Monday, July 20, 2009

Comments and Crickets

Life is a difficult thing to assess when you're in the throes of it, so the painful and uncomfortable moments serve as a non-so-gentle reminder to gather yourself, step to higher ground, and gain fresh perspective on who you've become and where you're headed. Last week, one of those moments made me realize that I needed to step back from a lifestyle that has completely dominated my existence of late. Social networking had become far too serious of an endeavor, and as a result, I had become acutely sensitive to nearly all my human interactions, online or otherwise. I was on edge, overreacting to the simplest nudge, tease or criticism. It was time for a serious break from active, almost real-time participation in Facebook and Twitter -- my social networking drugs of choice.

Five nights ago -- as my head hit the pillow frustrated at my inability to navigate even the simplest social conflict -- I swore to a temporary social networking hiatus until I could figure out why this irritability and discontent had suddenly surfaced. Somewhat coincidentally, the motivation for this "Facebreak" came right before a scheduled mini-vacation with my wife and son (neither of whom is a giant fan of my Facebook or Twitter time). If I were going to take a social networking break, the past few days presented a nearly ideal opportunity.

The first 24 hours of the break were the hardest. I'll admit to the occasional iPhone check for interesting posts, but successfully fought the urge to make comment. I would remain a virtual fly on the wall, watching Facebook and Twitter carry on without me. In fact, after a few expressions of disbelief at my prolonged absence (Still no sign of Chris...should we be glad or worried?), evidence of my online existence slowly evaporated from news feeds and tweet streams alike, dissolved in the incessant, indistinguisable chatter of about reunions, politics, softball games and vacations. In four short days, I disappeared from the collective consciousness.

And on the fifth day, something occured to me. Social networking tools, at their most valuable, sweep away the curtains and provide a unique window into the lives and experiences of others. Only by taking perch above the fray was I able to understand how easily I had turned their value inside out. My daily mood was entirely dependent on the number and intensity of comments on my steady stream of status updates, blog posts, link shares, and comments. Instead of seeing the opportunity for connection, education and insight with and from others, I turned my time online into a narcissistic view not through a window, but into a mirror from which I demanded constant feedback, validation and reassurance. I was stuck in the 37-year old version of playground "pick me" where -- more than at any other point in my life -- I wasn't the last one picked.

So where do I go from here? I know I'm too outspoken to continue silence for long. I'm at my most content when writing, sharing and communicating. Silence and solitude to me is unnatural (often to the chagrin of many of you who thankfully choose to spend a lot of time in my presence). But where I need to focus is on being content with the intrinsic value of my expression, not on the validation or attention that sometimes follows. Because sometimes crickets can make a pretty satisfying audience.

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