Logging Off

My Chronicle column this month is on the tension between the online and offline world.
Real world has warm people with offline lives, The Chronicle, 7 January 2014

In an article for the Weekly Standard last year, Matt Labash launched a broadside against social media, arguing that sites like Facebook, Pintrest and Twitter were turning our society into a "Twidiocracy". Labash bemoaned the fact that so many of us incessantly check our mobile phones for updates, rather than engaging with those around us.

As a pretty regular user of social media, I read Labash's column with a red face. If I'm catching a bus or plane, I'm much more likely to be plugged into a device than chatting with the person next to me. My wife Gweneth took a photo that makes me cringe, showing me at our kitchen counter, answering constituent email on the laptop while our boys (aged 1, 4 and 6) played under my feet.

Social media is terrific for staying in touch with friends on the other side of the world, or for linking up people with disparate interests. A year ago, I tweeted that I was looking for a researcher to collaborate on looking at long run trends in CEO pay. Melbourne economic historian Mike Pottenger got in touch, and we'd written an article together before we even met face to face.

But like lottery tickets, online technologies such as email, Facebook and Twitter work off what the psychologists call "variable interval reinforcement schedule". In other words, most of the time you get nothing, but occasionally a nice payoff comes along, in the form of a message from a long-lost friend, or praise for your work. It turns out that humans are particularly vulnerable to this kind of unpredictable reward, and are more likely to become addicted to it. If you've ever checked email more than once a minute, you know what I mean.

And then there's the negativity. Study after study has shown that people are more likely to say unnecessarily harsh things about one another on electronic media. There's something about impersonal technologies that have the potential to bring out our catty side. Read to the end of almost any long comments thread, and you'll find people duking it out.

So how can we capture the manifest benefits of email and social media without becoming slaves to the machine? Surprisingly, Silicon Valley may have some lessons. Some technology firms are now identifying times in each day when employees are not expected to reply to email. For example, 9-11am might be designated as time to think, write or code. I've started (with limited success, I admit) trying something similar in my own office.

Indeed, once you recognise that the technology has an addictive bent and a negative bias, it becomes a smidgin easier not to check in as often, and not to take criticism so seriously. Perhaps taking the kids to the pool might be a better use of time than responding to that twit-crit? Could a phone call to a lonely aunt be more valuable to the world than a Facebook status update?

More radically, I've been trying lately to implement "inbox zero"- the strategy of answering, filing or deleting all email immediately. It's hard at the outset, but does seem to help reduce the time you spend looking at the same message, deciding how best to answer it.

So if you can manage it this summer, check to see if you've got the balance right between the online and offline world. Because there are some terrific books and BBQs, parks and pools just waiting for your attention.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser and the Shadow Assistant Treasurer.

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