It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m running on Portland’s winding Terwilliger Street, past the Charthouse and OHSU. To my right is a break in the pine trees, and I see a vast, sweeping view of Portland. Mt. Hood is a mere bump in the distance and the sun is beginning to crawl over the horizon, turning the sky pink and orange and warming the air. It’s beautiful. My first thought: I need to share this. I pull my iPhone out from my running arm-band, snap a photo and load it to Instagram. I scan through the filters. Shall I choose X-pro II, Earlybird or Toaster? I press the enhance button, then that big green check. Done. Shared on Instragram, Facebook and Twitter. Bring on the likes. I continue on my run after a yet another moment of my life is slightly augmented and shared to the digital world.
Did Un-Instagrammed Sunrises Actually Happen?
I’m glad I got to share this beautiful Portland sunrise with my “followers.” Grabbing my phone that morning was instinctual, almost a compulsion, for how could I let that sunrise go unshared? Yet even after I Instragrammed that picture, there was something that nagged at me, and something that nags at me every time I share something online. In a way, I felt like I was saying: “Look how awesome I am. I went for a run at 5:30 this morning while you were still in bad. And I got to see this awesome sunrise and you didn’t. Haha.” My instinct was to share that sight with others. If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a noise? If a sunrise happens on a morning run with no photographic evidence, did it really happen?
We live in a hyper-sharing culture. Humans have always exchanged information, but now information can be exchanged from anyone, anywhere in the world, as long as they have Internet. Anyone can have a free Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blog or business website. There is so much shared information on the Internet. It’s actually wonderful! If I want to learn how to make something, I can YouTube search it and there will surely be a how-to video for that topic. I can find anything on Wikipedia. I can read millions and millions of blogs.
This access to information is astounding and powerful. Traditional gatekeepers of information are all but gone. This has very positive implications for the future of learning and education. But, are there negative implications to all this sharing? I believe there are, but if we are aware of them, we can take steps to staying afloat in a sea of “shares” and “likes.”
I loved the use of the word “pathological” to describe our sharing culture. Pathological mean “caused by or involving disease” or “caused by or evidencing a mentally disturbed condition.” “Pathological sharing” is an apt phrase for our generation. As whereishere suggested, it is an obsession, perhaps even an addiction. We share what we ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, what we did on the weekend, what we read, who we met, what we are thinking. I mentioned in my previous blog post that I know little about my mom’s childhood. I can flip through her high-school yearbook, or ask her questions about it. My children will be able to track my every move thanks to my digital history back to the time I was about 18.
Sharing: The Good the Bad and the Ugly
There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing. How to “share” and “play nice” is one of the first things we learn as children. I gain great pleasure in sharing on my blog, especially when my posts are followed by insightful comments that make me think more deeply or critically on a certain subject. Heck, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post or thinking deeply about the “sharing culture” if whereishere hadn’t commented on my last post. Sharing is grounds for inspiration, collaboration and creativity.
But, what happens when sharing becomes a compulsion? When it becomes pathological? I’ve sensed this in myself and am grapling with what this means for my own mind and how deeply I can think about anything. Sharing culture and information overload has effected my brain. I can earnestly feel the effect and it’s scary sometimes. When I read a book, it takes some time to actually become engrossed in the story. It did not used to be this way. When I was younger I would compulsively read books for hours and hours at a time. My brain has become hardwired for distraction, so it has become more difficult than in the past to get through more than 10 pages of a book in one sitting. A tiny signal in the back of my brain is constantly telling me to check my email or my Twitter or my Facebook or my Instagram or my blog. Sometimes this urge prevails and I put down my book. Sometimes it doesn’t prevail and I continue reading, but it requires willpower and perseverance.
Even as I write this, a few times I had to restrain myself from flipping over to Chrome to check Facebook, to see if there were any new red notifications at the top of my feed. (Admittedly, the urge did prevail once. No new notifications.) What did people share while I was gone? What are people doing on Sunday morning? This proves to me that I’m just as embedded in the sharing culture as anyone else. I have spent the morning mulling over this subject and it feels good to think deeply about it. Yet, the magnetism of social networks and shares and likes draws me to it, so much so that I have to conscientiously say to myself, “Don’t check what is on Facebook. Continue writing.” Because every time I do switch over and check Facebook, my train of thought is interrupted. It takes time to think about something, and when one switches tasks to share or consume shares, deep thought is interrupted, which is the really bad, dangerous part about constant sharing.
