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Finding Screen-Life Balance in Generation Hashtag

I recently heard someone say, “If there wasn’t a hashtag, it didn’t happen.” I recently rolled my eyes. I ate breakfast this morning, didn’t hashtag it, and guess what — still happened. #MicDrop

It’s comments like these that inform the latter of my love-hate relationship with social media. But on the upside, there’s a lot I love about these online platforms for engagement. These conflicting beliefs on using social media leave me struggling to find a meaningful screen-life balance in this hashtag driven world.




I LOVE social media because…
It provides the ability to connect with nearly anyone, nearly anywhere.
I recently completed a global travel adventure that brought me to 40 countries over 15 months. I set out on this journey with the goal of asking people the same three questions along the way to better understand what I call our Big Shared World (more info on this journey here). Before embarking, I spent some time looking at a map and thinking about destinations, but much more time working on the controlled element of my trip — the three questions.

I wasn’t too concerned about the travel logistics. Thanks to many apps and websites, arriving in a new place is as easy as ever to navigate quickly. I’d traveled enough before to know that open ended itineraries usually allow for better experiences, as well as the flexibility to let people you meet along the way change an afternoon, or entire destination on the road.

I also wasn’t too concerned with how I’d connect with people around the world. By the power of “snowball networking” (taken from the research term snowball sampling when study participants refer the next batch of participants), I figured I’d manage on the go and find plenty of people to talk to, learn from, stay with, and make up the overall interactions of my experience. This peace of mind was likely a subconscious function of the power of Facebook.

I still remember the feeling of anticipation I had when I was finally ready to share my project plans and make it “Facebook Official.” On October 1, 2014, I took off. It was also the first day I announced my ambitious journey to the social media world. I wrote a blog post on the plane ride to San Francisco, connected to airport wifi after landing, and pressed “publish.” The next few days, I excitedly refreshed my notifications to an ongoing flood of likes and supportive comments that came in, confirming my hopes that my network would lend me their couches, friends, and insights along the way.

Below: The “Facebook Official” post for me and Big Shared World.


I HATE social media because…
We now live in a world with “technology tunnel vision.”
If I was interested in going into a medical field today, I’d either study orthopedics (specifically necks and thumbs) or optometry (eye muscles related to peripheral vision). These are areas I personally believe will be greatly affected by our excessive use of smart phones and screen based devices. Before my travels, I wondered if this obsession with our screens was just an American habit, but I quickly learned it is prevalent everywhere there is an abundance of smart phones. Around the world, there were countless people I saw with their heads down, thumbs tapping away at screens. Some countries were even worse than America – yikes!

Below: The most crowded, yet quiet city I visited was Tokyo. Many with their screens up, heads down.

I found it disappointing to see so many people going through life with their heads down. Thus, I worry about technology’s impact on narrowing our vision — philosophically and intellectually. A quick search on LinkedIn pulled up nearly 15,000 job openings for “User Experience Expert.” These positions are filled by brilliant people who expertly curate our online experiences. Without us even realizing why, there are certain sites we enjoy using more than others. One of my personal favorites is Huffington Post for news, which uses reader data to determine the articles that appear. While I get disappointed with the prevalence of Kardashian type stories on the news site, I more often than not click through the story and add to the very reason that it is considered high-value content in the “Suggested For You” section. Because who doesn’t find their vapid empire frustratingly fascinating? I also love how Amazon has designed an online shopping experience similar to having a friend in the physical aisle with you, to remind you what you might also want to buy based on what’s already in your cart. Oh right, I need batteries. Thanks, Amazon.

I recently spoke about this phenomenon of curated online experiences during a presentation I gave on “Being a Millennial in this Big Shared World.” I shared about the ability to connect with diverse people and ideas around the world, alongside the rise of our society’s “technology tunnel vision.” This is where the curated content experience is narrowing our viewpoints. Social media sites are perhaps hiring the most clever User Experience Experts. These people build algorithms that present content unique to each user, based on their previous site activity. The more we use the site, the more individually unique our experience becomes. The more unique our experience is, the more we come back to the site. Thanks to their expertise, we don’t just refresh our self-selected newsfeed, we continue to add suggested pages they put in front of us that are recommended to follow, based on our preferences. From people we may know, organizations we may support, products we may like – we are constantly adding layers of cement to our already existing “technology tunnels” in which we view the world through.

Established researcher, Sherry Turkle, wrote about some negative effects of technology on everything from in person interactions, to self-esteem in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.Her basic premise is that we’re more connected than ever before, but we’re not actually connecting. For those with less time, watch Turkle’s Ted Talk.

Turkle states, “We expect more from technology and less from each other. Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. We are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we are designing technology that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control.”

