Imagine for a moment you’re Rip Van Winkle, and you’ve just emerged from a ten year slumber. After shaving your beard, you set out to reconnect with family, friends, and the world around you. But how?
Welcome to the Networked Age, Rip! You don’t make a phone call, meet in person or interrupt us in real time. We’re too busy for that. It’s so much easier to connect now: just jump on these new services called Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, SnapChat, LinkedIn, Vine, and Instagram to tell your story to your digital friends and followers. You don’t even need to use your voice anymore, Rip! We communicate now with our thumbs on super computers that go everywhere with us. And since we share everything we do on multiple digital networks, we don’t need to meet much in person anymore, which is good because we are all super busy. Who has time for face-to-face conversations? Most of us have several hundred people that we stay connected with like this every day. You’re going to get tons of likes on that Instagram pic of your beard, by the way. Confused? Think of it like having a solar-powered drone that hovers over you all day and documents everything so you can stay “connected” with everyone you’ve ever known. Holy hell, what happened to the world, you say? Actually Rip, I think you mean WTF—holy hell is too long to type out. We talk in acronyms now buddy.
My Rip Van Winkle moment happened last year. My co-founder, Emmanuel Buah, came to me with a problem he was having that got me thinking about how smart phones and social media networks have reshaped our society at blinding speed. Services that didn’t exist 10 short years ago—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, to name a few—have transformed the way we communicate, get our news, define friendship, share our thoughts, find jobs, measure our self-worth, and spend our free time. Much of this change has been amazing, but…. Is sharing and consuming amongst a supersized group of digital followers the be-all, end-all of social media?
The amount of time we now spend on the social web is mind numbing, with many of us logging hours each day keeping up with thousands of details about the lives of people who aren’t really an important part of our lives. We place our nearest and dearest friends and family members alongside people from our pasts we’d otherwise never see again. We work, relax, and eat meals in front of our screens, oftentimes retreating into them instead of being present with the people around us (which some social networks celebrate). If you’re anything like Rip and me, you’re asking yourself: is consuming the superficial archives of thousands of digital “friends” taking too much away from our “real” lives?
The Social Web 1.0 Hangover
As it turns out, I’m not the only one (or the first) to question whether our state of “super-connectedness” on the social web is helping us lead better lives. A leading voice in this discussion is Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. In her recent TED talk, she reveals her own Rip Van Winkle moment, which hit her during a busy business conference. She realized that everyone around her was buried, heads down, on their phones in silence—standing next to her, but miles away. Alone, together.
This strange paradox—feeling lonely and isolated despite being constantly connected—is one of the many growing pains we’re feeling in our new super-connected culture. Not a day goes by now without someone discussing the hangover associated with too much social web. Thought leaders like Margie Warrell, Maureen O’Connor, Merill Markoe, Stephan Marche, Bill Davidow, Damon Brown, and Alexandra Samuel, just to name a few, have identified common symptoms of this hangover, including:
- Pressure to perform choreographed versions of ourselves online, creating feelings of envy, jealously and fear of missing out (FOMO)
- An inability to live in the moment as we digitally archive our lives
- Difficulty in shedding connections formed in earlier stages of life (high school classmates, former partners, etc.) from our digital friendship graph
- A focus on the self that encourages narcissism and reduces empathy
- Anxiety about maintaining hundreds of superficial digital relationships, leaving less time to foster deeper, face-to-face relationships
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation
- A desire to spend more time doing things in the real world and less time online
The cumulative effect of these symptoms has led some to give up social media altogether. Time management expert Julie Morgenstern has observed, “A lot of twenty-somethings…are getting off [social media] because they want a life outside the screen.”
But is cutting the cord really the answer?
We Aren’t Luddites
Let me step down from the soapbox for a moment. The benefits of social web technology are far-reaching—too many for me to list in this post. I, for one, use many of these services every day. As Alexandra Samuel, author of the Work Smarter with Social Media series for Harvard Business Review Press, argues: the digital world “offers amazing opportunities for creation, discovery, and connection.” Social networks have moved societies towards democracy, exposed us to new ideas and opinions, and allowed us to stay connected with people we care about unbounded by geography. Social networking services aren’t going away, and they shouldn’t. But we need to ask more of our social technology.
Have you ever wondered why we have so many powerful tools for sharing our past and present with thousands of digital followers, but nothing similar for creating future experiences in the real world with the people we care about most? Even Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, has observed that with current social media, “the emphasis is on ‘making history’ rather than building the present or the future.” Don’t we also need a social web tool to create future experiences that form our strongest friendships?
Put simply, the cure for our social media hangover isn’t cutting the cord—it’s demanding better social technology. We don’t need to quit our social networks, we simply need to balance our digital existence with a healthy dose of face-to-face connection in the real world. To spend more time “doing” and less time digitally consuming. We need technology that gives us an easy path to this real part of our lives.
What’s Next(t)—A Social Networking Evolution
Technology exists to make our lives better. As someone who has spent my career in web start-ups, I truly believe this statement. And I think it is time that our social networks evolve to meet our full range of social needs—to focus not only on the digital but also the face-to-face, to help review the past and to plan our future together.
This is what Emmanuel and I—and a fantastic team of people—are working to build at Nextt: a private network for face-to-face friends to create future experiences together. A service you can turn to when you feel like getting out and actually doing something—when you want to touch, taste, talk, or feel something real. At Nextt, we believe the way we form our strongest friendships is by doing things together. These experiences are the glue that holds relationships together. The social web hasn’t given us a good tool to make more experiences with our face-to-face friends…yet.
This is why we are building Nextt.
Join the Movement
Our mission at Nextt is pretty simple: to get friends to do more together in the real world. To share a smile, hear a voice, have a face-to-face conversation. To get busy living and find the balance between being “connected” and truly connecting. We hope that people will use Nextt to focus on close friendships, turn tentative plans and ideas into actual experiences, and lead more rewarding lives in the process. If we do nothing more than get people asking these questions and focusing on what really matters, Nextt will be a success. As Dov Seidman said, “Whether in person or online, what matters is not the quantity of our connections, but their quality.”
Regardless of whether you use Nextt, we invite you to join this movement. The world will never be less digitally connected than it is today, so the time to find balance is now. Look to this space for more in-depth posts, articles, videos, and more on what’s happening in our ever-changing social world.
And remember, it’s a big, beautiful world out there. I hope we all find ways to do more in it.