I recently learned of the death of a dear childhood friend on Facebook, like most of you, it is the same way in the last years that I learn of births, vacations, marriages, exercise routines, dinner menus, and beverage choices of my so-called “friends.” As I scroll through the wealth of often useless information, there is always this feeling of having missed something if I don’t stay connected.
If I fail to glance on my homepage for a few days, I may miss the announcement of something massive in someone’s life. In fact, I have.
My brother, for instance, chose to announce the birth of his daughter, his motorcycle crash, my niece’s first words, sandwiched between his Mafia Wars scores and his workout routine. Strangely, the appearance of un-social media has brought us back to high school, where gossip and narcissism takes residence in our humanity sector, causing people to update their status when they could be talking to each other.
Don’t get me wrong, there is something wonderful about social media. I’ve reconnected with people I adore; it is how I say happy birthday to people across oceans, and how I invite others to celebrate in my successes. On my collection of social media accounts, I am able to share articles I like (and those I write), photos, videos, and bring together the people who have stopped being in my immediate life with those who know how awesome I am at building toy train tracks.
Yet, at last count, I had 563 friends on Facebook and about the same number of “followers” on Twitter—a number of whom I either don’t know or don’t remember. In fact, I have been “friended” by former students, boys and girls who made me cry in grade school, and strangers who might or might not have read one of my articles.
As I muddle through the challenges of parenthood, I struggle with this constant barrage of social media, phones blinking and buzzing, and the general addiction that comes with a world occurring whether you are participating or not.
However, I always know when I am looking at my phone too much in front of my kids. Little Nikko, just two years old, will start to turn everything–spinners from board games, Lego people, spoons–into telephones. Kai, who is 6, will ask me what I am doing and why I am spending so much time looking at the phone, only to then wander over to the desktop and start selecting songs to listen to on iTunes (the only thing he knows how to do on a computer thus far).
This is when I know I have to take a media vacation. In a perfect world I would get my butt on a plane. Because when I travel, everything changes. I do not take my phone on vacation. I check my email once a day, and rarely even bother with social media.
The first couple days of decompression are challenging. There is always this little buzzing voice in my ear urging me to check Twitter to see if someone responded to my posts in an interesting manner. But then, once I let go a little, I change, we change, as a family.
Suddenly our attention is not split between our kids and our devices. My husband and I talk. To each other. We notice the world around us and are actually participating, not merely nodding vaguely as our kids point out the bullet trains in the distance, the clouds forming above the sea, or Mt. Fuji out the window.
But the real treat comes with realizing that the center of the universe is not what happens virtually, as much as social media addicts want the rest of us to believe. The center of the universe is humanity.
Coming home, it usually takes about two weeks before I am saddled to my tech habits. Though I do admit that in the evenings and on weekends I don’t bother much with social media, or my phone, as annoyed friends will attest to.
If my travels have taught me nothing else, it is to value the here and now, the people of my community and those that belong to the one I am visiting.
In Papua New Guinea there is an ancient practice called Kula. This is the heart of society and focuses on mental and physical well-being in theory. But in its essence Kula is about making contact with far off neighbors, but instead of facebooking them, or liking their posts, the ancients traveled to another tribe and delivered something cherished to their neighbors. This giving and taking of objects shows respect, but also delivers a sense of community to the greater world at which we live in. Essentially saying, I will give you something I made, something I care about, as long as you promise to care for it with the same attention as my tribe does.
I am not saying that as a culture we need to unplug forever and travel to our neighbors’ houses and deliver our riches to their doorsteps, but there is a lesson in this Kula community. Without our neighbors, and our friends, our real friends, our lives are empty. And maybe if we unplug for a part of the day, and make some time to connect face to face, maybe offering some homemade cookies, or maybe just a smile, and suddenly the world seems a little closer to home.
I guarantee this feels better than spending your evening Tweeting pictures of your dinner to a collection of followers who might or might not even notice. Or care.