Resolutions don’t work. We know this. New Years is no better a time than any other to make a change in your life, aside from the fact that it’s satisfying to mark up a fresh calendar page. Still, my birthday is also in January, and these dual reminders of time passing do make a person want to take stock of things, at the very least.
This year, instead of any hard-to-keep promises to do less of this unhealthy thing or more of that healthier-but-less-pleasant thing, I have one goal. In a sense, it’s the boiled down essence of all New Years resolutions ever, all crammed into one — a sort of life resolution — and less an optimistic short-term goal for change. It’s simple, but important.
Really pay attention to how I spend my time.
Spend more time doing things that make me a happier and/or better person.
Spend less time doing things that don’t.
Note the “and/or”, which is key. Watching the NFL playoffs with a couple friends in a crowded pizza place certainly doesn’t make me a better person either intellectually or physically. But delicious food, a few pitchers, and the feeling of excitement in the air made me extremely happy (go Niners). The prospect of sitting down to write this didn’t make me happy (at first), because I was feeling uninspired and I wanted to read some of my favorite blogs instead. But writing is good for the brain, and now that I’m typing away, I happen to be feeling pretty good.
This year’s mantra is part process, part demand. I’ll have some self-evaluation to do along the way over the difference between ‘occupied’ and ‘happy’, as well as what constitutes ‘better person’ vs simply ‘person who feels better about himself’. For example, will reading more books this year make me happier or better, or am I lazily pinning my self-worth on a data point to uphold the image I have of myself? Maybe it’s what and how I read that matters more? So learning to define happier and better will be gradual. Then, having reflected on those things, the trick will be learning to catch myself in the act of totally wasting, or just poorly spending, my time. Having the presence of mind to divert myself from killing time to filling it with more constructive pursuits may take some force of will too, and that will take practice. Still, as a plan for the future, this mantra is hard to argue with.
Not to make this just a diary entry though, let’s get back to this “I’d rather be reading a good blog” thing. Related, but more useful in making a finer point.
I’ve realized that I spend a LOT of time on Twitter. I love it. I check my feed several times a day for a total of, what, half-an-hour? An hour? More if you count actually following links to things worth reading or watching. That’s a lot of time per day, per month, per year.** I supplement it with my favorite blogs, and try my best to keep up with Good Citizen things like The New York Times, a local news site, some professional stuff, some cultural stuff. Let’s just say that between Twitter and my preferred RSS reader, there’s a lot of daily input. But how much of this daily media time in particular is making me happier and/or better as a human being?
(**Couldn’t help doing the math. Conservatively: at an average of 30 min per day x 365 days = a total of 7.6 days per year spent just on Twitter. Probably more. That’s a whole vacation!… Taken in increments, all year long… Maybe not terrible?)
I would argue that Twitter is a net positive for being the most consistently interesting, immediately informative, occasionally hilarious and always diverse source of ideas in my life. I can safely say the time spent in this one channel is making me both happier and better, a large portion of the time. Plus, it’s easy to brush past the waste. Maybe I need to unfollow a few duds.
My policy has always been to quickly abandoned those that over-Tweet and abuse the privilege of my attention. Media outlets especially just tweet everything they post, often without respect to the form (tip me as to why I should click from within the tweet; stop obfuscating or baiting me). The narrow context of a scrolling column can go from easily-skipped to just-plain-cluttered pretty quickly, and that ruins its beauty as a channel.
As for non-Twitter sources like blogs, I’ve grown a new appreciation for outlets like The Morning News, who offer a quirky compendium of important, thought-provoking, or curious items twice daily. And of all things, Dave Pell’s Next Draft has given me a new found appreciation for the lost art of the email list, with a daily top ten list of stories worth knowing about, from world-shaking to merry-making. These sources — like Twitter without the strict character limit — are quickly scannable, well-curated, and link to all the great places like The Atlantic or NYT I’d normally have to spend time digging through to find the best bits.
Which brings me to the weird realization that of all my media inputs, it’s the New York Times I no longer want in my feeds. Any of them. I love a lot of their reporting. Their long features are especially good — usually through Instapaper — and I would gladly pay the appropriate sum for the right to read those things, just as I would with any great outlet. What I don’t want is to spend time flipping through ten pages of New York-centric stories, reviews of high-end fashion shows, sports recaps, or trumped-up trend pieces only to click on the three links to current events or opinion pieces I actually care about. I have a job and a wife and hobbies and books; I want to spend time reading, not looking for what’s worth reading. I have Longreads to find the best features. I have favorite writers who tweet interesting links with much greater personal filters than the outdated ‘front page’. And I have The Awl, where I somehow enjoy reading almost everything they post, long or short, thoughtful or frivolous.
