8:00 AM - My phone buzzes on my nightstand. Dozens of notifications scream for my immediate attention. Good morning, world!
8:01 AM - Oh shit, it’s Rachel’s birthday. Good thing I’ve already drafted a poetic paragraph about our friendship and Facebook automatically created a photo collage of all our good times together. I quickly post it so she knows how much I care. Facebook encourages me to wish 20 other people a happy birthday so I do, sending smileys and well wishes to faces I vaguely recognize.
8:03 AM - I see Tom posted a cat video on Rachel’s wall (how very 2015) which reminds me I haven’t RSVP’d for his housewarming party on Friday. Damn it! He already asked me twice about, not directly of course, but with a “poke”. I scan the events invite list and select “maybe.”
8:04 AM - Cooool, looks like Rachel did a birthday dinner last night and I wasn’t invited. I like the post to make a point. Sam posted a picture from his rescue dog’s Instagram account so I put three heart-eye emojis underneath (she doesn’t get many likes despite dozens of #dog hashtags, so I try to help where I can). Guess it’d be weird if I don’t like the pic of his newborn baby so I do that too. Double tap after double tap I catch up to where I left off last night.
8:07 AM - I can’t avoid emails any longer. I scroll through them quickly, something about the quarterly planning meeting and rotten risotto in the office fridge. There are invites to this meeting and that status call, subject lines like “just checking in” and “thoughts?” and “let me know ASAP.” Tom texts asking why I responded “maybe” to his party invite so I quickly change it to “yes”. I may be lying down, but my blood pressure is up.
8:10 AM: An email excitedly announces that 10 LinkedIn connections have new jobs! Looks like James finally left his agency gig for that shady healthcare startup. LinkedIn says I should send my congratulations and “endorse” them for skills. I tap the corresponding buttons bc who knows when I’ll need them to return the favor. There’s a group email about the Q2 report due EOD today and Lynn has already replied-all three times. Maybe that healthcare startup is still hiring...
8:14 AM - It’s barely morning and Meg from HR is sending messages to the “Happy Hour!” Slack group asking who’s in for drinks after work. My manager said I need to improve my team player skills, so I should probably attend. Sigh.
8:18 AM - Now another Slack message about who’s doing what for the Q3 planning meeting. Tom replies with a GIF from “The Office” (this is 2017, Tom) and I add a “laughing so hard I’m crying” emoji reaction. Just doing my part for the company culture we all value so much.
8:20 AM - Just got six snaps from Tim, who was obviously at Rachel’s birthday dinner last night. I tap through dozens of snaps and reply to each one with a selfie. The dog-face filter masks my anxious expression.
8:25 AM - Another email, this time from the IT team asking me to answer 48 questions about the company’s new infrastructure by end of today, on top of ten 360 peer interviews due at the end of the week. HR wants feedback on last month’s company retreat and team building exercises, and the survey doesn’t allow me to respond “awkward” to all questions. I’ll probably answer my 360 reviews tonight instead of going to happy hour.
The piece above isn’t exactly how it happened. But it’s inspired by real events and based on personal experiences. I’m sure you can find yourself in this story to a certain degree as well.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. About how technology and the systems we design force us into completely unnatural social behavior. Most of these things didn’t exist 30 years ago because we either didn’t care, or because we simply couldn’t keep track of it anyway.
But today, we need to be reminded of everyone’s birthday. Everyone’s job anniversary, everyone’s friendship anniversary and even the most trivial things. Most of these social interactions are completely unnatural. I would even go as far and say that most of these forced social interactions are completely artificial, empty and are contributing nothing but anxiety on both ends.
As humans we used to live in tribes with a limited number of people around us. And you might have heard about the Dunbar’s number which suggests the limit of how we, humans, are able to maintain stable social relationships with other people. The number averages around 150, which is how many people we can have a stable and good relationship with (meaning, we know the person and how she or he relates to everyone else in the group. Of course this number is a bit lower or higher for some people).
But looking at our current social networks, apps and especially work environments, this number is well beyond 150. Generally there’s nothing wrong with it because you can still maintain your close relationships with this core group of roughly 150 people, and everyone else is just a passive part in your life.
However, the issue here is that most of these social networks, apps or even workplace systems treat every person in your extended network as equally important and therefore demanding your attention and social maintenance. The expectations are high and these systems essentially encourage or force you to maintain a completely unnatural amount of social relationships, even more so when it comes to the depth & detail of which you're required to maintain them.
My point is, maybe we don’t want or need to celebrate that yearly random Facebook friends anniversary with virtual balloons. But having it right in front of us makes us feel guilty so there is this subtle pressure to acknowledge it with a click on a button. After all, feelings not expressed through a virtual reaction don’t exist right?
And maybe we don't want to participate in every team bonding/happy hour event at work without losing any "team player" points in our quarterly 360 review.
I don’t think I want to go somewhere specific with today’s article. Just talk about it, give you a little nudge to think about it and draw a conclusion for yourself. And don't get me wrong, I don’t see technology as the evil here.
The evil we’re left with is a feeling of never being a good enough and constantly running behind. We’re left with a depressed generation suffering from a lack of self worth and low self-esteem, tangled up in an endless search for self-assurance while making our personal happiness dependent on external forces & systems we can’t really control.