worry piece

I’m the first to admit that coming up with new material to write on a regular basis can be really tough. I also think that important arguments bear repeating. So I’m not mad when I see multiple versions of essentially the same story pop up in op-eds and essays. But I do feel the need to step in when stories that repeat themselves, repeatedly get something wrong. Such is the case with what I call the worry piece.

The worry piece is a particular brand of techno-skeptism. It addresses technology as an overwhelming force that on balance, changes people and relationships for the worse. It is concerned with the very nature of humanity and saturated with visceral anxiety. It is personal, and meant to shame you, but in a collective-we-should-all-be-ashamed kind of way. One can (and should) be skeptical and critical of technology for a host of reasons—mostly with regard to patterns of exploitation from its production, distribution, and use. The worry piece is less concerned with these structural issues and instead, occupied by the loss of dinnertime conversation and the influx of content to which readers can presumably pay only fleeting attention.  

The worry piece has a standard formula and predictable conclusion. It begins with a personal anecdote, cites Sherry Turkle, metaphorizes media consumption as food consumption with a tie to health and morality (McDonalds often ends up on the losing side of the metaphor, despite their nugget makeover), the author confesses hir own “unhealthy” technological practices, nods to technologies’ benefits, and ends reflexively with some comment on the likelihood that the article itself is probably too long to keep readers’ attention. Columbia Journal Review recently published a worry piece that is conveniently meta, citing many of the existing worry pieces that have been popularized over the last several years.

The point of the worry piece is twofold: to discern the etiology of technology overload and provide practical advice for managing its effects. It places blame in some interrelated combination of technology companies, the media industry, and individual users. It tells  us that technology companies are invested in keeping people tethered to screens, which we regularly need to upgrade to keep up with new advancements. Media industries fight for eyeballs in a crowded attention economy and prioritize content quantity over quality. And individuals are weak and insatiable, addicted to the constant stream of information and attention. The advice is almost exclusively aimed at individual practice—log off, be intentional, detox, read a book. The worry piece fear mongers for several thousand words before placing the onus on the reader to push back against what the author has depicted as an unstoppable machine.

Clearly, the worry piece speaks to some experience that resonates with readers. Big outlets keep publishing them and people keep sharing them. But from my own recent slate of interviews with social media users, I think the worry piece resonates more with an ingrained, abstract, and habitual idea of technology, and less with people’s actual experiences with technology in their everyday lives. In this way, the worry piece contrasts markedly with what people tell me when they talk about their own relationships with platforms and devices.

I have been studying new and social media for almost 10 years. I collect data every few years, which lets me identify trends as they develop, and practices as they evolve. I am currently collecting new data. What stands out about this round of data collection is a general decrease in passion among participants. Their opinions are more fully formed but also less adamantly held. Things annoy them but don’t infuriate them. They laugh about the potential for distraction, but then elaborate on how they manage this for themselves. They know how to use privacy settings, they know how to navigate large content pools, they know how to hide, seek, tune out, turn on, and generally curate information and notifications.

In 2011, a woman I interviewed slammed her hand on a table and swore prolifically when describing a Facebook Friend who posted too frequently. It ate at her. Today, people mostly roll their eyes and laugh, then say that they hide those Friends who clog their feeds, generally qualifying their decision with a “you do you” kind of statement.  In previous iterations of data collection, people agonized over the ways the internet only showed people what they wanted to see. They feared the filter bubble and its effects on democratic discourse. Today, participants acknowledge the echo chamber and embrace their role in maintaining it. “Facebook isn’t where I go to learn things about ‘the other side,’” said one participant. “I can find what I want on my own.” In 2008, people talked about “going online,” as though it were something separate, something distracting. Today, people talk about how being online is part of their workday, social engagements, news consumption, and entertainment. Platforms and devices are how they communicate, as a matter of course and convenience.

Some participants still worry that people don’t talk as much or don’t connect as well, but the vast majority think we are both more widely connected and also maintain the deep connections we have always had. Even those who are concerned about the loss of social connection also feel generally confident in the strength of their own relationships—isolation is something that happens to other people, mostly teenagers who haven’t learned the skills that these participants have presumably mastered. Some people talk about the struggle to keep up with news and content, but most have systems that they imperfectly employ—lots of open tabs, RSS feeds, apps, dropbox folders— which they are generally comfortable neglecting.

This round of interviews is bearing out a relationship to technology that is decidedly settled. New platforms emerge, but this too is ordinary. A frequently changing technological landscape is expected and does not elicit panic. The older participants sometimes ask about “that Snapchat thing”, and a smattering of participants from varied age groups admit that they “don’t get” Twitter, but they also report that they don’t feel like they are missing out. The participants in this round of interviews engage with social media, but don’t feel compelled to engage on all social media, nor do they fear that the world is passing them by. Participants’ responses—both about themselves and about the place of new technologies in society—are tempered, nuanced, and quiet.

It’s not that worry pieces aren’t tapping into anything, it’s just that they are tapping into an affective sensibility that’s on its way out.

Ironically, the continued prevalence of the worry piece is most certainly a product of some of the very patterns that the articles worry over—a 24hour news cycle, a competitive attention economy, and the need to produce new content, regardless of whether an outlet and its writers have something meaningful to say.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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