You know that commercial where a man and a woman sit across the table from each other, engaged in what appears to be an intimate conversation, but the guy keeps sneaking looks at the football game playing on the phone in his lap?
If you ask Kevin Williams, husband of San Diego blogger Deb Williams, he’ll tell you, “The guy in that commercial is Deb. She pretends to pay attention to me while she’s checking — I’m not sure what — her blog statistics or something.”
“Yeah, I know,” Deb says. “The truth is, I’m in front of the computer way too much. That’s my life, and it’s not always well perceived.”
It’s the week before Christmas, and we’re dining on salad and a large pot of minestrone soup at the Williamses’ family home. Seven-year-old Toots, the elder of the couple’s two daughters, sits at the table with the grown-ups, cramming overly buttered bread into her mouth. Booger, her five-year-old sister, watches television in another room.
When I met Deb last August, I found out within the first ten minutes that she takes antidepressants and that her husband claims not to recognize her if her face isn’t bathed in the blue glow of her laptop. We were at R Gang Eatery on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, discussing obsessive blogging with three other female local bloggers and “Twitterati.” When the food came out, all four women snapped photos of their strawberry-basil salads, chicken sliders, and tater tots, but it was Deb who, 20 minutes later, admitted that she was forcing herself not to check her phone to see if anyone had responded to her food-pic tweet.
A few days later, curious about her Twitter usage, I counted three days’ worth of Deb’s tweets. On August 1, she tweeted 58 times. On August 30, 31 times, and on the 31st, 23. That’s an average of 37 tweets per day. If you multiply that by 31 (for the month of August), you get a total of 1147 tweets.
Even on Twitter, Deb’s candor is compelling. In my favorite tweet, she wrote, “I use my husbo’s nose-hair clippers on my girl mustache. It’s noisy but effective.”
Today, Deb tells me that her obsession with social media is one that ebbs and flows. At the moment, it’s more ebby than flowy, with “only two or three tweets a day,” probably due to the holidays, she says. But the routine remains pretty much the same.
“This is my normal schedule, always, even when I’m not obsessive: I wake up early, and the first thing I do is check my phone. Then I come down to my computer and check my stats [site views on her blog]. I check my email, I check my Twitter. I check everything.” She dips a piece of bread into her soup. “Then the kids will come down, and usually they’re waiting for me for a couple of minutes, maybe ten. ‘Can we have breakfast?’ And then I sign off, but I always have my phone. I check my phone all the time. I go to bed with my phone. I wake up in the middle of the night, at least once every night, even now when I’m not obsessive, and I check my stuff.”
And that’s not obsessive?
“No,” she laughs with a cheek full of bread. “That’s not my obsessive.”
Deb explains her personal definition.
“Normally, I’d be on Twitter from 8:00 to 10:00 at night. I’m tweeting back and forth, I’m commenting on blogs, I’m on Facebook. So, I guess what I mean by less obsessive is that I’m not tweeting as much on Twitter, but I’m still always checking [for comments and mentions]. My phone is very much an appendage.”
In her first blog, which she started in 2001, Deb shared the experience of planning her wedding with friends and family. After the wedding, the blog morphed into what she calls a web diary of personal stories. In 2007, she quit her job as a communications director for a nonprofit and began to work from home as a full-time freelance editor for an overseas IT market-research company. Around that time, she began her current blog, San Diego Momma, another public diary of sorts, though this one excludes stories about her sexual relationship with her husband or their finances — topics Kevin has declared “off-limits.”
One unspoken rule in the blogosphere is that bloggers read and comment on the blogs of others. This, and an active presence on Twitter, responding to and re-tweeting the tweets of others, are requirements for a successful blog. For some bloggers, that means freebies from companies and their public-relations firms (for reviewing products) or fees from advertisers who want to take advantage of the blog traffic. Deb makes approximately $150 per month from advertisement on her blog, but the majority of her success comes in the form of more opportunities for freelance writing and editing work. These average about $750 per month.
“I interact for a living,” Deb says. “The interacting and engaging online is what brings in the work. It’s not like a 9:00 to 5:00 thing, but it has definitely taken over.”
At the other end of the table, Kevin nods emphatically.
“I think you have a warped view about how much people need to be in contact,” he says. “I don’t need to know what everyone else is saying or thinking, and I think you do because you’re so caught up in your small little blog world.”
Deb sips red wine from a glass. She is quiet for a moment.
“It’s not so much a need to know what people are doing or thinking,” she says. “It’s more checking in, so I’m not forgotten. Like, ‘I’m still a part of this.’”
That night in August at R Gang Eatery, another local blogger at the table, Stacey Ross of San Diego Bargain Mama fame, let slip that she is in the midst of writing a book that is, in part, about obsessive use of social media. Earlier in December, a week or so before my dinner at the Williams home, I caught up with Ross and her co-author, Dr. Michael Mantell (a local psychologist known in San Diego Magazine and on Twitter as “Dr. San Diego”), over the phone.
