The great thing about living in the future is that we're constantly connected. And the bad thing is that we're constantly connected. By making ourselves more accessible to the web, we've also made the web more accessible to us.
Today there are dozens of ways of letting anyone with a smartphone know you tried to reach them. Most of the time this is convenient and empowering. But sometimes it's also troubling and stressful. When your phone is constantly buzzing with notifications of all the emails, instant messages, texts, pokes, reshares, reblogs, and retweets from your entire social circle, it can be hard to focus on the people who are most important.
All that connectivity presents giant contradictions. Today, we live in a world where you can donate a kidney to somebody you've never met, through Facebook, but you can also sit next to someone at work for years and barely ever talk to them, communicating entirely through email and instant message. You can keep in touch with every single person you went to school with but then go home and spend "quality" time with your family with everyone glued to their laptops, tablets, and smartphones, entirely ignoring one another.
And even though I love my phone and tablet, our shiny, beeping gadgets are now competing with our actual loved ones for attention. Occasionally I'll be in bed at night, trying to stealthily answer a few final emails on my phone, burying it under the blankets. "Randi, getting a bit of Candy Crush in?" my husband, Brent, whispers into the dark. Guess I'm not very stealthy.
Our phones are demanding more and more of our time, and we're giving in. But we're not entirely to blame for this phenomenon. Studies have shown that checking your smartphone can be as addictive as using drugs. This is why during dinner, when the phone buzzes, we have to resist the urge to look at the screen, at least until our dining companion goes to the bathroom and is just out of sight. Or we find ourselves Instagramming our meals instead of just insta-eating it.
There's a lot of talk these days about work-life balance, about managing career and family, about how to "have it all". But this discussion is really more about achieving a tech-life balance. It doesn't matter what time you leave the office if your head is buried in your computer as soon as you get home. It doesn't matter that you can instantly email people around the world if you haven't had a face-to-face conversation with the ones right next to you in weeks.
You need control over your devices instead of letting them control you. Technology is a tool, and whether it creates order or chaos in your life depends on how you use it. The technology itself is neutral. It's up to you to use it in a way that enhances your life and doesn't detract from it.
In this new online world, our attention comes at a premium. Before the age of mobile devices and insta-connectivity, if someone was talking to you it would have been considered terrible manners to pick up a newspaper and start reading in the middle of the conversation, or call up old school acquaintances to see what their babies were up to. But now, thanks to the smartphone, things like that happen all the time. Smart phones and social media have done much for our lives in recent years but they've also seemingly taken away our ability to be present in any single moment.
Paying attention to some people and not others doesn't mean you're being dismissive or snooty. It just reflects a hard fact: there are limits on the number of people we can possibly pay attention to or cultivate a relationship with. Some scientists even believe that the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships might be limited naturally by our brains. We can't be real friends with everyone.
While we were working together at Facebook, my brother Mark would always respond whenever his girlfriend, Priscilla (now his wife), called him. No matter what he was doing, Mark prioritised his attention to her over anyone else. Brent and I have taken a similar approach, and no matter how busy I am, if I see "Brentie" come up on my phone, I do my best to answer it. If my attention is the most precious thing I can give someone, then surely nobody is more worthy of my attention than my family.
When deciding who to pay attention to, we need to understand the difference between our friends and our "friends". It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when "friend" was still only a noun and not yet a verb. Back then, our friends were the people closest to us, who we hung out with regularly, drank with, and confided in. The era of Facebook and social networking changed all that. Now, a "friend" can include anyone from a best friend to a secret nemesis, a work colleague, a distant relative, a neighbour's dog, and Kim Kardashian.
Thinking of our limited supply of daily attention as a kind of currency may help us prioritise our responses to people. In the end, we have to focus on the people who matter most to us. It's all about reminding ourselves to live our online lives in moderation and enjoy tech-free moments with those close to us. If attention, scarce as ever, is a sort of currency today, then we might as well spend it cultivating meaningful experiences in our lives and with our friends online as we would offline.
We need to keep an eye on our daily balance of attention. Cat videos shouldn't edge out the attention we pay to our actual cats. If we're at a concert, we shouldn't spend more time seeing it through the tiny screen on our phones than with our own eyes. If you're at the Grand Canyon, and before you lies all the great and encompassing majesty of the natural world, stop uploading #canyongrams every few minutes. Just because you can document your every waking moment doesn't mean you should.
This is the same reason that "going out alone" is a thing now. No, it doesn't mean dining solo. It refers to a "retro" trend in which young people meet up with their friends but leave their phones at home, as a way of getting closer to their friends by giving them their undivided attention.
Most of the complexities, demands and awkwardness of modern friendship online can be traced back to the problems of a poor tech-life balance. When people build up expectations of their friends' actions offline or online – and those expectations aren't met – that's when disagreements, resentments, and hurt feelings start.