Turkle mentions “sociable robots,” which is a topic unto itself as far as whether these invented machines are going to be an asset or detriment to humanity. It was while asking someone my third question, “What do you think the world will be like 50 years from now?” that I learned of the term singularity.

A research engineer said, “Some people think in the near future computers will be as, or more, intelligent than humans. That they may take over the world. It’ll be like a holiday [vacation] for everyone. Or, like The Terminator.”

And if you want to see something that will really give you the heebie-jeebies about the future of socialized robots, see this clip from CNBC aptly titled, “Could you fall in love with a robot?” The lead designer of human-like robot Sophia talks with her conversationally, and speaks of a future in just 20 years where these robots will be walking among us, and “truly be our friends.” I watch a clip like this and am baffled to believe that we live in this incredible, interconnected world full of amazing humans to connect with, yet people feel the need to build a robot to be their “friend.”


I LOVE social media because…
I can learn a lot.
The amount of posts to various social media platforms every day means that the information available to people with internet access is immense. Thus, the ability to learn new things is infinite.

According to statistics:

  • ■ Facebook’s over 1.4 billion active monthly users send an average of 31.25 million messages per minute.
  • ■ Twitter’s 288 million active monthly users tweet an average of almost 350,000 tweets per minute.
  • ■ Over 30 billion photos have been shared on Instagram since it was founded just five years ago.
  • ■ YouTube’s over one billion users upload an average of 300 hours of video every minute.

The bottom line is that there is a lot of material out in the social media universe. Sifting through it to find the substance can often be the challenge. And thus, the hashtag was born.

I HATE social media because…
There is a constant expectation to post.
During my travels, I always felt a pressure to post. While I understood most of the encouragement was from friends and people I met who were genuinely interested in following along on my adventure, I still struggled to find the desire to end an enriching day abroad trying to encapsulate it in a post. With Facebook being my personal comfort, I turned to my Big Shared World page for solace by creating photo albums from each destination. Despite my best efforts to keep my Facebook profile updated, every person with a smartphone kept asking me to post on #Instagram.

While I certainly welcomed suggestions for my journey, I found myself almost defending the reasons why I chose to post or not.

“You should be blogging your stream of consciousness.”I don’t want to give the milk away for free!

“You should be on Instagram.” Ugh, I know! I know!

“You should be connecting with other travel bloggers.” I’m not a travel blogger! Travel bloggers review hotels and restaurants at exotic destinations. I’m traveling with a research project.

“You should be writing more.”I write every day, but it’s not in the form of a blog post. It’s a chapter for the book, it’s a response to a place I visited that I want to research more before I fully develop my opinion and understanding of it and share that with the world. It’s an email home with connections to personal issues, or my family’s, that is all part of the larger experience for me, but not something I can share quickly in between destinations.

“You should stop making excuses and be more active online.”Sorry I don’t have time to be more active online. I’m #BusyLiving.

It wasn’t for lack of content or witty captions. I took thousands of pictures, and in our soundbite world, I’d walk around and think of taglines of which I never posted. Before I actually took the time to turn the thought into a post, I had moved on to the next picture worthy moment. I could either have my head down and share the experience, or just look up and experience it. I chose to be more in the moment than about it.

After country 32, I finally did it. I uploaded my first photo to Big Shared World’s Instagram page. When I started posting, it was an activity for me. I’d go to my Facebook album, download photos to my phone, copy/paste the captions into an email and send it to myself to replicate the highlights from the album to my new Instagram feed. I thought I was doing a great job catching up until my new friend from Istanbul Facebook messaged me, “Hey Colleen, I must unfollow you from Instagram because whenever I look at Instagram, I see only your photos. It’s too much Colleen.”

Not long after, my very social media savvy friend from New York called and said, “I see you’re getting the hang of Instagram. Maybe too much?” My brother would text, “#overposting.”

I became jealous of people like Bill Bryson or Studs Terkel, respected authors who researched and explored life with an element of travel, prior to the age of social media. They were able to build a brand after their journeys of discovery, taking time for adequate reflection. I imagine they could immerse themselves in the experience, pause and reflect, write about it later, and not get a book deal based on the interaction of their followers along the way, but the substance of their overall analysis. And while I understand the importance in today’s social media driven world to build these platforms for sharing, it’s overwhelming – not to mention, having to write the larger story.


I LOVE social media because…
It’s bringing strange bedfellows together around important causes, current events, and issues.
I understand the value of the hashtag and using social media as a mobilizing force for good. After listening to a rant about my aversion to posting, a friend invited me to a luncheon in Washington DC that he was attending. The event was put on by a local non-profit’s communications team on the topic of “Breaking Through in the Media.” The room was full of smart individuals, all connected to really meaningful organizations. Many had valuable insight on how they used the convening power of online platforms to bring more attention to their cause. This was the opposite of superficial. The social media skeptic in me walked away from the event thinking –yeah, that’s super great, but it all is only relevant because people are so obsessed with their online existence today, and the only way to reach them is to show up effectively on their screens.


