Social Media Serendipity

“Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Habits can be powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts – which consist of a cue, routine and a reward,” says author Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, one of the books I read during my social media leave of absence.

Duhigg continues, “To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. If you use the same cue and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.”

According to this model, my social media habits broke down into the following parts:

Cue: a lull in time or conversation.

Routine: check (and/or publish to) social media.

Reward: feeling connected with family, friends and colleagues.

During my social media leave of absence, keeping the old cue (a lull in time or conversation) was easy. Lulls in time or conversation happen frequently throughout the day. While feeling connected with family, friends and colleagues is never easy, it’s imperative to my happiness. My routine of checking, and publishing to, social media is what needed shifting in order to change the time-consuming habit I had developed.

Taking social media out of the equation entirely forced me to explore new routines. I found these new routines to be meaningful and fulfilling. I read two books in just over a month. My wife and I launched a “No Phone Zone” campaign, where either one of us can ban the use of phones in the house at any time. I spent more time talking with people since I was relieved from the lazy impersonal interactions we all depend on, and seemingly enjoy, through social media. I regularly reflected and captured my thoughts in a journal. I spent my time on the bus commute to work reading magazines versus frantically scrolling through my overly populated RSS feed subscriptions in Google Reader.

Exploring new routines surfaced an important reminder. While social media and technology are powerful ways to connect people, their core purpose is to enhance the relationships and interactions of the analog world. Not vice versa. The following passage from Imagine (the second book I read during my leave) eloquently expresses the importance of thoughtfully balancing digital and analog (at least it's not a Bob Dylan quote!).

The limitations of technology should inspire us to rethink the nature of our online interactions. The first thing we have to ensure is that our new digital contacts don’t detract from our real connections, from the analog conversations of the physical world. While the Internet has evolved primarily to maximize efficiency and make it as easy as possible to find information, it needs to do a better job of increasing serendipity.

If you think of online interactions as habits, you’ll be able to rethink the nature of them. Many of our social media habits have emerged outside of consciousness, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. I fiddled with their parts over the course of 37 days by exploring alternative routines to obsessing over social media. But the reward never changed. Feeling connected with family, friends and colleagues will always be an award I seek. If my revised social media routines can help me achieve this award, the Internet will have done its job of increasing serendipity.