It makes me feel like a traitor to the classy intellectual I want to be, but part of spending more time doing things that make me happier AND better means not trying to keep up with a magazines’ or newspapers’ full fire hose of content. It’s an outdated model that doesn’t fit my life. I’m done feeling like I’m always behind. I’m going to let the curators, who’ve chosen this as a specialty, do that job properly where I am doing it poorly. I’m going to immerse myself more and browse less.
So there we go. Realization number one. And the year’s just beginning.
For years, politics has relied on focus-grouped sound bites made for repetition on the nightly news. Guardians of the national discourse have worried about the dumbing down of complicated policies into catchy slogans. Probably with good reason. Less nuance is rarely for the better.
But in 2012, with the most tweeted and tumblred election in history, the public dialogue has spawned a new genetic variant. The ideas now most fit to survive the daily news beast have simplified even further, only with a populist twist. This is the decade, maybe even the specific contest, where the sound bite has been superseded by the political meme.
Within moments of being broadcast, serious issues are reduced to #legitimaterape hashtags or ladybinder GIF streams. Subtle, difficult, starkly contrasting positions on the kind of future we want for our country are stripped to their core, while the world wide web of wit hustles to write the snarkiest caption or register the latest joke domain name. One could argue that we the people are no longer educating ourselves by following politics. We’re just cheering for winners and laughing at losers, picking sides in a popularity contest — an American Idol that swaps sequins and songs for suits and speeches.
In this case, I have to disagree with the reductive view. Certainly there are some who see a political meme or hashtag and either misinterpret or gloss over it completely. “Ugh, political stuff.” But if there’s one thing people hate, it’s not being in on the joke; nothing feels worse than not “getting it”. In a rapid-fire internet culture, the table stakes for getting it are to be relatively current and well-informed, otherwise the jokes go right over your head. To be a part of the culture, you have to educate yourself.
It’s part of the same phenomenon that causes viewers of The Daily Show to score above average (and even above other news outlets) in terms of being well-informed. It’s more fun if you’re paying attention.
I wouldn’t dare to suggest that political memes are a sufficient replacement for reading solid news journalism, or that googling “47 percent” is the same as having a real understanding of American tax policy and its effects on income inequality. Nuance is still important as ever. If we’re being honest though, it’s probably true that most people don’t have the time to read newspapers cover to cover every day, or at least the desire to do that instead of watch sports or tv shows (two other cultural conversations that take some diligence to stay on top of). And honestly, who’s to say paying attention to one over the other will drastically improve one’s quality of life?
However, under this be-informed-to-be-in-on-the-joke principle that drives political memes, people who aren’t active news readers at least brush up against big ideas they might otherwise miss entirely. The “binders full of women” meme only makes sense once you realize that equal pay for women is an issue, which doesn’t normally get the attention it deserves (beyond the women feeling its effects, unfortunately). Obama’s zinger about horses and bayonets was a pretty snappy line, intentionally designed to be meme-ified, I’m sure. What made it so satisfying and smart, in addition to being witty, was how it put a spotlight on the way we think about today’s military — a budget-draining behemoth comprised of expensive jets and battleships that’s probably just as ill-suited for today’s wars as a charging cavalry.
Equally important, these memes aren’t focus-grouped and party-approved. The reason these moments become memes are because they strike a chord with the public, who seizes on them as an opportunity to elevate an issue that really is worth talking about. Memes aren’t born from lines like “I love teachers,” or “Middle class jobs,” the canned truisms that litter the campaign trail. Political memes come from the off-guard, off-script moments — which are usually the few moments of honest insight into the otherwise hyper-managed candidates. In this model, we the people get to choose what we take away from the campaign, not the election handlers getting paid to keep these very things from happening.
Sure, a month from now there will be a lot of Big Bird twitter accounts left idle and some long-since abandoned tumblr blogs documenting jokes we’ll soon forget. But I’m convinced long-term, today’s political memes will have done their duty and deserve to retire with dignity, while the memes of tomorrow prepare to educate the youth of today to do the jobs of the future — leaving them better off than the generation that came before.