I remember my old boss at work complaining about going to the gym the first week in January, when all of the resolute fitness seekers would flood the treadmills of sports clubs, seeking to better their bodies, or get in shape, or just do the thing they said they were going to do when the clock struck midnight and they kissed a stranger wearing a shiny novelty hat.
This is a time of year when everyone is trying to convince themselves that in order to have a better year, nay, in order to have a better life, they need to act on the things they’ve been passive about in the past 12 months. If I get on a treadmill in January, by December I might be a better person, they think.
I am thinking about joining the Y, but I spend far more time online than I do in a gym, so I thought I’d resolve in 2014 to have a better Internet.
It seems a bit silly to tell other people how to enjoy the Internet. But as it becomes an increasingly dominant part of our lives, whether we like it or not, we can’t always figure out why we’re not enjoying it more.
To make my own experience a source of joy and enlightenment, I’ve laid some very general ground rules for myself that I think have helped me enjoy the Internet and social media better in the past, and may even help you.
1) Scale down.
I will confess right now that no matter how many times I tell you it’s better to spend less time swallowed up by the digital world, I spend a majority of my day online. The only way I can justify this is by scaling back tremendously from the amount of social media I used to use. I have friends who limit their Internet to certain hours of the day and friends who take offline vacations. But I’m not always good at this type of control and have instead scaled back on intake, limiting myself to social media that values creation over social media that values consumption.
2) Don’t just consume; produce.
This is where I feel the Internet is at its best, when those of us who are camped out in URLs are putting something out there, not just receiving the signals beamed out to us. I prefer Instagram and Twitter to Facebook by far simply because they are obvious vehicles for creation (as vapid as some think that creation may appear at times). Tumblr, which straddles the line between creation and consumption through its focus on sharing, also gets my time simply because it resembles blogging enough to feel like creation, even when it’s not. And then there’s the blog.
Jason Kottke recently remarked that the trend of the Internet is not just increasingly but drastically moving away from blogging, essentially proclaiming that blogging is kind of dead (again). While I’m not inclined to argue with his general thesis, I do want to argue that accepting the death of the blog might be more damaging to creativity than we know. (To paraphrase Dylan Thomas: Rage, rage against the dying of the blog.) I think part of blogging that is still very much alive is the freedom of creation, and we should not deny its value for a greater Internet. We should actively be involved in keeping creation and production alive through our online contributions.
3) Consider the value of your opinion/your joke/your comment.
Recently the “don’t yuck my yum” expression has been gaining traction (I first heard it via Anil Dash), and I can’t help but think that it would be a wonderful motto to stick at the top of every comments section on the Internet. Speaking up in the comments is a privilege, not a right, and the more we stop to consider whether or not it’s worth expressing something, the more we’ll be able to focus our attention on the Internet to where it needs to go.
Do I really need to spend a paragraph on Facebook talking about how I think this young pop starlet is vapid (I have done this, and it was not very satisfying), or would I rather let the conversation take its course without me? What am I offering to the conversation? Or to the Justine Saccos of the world: What in this joke is worth the unbelievable offense you are about to cause? The consideration that comes before the post is part of being a responsible citizen of the Internet, not just on a grand scale but on the smallest of scales.
4) Accept what you can’t change.
The amount of times I grumble over how Other People Are Doing The Internet Wrong takes up so much of my day that I worry for my sanity at times, but it would be foolhardy to think that it’s within my power to decide how other people use the Internet. Even this list may be misguided. All I can do is remind myself that I can’t change other people’s Internet behavior, and instead I try to focus on my own Internet behavior and lead by example.
5) Learn something, dummy.
My favorite days on the Internet are the days I spend falling from wormhole to wormhole on Wikipedia, or sucked into a great (please stop calling them longform) essay on whether artists are really making any money from Spotify. This is the consumption that will make my Internet a better Internet: this is where I become a better human.
6) Stop trying to convince your dad that he needs to be on Twitter.
Thankfully, there are still some people in this world who will say, you know, social media is just not for me. I’ve spent time with my dad before showing him how Twitter works, or Facebook, or Instagram. And the more time I spend with him, the more I realize that his world is just fine without these things in them. He goes out hunting for arrowheads in the tilled soil of farmlands without sharing pictures of them on Instagram. If he wants to share with me something he read in the New York Times, he cuts it out of the paper and hands it to me when I see him. He doesn’t have a Facebook account, and instead occasionally gets to read our more interesting updates over my mom’s shoulder.
As much as I’d love to see what his Twitter account would be like, I love that my interactions with him are offline. “The only thing I don’t like,” he said to me once after I’d showed him some photos my sister-in-law had posted on Facebook, “is how if you’re not on it any more, you’re missing out.”
7) Don’t worry about missing out.
The Internet is an unwieldy beast. It’s growing and changing every day. We are trying so hard to keep up, and yet we are also getting older and more set in our ways. When social media starts moving beyond me, when all your friends are on QuizUp but you, I’ve decided to just let it go. The less we concern ourselves with keeping up with the rest of the world, the more we can step back and figure out what kind of upkeep we need to make ourselves better, online and off.
Illustration by Jason Reed