It goes without saying that there is a lot going on these days that feels both urgent and important. In the times of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, time feels more scarce, yet there is more to absorb, digest, and take action on.
As I increased my news and Twitter intake, I realized the social media siren was calling me not just to engage, but to be mindful of how I engage. I needed to reinstate my mindfulness practice. This raised a question of seeming contradictions: Could Twitter train my mindfulness muscle?
The original engagement engine
Your brain is the original engagement engines. It hunts for things to keep your interest, presenting thoughts until it hits the jackpot of something you’re willing to latch onto. Just like a Twitter feed.
Unfortunately, our brains seem to think engagement is an end unto itself. Optimizing only for engagement crowds out so many other important mental qualities and states, like peace, self-control, and clarity. Yet this seems to be the center of gravity for our brains. If left unchecked, our brains can habituate negative engagement like anxiety, anger, or other counter-productive emotions.
What Twitter has in common with mindfulness
If you have ever tried mindfulness, you may have had the experience of thoughts passing you by without you feeling attached to them. Without you *engaging* with them. Scrolling through, without clicking anything, does not count as engagement in the Twitter algorithm. You need to click, like, retweet to register engagement.
But what about when you read a toxic comment thread? Is there a way to engage mindfully even when it sets you off?
A strong mindfulness practice does not mean you will be shielded from things you consider unpleasant. The important thing in Twitter and mindfulness is that you actively choose when and how to engage. Developing a mindfulness habit means even when you engage, you do not latch on indefinitely to a thought. You can release the thought when you choose, before your brain escalates into a grappling match. You can keep scrolling for the next idea, thoughtfully integrate the good ones, and move on at will.
Embracing new possibilities
There is a way to be proactive without being over-reactive. Sometimes you can let go of the struggle. Letting go will help you, whether you want to observe what is useful and move on, or take notes and artfully act.
In this moment we can’t let the world pass us by. Neither can we let it consume us. We can and must carve a path forward on our terms. Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste — especially on negative engagement.
As American society is increasingly moving from towns to cities, and from meeting face-to-face to meeting on Facetime, we have had to re-imagine community. We are figuring out how to navigate the “iPhone Effect” on our social connections. And our choices about how we engage with others with technology have huge implications. Will our social capital die down as we withdraw from traditional community, as Robert Putnam feared, or will community simply take on a new form? What does it look like to create and maintain a network of reliable peers, to make meaningful connections in new ways that suit our modern context?
Three principles from three places
I have been a part of a few different communities – work, home, and church – and have observed a few features that have made each a place of belonging. I’ll share a story about each, and then explore why these features of community feel increasingly rare.
In hustle-bustle cities like New York, there’s a sense of anonymity as you walk the streets and peruse the shops. You may be having a bad hair day, but you’ll never see those people giving you side-eye again! It can be liberating. And isolating. And so when I walked into Abyssinian Baptist Church, I noticed the immediate difference in the environment. Famous for their role in the Civil Rights Movement, ABC‘s activist roots run deep and were laced through the sermon. But that is not what gave the church a palpable feeling of connection. Rather, it was their ability to lift their community members up and make them known to each other. The head pastor invested a quarter of the service in spotlighting congregation members, asking them to stand and share their two way relationship with the church. The children reading passages from the bible were introduced. A woman who leads a black women on Broadway group was announced and lauded for her contributions. With so many names and faces getting celebrated and supported, it de-anonymized everyone, made me proud of people I didn’t actually know. In other words, I didn’t just connect with the general experience of the church service. I felt I understood some of the people in it, and cared about their well-being.
But this sort of success in fostering connection doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be deliberately structured into the cadence of community interactions. The next principle and example share a great success story of building relationships in a group whose members were simultaneously complete strangers and close peers.
Build a support system
Gathering a bunch of people who don’t know each other well in a room, even if they have a lot in common, can often lead to short, somewhat transactional exchanges. Yet that same room of people, with deliberate facilitation, can come alive together and seed the beginnings of lifelong friendships. I saw this arc in my company as we facilitated educator user groups, brought together virtually to develop free math resources online. At the end of the first user group, educators noted that, even with virtual summits and chat room discussions, they felt they’d missed an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with their peers. And so we designed more structured interactions into the next group’s architecture. We created peer pairings for ongoing support. We gave each educator two peer reviewers to provide feedback on the resources they designed. And we scheduled weekly discussion prompts for the chat rooms, giving educators a predictable rhythm of convening to exchange information and ideas. Engagement skyrocketed, and lasting friendships developed.
Providing structure to interactions led to shared expectations about engagement. This organically led educators to invest time into knowledge sharing above and beyond what the program required. Creating availability, it seemed, had been the key ingredient to relationship building. This has proven out in other communities, as I explore in the next example.
In many buildings I have lived in in New York, I never met my neighbors. My latest apartment is different. There are a number of retired folks who have lived in the building for many years, and they use their free time to be, well, neighborly. They have time to chat in the hallways. They knock on my door if they notice I have a package in the lobby. They offer to dog-sit. In short, they have time for me. And I, of course, have time for them. I offer to plant sit and pick up their mail when they travel. I have their phone numbers and know who their friends are in the building. We’ve inserted a bit of dependability into our network, by taking every small opportunity to be supportive of each other.
