Who We Follow

There’s a reason there are tea rings on my dining room table, tie-dye stains on my deck. There’s a reason Ken built a ramp to slide down the basements stairs and a rock climbing wall to reach the heights of our master bedroom. There’s a reason that, just a few months ago, we bought a camper – arguably the largest investment of our lives.

“Be more engaging than the algorithm.”

This is our new family motto. 


The kids are getting older. Their playmates – the ones that once splashed in the shallow end and drank from the garden hose – are now surfing the net. The rose-colored glasses are gone; blue-light readers remain.

Yesterday, a neighbor girl asks if I can look up a recipe for violet tea on TikTok. I already know how to make it, I say. Maybe just check? she says. To be sure? 

It occurred to me then that our children’s generation looks to the Internet for answers, just as we once looked to the covers of Brio, American Girl, TeenVogue. In the absence of a respectable authority re: what to pair with our Doc Martens and the meaning of that one Weezer song, we sought counsel from the glossy pages of whatever New York City deemed print-worthy.

And now the city that never sleeps is left buzzing in our kitchens.

Your college mentor is in a red bikini on the coast of Santorini. Your hairdresser’s kids are at the baseball diamond. Your friend’s daughter is at a party with a Solo cup.

Follow, follow, follow.

This is nothing new, of course. When young, our kids vie for our attention for years and years, tugging on hems and heartstrings. We teach them how to whistle and they think we’ve hung the moon. But as they grow, their whole orbit changes. They look up higher, higher, higher still. They gaze at galaxies (the Samsung and the not) beyond what they know. They see stars in the sky, stars on the boulevard. Jupiter alone has 53 moons. Who hung those? they ask.

And all at once, they’re occupied elsewhere, attracted to something else. And then? Well then, we parents do the vying.

But today, we have much more to vie against. We’re no longer fighting for influence in our kids’ lives over the next-door neighbor and the homecoming queen. It’s the next-door neighbor’s neighbor, and the homecoming queen’s queen. Influence infinity.  

(From Buzz Lightyear to beyond.)

It’s no longer enough to be engaging. We have to be more engaging than the thing that a team of Harvard grads have spent their life’s work designing to divert the eyes of an entire planet. We have to be more engaging than the algorithm.

I am sometimes asked why I shy away from social media, from more frequent blog updates. Heck, at the heart of what some might call a career, I was childless and churning out multiple pieces a day, often scattered from end to end of the Internet. So what am I hiding now? Did I not lose the pregnancy weight? (No.) Am I getting old and wrinkly? (Yes.) 

But I think it has more to do with the high cost of participation in a medium entirely void of context. Sure, I get resentful over the fact that advertisers know me better than my spouse, twitchy over the fact that my data is selling for top dollar.

And yet: my bigger rub is simply the idea that our phones have become a funhouse mirror. Bend it one way and the truth distorts to oblivion. 

The wardrobe expert you follow is trying on a new linen jumpsuit. Your therapist’s posting a catchy Canva meme. Your aunt’s showing off a new bathroom remodel.

Today, an influencer shares her favorite morning practice – a mushroom and cocoa elixir that she blends with steamed oat milk and maple syrup after listening to a 10-minute meditation on Headspace. We are too overwhelmed/busy/fidgety for the meditation, but heck, we could buy the tea! Surely we’ll feel better after we spend $80 and sign up for a 30-day moon ritual challenge? Then we’ll be rested? Content? Have less FOMO? Be more present? 

Our influential gatekeepers are not the Mirabellas or the Menkes of the past, nor the intern charging $22 salads to Conde Nast’s expense account, nor the ones “in-the-know.” We no longer look to the ivory towers to tell us how to live. Instead, we look to our cell phone towers. We choose our reigning queen based on relatability, on brassy one-liners, on her best Aw, shucks vibe. She speaks to our level, locking eyes with us, rimmed in a ring light. There she is, another mom of three-under-five with the messy bun. There she is, the kitchen table CEO. There she is, the cheeky progressive with feathered earrings.

She makes us laugh. She makes us smart. She makes us feel better.

We follow her.

And our kids follow us.

Your favorite politician is posing, masked, in front of the courthouse. Your best friend is photographing her braid. Your cousin’s neighbor is at the zoo.

This is what it looks like to pledge allegiance to not one Wintour, but many. This is what it means to swim in a sea of must-haves, must-listens, must-watches. To feast on pre-digested ideas and pass them out like Pez. To fill our carts and our ears and our minds with half-priced tees, half-chewed lessons and half-read stats. To repeat quippy sound bites. To bookmark. To like. To save.

(To squander.)

For every mother who has said, “But my daughter found herself on social media!” there is another close by: “My daughter lost herself there.”

In an age in which identity is simultaneously encouraged (Be unique!) and denied (But think/look/vote like this!), the cacophony is at an all-time high. Can we hear ourselves through the din? Or are we too caught up in a pre-recorded symphony – tuning into Insta reels while our daughters dance for Tik Tok one room over?

Your niece is working on a charcoal sketch. Your favorite restaurant released their fall menu. Your sister’s kid is at a pride festival.