I HATE social media because…
People think Hashtag Activism is making a difference on its own.
The same friend who invited me to the luncheon hosted a panel event one week later. The speakers were all heavily engaged in various social issue movements. One audience member asked about their thoughts on the future of Hashtag Activism. This is the concept of social media being used to rally support around a specific topic of social concern, perhaps best exemplified by #BlackLivesMatter or the #Occupy movement, campaigns that have directed massive attention to complex issues like race relations and income inequality, respectively.

One of the speakers said that the weakness of #Activism is when people who come together with a hashtag think that’s enough:

“Just because you get a hashtag doesn’t mean you won the battle. Just because you tweeted something doesn’t mean you are done with the work. You now have to find the solution.”

There is definitely a positive effect from the use of social media platforms to mobilize energy and support around an area of concern. As the event speaker pointed out, however, these are complicated issues and calling attention to them is only step one.


I LOVE social media because…
Baby boomers and beyond can connect with the younger generations.
I sometimes think I must sound like an 80 year old grandma trapped in a 29 year old’s body. But it’s actually the 80 year olds who are getting social media right, #IMHO (in my humble opinion).

I have a colleague in his sixties who is one of the most consistent voices in my Facebook feed. He shares his beliefs, his work, his family life. And it’s well received by his friends who “like” his posts and often comment with their support, and sometimes a friendly debate. There isn’t a feeling that he is trying to show off, more just showcase what’s going on in his life. I enjoy our Facebook friendship as it makes it easier for us to continue our off-Facebook friendship as I can follow along easily on what he’s been up to in between those interactions.

I think the older generations (baby boomers and beyond) have used social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, as the tools they were designed to be – online mechanisms for sharing opinions and information in a streamlined, mass consumed way. I am happy to hear about grandparents and great aunts, cousins, etc., all able to stay connected with their family no matter where they are geographically. While at the pool in Arizona enjoying retirement, older relatives can follow along on sports games, dance recitals, and other life events and accomplishments that are not possible to be in person for. The power of communication apps like FaceTime and Skype allow this generation to stay connected like never before.

It’s my generation I worry about.

I HATE social media because…
The Hashtag Generation doesn’t know how to connect without #SocialMedia.
I haven’t always been so conflicted with social media. Facebook ruled my world in college. Back in 2005 when I graduated high school, future university students signed up for the earliest orientation possible so that they could get their .edu email address and gain access to the exclusive student-only website, TheFacebook.com. This was about the same time the site joined the iconic likes of Cher, Bette, and Madonna, and became known exclusively by its one name, Facebook.

I remember I had a flip phone and I would have to go back to my dorm room to check my computer in order to see if anyone had posted on my “Facebook wall.” You see back then, it wasn’t about status updates, it was about wall posts! You had one shot at a profile picture and could write some information about yourself in the bio section, but your social “cool factor” was left up to what other people wrote to you on your “wall.” If one of our friends had said something particularly funny, we’d all say, “Oh, post that to my wall.” Even though Facebook wasn’t yet in the palm of our hands through our flip phones, it was definitely on the top of our minds.

Sometimes Facebook would add a feature or change their layout and you would overhear people talk about these updates at the student cafeteria – if Facebook changed, we all had to adapt to it. At first design, it was so college-centric that you could add your courses and find fellow classmates. In fact, I made one of my best friends through posting a message on her wall. It was something to the effect that based on her profile interests of travel and shopping, we should be partners on future class projects. With graduation and .com emails becoming the norm of their average user, Facebook eventually announced that it would open to the public. Chaos ensued on campuses as people realized this meant their parents could become members of the once exclusively .edu site. The history of Facebook changes is fun to reminisce, but it highlights the fact that as these technologies have evolved, so too has our use of them in daily life.

Generation Hashtag (aka millennials) grew up as globalization took over the world, and with it, exponentially increased the amount of technology and communication tools. One look at the evolution of the cell phone showcases how something that seems impossible to live without today has only been around since most of this generation was a baby. Mobile technology and the internet grew into its commonplace role in society, making millennials the first generation where technology was infused into our socialization process.

When I think about the impact of social media on my own generation, I can’t even begin to grapple with my fears of what this virtual reality is going to mean for the next generation. From how we communicate with our best friends to how we date, I see the quality of our interactions going down. For those who grow up in an age where tablets are a part of the elementary school classroom, and social media profiles are allowed before they are even teenagers, I can only imagine how technology will permeate into their socialization process along the way.


