notifications are the worst, but could they help us?

Notifications rob us of presence.  At this juncture, we are quite familiar with the notion that we are losing the ability to focus with sustained thought, and instead crave distractions approximately every other minute.  Not only are we increasingly distracted, we have also significantly lowered the bar for relationships.  For better or worse, we tend to think we do our most honest communicating on social media, removed of the necessity for kindness, of looking another in the eye and remembering that she is a human, just like we are.  Isn’t the connection that occurs when the image of God in me recognizes the image of God in you the thing that makes relationships possible?  Social media relationships make that recognition incredibly tenuous, for a person becomes fully represented by a sentence or image, and the whole of him, his personhood, is overlooked.  And yet, as I argued last week, we have also discovered that social media creates a new sphere for public and interpersonal engagement, and that is a fabulous thing.

The best social media applications create space in real time for people to interact.  It should be acknowledged that this idea is at least half bullshit, for online conversing has a way of removing nuance and eliminating the visceral empathy that accompanies interactions in person.  Nevertheless, it feels true to many of us, and the possibility of rich interaction compels us to always be connected.  So we sign up for notifications.  Soon we find ourselves compulsively checking our phones for these dings, which serve as practical proof of our relevance.  The irony is that these notifications, which tell us that our real-time-community needs our attention, often interrupt—and even destroy—the actual community happening around us in real time.  The tragedy is that clicking the innocent “turn on” button, like the choice to use a phone as an alarm clock, elevates the power our phones have over us exponentially.  Often with very little intention, we make our phones and the insubstantial connections they provide the primary touchstones for our information gathering, our sense of value and our notions of belonging.  While access to social media can assist in providing global and relational context, it falls tragically short of fulfilling our various needs.  In fact, the centrality of phones and notifications can often have an inverse impact, narrowing our scope of news and limiting our creativity in finding fulfillment. 

Nevertheless, if notifications are here to stay, interrupting our present communities and training our souls to crave dings of relevance like so many dog treats, I would like to humbly offer more useful applications of them: 

Anecdotal confusion notifications: A light ring informs you if you doubledown on a weak argument because you “know a guy” or a friend “literally told you” what happened.  This is helpful in establishing the difference between anecdotes and peer-reviewed, objective research.  If you receive this notification often you might consider the notion that many of your positions are unfounded blather.

Asshole notifications: A quick ding alerts you when you are being an asshole.  This could be useful in identifying self-absorption, arrogance, or drunken antics no one else enjoys.  This notification is especially helpful when one is pretending to listen to a person while also checking her many notifications.

Pants-on-fire notifications: A simple alert informs you that no one is buying your protests that, “you don’t really care, but can you believe she said that?”, or that you don’t mind buying this round, or that you are trying botox but will never take it too far (like all the other people you know who have been “trying” it a year longer than you).

Hivemind notifications: A low buzz makes you aware that the basis of your argument is based on uncritical conformity rather than thoughtful analysis.  A buzz higher in pitch could alert you to the fact that your thoughts are often affirmed because you only converse with people who share your perspective.  Consider expanding your points of view.

Insecurity notifications: A gentle ring lets you know that your efforts to appear relaxed, comfortable in your own skin and clothing, and fully authentic in all your posts is, in fact, failing miserably.  

This is not the Stanley Cup Finals notifications: A fog horn gently reminds you that you are escalating a moment of engaging discourse into an intense brawl.  This conversation is not a competition, but a group of adults sharing diverse perspectives. You might consider simmering down.

Navel gazing notifications: A bell tinkles to awaken your perception to the reality that in an effort to resonate with a friend, you have, in fact, hijacked his story with your own, and are now saying all the words.

Your misogyny is showing notifications: A pleasing meow sound alerts you to the fact that your jokes aren’t quite landing, and that your “clever banter” is making those around you who believe in the dignity and value of all humans very uncomfortable. You can take a guy out of a locker room, but you can’t take the…

Your attention span is shrinking notifications: A siren rapidly decreasing in volume unsuccessfully tries to give you perspective on your dangerous habit of encouraging distraction by compulsively checking your phone.  You will soon have the attention span of my dog, who is a dog, and has no attention span.

