Tracking my internet addiction

The Christmas and New Year holiday was wonderfully restive and felt everlasting.

But one thing I didn’t do was disconnect from the social web (I usually do on hols – and am well ready to forgo the Twitters and the Facebooks :).

In fact, I borrowed the company’s iPad, and found myself spending mindless hours almost every evening after the kids went to bed, just cycling between Facebook, Twitter, my favourite mountain biking forum, my second favourite mountain bike forum and a few bikey ecommerce sites. I found that the iPad is the ultimate sofa device.

These were, I’m afraid, empty hours. 97% pointless. And I slowly became more conscious of how I was rotating between each site, searching for something new and alive to pique my interest.

Coming back to work was always going to be interesting and yesterday I felt totally disorientated. I also felt angry about my cravings to check to see the new on the web, so I started a little tracker.

Here it is so far:

So yesterday morning, as I started the important job of pulling my thoughts and then slides together for the Brighton TEDx in about 3 weeks time, every time I felt the physical urge to go check the internets for something new, I scribbled a tally on a post it.

The black ink is yesterday between 8 am and 11 am, and the red ink this morning between 8.30 am and 10 am.

The research I’ve read seems to vary about how distracting or what the time cost is of each distraction (that is, each distraction indulged in), but it seems to be something between 15 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration upto 45 minutes [1].

It’s really scary to me – I feel like I’m facing up to a habit that doesn’t serve me, the truth of something that controls me more than I control it.

Especially when I think about how much I want to get this talk right, which has been the sole task of these two morning slots – my most productive in a given working day.

In some small but real way, each scrawl feels like a bullet dodged, a computer virus snaffled, a cigarette or burger not consumed. There’s a superiority that comes with avoidance (little victories!).

But isn’t it addictive, this thing we do? I know the research is out there, but this is me, my attention, my life.

Further reading:

[1] http://www.pr2020.com/page/the-unplugged-experiment

The Four Hour Work Week, and all that other GTD / work/life hacking type stuff.

PS. I know my views on this are a little tradition, someone like the awesome Stowe Boyd might encourage the always-on-ness, and celebrate being an inforvore. I see truth in that too, but still feel the above – the two feel directly opposed, in tension.

16 comments

  1. Louise

    Hi Will, i think you absolutely strike a valid point re: internet addiction and social media! But over the Christmas once i was going somewhere or doing something that involved me leaving the house, i rarely went online! For me i think the internet has replaced my addiction to tv which i think is a good thing!! If the internet did not exist i do think there would be some other habit (like tv) that would take up your time and not completely benefit! 🙂

    • will mcinnes

      This is a very good point – is it an additional addiction/habit, or just replacing an old one? Perhaps if it’s the latter, I should chill out. Thanks for chipping in.

  2. LiquidSimplicity

    I know exactly how you feel and have it myself at times. I made big efforts to disconnect over the Xmas break and so yesterday coming back to work I felt a little overwhelmed by all the “new” information and “new” changes that seemed to have happened in the social media / search sphere over the last 2 weeks (I thought everyone was on their holidays?!). Then suddenly it dawned on me… because so many of us crave “newness” the hyperbole in writing of Tweets, blogs, news stories and so on HAS to give the impression that if we don’t read it, we’re missing something super NEW and important. As I’ve heard many times before: everyone is competing in Attention Markets.

    My plan is to limit my social media consumption in the same way I do emails otherwise, I’d never get anything done!

    Thing is though, and here’s the clinch… now you’ve written this post, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wanting to check if it’s been re-tweeted, commented on, or shared? And, I’ll be secretly wanting to know if someone’s commented on my comment.

    And so it continues!

    • will mcinnes

      Neil – I confess I have checked retweets and comments. That’s a related but distinct part of the same overall problem, more of a vanity / ego thing, but definitely linked to the overall craving of something new. Totally agree with the wider point about Attention Markets. Cheers for adding your thoughts 🙂

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  4. Ade

    I can’t remember where I first heard the phrase ‘Digital bulimia’, but it sums up the sensation for me neatly. When I get into that headspace of intense neophilia, I always feel a little queasy afterwards – as if I’ve just eaten a whole bag of sweets.

    I like the idea of tracking the dodged bullets as a way of triggering the reward centre of your monkeybrain.

  5. Lisa Riemers

    I definitely get this kind of distraction on a regular basis, rotating between Twitter, Facebook, a webcomic or two, a blog or three, news sites etc. Although it can often leach time, the up-to-date news, new tech developments and generally “joining in” conversations in the social sphere are really useful in my online/comms role.

    I think Twitter can end up being the most distracting, and most useful as I end up discovering all sorts of stuff that is either new, interesting or funny.

    Wonder if it’s time to update that William Morris quote about having nothing in your feed that isn’t useful or beautiful?

    • will mcinnes

      Lisa, I agree with the point about huge benefits of serendipitous discovery of endlessly fascinating content through little veers off into the web.

      My concern – though – is when I’m doing that without consciously deciding to, or in fact when I’ve consciously decided to do something specific and of priority!

  6. Antony Mayfield

    I think it is about being able to switch that hyperconnectedness on and off at that right time. Speaks to Howard Rheingold’s attention literacy idea…

    Distraction is useful sometimes, or rather wandering is, but we have to be able to decide when it is appropriate and useful to do be in that mode, and when we need to focus on getting things done.

    Here’s Howard on attention literacy: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/rheingold/detail?entry_id=38828

    And here’s me on applying his ideas in my work: http://www.antonymayfield.com/2010/11/10/how-howard-does-it-attention-master-at-work/

    So, tracking the way you use the web, thinking about how it works for you or doesn’t is a really useful exercise – thanks for sharing your experiment and your thoughts.

  7. Pete Burden

    For me, the main purpose of Twitter and Facebook (beyond gathering information) is raising my awareness.

    When I post I have to first think about what I am going to post. I consider whether it is valid or invalid; what is driving me to do it; what impact it might have and so on.

    For me, even momentarily lifting my level of awareness is addictive – it makes me feel alive, in control, stimulated. It’s good.

    It’s the opposite of the addictive passivity of TV – zoning out, losing consciousness.

    However, personally, I don’t think FB or Twitter are as addictive as TV – in terms of simply how *powerful* the habit is. Maybe it’s because I grew up with it, or maybe it’s related to my personality, but I found it much harder to give up TV than Facebook. Just because TV *is* passive and requires little active energy. While FB and Twitter require an input of energy.

    I haven’t looked at the evidence but it seems to me people may choose to turn off Facebook very easily when the need strikes them.

    • will mcinnes

      Hi Pete, I think your perspective is particularly interesting because it sounds like your behaviour is very different to mine.

      I don’t find TV addictive at all, and I also find that I can *do* FB and Twitter passively.

      Switching them off is hard too – I carry a smartphone, there’s a tablet at home, a laptop at work.

      The wifi temporarily broke at home last night, and I was seriously pissed off!

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