Social Media and the Meta-Life

meta-, prefix

1. Denoting change, transformation, permutation, or substitution.
(“meta-, prefix.” OED Online,. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 9 May 2014)

The impulse is simple enough. I begin to read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. After a few pages, I put down the book, pick up my phone, and open the Twitterific app.


Nothing wrong that that, certainly. I have been trying to be better at engaging on Twitter rather than only retweeting and sharing resources.

But for a few minutes afterward, I feel it: The experience of stepping outside my own life, and not in a good way. This is not the same philosophical, metaphysical questioning that can lead to self-knowledge and revelation. This is something different. A diminishing of my own experience. A hazy, social media meta-life that swaps places every so often with the life right in front of me.

"Multitasking in the Park," by  David Goehring
“Multitasking in the Park,” by David Goehring (CC BY 2.0)

A loss of mindfulness.

As usual, I shake off the feeling and continue on with my day, but I have this experience of meta-life moments more and more often these days whenever I interrupt what I am doing to comment upon or share what I am doing, and even when I am simply scrolling through and liking or commenting on what my friends are doing, sharing, living.

In fact, if I stop to think too much about social media while I am engaged in it, the whole thing begins to get surreal, Daliesque, where time and reality melt from my grasp. Stopping my reading to send a tweet into the world about what I’m reading? Spending several moments looking at Facebook family photos of people I don’t even really know? The absurdity is inherent, even while we can’t stop ourselves.

Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. After all, even in non-virtual conversations I’m not one to talk a lot, especially about life’s small details. I do appreciate others’ ability to do so—it’s just not who I am.

Whatever social media’s impact on our mental health or its tendency to eat away at our day like a voracious Pac-Man, I am most uncomfortable with its ability to pull me out of a one-on-one relationship with the world around me, a relationship that always takes awhile to reestablish.

What’s the answer? I don’t want to give it up altogether (it being Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, since those are my main social media haunts); the connections I have and inspirations I find online are too valuable to me to forego. However, I have been working on some new habits as of late:

  • I turned off push email on my phone so that new messages come in only when I retrieve them manually.
  • I also changed the settings on my phone so that the only sound notifications I get are when family members send texts. No more beeps and bells for each new update.
  • I no longer take my phone with me on every errand. Trips to the grocery store, post office, and library feel much more evenly paced and liberating.
  • I’m experimenting with a schedule for checking my Facebook feed once or twice a day (this one is definitely a work in progress).
  • I’m giving thought to how I want to use Facebook and Twitter and blogging in ways that a) I enjoy, b) don’t leave me feeling ambivalent, and c) fit into a mindful life.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with changing how you use (or don’t use) social media. What works for you?

Do you ever find the experience of social media to be surreal?

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