Untangling the Web: How Facebook ruined my holiday

The Internet and mobile technology make it increasingly difficult to switch off.

Travellers using Facebook 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)
Travellers using Facebook 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)
On a week’s vacation in northern Thailand last week, I discovered something that I’d been starting to suspect in the preceding weeks: Social media is ruining my social life. It is now completely impossible for me to avoid work unless I turn off my phone and sit in a cave without speaking to anyone (which was incidentally very close to my original vacation plan, but that’s a story for another time).
Most of the time when I travel abroad to visit family I keep on top of emails remotely, answering questions as needed and editing the site when possible. This time, I needed a proper holiday, which meant not checking my work emails at all. I set up an out of office reply, took a deep breath, and set my smartphone to sync with my personal gmail account alone. This was fine for about two hours, until a colleague saw automated reply and decided to forward his message to my personal account instead. I realized I would have to avoid all emails, work or otherwise.
It turns out, however, that while I can avoid my emails, there’s no avoiding the news anymore.
It started off mildly, with a fellow traveler announcing one morning that Adam “MCA” Yauch of The Beastie Boys had passed away. This sort of news – while definitely interesting and relevant for the site – didn’t make me run around like a crazy woman looking for a wifi network to check 10 news sites. I was also able to resist the urge to tune in when I caught a television ad in a restaurant about a BBC documentary on the Iranian nuclear threat, which I read, write and talk about dozens of times during a regular workday.
Random conversations and snippets of television shows, however, are easy. It’s when social media get involved that the real problem arises. Traditional news media have become so enmeshed with social ones that I can’t check Facebook without getting a dose of the news, and it’s not even limited to the news sources to which I directly subscribe. Case in point: I opened my phone at one point to check out a friend’s photos from a recent trip to Tel Aviv, only to find another friend’s status update: “I miss Sarkozy already.” Now, knowing that French presidential election results were due out around now, I could reasonably assume that the former French head of state had not died, but my interest was definitely piqued. Yet still, I resisted. The hardest was when a friend posted a joke screenshot (in Hebrew) of an SMS conversation between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima chair Shaul Mofaz, regarding their new coalition agreement. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to reading a few news articles to get the jist of what had happened.
Of course, the problem I’m describing here is only really a problem for weary journalists on holiday; the flip side is that sites such as Facebook have been getting better and better at acting as both social networks and personalized news aggregators. So while getting away from the news is difficult for seven days of the year, keeping up with the news is as easy as checking Facebook and Twitter the other 358 days. The chances of “missing” a story are getting lower and lower.
While this might sound like bad news for both online news outlets and news aggregation sites, it actually works in everyone’s favor. Users can keep themselves updated on personal tidbits and world news all in one place, social networks are getting plenty of traffic, and news sites’ wares are being peddled more or less for free.
Take, for example, a feature which Facebook started trialing last week called “trending articles,” which displays articles from the various social readers on the site which have been read by friends in a user’s networks. Here, social media are being sculpted as a hub of sorts, a one-shop stop for news of all sorts, and at the same time an easy way for news sources to get their content out there.
While news features in social media should not be a replacement for proper research and reporting, they are incredibly useful tools for journalists who want to touch base without taking the time to scan the front page of every major news site. If big news breaks, it’ll be on your newsfeed.
In this digital day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a solution to my vacation predicament. Or rather, the solution is simple: If you want a holiday, unplug completely. Turn your phone off, don’t check emails, wait until next week to look at photos of that friend’s wedding that you missed. I’d just throw in one extra piece of advice, which is to call the airline the day before to confirm your flight home  –  but that’s also another story for another time.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk manager.