Where technology fits in
You may be wondering, why isn’t all of this obvious? Why is it so rare to know and support the people in your social circles in a reliable way? Why do we fail to consistently invest in relationship building?
Many would argue that today’s lower levels of community connection are a continuation of a multi-decade trend. Robert Putnam famously published a macro analysis in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, that identified a 58% decline in club meeting attendance, a 43% decline in family dinners, and 35% drop in having friends over between 1975 and 2000. Putnam identified changes in work, family structure, suburban life, and screen time, among other factors, as contributing to this decline in meaningful group relationships.
The solution to help buck this structural trend, according to the tech giants of the 2000s, was technology. Technology was supposed to bring us closer together. Facebook famously claimed that it could expanding the Dunbar number, the number of meaningful relationships a human can maintain. However, it turned out that the Dunbar number didn’t change. What social media has done is bring your outer circle of acquaintances in, rather than strengthening or growing your inner circle. Simultaneously, technology has increased our culture of distraction, competing for attention that could otherwise be focused on our close friends and communities.
If we rule our technology, and don’t let our technology rule us, it can still be a tool that builds community rather than undermines it. Use technology to make yourself available. Use the structure of a WhatsApp group to organize regular meetings. Carve out time in your group gatherings on and offline to hear more about the individuals that make your members. Abandon the convenience of liking a post, and actually speak directly to your friends, be it in-person or on Skype. Reject the loneliness of optionality and anonymity that big cities and infinite online interactions offer. Make your circles smaller and your world more personal.
I noticed a bold ad campaign at 14th St. for a city not a lot of people talk about. It’s a city I’ve been to, the home of Mozart, with airy music chambers graced by string quartets and delicious chocolate deserts. Things that are engage the senses beyond sight. Their ad campaign slogan is “unhashtag your vacation”. Their campaign images use a hashtag like a strike-through. They suggest to the viewers that they should engage with experiences personally rather than positioning them for personal branding on social media.
These ads are a bold statement – speaking to America, the birthplace of Mad Men, in our own language – marketing. Because social media has literally become dangerous.
Death by selfie
The viral photo of the queue of mountaineers waiting to take their selfies at the summit of Mt. Everest, and also struggling for oxygen, has shocked the world into a moment of reflection.
Eleven deaths resulted from the excess of wealthy adventurers. Have vacations been reduced to photo ops for bragging rights?
In the same moment, Vienna is challenging us to think about the purpose of vacations and the role of photography – big questions in a world with a growing middle-class and a camera on every personal device. To answer these big questions, it’s worth walking back to the land before digital photography and the world before social media, which I grew up in.
My journey from photography to social media
My first experiences traveling were on middle school trips. My parents let me borrow their film-based camera, and I took as many as 3 roles of film for a 3 day trip to places like Salem, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. With film, you never knew how a photo would come out until it was processed, so I erred on the side of volume. I assumed everything was interesting, worth capturing and documenting, from store fronts to tourist attractions to friends. Eventually I realized that my documentary style photography was a little extreme, and only ~10% of the photos had strong visual interest – I wasn’t even looking at most of the photos! In high school, I had fewer field trips and was more selective about what I photographed. My photography became anthropocentric, capturing natural moments that I valued and events that were firsts or celebratory. I made my favorite photos into little gifts, which friends loved. They were personal moments made special, for private consumption.
When digital photography arose in my college years, I had opportunities to travel again and work in other countries in the summers. My first digital camera was quickly stolen, and when I finally acquired a new one, I was more sparse and selective about what I photographed. Only the most beautiful sites that I would not want to forget. The misted mountains of Machu Picchu. The colorful sands of the Atacama Desert. Enchanting sights that I had never imagined existed, let alone having the chance to visit.
As I was starting to travel, social media was on the rise. This meant, for the first time, large scale external feedback, for better or for worse. I joined the fray of “look how awesome a time I’m having” posts for a while, but found myself naturally limiting my Facebook consumption to one hour a week. Yet I found that hour to be mostly an unhappy one. I told myself I was keeping up with friends, but increasingly just felt left out of all the fun people were having without me. But business school amplified my use and, thus, the detrimental effects of social media, which have now become well documented.
I now sit in the in-between. Sometimes I feel like I should participate in social media because my peers do, yet it doesn’t fully make sense to me. I see lots of photos of food with hundreds of likes, yet when I take similar photos they feel uncompelling, and I never post them. It feels strange, creating content that has become part of our typical virtual communication, but it feeling entirely forced and artificial. Increasingly, I try to eat my chocolate cake without photographing it, too.
Vacation for vacation’s sake
It goes without saying, vacations are more than just selfie opportunities. They are about your being present in a refreshing setting, not about the social media story you tell about it. I used to take a ton of photos and go through roles of film. Then I realized I was neither stopping to look at the photos nor stopping to really soak in the sites I was visiting. Vacations should not be about the external feedback that social media provides. What is most important is the internal moments of reflection, observation, and appreciation that they offer. And the same is true of our weekends, our moments with family and close friends, and every joie de vivre.