Last week Daniel and I were in San Francisco. The evening before we came back to Portland we had a lovely meal at an Ethiopian restaurant in the Mission District. Of course, my first instinct was to take a picture of the meal. I wrote some status update and attached the picture and pinned my location, but the 3G was slow, so the status wouldn’t upload. I was annoyed. But, now that I think about it, why did I want to upload that photo? The reason why anyone shares anything: because we want others to know what we’re doing and where we went. It’s like a muted, subtler form of outright bragging. I’m uncomfortable with it, but I’m sucked into pathological sharing just as much as anyone else. Why was I annoyed that my Ethiopian food photo wouldn’t load? Because people wouldn’t know where I was or that I had eaten Ethiopian food in San Francisco. Both Daniel and I knew we had an enjoyable dinner and good conversation, so why was my instinct to spread the word on Facebook? Because digital sharing can be pathological if left untamed.
Sharing and Information Overload: Thought Disruption
Sharing → Information overload → Disrupts deep thought → Culture of superficial thinkers
There are two sides to sharing: actually sharing something and consuming something someone else shared. The danger of too much personal, unconscientious sharing is an inflated sense of self. As I mentioned above, my compulsion to share certain things, at a subconscious level, is rooted in “showboatmanship.” It makes me uncomfortable, yet I do it anyway. It is: “I’m doing this. I ate this. I traveled here. I met this person. I went to a party with all my friends. Pay attention to me.” It is fuel to the fire of a ME-centric culture.
The other side is consuming information that other people share. There is such a plethora of information available on absolutely anything. Just this morning, I read articles about becoming a nurse anesthetist, poorly rated high schools in San Francisco, how to make beet kvass, a dental clinic in Nepal, colonies made up of former slaves in Brazil, funding and lobbyist for anti-soda taxes, greek yogurt, and how creative people live longer. Phew. It’s incredible that all this information is right at my finger tips, stored on my iPhone. But, is there a downside? I read widely about so much, but feel like I am an expert in none of these subjects. These stories have given me anecdotal evidence to share in conversations (“Oh, I read in National Geographic about land rights issues in the Amazon in Brazil…”), but that’s it. I haven’t read any further about it and probably won’t. So, I don’t truly understand the issue. All this information and switching from story to story, from medium to medium, outlet to outlet, disrupts deep thought. Deep thought is when you marinate on a subject. You think about it, and write about it, and think about it some more. You read widely about it. You have an opinion about it, and then you modify that opinion based on new knowledge. You talk to experts. Eventually, you might become an expert in it too. Sharing culture often leads to thought disruption, which can lead to superficial thinking if we are not aware and if we do not force ourselves to have time for introspection.
What to Do About It?
Now, I am not saying “don’t share what you do.” I will still post on Twitter and Facebook and maybe on Instagram. I think the first step is be a contientious sharer. Now that I have ruminated on the subject, I will be more aware of what I put on my digital profiles and why I put them there. I’ll think about if I’m sharing a photo to subtly brag, or if I’m sharing a blog post because I want to create a dialogue about an issue.
The next step is to be a conscientious consumer of shares. I think it is important to be aware of how you are spending your time. Are you spending time scanning through photos on Instragram from high school classmates who are posting photos of their dogs? I noticed I was so decided to contientiously cut back my use of Instragram. I am working on doing the same thing with Facebook. The Internet and information and social networks are neutral: not inherently good or bed. They are tools and it is all about how we use them that makes them good or evil. Deep thought and sharing are not mutually exclusive, they can be symbiotic, but one must be AWARE of how he or she is using networks.
The most important thing is making sure that sharing or share consuming doesn’t interfere with your time for deep thought and reflection. I believe that this is the single biggest problem with share culture: we are losing the collective ability to spend time thinking deeply and understand a topic in a way that can’t come from reading a few online articles. Deep thought is rewarding, yet when the magnetic call of shares/sharing is constantly there, it can be difficult to make time to do this. I think the most important part of making sure that sharing doesn’t become a disease, one that is degenerative to the brain, is to contientiously make time in your day to think deeply about something. For me, this might be: spending more time with books (you get 300 or so pages of ideas on one topic or story), writing pieces like this (for others, on my blog, or for myself, in my journal), taking more walks/runs without music or podcasts to listen to, or spending more quality time with the people I love, free of distraction, and talking to them about things that matter or things that are important to them.
Sharing culture can be a disease, but if used right, it can simply be a tool for self-improvement and growth. Being conscientious is the first step. Learning how to deal with this pathological sharing culture is going to be one of the great conundrums of our generation and our time, I believe. It is critical that we do not get lost in a sea of shares and likes and that we not lose our ability to think deeply and understand subjects beyond a surface, anecdotal level. It is only when we understand what is happening and can learn to control our compulsions that we can rule the sharing culture, rather than the sharing culture ruling us.
“Look at me! Look at me! Self-representation and self-exposure through online networks” via Digital Culture and Education
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
“Social Networking Leads to Less Critical Thinking” via webpronews.com