We make choices – from lipstick shades to political affiliation – based on the information made available to us. But what happens when we don’t choose the information? What happens when availability is chosen for us, served to us by an anonymous algorithm?

What happens is this: we allow our feed to tell us who we are.

We begin to accept voice as validity. We assume the options we see are the only ones that exist. We take the shortcut toward truth. Our world gets smaller.

So, too, do our lives.

The truth is: I don’t want this for my kids. The deeper truth is: I don’t want this for myself, either.

That girl you met at a conference once is splashing in a tide pool. 

You are in your kitchen, scrolling, while the eggs burn.

Engaging: verb, present participle: “To occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).”

 

So what do we do about it? We leave phones in drawers. Sing lullabies to the baby. Try to get to where we’re going without Google maps. Host friends for tea. Play Qwirkle. Take a walk, watch an ant. Learn how to fix a bike. Run down the dunes. Slurp popsicles. Wave to the neighbors. Write a letter. Watercolor a dog. Tie-dye socks. Spin the tire swing. Get caught in the rain. Live life with both hands, not one dragging a terrabyte of info.

We remind ourselves that our babies begin to follow our gaze at three months old – and they never stop. Where we look, they look. Who we follow, they follow. What shapes us will, inevitably, miraculously, shape them.

So we look to something real. We look at something real. We tell our kids, No devices. We’re trying things a different way.

Sure, technology makes everything easier. Easier to deposit a check. (Easier to spend a check.) Easier to save time. (Easier to waste time.) Easier to send an encouraging text. (Easier to receive a discouraging text.)

Easier to find what you’re looking for.

Easier to lose it all.

Once, my friend – an elementary school teacher – told me why faculty no longer encourages single file walking in their school hallways. “Too many people to follow,” she said. “The kids never could see where they were going.”

  • I’m not sure there’s the appropriate words to describe how much I needed this and how much it hit home. Thank you ❤

  • to live by choice, not default, to be vibrant, not a copy, it works, i know cause we haven’t had all that “stuff” and the kids, and ourselves still play and dream and live. good for you, go for it

  • When your name appears in my inbox, I stop what I’m doing and find a quite place. Because when it appears, it’s oh so special and often the wisdom and insights I am needing. This. Wow.

  • Your writing always astounds me. Thank you for sharing your words and perspective. I’ve been wrestling with this in a deep way as my kids grow and I observe myself, them, and the world.
    Today? We are having a goat roasting with our Kenyan neighbors. I’m going to learn to play qwirkle with my son who is home sick from school. The next hour is blocked out to let thoughts flow from my body to my pen. And then? I’m going to squeeze in a quick hike at some point in the day to breathe nature in.
    There are so many good things to be and do. Why do we let our phones, computers, and other people’s’ experiences steal the real good stuff?

  • So with you on all of this. My son is 23 now, I still tell him to watch the news and not facebook to get the real facts. I’ve also shied away from social media recently. I was overwhelmed, over anxieted, under confident, all of it. I too want to live in the now – with my kids, my partner, with me.

  • Yes to all of this. You’ve perfectly and eloquently summed it up as always Erin. Words worth waiting for.

  • I’ve been off social media for over a year now…and haven’t really been able to put into words the real reasons why. You have an amazing talent… thank you for sharing this.

  • The wait was worth it I too needed to hear this. Still selfishly hoping you have another book coming in the future, as you have such a unique voice that is needed out in the world. Your hiatus from social media is setting a good example for the rest of us. Thank you!

  • Ahhhhhh!! It’s always wisdom and grace.. The way you write. I put a Screensaver on my phone for 2 years now, simply says it’s about priority. Such a good reminder instead of dear Google we can dear actual person.
    (I do need Google for directions though 😂😂)

  • Erin, Sending a huge “Thank you!” For your thoughtful words this morning. I will choose to find ways to engage my grandchildren, children and myself without technology. These things are more enjoyable and long lasting and also help build character and creativity. Keep writing and sharing your words of thoughtful wisdom with us.

  • Erin, no truer words have ever been written. Thank you. Pandemic closed many doors, but has opened our minds and hearts. Humanity is poised and ready for change. As you and I have agreed, being in nature is a powerful re-set button. It’s accessible, free and everywhere around us. Our children need more time there; we all do. Many of us are busy creating a new version of education that relies much less on technology and much more on the true meaning of community. It is education as it was meant to be– experienced in the natural world, in sweet communion with all of earth’s inhabitants. Here we learn how to live together with compassion and hope. I’m grateful, Erin, for your love and care.

  • So happy to read your beautiful post this morning, Erin. Thank you for sharing.