I LOVE social media because…
It’s addictive.
While I can harp on the annoyances of social media platforms all day, I would be a hypocrite to say that I’ve found a perfectly healthy screen-life balance. Technology is one of the greatest addictions of our time. Countless studies have shown how social media makes us feel good about ourselves. From the self-esteem gained through people liking our content, to the ability to manage the impressions other people have of us, these platforms allow the opportunity to be an optimally edited version of ourselves. Taking time to craft a thought before we post allows us to be more clever than a real time conversation would. Using filters on our photos allows us to edit everything from our backyards to our blemishes so that our lives appear more beautiful and vibrant than they actually are. Social media allows us to have control over the way others perceive us. As online consumer behavior researcher Liraz Margalit said, “on a subconscious level, we are re-inventing a more positive version of ourselves.”

Social media allows for our natural psychological desire to connect to be satisfied, but in an even more satisfactory way. From an average user who posts occasional thoughts and photos, to bloggers who have established online careers becoming “influencers” in their areas of expertise, social media creates an experience that maximizes the potential for positive feedback. And if there unfortunately happens to be a naysayer amidst the followers, we can just delete their comment and block them as if they don’t exist.

What’s not to love about a world where our screens are like rose colored glasses, if that’s the filter you choose to use?

I HATE social media because…
I really would like to have an uninterrupted, substantial conversation with a friend.
Through reflection, including the writing process of this post, I realize that I mainly hate social media because of what it does to my in-person interactions on a daily basis. When I traveled and approached strangers around the world to answer three meaningful questions about their values and beliefs, people thanked me by the end of our conversations. It was like I had opened up a part of them they were happy to tap into again. Many people said they don’t have these kinds of conversations anymore. I only asked three questions, but it made an impact on them. I believe social media has become a hindrance to the quality of our everyday interactions.

I miss the days when you went to a meal with a friend and:

  • ■ They didn’t take 10 minutes once the meal arrived to capture the perfect angle of the food.
  • ■ The only device used was a fork and knife, not a cell phone which seems to always be next to the silverware line up of today.
  • ■ They didn’t check their phone every time it buzzed, beeped or rang.
  • ■ They actually looked you in the eye and had a full conversation without glancing at their phone.

I miss the days when you invited a friend to lunch and they didn’t bring everyone who had their phone number or email address with them to the table. Today, it’s like two people are getting together at one table, then the booth across from them is the peanut gallery full of intruders to the conversation. It’s a work colleague’s question about an ongoing project buzzing through, a different friend confirming their later plans, a confirmation of a new friend, an update on a sale at their favorite boutique. These all buzz through, and with each glance at the phone, diminish the value of the interaction in front of us.

If we don’t have the self-control to put our phones away for a lunch with a best friend, then I worry the same as that research engineer who introduced me to the meaning of singularity. If technology becomes smarter than us, and we’re already letting it become an extension of ourselves and invade the moments that should be just between humans, then maybe one day it will take over.

In conclusion, I’ll probably need to just #GetOverIt.
I do spend time wondering if social media is a passing phase. As I traveled the globe and asked people about their thoughts of the future world, there seemed to be a lot of wavering on which direction we’ll go. I had plenty of conversations with people who thought that individuals would eventually get sick of living through our screens, and look for a more authentic experience. Many others think we’re definitely going the way of the robot.

Will there ever be a day without Instagram? Apparently the engagement platform does have some cause for concern, with Instagram interactions dropping 40% in 2015. Interesting to note, is the recent news that Instagram will no longer be chronological, but curated. Even if Instagram somehow becomes less popular, there will likely be a new technology platform that takes over. Snapchat, Periscope, Vine… just to name a few of the social media sites on the rise.

Below: A street art piece by LA-based Morley, posted on Instagram

My overall hope is similar to the answer my high school theater teacher gave me for his vision of the world in 50 years: “We will have evolved technologically to such a point that we will have come to understand that all technology are just tools to make this world simpler and therefore will allow that to happen.”

If that means a few less filters to edit our living experiences through, then that would be a future I look forward to. I can only dream of a day where we collectively establish a more healthy screen-life balance between our curated online worlds and the real one that takes place offline. For now, I’ll just have to #GetOverIt.

And in the meantime, follow me on:
Instagram!Facebook! and Twitter!
I may not post often, but it’ll boost my confidence to know you’re there.

And don’t forget to ANSWER THE BSW 3 QUESTIONS!!!


1 reply
  1. JoAnne Simson
    JoAnne Simson says:

    Great points in this post! I SO identify with your love-hate relationship with social media. It can be so time consuming that it’s hard to get other important things done – like writing, and housework!


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