I wrote this back in February and put it away… but I thought it was super relevant right now…
Very often when I’m clicking about on the internet, I encounter people saying that they don’t read/watch the news because they are too sensitive and the news is too sad. I totally understand where they are coming from, but I think there’s a better way and I think we owe the other humans (and creatures) more than a blanket no-click rule.
How would you feel, for instance, if you’d been swept away by a tsunami or had a missing family member? Pretty distressed and in need of help, I wold think. Imagine though, that instead of helping or taking note of what was happening to you, people ‘changed the channel’ reasoning that the things that were happening to you were ‘too sad’ for them to deal with? Hm. Not good, I’m sure. I think you’d much rather people stopped and paid attention, took some time to empathise or considered helping? I thought so. Yes.
What we really need to do, instead of switching off, is to find ways to care and stay tuned in. We need to manage this tuned-in newsy flow sensibly, while still hanging onto our health and (general) happiness and warding off overwhelm. I think we’re all grappling with this.
Good news : bad news
It’s not all bad news, though. Ace things are being invented, people are discovering things, people are doing good, wins are being won. And yet, that’s not really what we’re seeing in our day-to-day life. Instead, we’re mostly exposed to terrible news, disturbing imagery, triggering real-life stories and seemingly impossible dilemmas. Annoyingly, the media wants us to feel fearful or surprised by the content they publish or air. They’re counting on it, not only to get us to click through, but also to prompt us to share their reporting and our view on it with our friends and family.
This means, even though we’re trying our darndest to know enough, but not too much, to ‘do the right thing’ and be good citizens of the world, we’re also all contributing to a kind of collective overwhelm. In trying to find ways to acknowledge or act on information (Share! Sign this petition! Like to not like!) we’re adding to the overload in pretty ineffective (but well-meaning) ways.
Not only are we struggling to digest and disseminate the information we’re exposed to, but also struggling to retain the detail. The more we see/read, the less we retain/feel because the stress of this information pile-up results in stress hormones like cortisol flooding our systems.
Unfortunately, this stress flood doesn’t heighten our awareness,. It actually leads to short term memory loss, with the overwhelm pushing information in one ear and out the other. Or in one eye and out the other. Or something. Argh. Does this sound a bit like you? Are you overwhelmed thinking about the overwhelm?! Take some deep breaths and let’s push on. Talking about the problem is the first step towards a solution, and a solution really is at hand.
Skim, share and one-up
Aside from this forgetfulness, many of us have (necessarily) put a buffer between being exposed to information and actually processing it or feeling anything. Our eyes are glazing over and we’re tackling news and stories as though we’re gobbling coins in Donkey Kong.
We’re making contact and then moving on, seeking to lessen the impact of this increased exposure by skimming and scrolling. Many of us are using the ‘share’ button pretty mindlessly in this whole transaction, seeing it as a way to acknowledge and move on. But we’re not really digesting the things we are seeking in hearty, meaningful ways.
It’s not just the news that we’re skimming through, it’s television too. The phenomenon of binge watching has turned TV series watching into an hours-long to-do, a kind of competitive viewing that has us wanting to see first and be first (but possibly robs us of the enjoyment of savouring our favourite shows and discussing them episode by episode with like-minded souls. Research tells us that this kind of viewing diminishes the impact and enjoyment of the show and isolates us. It also prevents us from doing other enjoyable things (like reading or bonking or being active!)
It’s also hatched the kind of one-upmanship depicted beautifully on Portlandia in their ‘Did You Read It’ skit. The skit perfectly encapsulates how knowing about something’s existence is often the end-game (rather than actually knowing something!) You have to look it up.
The internet and social media push information into our orbit, based on virality and algorithms. It’s important to remember that the information we are seeing is not necessarily the information we need to see. It might not be what matters to us. On platforms like Google and Facebook we’re being shown news and stories based on our search history. This sounds legit, but really it’s simplifying our interests and not exposing us to exciting new challenges or views. Its very nature is terribly predictable (and who wants predictable when you can adventure or explore?!)
Stories and issues that go viral are pushed along by the juggernaut that is mass appeal with a healthy dose of digital manipulation. If we learn to arms-length the information we are served each day and cast a discerning eye over it, looking for the stories that actually matter to us, we’re way ahead in the conscious curating stakes. Not only that, we’ll save ourselves from unnecessary overwhelm, slow things down enough to actually retain some facts and spark some authentic feelings. Perhaps we might even be compelled to get involved and actively do something to help?
How to side-step infomania
You don’t need to buy into the whole schmozzle though, because that’s where you start making hard work of things:
Don’t share stories you haven’t read properly.
Think before you share – is there a real benefit to sharing the information or is it just adding to your friends’ information overload?
Get your news directly via a couple of reputable sources – not via social media
Don’t flow with the masses, like a fish over the falls – nuture your own interests and enthusiasms
Do/read one thing at a time.
Be an explorer and seek out the things you find interesting or compelling – don’t let Facebook or Google decide for you.
Read widely and don’t just stick to the facts – add some fiction to your life and tap into the imagination boosting, stress reducing ‘unreal’.
Take time away from social media (or digital devices in general) regularly.
Go to the library – vary your information sources and information gathering routines.
Clip, click and forget
In the olden days, we relied solely on newspapers, magazines and some rather lo-fi TV news to keep us informed. If we read an article, we’d really read it, free of distractions like Twitter notifications or blipping text messages.
If we wanted to share a piece, we’d buy an extra copy or wait a day (until the news was ‘older’) and carefully cut the article out with a pair of scissors and pass it on. Not one element of the reading, pondering and sharing was unconscious or second nature. We’d share deliberately and with commitment, rather than the click-and-forget shares of today. We can learn a lot from old habits. (Let’s all start clipping and posting again?!)
Action and attention
Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says ‘The more room you give a feeling, the less space it takes up.’ I think we need to treat the information we are exposed to in the same way.
If it’s something or someone we can empathize with, let’s give it our full attention as we find out more. Let’s dig a bit deeper and choose a way to process what we read. Maybe you want to light a candle? Or research more? Or write a post or article about that something or someone? Or write a letter to the Editor?
Let’s find out what really matters to us, really notice what makes us think/feel alive, narrow it down and then give it some undivided attention. We don’t need to know it all, but the things we do know should really count and we should consider what our response to them might be. Find a way to give the things that matter the space to settle.
“Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.” Mary Oliver