FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA — Freelance science writer Steve Silberman might not be physically addicted to Twitter, but sometimes it seems like it. With nearly 15,000 followers and 25,000 tweets, he gets an online rush when tweeting and surfing the web and can easily see hours slip by without knowing it, falling into what he calls his “Twitter alcoholic blackout.”
Silberman, who also juggles magazine pieces and his NeuroTribes PLoS blog about “mind, science and culture,” recognized the need for an intervention when faced with a looming deadline to start writing his new book on autism and neurodiversity. After keeping a daily time log that showed how much he was living his life online, “I realized I couldn’t write a book between tweets,” he said.
So, he decided to try an updated version of detective writer Raymond Chandler’s strategy, which he read about on—what else—a writing blog. It said that Chandler religiously set aside four hours a day for writing, during which a writer “doesn’t have to write, … He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks,” Or, as the case today may be, he cannot tweet.
“It was a revelation that I had to cut myself off completely from social media for big chunks of time,” Silberman said in an interview. As an experiment, he decided to turn off all his social media connections from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day and devote that chunk of time to some serious, uninterrupted book writing. The result surprised him:
“One, I was tremendously productive, which was great. I was able to write quite a lot. The other thing that surprised me was how good it felt,” he said. “I thrive on social media, but I found a sense of sanctuary that nothing would suddenly pop up and divert my attention. It felt like I was on vacation even though I was working harder than ever writing the book. Suddenly I had control over my mental space for four hours in a way I had not felt in many years.”
Silberman participated in a recent journalism panel called “Get A Life: I Tweet, I Blog, but Do I Sleep?” which brought together several digitally saavy science scribes to confront an increasingly common dilemma: how can we balance our time in the virtual world of social media and online communities with our other professional and personal obligations? The panel, which I organized and moderated, took place at the National Association of Science Writers’ annual workshops, part of ScienceWriters2011, held this year at Northern Arizona University.
I caught up with Silberman and the other speakers afterwards for some take-home thoughts. They all agreed that their “virtual” lives have grown dramatically with the advent of myriad social media channels. It’s hard to resist the temptation to stay offline, but maintaining their digital personas gobbles up professional and personal time alike. Workdays never seem to end. Multi-tasking is the rule. And time for reporting or writing more thoughtful long-form journalism may shrink. Regular sleep? Hmmm.
Something has to give, but figuring out what and when requires self-awareness of how one really spends time. As homework for the NASW panel—an exercise that others confronting the “Get-a-Life” problem might try—each of the writers kept five-day weekday and weekend time logs. Like dieters who underestimate how much they eat when keeping food diaries, the science journalists were surprised by how much time they were devoting to tweeting, Facebook, Google+, blogging, e-mail and the like, often multi-tasking on more than one platform at the same time.
“We’re struggling like everybody else. We don’t have a life, but we are trying and experimenting with different mechanisms of self-control to curb our online habits,” said Bora Zivkovic, a prolific North Carolina-based tweeter (some 56,000 tweets and counting), blogger, and impresario of the popular annual ScienceOnline meeting.
Dubbed the “blogfather” by some (he started A Blog around the Clock in 2004), Zivkovic is now Scientific American’s blogs editor, managing a network of forty-seven blogs with sixty bloggers. Of those, he writes three, contributes to one, and edits two, while promoting all of them on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. Zivkovic’s time diary made him more aware of where he was wasting time.
“That is the first step toward fixing the problem. First, you have to realize you have a problem and then you can make a plan,” he said. “I knew I had a problem. [The diary] helped me identify the elements of the problem I can solve.”