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The Dirty Truth About Digital Fasts

by Alexandra Samuel in | |

This blog post originally appeared at the Harvard Business Review.

Last year it was the staycation. This year it’s the digital fast. “How I unplugged” — from Twitter, from a Blackberry, from the Internet, or at the behest of the New York Times — is the new “what I did on my summer vacation.”

As people trade stories about how they survived, or even thrived, offline, I’m troubled by the underlying narrative, that our ability to unplug is necessary to prove that we’re not Internet addicts. We’re supposed to demonstrate our grasp of human relationships by our ability to relate face-to-face, as well as online. We’re supposed to show that we can be present by being absent from the web.

Scan the diaries of the unplugged and you’ll find them self-described as “the journal of a recovering addict“, writing about offline vacations as “time away from the madness.” But why do we have to describe our time offline as if we’re going into some kind of recovery program? The very idea of a digital “cleanse” implies that our time online makes us dirty; the idea of a digital “fast” suggests that there’s a virtue in going without.

Here’s another framing: We plug in because we like it.

When we’re online — not just online, but participating in social media — we’re meeting some of our most basic human needs. No, not the need to read the latest Lindsay Lohan update.

Needs like creative expression. The need to connect with other people. The need to be part of a community. Most of all, the need to be seen: not in a surface, aren’t-you-cute way, but in a deep, so-that’s-what’s-going-on-inside-your-head way. Put yourself out there online, as you truly are and with what you truly think, and you can have that experience of being seen.

It’s the very fact that the Internet can meet so many fundamental needs, significantly if not completely, that gets people nervous. We are accustomed to defining our human experience in terms of what happens face-to-face: I want you to look me in the eye, bend my ear, scratch my back if I scratch yours. Those aren’t metaphors: they’re reflective of the way our culture sees human connection in fundamentally physical terms. Which made a lot of sense until five or ten years ago.

Now our connections live online as much as off. We can have meaningful emotional or intellectual contact with people that we rarely or never encounter in person. I can bond with you, listen to you and trade favors with you, even if you never look me in the eye, bend my ear or scratch my back.

As much as we now live that reality, we haven’t fully integrated it. Talk to anyone who spends more than a few hours a week on social networking sites, and you’re virtually guaranteed to hear that they’ve had deeply meaningful conversations or formed profoundly important relationships with people they’ve met online. But just like when you’re falling in love for the first time — “is this love?” — we’re in a period of self-doubt and self-interrogation about our budding emotional lives online. Is this a “real” relationship? Is this a valid way of connecting?

We’re not sure, or we’re reluctant to admit that it feels real, because we are trained on connection inherently requiring physical presence. So what do we do? To test our virtual relationships and budding feelings, we go offline. We fast. Disconnect, free ourselves from the hypnotic powers of the screen to know if what feels so compelling online is a meaningful experience or some kind of digital illusion.

But what most digital fasters describe the experience to be like is not a cleansing, or some detoxification — finally, I’m free of that corrupting Internet! — but rather a realization of how online and offline lives are integrated. One. A newly holistic life that includes time for both plugging in and unplugging, in equally conscious and intentional ways.

If unplugging needs to be a part of our approach to living and working digitally, it’s through the daily practice of taking downtime, of opting for reflection rather than distraction. If longer-term digital fasts can remind you how to integrate offline moments back into your daily life, that’s great. But you don’t need a digital fast to justify meeting your needs online, and you don’t need to unplug in order to justify plugging back in.

First posted on September 2,2010

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