The Best and the Worst

Michael Milton

We can use new media to develop the best or the worst parts of ourselves. Let’s look at someone who uses new media to elevate the worst parts of himself, then one who does the opposite.

Everyone sees Jeff as a nice guy, and he is one. But they might be surprised to know what he does on his computer. He starts off each day by pulling together breakfast, sitting down, turning on TV, and checking the sports scores on his iPad. He has a Twitter account that doesn’t reveal his identity, and if the sports scores irritate him he’ll make some snide comments on Twitter about referees, coaches, or players. In web jargon, he’s a “troll.”

Before he leaves for work, he finds time to spend a few minutes on free pornography sites, which he usually checks four or five times a day. While riding the bus, he scans the news on his phone. Usually he’ll post to Facebook a partisan sneer du jour, but most of his friends on Facebook won’t see it because they’ve tired of it and set their filters to ignore him. If he’s feeling sad sometimes he’ll put a prayer into his status update, which usually gets a few “likes.”

At work, if one of his hands is below his desk, he’s probably text messaging without looking at his phone. He has an unlimited texting plan and spends most of the day chatting with his girlfriend and other people. A couple times a week he has visitation with his children, and they’ll sit around a table at a cafe or bookstore for ninety minutes. They all spend as much time tweeting on their smartphones and playing video games as they do talking.

Back home, he’ll look at the Facebook profiles of his ex-girlfriends, read trashy blogs into the wee hours, and eventually go to sleep.

He doesn’t focus. When he reads news in the
morning, he is half-present, casual, unreflective, and
prejudiced about events. When he works, he focuses
on his job enough to come off as competent, but
is surfing the net and texting. He loves his family, but they get a mere precious fraction of his attention. He’s connected in the sense that he’s always communicating, but he has a profound and ill-concealed feeling of alienation. He doesn’t read books.

Denise uses new media to elevate the best parts of herself. In the morning she picks up her Kindle and finishes the reading she started the previous night. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the sci-fi romance genre. She maintains a blog where she means to critique authors in the field but ends up heaping adoration on them. Her pseudonym is well-known in the sci-fi romance community as a cultivator of talent.

At breakfast she asks her husband about his day. Her iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and computers are on, but not at hand. She grabs her phone as she walks out the door, listens to the news on public radio as she walks to the bus stop, and on the bus tweets from an account in her real name anything interesting she heard on her walk.

At work, the news is turned off. As a community organizer, she is in a constant struggle to focus and be present in her interactions with many people. She writes over a hundred emails a day to colleagues and friends.

To get the word out for her organization, she has to be fluent in digital media platforms. She has a good sense of when to communicate the organization’s message on social media, or video, or on a blog, or as editorial content on third-party websites, or using some combination. Her contact list is full of passionate Generation Y kids who recruit their friends online to support her work.

Every day she has responsibilities that require sustained focus; she blocks off parts of her day and goes off the grid to fulfill these duties. Usually she wins the focus struggle. She keeps her mission as an organizer in front of her mind at all times, and she thinks about compassion.

By calibrating herself in this way, she is able to communicate and shift attention rapidly while maintain- ing a thread of mindfulness. People recognize this and admire her for it.

At night, the iPhone doesn’t follow her to bed, but the Kindle does. She disciplines herself to put down the sci-fi romance novel occasionally and read one of the long-form journalism pieces that established authors are starting to self-publish and sell for a buck or two over Kindle. She uses this content and new media generally to elevate the best parts of herself.

I’m somewhere in between these two composite sketches, hopefully closer to Denise than Jeff. The temptation to use new media to gratify the worst parts of oneself is always present, but the amplifying power of new media presents an opportunity to build the best sorts of community and steward the best sorts of creativity. 

Michael Milton, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a strategist and client manager for nonprofits at Blue State Digital.