Op Ed

Is There a Growing Trend in Internet Fatigue?

When I decided to write about my developing Internet fatigue, I had no way of knowing that the world as we knew it was going to end. Yesterday, the biggest event, second only to the second coming of Christ judging by the reaction it has garnered, happened. Facebook filed the paperwork for its long-awaited IPO. The extent of the Facebook coverage makes it almost possible to forget that Facebook is nothing more than a social media platform, albeit perhaps the current penultimate social media platform.

I use the term “Internet fatigue” because it seems to accurately describe a feeling I sense brewing about the amount of time we spend online. The symptoms are varied and differ by individual but, the most acute form of the disease can result in complete disengagement. A non-scientific review of my own online contacts / friends indicates that there are an increasing number of people who may be suffering from the affliction.

I spend a fair amount of time online for both professional and personal reasons. Professionally, I need to stay abreast of the latest trends and developments in the market to identify new opportunities or develop new communications strategies. Privately, as an expat living far from family and friends, the Internet provides us a lifeline to home that cannot be achieved in the same way by snail mail or the telephone. The beauty of the Internet is precisely what can also make it so exasperating; everything feels like it’s happening in real time.

The problem with “real-time” however, to my mind, is the sheer volume of information that we are constantly being inundated with and, I don’t believe we are hard-wired to process information in real-time all the time. I am certain that the levels of external stimulation is leading to saturation or burnout.

I am a curious web user. On Facebook, I guard my circle of friends very closely, have ignored invitations from family members and regularly purge “friends” who I don’t have any contact with. My main purpose has always been to keep my family up to date on how we are and so they can watch my son grow up, of a sort, although from afar. I/we post funny pictures of our guinea pigs and entertain people with their and our antics often. My “friends” include old work colleagues but they tend to straddle the friend/colleague “gray zone.”

I only started using twitter personally at the beginning of 2011 and that was because of the Egyptian revolution. My twitter handle is public and open, and I tweet both original content and retweet regularly. Despite the pseudo-anonymous handle, I do not actually tweet anything that I would not say or write under my own name. The reason is one part introversion and one part an attempt to maintain a level of discretion and privacy in a world that is increasingly blurring the line between what is private and what is public.

As I watched Hosni Mubarak speaking last year in Tahir Square, it started to dawn on me that he was not saying what everyone thought he would say. Specifically, he was not saying that he was stepping down. That is when I turned to twitter and “#Egypt” provided real-time access to the commentary and opinions of people who understood Arabic and/or were in Tahir Squareand were “reporting” on what was happening there.

There is increasing talk of an Internet “bubble” and it’s a slow news week if we are not hearing about the rise (and fall) of one next big thing after the other. The question that keeps coming to me is: who needs all this? We have Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Zynga, Groupon, Living Social, Pinterest, G+, Monster, Yahoo, Google, Bing, BranchOut, Klout, Diaspora, and a plethora of others that cover every subject imaginable, and this only for the United States. This does not even begin to touch on the native language variations or translations that exist. There is a non-stop competition with each site professing to be everything to everyone and it’s a horse race to the death to see which one can attract the most eyeballs and keep them mesmerized, but aren’t all social media platforms, if we’re honest, nothing more than toys that give us something to do when we get bored and want to be entertained?

This is not to say that they don’t have value and provide a useful service for whatever purpose we use them, BUT do we really need so much? There is a point where if you have too much competition they begin to cancel one another out. I have been noticing people either deleting their accounts from Facebook or reducing the frequency with which they log on and say something such that, in the end, the purpose for using the service in the first place is completely defeated. I actually stated that my Facebook newsfeed is getting so cluttered with “news” (Mashable has to be the worst) that I am no longer able to: 1) see my friends; and I’ve noticed that 2) they aren’t updating and sharing like they used to. And it’s not just Facebook, the friends I am connected to on other platforms aren’t very active, in general.

What makes it even worse is that all of these online platforms are billed as ways to build one’s social community. To network and connect with the people you care about or have shared interests with. I have tested these theory and, the people that I’m connected to are no more likely to respond to an outreach request than a perfect stranger. But, isn’t that what all of these platforms are supposed to facilitate; the easy outreach and connection that our present society is supposedly craving?

Which leads me to wonder: do all of these sponsored ads, “likes,” clicks, followers, tweets, groups, hang outs, status updates, retweets, profile pictures, connections, etc. hold the long-term level of financial reward that advertisers and business pundits believe? I have my doubts. In conversations with some of my family and friends, people are starting to express fatigue with the social media options, not necessarily because they no longer need the services, but there are too many of them and there is growing suspicion about how much value they really deliver.

The technological revolution of the past 20+ years that has led to the proliferation of our online lives has resulted in an increase in non-physical interactions that isn’t really healthy. Do not get me wrong, there are conveniences to our online world, but the number of new options constantly popping up does not appear commensurate with what makes sense. This does not even touch on what happens when there is a glitch or something goes wrong. Then you call a customer service number and engage in a mind-numbing round of chase the options as you seek answers to resolve your issue. The situation only gets worse if you try to bypass the entire process (my preferred option) and try to speak to a live human being.

Each time I read a headline about another online service– “Amazon Launches Online Sports Memorabilia Shop”– or another product that being rolled out (think G+) by the big guys my immediate question is: who needs this? Really. A few years back the adage “build it and they will come” was a catchy piece of advertising. Now, it’s become the holy grail of the online development community. I would push back and ask: is that a good enough reason?

As archaic as it may sound, I can image a backlash against the forces of online/social/interactive domination. I can image people, more and more, choosing to turn their backs on the online lives and personas they have created in preference to spending time with the real life people in their lives. It is happening.

The knock on effect to our growing dependence on social media and the online universe is that when unexpected things happen we may be unprepared and, I’ve seen it happen in my circle, where someone chooses, for their own reasons to disengage from their online social communities and they are then almost lost. Meaning, our reliance on online platforms has become so integral to sustaining relationships that if and when people disengage, the relationship themselves can also suffer as we no longer use pre-historic modes of communication (mail, telephone and, in some cases, email) to maintain contact.

I would love to hear your points of view. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic but I do believe that we as social beings need and ultimately crave physical interactions that add texture and meaning to our lives. To that end, as the number and degree of online communities and opportunities continues to increase it would not surprise me if there were a (temporary) online exodus leading to a renaissance in real-life interactions and reconnection which, once a healthy balance between online and physical interactions has been re-established, a return to healthier online usage could resume.

What do you think?

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