  • Utter brilliance. This post, everything you write – brilliant, relevant, meaningful. Necessary. Selfishly, I wish I could read a post from you every week. And yet, it is so true that absence makes the heart grow fonder…and in this case makes your long-awaited posts that much more resonant in some way. I don’t know why but yesterday you came to my mind… just out of the blue while I was writing I was thinking that I hadn’t heard from you in a while. And I woke to find this post in my inbox. So grateful for it, and you. Thank you for giving so much. <3

  • I see you and get you on this, but has one thought about how much more “extra” time we all have in this modern day era? I know many will scoff at me saying this. I say this because think of all the automated items we have and ways we don’t have to “work” just to get food or wash clothes. Many don’t need to rely on having a garden or hunting for their own meat. Many will just go buy or order and have it brought straight to them instead of having to can or dry a food item before use. Even with lawn care there’s an automated lawn mower. Coffee, we have the beans already roasted, dried and ground for us. Now we may have other things vying for our attention, taking the clothes to the dry cleaners, remembering to pick them up, meetings for school or work, after school activities such as sports or music. Even if we don’t fill our lives with social media, we can fill them with other “busywork.” But were humans made to not fill their time with actual survival? Humans are adjusting how we were originally and it is hard! How to navigate the way we are now and figuring out what are our daily “duties?” Was human kinds made to have this much leisure time? I’m not sure if I’m getting what I’m saying across the way I’m wanting. I know we may not feel that we have much leisure time, but if one really thinks about it, we do and humans weren’t originally not taking up their day surviving, making food, doing basic stuff.

  • Probably your best letter yet! Releasing and reflecting allows us to go deeper to what is real! Bless you – your ability to capture beauty and uniqueness!

  • Bravo, Erin! When I was growing up there were no cell phones or social media, and I feel very fortunate to have that perspective. My camp friends and I wrote actual letters and mailed them. We clocked the mail delivery to see if anything had arrived from our friends that day. I still enjoy receiving the occasional postcard or letter in the mail from a good friend.
    I am sorry to say that now in my 40’s I am a bit addicted to checking my emails. I wish to change that but am not sure how. Your message today is very inspiring…thank you!

  • This blog is a little like feasting on a nourishing, thoughtfully prepared meal after grazing on junk food for months. So good! Thank you for articulating so beautifully what many of us are struggling with every day.

  • Erin ! What a beautiful essay! Thank you so much for posting it. It has honestly left me with a feeling I can’t describe just yet. Thank you a thousand times over ! X

  • Your words speak to my soul EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. You were one of the reasons I finally deleted my Instagram account over a year ago, having put Facebook by the wayside years and years ago. It was somewhat shocking to discover , in the months following, how much my thinking was influenced by Instagram. I still scroll on my phone much more often I want, but without Instagram I’ve discovered I think for myself more, I’m in the present moment more because I’m not crafting the perfect words I’ll post to the photo I just took, and when I see my neighbors and friends , I have no idea what they’ve been doing since the last time I saw them, just as they don’t know what I’ve been doing . Our conversations are thus richer and more layered and so much satisfying. This essay is wonderful and encourages me to continue on, to try new ways to live untethered from my phone. It’s so hard and it’s so worth it. Thank you , Erin.

    • I agree WHOLEHEAREDLY – this has been much of my experience as well! Gifts abound in a life untethered. So happy you’ve allowed yourself such freedom!
      xoxo

  • Thank you for writing this! It’s encouraging to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

  • Bravo! I deactivated my Facebook, was never on Twitter or Instagram, loving it!

  • Beautiful and brilliant as always, Erin. Thank you. Your posts often feel like a joyful oasis.

  • Thank you for voicing my heart. This is just amazing. I want to send it to everyone I know!

  • Thank you for writing the words that have been on a repeat loop in my head for several years now.

  • Being a teenager and not owning a personal phone or having an instagram account (my parents forbid both of them till i’m 19) i see my peers wasting away their lives while trying to make the best of it on the internet. I have been asked the same question “why do i shy away from social media?” and today i finally found the right words to express my answer through your article, so, thank you.

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    Feel free to comment,like,share and subscribe. Thank you, have a good day!

    • How lucky are you, to have such caring parents, you are missing nothing…… I have worked at Mcgill university for many years, seeing the change over the years saddens me. Students are all in line at the caf with phones in hand, sitting down at the tables all of them looking at their phones. I miss the good old days!

  • That last line! “Too many people to follow… the kids never could see where they were going!” Powerful! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Well! That was refreshing! You know , if I didn’t have a small business to run I wouldn’t be anywhere near Instagram or FB . I stopped Twitter last year . We don’t own a TV or watch one – ever . When I’m in the workshop or working in the garden I purposely leave my phone in the house , as does my husband . It’s easy because we’re older (60’s ) and were dragged kicking and screaming to the land of iPhones and social media in the first place . What a pleasure to find your blog – signed up !

  • you will forever be one of my favorite writers, erin. this is such a beautiful and convicting piece of work, reminding us of what’s most important. my husband and i are having our first child in january, and i desperately want to ensure that we are shaping his life in the way we truly want. thank you for this reminder.

    • Sarah – thank you! And congrats to you on your first child coming soon! Blessings your way.
      xoxo

  • Absolutely stunning and right on the nose. I struggle with balancing work life online and my personal projections online with my (and my family’s) physical presence in this world. My struggle will continue for sure, but your words will resonate with me beyond this moment… Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughts and insights. I’ll take ’em whenever/wherever I can get ’em. xo

    • Oh how I miss you, friend! It’s a worthy wrestle for sure. I can’t wait to catch up and hear your heart on the subject!!! Soon soon soon please?

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