If it's been a while since you've seen a friend you usually text, maybe it's time for some actual face time. If Instagram is the modern equivalent of sending a postcard – well, you wouldn't spend your entire vacation at the beach writing postcards, would you?
For people you're really close to, a birthday wall post that reads "Happy birthday!!!" isn't going to cut it, even if you use three exclamation marks. Pick up the phone and make a call. Let them know you care.
There is one additional, extremely tricky part of online relationships: how to end one online. During the writing of this, I had several animated discussions with friends about the pros, cons, and etiquette of removing people from your friends list. Most unfrienders fell into one of two camps. There are those who never unfriend anyone because it's mean, and they don't want to lose a potentially valuable contact, colleague, or friend of a friend. A subset of this camp consists of those who are so Zen that they just don't care who's on their friends list. Then there are the enthusiastic, serial unfrienders, deleting people for even the slightest offence or as soon as a friendship has outlived its promise.
I am a proponent of a middle way. Unfriending should take the form of a periodic spring cleaning of people you may have met at some point but with whom you haven't had any meaningful communication or interaction in a long time.
The act of occasionally pruning mystery "friends" from your friends list is a perfectly okay thing to do and ought to mean nothing more than saying, "Dear Acquaintance, I'm sorry, but I've forgotten who you are and I'm not sure I want you seeing photos of my kids."
As for people with whom you do interact or see in person but are currently having an argument with, unfriending them is a different matter. If you can work things out, then there's no reason to use the "nuclear option" of immediate unfriending. Maybe it's better to let the friendship lie low for a while and unfriend during a regular spring-cleaning session in the future. Finally, if your relationship is torn beyond repair and there's no hope of reconciliation, or if a person is toxic, harmful, and beyond help, then unfriend. But do so solemnly, for you might also be unfriended one day.
In the end, the new rules of the digital world are like the old rules: they centre on empathy, understanding, and common sense. Always put yourself in other people's shoes, care about the real people on the other side of the screen, and most important, always make the effort to invest time and attention in the people you care about.
Oh brother! I owe you one
My true aha moment happened when I was invited to join a meeting about some key Facebook marketing materials. The point of the meeting was to solidify some of the visual design features for Facebook – the general look and feel and colour palette. This was amazing. I was a fly on the wall in a meeting to decide how a network for five million would look. A debate was going on. I leaned in to pay attention.
And then suddenly everyone was staring at me. "Hey, Randi, you're the marketing person. What do you think?" Ten years of a career I hadn't yet had flashed before my eyes. It would honestly have taken me a decade at [global ad house] Ogilvy to even be invited into a room where a conversation like this was taking place, let alone be given the chance to be a decision maker. I cleared my throat. "Well, here's what I think."
No one interrupted or laughed. After I had finished laying out my views on my preferred shade of blue, along with a few other marketing ideas, the debate resumed — with me included.
I can't remember how that debate concluded. My overwhelming memory is that my heart was soaring. In that moment, I realised just how amazing Facebook was as a career opportunity. I knew I had to take it.
On the final evening before I flew back to New York, instead of spending it at dinner, drinking, or trying to be useful while the guys coded, I spent it sitting in Facebook's new official office, located above a Chinese restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, negotiating my starting salary with my brother. We sat across from each other at his desk while he decided a salary and stock-option grant for me on a napkin.
"How about this?" He slid the napkin across the table. The stock was good. But why go for equity over real money? I crossed out the stock options and bumped up the salary. I passed back the napkin.
Mark gazed at it, then made a decisive gesture across the paper. He scribbled and handed it back. He had rejected my numbers and restored his original offer. "Trust me," he said. "You don't want what you think you want."
I didn't recognise it at the time – I was 22 years old and all I saw was a chance to make more than the biweekly check of $900 I currently earned – but I sure as heck recognise it now.
Years later, I would stand in the entrance hall of my home, pouring my heart out to my brother about how I was ready to leave Facebook. But on that fateful summer evening in 2005, in the quiet calm of the empty Facebook office, a new chapter of my life was about to begin.
Today, people often ask me, "Now that you know what you know, what would you go back and change?" It's a silly question. I don't know if they expect me to impart some holy wisdom or if they expect me to admit to some grave screw-up I made along the way.
Usually, I just crack a joke and say, "I would have asked for more stock." It always gets a laugh from an audience, but every time I say that, I think about that evening negotiating with my brother, my younger brother, and how he looked out for me, even though I was too young and naïve to recognise it at the time.
With the important contract details safely concluded on the napkin, it was time to start imagining my new life. I grinned the whole flight back to New York.
This is an edited extract from 'Dot Complicated' (Bantam Press, £16.99), by Randi Zuckerberg, which is available now