It has undoubtedly been a whirlwind 10 days for University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and for the media covering the continuing saga of his faux girlfriend.
It’s also been a hectic time for Montana Miller, an associate professor in the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University.
As an early researcher into Facebook, MySpace, and the burgeoning social networking phenomenon of the mid-2000s — a time when most of her colleagues dismissed the importance of such trends — Miller is one of the nation’s go-to experts for stories involving social media.
Yet as an authority, she has come to an interesting conclusion on the hours and hours we spend online: frequently tuning out the real world, as so many of us do on Facebook and browsing the Web, is not only unhealthy, it can also make us unhappy.
Having recently graduated from Harvard University (with an undergraduate degree in folklore) when Mark Zuckerberg and a few of his college friends launched Facebook in 2004, Miller was an early adopter and frequent user of their site. Yet as Facebook grew into the de facto social network and subsequent massive time-waster for family, friends, and strangers, Miller became increasingly disillusioned by it all.
“As Internet culture has taken over our lives more and more, I’ve found in order to study it for my research — my main work — that would mean I would spend all my time on the Internet,” she said. “It became very clear to me that is how you become a miserable person.”
By passively reading about the lives of others, and perhaps adding a few notes of our own daily experiences to the online conversation, we are ignoring real life around us. In Zen speak, we are in the moment, but not of the moment.
And that’s unhealthy, she said.
“The more time you spend online the less you’re connected to the most important things about life,” she said. “If you choose to study online culture as well as be a part of it, then your whole life is about the Internet and I think that’s a human catastrophe.”
On a personal level, for Miller this epiphany included spending a little more time connecting with flesh-and-blood reality and not so much with its digital proxy.
Three years ago the former professional aerialist discovered skydiving and became a certified instructor who competes on an international level. More recently, her book Playing Dead ($29.95, Utah State University Press) was published. Playing Dead is the fascinating exploration of Every 15 Minutes, the popular anti-drunk driving performance piece created to curb teenage drinking and driving, and its symbolic rituals involving the staged “death” of high schoolers.
And now as a social media expert concerned about people spending too much time online, Miller said the frequent interview requests to discuss Te’o have left her puzzled.
“It thrusts me back into where I’m supposed to be an expert about that, but my main feeling ... is the Internet is taking over and disconnecting us from the human drama that, to me, is what makes life meaningful.”
By focusing its insatiable coverage on the Great Girlfriend Hoax, the media is missing the most important element to the Te’o story. It’s not why someone would trick the Heisman Trophy candidate into a fake relationship, or even if and when he discovered the truth and went along with the lie. Rather, it’s why would anyone invest the time, effort, and emotions into a relationship that’s purely online.
“I think people are seduced by the way the Internet allows you to be so honest,” she said. “It’s easier to be really honest about some very scary stuff when there’s a screen mediating it. They get seduced by it and they feel like they’re being so open and real and honest and they’re in denial to the fact that at the same time the Internet is allowing them to hide enormous aspects of who you are.
“I think people are dissatisfied with themselves and afraid of the intimacy and the hard work of the first-hand confrontation.”
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.