“I call social-media networking one of the greatest time-sucks of the century,” Ross says. “When you’re doing it for business and you’re doing it for pleasure, there’s an overlap, and that’s where it can get fuzzy, if one isn’t clear with his or her boundaries.”
Ross’s own experiences made it clear to her that those fuzzy boundaries can lead to obsessive behaviors and a disconnection from real life.
“I had a very difficult time for a few days a couple summers back,” she says, “when I had no access to my computer and no phone, even — no Twitter! — until the end of the day, when we could drive up the hill and take care of business. I felt like I was missing a part of myself — a lifeline. I even got the shakes. I felt disconnected from a network that I felt I ‘needed’ more than I did. Twitter was a relatively new tool for me, and, irrationally, I felt that if I didn’t check it while I was gone, I would lose some sort of rapport with my followers. I would think and sleep in 140 characters, and it was becoming obsessive.”
For the book, whose working title is “The Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Hit Send,” Ross has done 100-plus formal and informal interviews with other social-media users (40 percent are from San Diego); many have experienced this type of obsession.
“The thing is, as a work-at-home mom, I’m networking so much with others that are work-at-home, and we need that water-cooler time,” Ross says. “We don’t have that break room, so Twitter and Facebook sometimes leads to that. It’s usually a healthy time to chitchat about things that are going on, to relate and have a little chuckle.”
Dr. Mantell, whose role in the book is to write up a psychological analysis of the stories Ross has collected via her interviews, says that problems arise when social-media usage begins to replace real life.
“What I see and hear is, we go out for dinner, she’s busy texting. She can’t put it down,” he says. “It’s the seduction of that digital world. The biggest danger I see to relationships is that we’re not present. We’re in a virtual world. We’re dreaming.”
Back at the Williams home, Kevin adds his own psychological read of the situation.
“I think a lot of blogging is people who need affirmation from other people,” he says.
Seven-year-old Toots pipes in with her take on the subject. “Mommy, I think people who blog are people who don’t have lives,” she says. Then she immediately adds, “I’m just kidding.”
As funny as Toots means to be, and as subjective as Kevin’s opinion is, Dr. Mantell says that in the worst cases both statements hold true.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world to be connecting to friends via technology, but if it’s the only way you can connect, then there is indeed a problem,” he says. And those who seek validation and approval from virtual friends and followers have an “internal lack of self-esteem [that] comes from this erroneous belief that self-esteem hinges on what you think of me, not what I think of me.”
Deb says that when she first began to blog, she “started out wanting to write, and then after awhile, for sure it does become [partly about] affirmation. But I wonder if you have it in your personality that you need affirmation, or do some people also develop it when they’re interacting online?”
After contemplating this for a moment, she concludes that, for her, the need is built into her personality. “Before I was online, I was an obsessive voicemail checker.”
While Deb does maintain social relationships via tweet-ups (in-person meet-ups with Twitter friends) and does not consider herself in danger of withdrawing from what Mantell calls “the real world,” Kevin claims that his wife’s social-media usage occasionally threatens family time.
“Let’s just say, I’m the one who’s read to the kids for four or five days now.” He stands to clear the table. As if to soften the blow, he then quips, “But the longest our kids have gone without eating is only a week.”
Ross says that boundaries and schedules have been necessities in keeping her own potentially obsessive social-media behaviors at bay. Because of the nature of her work within the sphere of social media, “those boundaries always need to be redefined.”
For Deb, the reinstatement of family dinners is a recent attempt at maintaining consistent interaction with her family. It’s a first step, but not the only one she needs to take.
“I’m sensing that I’m disconnecting from certain parts of myself, and I’m wondering will I go too far and not be able to reconnect those parts,” she says.
It’s been awhile, for instance, since she last worked on the “middle-grade supernatural thriller” she’s been writing for 11 years. The writing she does do is “getting more choppy, more and more like, ‘Let’s get through this. Let’s get through this.’ It’s a by-product of all this being online, because everything is so instantaneous and quick and concise, though there’s really such beauty in not being concise.”
And though she has been in a book club since 1998, Deb hasn’t read the last six books.
“I really mourn that loss,” she says. “Reading.” Then she corrects herself, saying she still does read, “just not books.”
“What about your book?” asks Toots, who has returned to the table after helping her father clear dishes.
“Nothing,” Deb says. “I was just saying I don’t read as much as I used to.”
“That’s bad!” Toots exclaims. “I have a bunch of books.”
When I ask Deb if she’s ever set goals to limit her time on social media, she says, “This weekend, I don’t think I tweeted at all. I still checked [for comments on her blog and mentions on Twitter], though.”
So, could she go for, say, two days without checking?
“That just made my stomach hurt.” She wrings her hands. “I could, I guess. That would be extremely hard for me. It would be a goal. It would be me white-knuckling it through a weekend.”
A pause, and then she says, “I’m afraid you’ll forget me, if I do that.”