Stop dragging us down
With all your tick-tocking clocks that never seem to slow down
Stop dragging us down
Because eventually this future's gonna swallow you
— Chad VanGaalen
In short, peer pressure is always terrible, and social media are a megaphone for peer pressure. And when you use that megaphone all the time you tend to forget that it’s possible to speak at a normal volume: thus my first protestor’s apparently genuinely-held view that if you’re not talking to peers on Twitter you can’t possibly be talking to peers at all. (We must all have been trapped in our silos of silence before 2006.) But the more general view of both of those who wrote to me — that rapidity of response is a virtue, and therefore that technologies that enable rapid response are superior to ones that enforce slowness — is the really pernicious one, I’ve come to believe.
I keep thinking about my first protestor’s complaint that if people can’t respond to me via Twitter or blog comments they might not respond at all. Given my experience of both public Twitter and blog comment threads, my thought is: feature, not bug. Indeed, I should probably have an auto-reply on my email featuring my postal address and encouraging people to write me letters. That might enliven the daily mail deliveries, which have for me, as for all of us, grown so gray and wan over the years. And maybe I would be doing my correspondents a favor also: if typing, printing, and mailing a letter is too much trouble for you, then it could be that the things you have to say aren’t that important, even to you, and you’d be better off using your time in a different way.
...It won’t be that long before I turn 60, though I struggle to keep that inescapable (and highly unpleasant) fact clear in my mind. I have ideas I want to pursue, stories I want to tell, and friends and colleagues I want to interact with. Things are happening in the world and on the pages of books that I want to meditate on.
I spent about seven years reading replies to my tweets, and more than a decade reading comments on my blog posts. I have considered the costs and benefits, and I have firmly decided that I’m not going to be held hostage to that stuff any more. The chief reason is not that people are ill-tempered or dim-witted — though Lord knows one of those descriptors is accurate for a distressingly large number of social-media communications — but that so many of them are blown about by every wind of social-media doctrine, their attention swamped by the tsunamis of the moment, their wills captive to the felt need to respond now to what everyone else is responding to now.
Last week, the legendary Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead died at the age of 70. While honoring the band's request to play their music loud in celebration of his life, I reflected on the sobering fact that when I first started listening to Motörhead all those years ago, Lemmy was then only a couple years older than I am now. It's trite but true — it seems like it was just the other day! We say that all the time while reminiscing. But one day I might be saying that again, while looking back upon this period of my life, as an old man dying of cancer.
Anyway. So, I'm back after taking nearly five months off from writing. It was a season of streamlining — I purged most of my bookmarks, severely curtailed my online reading, chopped down the giant redwood stack of unread books (I've since acquired many more), and exercised away the remaining weight I wanted to lose. It was as glorious as it sounds, living that deep life.
But like Newport says there, you have to protect and support your ability to focus and work deeply. For me, that meant that when I finally had the time and inclination to start writing again, one of the first things I did was to switch off the comments here. Not because I had a serious problem in that regard, but because even that little expenditure of energy and attention was too much of an unwanted distraction for me anymore. I don't want to waste time explaining and elaborating upon what I've already written. Say it for whoever can be bothered to read it, and leave them to think about it quietly while I move on. Life's candle burns ever shorter and free time is always limited.
Plus, as a general rule, I think it's time to classify comment sections as a failure. The experiment has been run, the data have been compiled, and it may have been a noble spasm of idealism worth a moment's recognition, but having a website with open comments is like leaving your porch light on all night in the summer with your front door open. You're going to have hundreds of retarded moths and beetles fluttering in your hair and bumping their empty little heads against your face, taking issue with some offhand remark, asking for tedious clarification, insisting you defend some point of view you never asserted, fighting with each other over who knows what, flying off on bizarre tangents, or simply filling the air with inane buzzing and chattering. I'm not as diplomatic as Jacobs, so I have no problem saying that most people who bother to comment online are indeed ill-tempered and/or dim-witted with nothing to say worth your time. Turn off the light and shut the door.