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Social Media and the Hedgehog's Dilemma

Finding the right distance when working and living online

One cold winter's day, a group of hedgehogs crowded together for warmth so as not to freeze to death. However, the pain from the mass of spines soon caused them to separate again, until the cold forced them back together, and thus they continued, moving from one source of discomfort to another, until they found a distance that allowed them to live but without the benefits of the full warmth of community.

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in the middle of the nineteenth century, published the parable of the hedgehogs (also translated as porcupines) as a way to describe the dilemma faced by human beings as we simultaneously crave and reject connection. In 1921, Sigmund Freud referenced the parable in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego in his discussion of the "ambivalence of feeling" inherent in long-term relationships. A character in the episode "The Hedgehog's Dilemma" of the popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion sums up the problem: "The nearer we get, the deeper we hurt each other." And so we back away.

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In the twenty-first century, we can see the hedgehog's dilemma play out online, especially in the world of social media.

The Lure of Social Media

I'm a morning person and always have been, up before the sun, 4:45 a.m. every day, wide awake when many people have yet to enter their last cycle of REM sleep. It is my best, most alert, and most productive time of the day. Whatever work I do in those first two or three hours is what I do most efficiently.

So, how do I spend this precious time? All too often, I read and answer email (and delete spam), check Facebook (where I read about and see photos of what other people are doing), tweet and retweet, and read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs.

Do I then close all those open tabs and focus on my own work and writing?

No. I usually start the process over again.

We can think of the call of social media as a standing invitation to a virtual sitting-room. For writers and others who require long, uninterrupted time in which to create and a comfortable relationship with themselves that allows them to be alone, the problem is akin to what Virginia Woolf described in her classic essay, "A Room of One's Own":

"If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain,—'women never have an half hour . . . that they can call their own'- she was always interrupted.... Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days. 'How she was able to effect all this', her nephew writes in his Memoir, 'is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.'"

Unlike Jane Austen, however, we enter social media's virtual sitting-room of our own accord, and we often stay far longer than we had planned. We tell ourselves that the distractions we find there are part of our work, that we are networking or building our platforms. There is some truth in this. Writers today, for example, are told to have an online presence in the form of websites, blogs, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages. Before they can approach a publisher, even first-time authors are expected to have built a readership to which they can market their book.

So far, so good. But we tend to forget the opportunity cost, which is often the solitary writing practice, free from all kinds of casual interruptions, that we need in order to finish the book we hope one day to finish in the first place.

Will You Opt In or Opt Out?

I am continually trying to wrap my head around social media, working to figure out the most comfortable combination, fit, level of involvement, and boundaries so as both to enjoy the process and to meet my own goals. I use the word "comfortable" deliberately. For anyone for whom social media is part personal and part professional, the ever increasing social media options—from Twitter to LinkedIn, Goodreads to Google+—can very quickly be a source of discomfort at the same time that they are useful and informative and oh so much fun. This discomfort is especially keen for introverts and others who are overwhelmed by crowds and noise and competing distractions, virtual or otherwise.

I am no Luddite, nor do I wish for a return to the days before the internet. On a nearly daily basis, I am amazed by and appreciative of the options both informational and communal that my 20-year-old son and the college students in my classroom take for granted. Social media can lead to very real connections. Last year, for example, I realized through a Facebook status by a Milwaukee writer whom I first met through blogging, that not only did our sons share many years together in a local children's theater company, but our husbands have known each other and worked together for 25 years. Our "circles" intersect in a Venn diagram illuminated by our online networking, making eventual face-to-face meeting even more meaningful.

My problem is not with social media, but with myself and how I use it. Until now, my default position has been one of "opting out," to borrow a marketing term. Opting out is a "tacit yes" to everything, unless we give permission to opt out in specific areas.

It's time for me to switch to "opting in," checking only those social media boxes that work best for me, with a tacit no to all the rest.

Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows of how, when he began writing the book, he "wrote in disconnected spurts," similar to blogging, and that, in order to finish the book, he needed to disconnect almost completely, to opt in:

"There was no cell phone service at our new home, and the Internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I canceled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. I shut down my RSS reader and curtailed my skyping and instant messaging. Most important, I throttled back my e-mail application. It had long been set to check for new messages every minute. I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that created too much of a distraction, I began keeping the program closed much of the day."

Interestingly, Carr found that after he finished the book, he quickly returned to his old multi-tasking and email habits, showing just how difficult it is to resist the online siren song. Like Schopenhauer, Carr, in the end, is a pessimist. I would like to think we have more control over our attention and time and choices than he proposes.

The Challenge: Finding the Place of Stillness

Lev Grossman's TIME magazine article on best-selling novelist Jonathan Franzen is worth reading for anyone on a personal quest to create a new, more balanced relationship with modern technology and social media:

"Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can't write serious fiction on a computer that's connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell's wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. 'What you have to do,' he explains, 'is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.."

Grossman continues:

"Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. 'We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we've created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,' Franzen says. 'The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world..'"

The important question posed by the hedgehog's dilemma for working and living online may be to what extent we use social media as the middle, safe distance to avoid having not only closer, unplugged relationships with others, but quieter and deeper relationships with ourselves. Today's early adopters may be those who find creative ways to incorporate less of the newest technology in their lives rather than more. Finding that place of stillness is not always easy in today's world. Not easy, but also not impossible.

What is your experience of the hedgehog's dilemma as it relates to working and living online? Let's share what works.

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