Consider turning off all notifications—for the good of humanity—before it’s too late!!

are salon's back?! in search for a civil public sphere

In 17th century Paris, the Salon phenomenon brought curiosity, enlightened thought and informed conversation to life.  It is the stuff of fantasy.  Leading thinkers, gathering together in the public sphere, to talk with one another, sharing ideas, listening, learning and arguing about how society might better function.  Print media did not yet exist, and so people had to gather, leaning in to one another to learn.  There were participants and there were spectators, but ideas were the champions of the day.  Ideas soared or were slayed based on the informed, rational, and civil public discourse that swirled around them. 

I have long dreamed of creating a similar arena in today’s world, expanded to include every gender, race and class.  I am a scholar with a PhD.  So yeah, I guess I know things.  But there are many, many gaps in my knowledge, and I would love nothing more than to sit with people on my porch, in a coffeehouse, or at a bar, and learn from others.  To think with people about things that matter.  To be so curious about what I don’t know that I listen to learn, not just to respond.  To discuss ideas that could bring more flourishing to people or the planet.  To talk about the many ways trauma, hate or fear destroy lives.  To bring our thoughts out into the open in an attempt to spur just action.

While I have romanticized this idea for over a decade, I have simultaneously shunned social media as distraction propping up vanity.  I have had no interest at all in redefining the words “friend”, “like”, “follow” or “tweet.”   People chasing the ridiculous approval of others become more performative, less authentic, right?

Enter the hypocrisy of my dreams. 

While I was busy shunning all the shallow people, most of you were experiencing small and large doses of the amazing salons of Paris without me!  While I was too arrogant to feel left out, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps platforms like facebook, reddit, twitter—and even instagram and snapchat to lesser extents—had become the new public sphere.  These arenas can beautifully create space for the exchanging of ideas, the fostering of curiosity, and the engaging of thoughtful discussion.  The salon lives! Could it be? On social media, of all things?

If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face. 

When my teenage son earned a phone and begged for an instagram account, I reluctantly created an account as well (in the name of good parenting).  Within a year, the slippery slope of engagement led me to create a twitter account as well (in the name of launching  Here is what I’ve learned.

Social medias are public spheres.  Conversations are happening 24/7, and people from every walk of life engage each other in this magical space.  Yes, there is a shit ton of noise.  Yes, there are many more uninformed people with intense opinions than should be legal.  Yes, I wish they would all stop talking.  But I have learned that there are also interchanges full of wonder and curiosity.  There are people teaching others everywhere.  Lonely and oppressed people have been uplifted; silenced voices have been given a megaphone.  Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Words and images speak to the soul.  Words are now amplified to destroy lives more than ever.  Images undermine and ruin careers and futures.  But words and images also offer us powerful ways to engage our deadened and distracted souls.  They give birth to empathy and compassion hard to find in our own routines.  They create space for curiosity and wonder.  Social media, with its manic merging of words and images, provides all of us with the ability to share goodness and beauty on a large scale.  It is easy to bemoan the destructive influence of social media as it spews hate and dehumanizes people who think differently; nevertheless, I offer an apologetic for the redemption of these platforms upon which we might remember how to engage civilly.

I am instinctively a binary thinker, but I am learning, partially through my disgust at social media, that binaries destroy nuance, and a lack of nuance prevents empathy.  In an ode to nuance, I would like to suggest that perhaps we might recognize the possibilities for an enlightening, empathy-building, public discourse provided by social media platforms.  If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face.  Rather than placing all our despair or all our hope in “the media,” or in “social media,” could each of us do our part to keep conversations going?  Instead of trying to win an argument, could we try to listen to a perspective wildly different than our own?  Could we privilege understanding over correcting?  Rather than creating profiles and a way of being in the world that encourages others to either passively observe us or to defensively react to us, could we actively attempt to interact?  To share ideas, to engage in conversations, to create a public sphere where perspectives are discussed, where the experience or thoughts of others are considered and honored?  As long as we pretend like the problem is “out there” or “with them,” refusing to acknowledge the ways in which we ARE the problem, social media will devolve in the same ways everyday conversations have: into defensive anger and the stubborn denial of other perspectives. 

Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Because I believe civil discourse helps us all become better humans, creating more connected communities, and because social media is a ubiquitous public sphere, I am committing to do my part to make it feel more like a French salon, and less like a Spanish bull ring.  Join me?