Why the Internet is like snow

It’s not a Mac. It’s a Lesnowvo ThinkPad.

Saturday was really busy though I got almost nothing done. I did, however, spend a lot of time lost in cyberspace.  If the day passed in a blur, my take-away was clear: The time has come for me to reclaim my so-called (online) life.

But how to go about it?

In the social media culture wars—Facebook, force for good or evil?—I come down unabashedly on the positive side. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve reconnected with childhood friends and made many new ones. I’ve found jobs, kept up with the news, learned where to get my bike repaired, and heard about new novels.  Simply put, I can’t imagine my time in Plan B Nation without the support, good cheer, and humor that I’ve found online.

That being said, there are limits. I hit mine last weekend and went looking for strategies.

I started with one of my favorite bloggers, Havi Brooks, who thinks of the Internet as a river and has a comprehensive technique for managing her time there. I liked the idea in theory, but it didn’t really speak to me. Then I came upon an image conjured by R. Taylor, who said he finds it useful to think of the Internet as a mall.

The Internet as Mall. Bingo! I felt a click.

It’s said that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. In fact, this turns out to be the Inuit equivalent of an urban myth, but nonetheless it got me thinking.

There isn’t a single Internet. Rather our Internets are legion.

There’s the information kiosk-Internet, the water cooler-Internet, the research-library Internet, the employment office-Internet, and the linen-and-housewares-store Internet, to name just a few that I frequent.

There’s also the Giant Gabfest Party Internet, and that, too, has its place.

It hit me that the problem wasn’t inherent to any one of these. The problem was in my not being clear on which one I planned to visit. Ditto for what I wanted to accomplish there and how long I planned to stay.

Over the past two days, I’ve been working on this. Here’s what I’ve been doing (most of the time, anyway): Before I sign on, I ask three questions: Which Internet? For what? How long? I jot down the answers. For example: “Information kiosk. Find out how to delete track changes comments on a Word doc. 5 minutes.” Or: Water cooler.  Check FB & email. 15 minutes.”

And you know what? Once I have this sort of plan in place, I’m pretty good at sticking to it. I don’t drift mindlessly from email to Facebook to web surfing. Instead, I do what I came for, and then I leave.

Building on this, it occurred to me that, if I were planning a trip to the mall, I could use a shopping list. In life offline, I don’t drive to the mall to buy printer paper, get home, and then five minutes later, drive right back to buy cat food. No. I keep a list of what I need to do at the mall, and when I get there, I do all it at once.

So that’s what I’ve started doing for my trips to the Internet mall. When I think of an email I need to send or something non-urgent I want to look up (as in: What movie is playing this Friday at Popcorn Noir?), it goes on the Internet shopping list. It can wait for the next scheduled trip.

Not surprisingly, planning my Internet trips and using my shopping list has made me increasingly aware of my tendency to reflexively jump online for no real reason except that my mind is wandering and the Internet is there.

When that Go-There-Now impulse kicks up—and I’ve never seen a better depiction of its siren call than this essay in Orion—I’ve found it’s useful to have a list of Things To Do Instead.  For example: Make tea, pick up 10 things, read the newspaper and put it out for recycling.  Or, to take another tip from Havi: What little thing can I take care of right now that would make life better for Slightly-Future-Me?

It’s always struck me as silly to say that the Internet is LIKE THIS or Facebook is LIKE THAT—akin to saying that the telephone is LIKE THIS or handwritten letters (if you remember those) are LIKE THAT.  All of them are just means, ways to connect. As it happens, Eskimos don’t have hundreds of words for snow. I, however, could use at least that many for my Internet.

Note:  Have you found helpful strategies for managing your time online? If so, please share them below.