I apologize; this has become very, very long and very, very disorganized. Sloppy braindump, but hopefully some jumping-off points here.
First I think there are some important terms you need to make less vague. This might begin with identifying the things you read on the internet (or in life in general) that you feel *do* give you some “tangible benefit.” Are all Twitter messages worthless? Why do you subscribe to that person specifically? Are his tweets sometimes poetic, prosaically clever, or otherwise mentally engaging? Does he sometimes link to news or products or services that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about, things that then *do* provide “tangible benefit”? Is it your fault for subscribing, or is it his fault for providing worthless content? What about his real-life friends who follow him, won’t that tweet be of interest to them? As a figure in the public eye, then, should he be required to have two Twitter accounts, a professional and a personal one? What will you lose by unsubscribing from him entirely? Can the things of value that he does provide be found anywhere else on the internet? Reddit? Metafilter? TechCrunch? Delicious?
On the other hand, didn’t that tweet of his in fact provide value, since it is one of the things that prompted you to think about this problem and write a Tumblr post about the subject?
What qualities does a media item need to possess in order to provide you with value? Are things not worth doing if they don’t alter the way you think or behave in the future? Do things need to be valuable for longer than the time you experience them? If so, you might start with a braindump of all the things you can remember that did change your life for the better, to begin to identify the qualities that make these things unique, as well as what channels you received them from.
Where does humor stand in all this? Do humorous things, even the most humorous, permanently or even temporarily change how you think and behave, beyond the time that you are experiencing them? Is value gotten from re-telling a joke to a friend? From watching a funny movie or TV show with a friend? If so, is it because this involves relating personally, in real-life? If yes, why is meatspace interaction more valuable than internet interaction? Is it at all?
Consider this: In November of 2007, I went to London for a week. By myself. I’d never been outside of North America, and I found myself with some money, and decided it would be worthwhile. I deliberately did not construct an itinerary so that I didn’t feel dictated or obligated to see anything specific. I just wanted to be there, for a week, walking around, relaxing, reading, stopping into pubs, and taking photos.
What did that do to me? Anything of value? Frankly and truthfully, I don’t know. I know that I enjoyed it while it happened. But am I different person for it? Should I have spent the money on some class instead? If so, *why*?
I wonder if the problem is that we *think* there’s a problem. We are now, on the internet, haunted by opportunity cost, and feel more pressed to be doing something valuable than I believe we would if we didn’t have so much information available to us. Why does this change things? If a person enjoys playing backgammon, and another person enjoys watching YTMND animations, why is one person better off than the other? Backgammon doesn’t make you a better person. Yet somehow it feels more wholesome or valuable, doesn’t it? Is it the meatspace thing again? Or do we need to reconsider that maybe backgammon is worthless? What about kite flying? Kite flying is an enormous waste of time!
I suppose that kite flying has the probability of providing you with memories of being with a friend or friends, something you can look back on fondly, while you will never look back fondly on reading Twitter. Or will you?
I’m reminded of this Cat and Girl comic: http://catandgirl.com/?p=283
I read Cat and Girl every morning. As well as Overcompensating, Scary Go Round, Achewood, and xkcd. Why? Why do I read them? Are they a waste of time? I was fortunately able to remember this particular Cat and Girl, as it is relevant to this discussion, but what about all the ones that I don’t remember, or that don’t ever get linked by me in an email? What about xkcd? Is xkcd at least a small portion of the reason I switched to Ubuntu? Probably. What good is that? I get far less done in Ubuntu than in Windows because it is foreign to me, but I enjoy the challenge and the open-source philosophy. Is that worthwhile? Will the things I’m learning about Linux ever provide me with value outside of using Ubuntu? Should I care about that? Why can’t I just enjoy it for the sake of enjoying it?
I find myself unable to read long articles on the internet anymore. I have so many starred items in Google Reader that I don’t want to think about it. Not to mention my “readlater” tag on Delicious. The internet has become to me what TV is to so many people. It’s just the default thing I go to when I don’t know what to do. Or out of habit. 99% of the time I’m at my computer, it’s because I just sat down there, opened Firefox, clicked my Gmail and Google Reader bookmarks, and then clicked around until there was nothing new to stimulate me. Can’t be bothered to go through my starred Google Reader items and actually sit and read one. Why not?: Because there are too many! Which one should I read, *and why*? Opportunity cost.
Maybe here’s the trouble: We have too many queues.
Have you ever fantasized about your hard drive crashing? Or your Google Reader data being lost? I have. In 2003 my laptop was stolen. It was so refreshing! Meanwhile I have copies of most Daily Show episodes from the last three years, because I used to torrent all of them. Why can’t I delete them? Why do I keep “burn Daily Shows to DVDs” on my mental to-do list? Get rid of that shit fer chrissake!!
Have you ever considered how you might go about taking your life offline? How that might look? Writing letters and making phone calls instead of emails and tweets and Facebook statuses; maybe even a REAL phone at home so that you can’t be bothered at any minute of any day, and you can speak with friends with the luxury of a big, comfortable handset against your ear? No danger of being disconnected? Learning about new music from Magnet and Fader and The Wire, buying the music that sounds interesting in them, or on their sampler CDs? Reading articles in Wired and The Economist rather than wired.com and Slate? Subscribing to The New York Times? Lying on your carpet listening to records without having to check their Last.fm, Wikipedia, and MySpace pages?
As you think about living like that, think: What on the internet is TRULY irreplaceable? I sent this valentine to somebody last week: http://www.presentandcorrect.com/item.php?item_id=195 I only knew about it because I had a subscription to ilike.org.uk in Google Reader. ilike is a blog that mostly posts pretty pictures of retro British architecture. What do I get from it most of the time? Nothing, other than the opportunity to see pretty things. But when that valentine was linked to on the blog, it affected my “real,” meatspace life, even a real meatspace relationship. What would I have sent if I hadn’t learned about it? Does this alone conclusively demonstrate that my subscription to ilike is valuable? Or does it do more harm than good? How much time do I *really* waste passing over its more boring posts in Reader’s list view? I subscribe to a lot of typography blogs too, just because I like typography. Isn’t it ok to just *like* typography, just because I like it?
I just began reading a book from 1978 or so called “Four Arguments for the ELIMINATION of Television,” which argues that the medium itself is beyond reform. As I read it, I try to imagine that the author is talking about the internet, to see whether his case applies here, too. He describes what it feels like to hear a news report of some violence in a distant continent, followed by the sports scores and a commercial for laundry detergent. This experience robs the important story of any reality it might have otherwise had. It is compartmentalized, contained, requiring no more thought than it took to hear about it. Isn’t this even *more* true on the internet, when every page has dozens and dozens of hyperlinks that are clamoring to interrupt you?
Or is *all of this* just backwards, nostalgic, techno-apocalyptic thinking? People once argued centuries ago that the PRINTING PRESS, *the god damn PRINTING PRESS*, would dumb people down. And, later, that *typewriters* would turn people into bad writers. Is this the same thing? Or is the internet so profoundly different in the way that it manipulates our attention that we do need to worry about it?
Also important to consider: Is the content itself the problem, or is it the way we relate to the content that is the problem? And how are these two things related? Is dicking around in Google Reader ok if I set aside an hour to do it in each night, with a beer or a cup of tea and some music playing? Rather than just clicking bookmarks like a rat with his paw on the cocaine button?
An article I read some time ago that I think of occasionally. It’s ostensibly about “email addiction,” but really relates to a lot of the ways we interact with the ’net.