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.
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.
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.”