The Internet Stampede
I’m sometimes torn between the speed of the future and the slowness of the past. It seems to be a recurring cycle of excitement about the possibilities of new technology and anxiety that this new technology will imperil the old. In middle school I spent an odd amount of time fretting that SMS and instant messaging would lead to the destruction of the English language, while simultaneously spending hours on AOL Instant Messenger and begging my parents for a cell phone so that I could text during the few hours I was away from my computer.
These days, now that some years have passed and everyone I interact with uses full sentences in their online and mobile communication, I’m a bit less concerned about the threat that new technologies pose to English grammar. But even as I rely more and more on new technologies, I have a nagging feeling that I’m moving too quickly and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the speed of communication with services like Twitter and iMessage, but sometimes I want to slow down. The only way to stay completely up to date with any kind of social media is to monitor it constantly; take a quick nap in the afternoon and you’ve missed the week’s breaking story. There’s no room for reflection in a culture that seems more and more to value speed above all else. There’s no time to write anything of substance when there is so much pressure to be the first to ship—especially in the Beltway media (which, incidentally, is what I follow most closely). Publications lauded for “winning the day” by breaking the most news often don’t say anything different from those that published their stories three seconds later. Who wins and who falls short is determined solely by which journalists can type the fastest on their smart phones from the press room. Everyone in the room (and often millions online) just witnessed the same event, and yet, for some reason, it seems to matter who was the first to post the quote on Twitter.
If you’ve ever watched young children play soccer, you’re familiar with this phenomenon. Everywhere the ball goes, all of the children follow like a swarm of bees. Of course this is not very efficient, but they it’s hard to talk them out of it. They think that if they want to get the ball, they should chase it. What they don’t realize is that if everyone is thinking the same thing, it’s going to be extremely hard for all of them to get anywhere near it.
I find myself getting sucked into this mentality at times: racing to finish a post before someone else writes the same thing first, throwing it out if I miss the two-day window of relevance (or two-minute window if it’s on Twitter). But sometimes I just want to move away from all of that. I want to put away my computer, turn off my iPhone, and just read the whole shelf of books I’ve accumulated over that past few years. Books about topics that were trending on Twitter for an hour and then disappeared into oblivion, references I sent to OmniFocus to look up later, articles I sent to Instapaper to read someday between now and forever—all these things just get left behind as Twitter keeps streaming and new headlines come and go. It feels like I will never have time to catch up on all of it and I can never get myself to slow down enough to even make a dent in the stack.
Other people must be feeling this same pressure, because they’ve developed successful apps to help people deal with the constant influx of information. The aforementioned OmniFocus is designed to help you manage inputs that are collecting in your mental or email inboxes and filter them into a coherent task list for later reference. Instapaper lets you save articles you come across during the day so you can read them at your leisure. The trouble is that even with these apps, you still have to make a conscious effort to slow down, which means going against this culture of immediacy. You can send things to Instapaper to your heart’s content, but if you never go back and look at them, you’re just moving content from one place to another without actually doing anything with it.
The great irony is that the Internet has the potential to make information far more accessible than it was in the past, but right now people seem to be less interested in actually taking advantage of that than in getting a comment in edgewise—even knowing that five minutes from now, their words will disappear into the abyss.
I think if we all take a moment to stop and think about the ROI on spending all our time chasing the ball, we might realize that it’s making us really tired and is not all that fulfilling. Perhaps if we just man our side of the field, we can slow down when we need to, read the things we’re interested in, and then when someone kicks us a pass, we’ll be ready to run with it.