ’splainin’ to do.

And forget about Twitter, the Internet’s version of an irritatingly obsessive-compulsive town crier. You don’t need to approve the people who “follow” your 140-character musings. So, an innocuous post about, say, weekend plans, can suddenly become fodder for discussion among strangers. It feels a bit like being caught naked in your apartment by a crowd of people who were able to waltz in, unannounced.

See what I mean about ruining my summer? Nobody can do anything without doing online damage control.

And we’re just regular people. Be glad you’re not a celebrity who has to put up with digital wildfire one hundred fold.

CrackBerry rehab

Try as we might, we’re now too invested in Facebook and the like to just shut down our computers or, worse, delete our accounts. Were it not for social-networking websites, how else would we keep up with who from high school had babies or got fat or married, what events are happening around town, who broke up with whom, and who’s going on vacation?

We need our online crutches, even as they slowly suck the life out of us.

Illustration by Don Button

So how do we begin to take back our backyards and enjoy the precious few weeks of sunshine that are left of this wretchedly waterlogged summer?

The process of reclaiming social ownership seems more complicated than just chucking laptops and phones out the window and breathing a sigh of relief. It’s about asking ourselves, “Why is it more important that my online microcosm of connections knows that I’m eating this cheeseburger than it is to actually taste this cheeseburger?” It’s gooey and plump, and there’s juices from it running down my arm, and that’s what this simple pleasure should be about—not wiping my fingers on the side of my jeans in my haste to tell the world what I’m doing this instant.

(Easier said than done—over the course of writing this article, I’ve tweeted twice and checked my Facebook page about 40 times. Research. That’s what I’m calling it. Not pathetic, just research.)

Ultimately, there’s a decision to be made: Would you rather read a poorly spelled, hastily written one-liner about how your “friend” went to a movie, or would you rather go to the movies yourself? Click on a link to a blog about waterskiing, or jump in a lake? It’s a screamingly Pollyanna-ish notion, but the key to giving up online addiction seems to be to substitute it with real-time action, to remind yourself that, ultimately, your best moments will be actual, not virtual, and that it’s OK if your entire realm of contacts isn’t updated on how you’re feeling about the ice-cream cone you purchased nine seconds before pushing “send” on a text message to Twitter.

A few of my friends recently pared down their Facebook connections, “un-friending” anyone with whom they aren’t personally acquainted. Some have sworn off Facebook altogether. I may follow suit—at least until I can thwart my own “Look at me! Look at me!” compulsions to share my business with the world.

It’s the first step I’m making toward actually enjoying my summer. So, unless you hear about it directly from my mouth (not my fingers), you won’t hear a peep—or a tweet—about it. I’ll be outside, unplugged, hearing only the birds and the tourists, not my CrackBerry, chirping.

Will the forthcoming college co-eds follow suit? After all, the requisite “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay surely requires more effort than simply aggregating and printing your barbecue-related tweets. What are you going to write about, kiddies, if all you have to write about is writing about things? Meta? Yes. But, sadly, increasingly on point. Now, excuse me. I have to go create a TinyURL for this article and blast it to my friends on Facebook.

This story originally ran in the Boston Phoenix.