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10 early warning signs that you need to decrease (or increase) your time online

by Alex in | | |

Yesterday I received what I accurately diagnosed as the Best Error Message Ever:

Error message reads, "Microsoft Error Reporting quit unexpectedly."

Being a deeply religious person, I figured that an error message this…ummm…ironic? apt? transcendant?…must be some kind of sign from the universe. At first I thought it might be a sign to stop using Microsoft software, but then I thought, hey, surely the universe isn’t that literal. I went to bed with the kind of spiritual unease that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been dealt a contradictory set of Tarot cards, a cup full of inscrutable tea leaves or an out-of-context paragraph from Revelation.

But this morning when I awoke, the meaning was clear: it was a metaphor. (The universe is very big on metaphor.) More precisely, it was a reminder to stop trusting my error logs, and do a more careful assessment of whether my professional and personal technologies are really working for me.

It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves regularly. Any of us knows enough to freak out over an inbox with 2000 unread messages, or a computer that crashes every three hours, or a phone that drops calls while surrounded by 82 cell phone towers. What we’re missing is the broader, more subtle early warning system: the signs that tell us when something just ain’t right with our online lives.

In my physical life, I know exactly what that kind of sign looks like: swollen glands. Thanks to a year of elementary school spent in a near-constant state of strep throat, the glands in my throat turn into baseballs if my white blood cells even think about taking a nap. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but it gives me a sign to double up on the vitamin C, lay off the booze, and get a good night of sleep — which can usually be counted on to ward off whatever virus triggered the gland flare-up. It’s a warning system that works great because it kicks in early enough for me to do something about it.

When I look at my geeked-out friends — or at myself — I can see that the immune system for our online lives is sorely lacking. People ask the hard questions about their online lives when their boyfriends or wives dump them, when their kids complain about how Mummy loves her Blackberry more than she loves them, or when a weekend away from the Internet leaves them sick with anxiety. In other words, once it’s too late.

And the less geeky are equally vulnerable to a stealth attack. They don’t ask about the health of their tech ecosystem until their boss tells them that the reason they missed out on that promotion is because they’re known as the office Luddite. They always seem to hear the latest industry or office news from someone else (someone who uses Twitter). They’re still relying on a paper calendar, but wonder why they didn’t get invited to that last meeting (booked through Google Calendar).

Whether you err on the side of over- or under-investing in your online life, you’re equally in need of a digital immune system: a set of indicators that serve as early warning signs of a potential (but still preventable) problem. Here are 10 signs that you may need to increase (or decrease) your Daily Dose of Internet:

You may need to gear down if…

  • You get upset if your friends get beta invitations to a new web service before you’ve joined it.
  • You haven’t been offline for more than 24 hours in the past 6 months.
  • You have more friends you feel emotionally connected to online than you have offline.
  • You can’t enjoy an experience unless you can blog, tweet, Facebook or otherwise share it.
  • When you hear about a new digital trend, product or service, your first thought is, “How can I get that?”

You may need to gear up if…

  • You feel anxious when someone asks you to use a new gadget or piece of software.
  • You are frequently confused by conversations in which other people are talking about websites or tools you’ve never heard of.
  • You have missed more than 3 party, event or meeting invitations in the past year because you don’t use the social network, calendaring system or invitation service used to organize it.
  • You have no idea what your kids are up to online, and when they reassure you it’s the same as all the other kids in their school, you have no idea if that’s true.
  • When you hear about a new digital trend, product or service, your first thought is, “How can I avoid that?”

Even if some of these signs apply to you, that doesn’t mean you have a problem. What it does mean is that you need to step back and look at the time you spend online, and whether it’s helping you meet your personal and professional goals. Maybe you need to gear up in order to stay engaged with your colleagues, friends and family. Maybe you need to gear down in order to remember that you have colleagues, friends and family.

Either way, it’s important to identify the early warning sign or signs that will prompt you to ask yourself about your online habits, before they get you in trouble. Just make sure it’s a sign that will appear more frequently than the Best Error Message Ever.

First posted on October 3,2011

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