How Did We Distract Ourselves Before iPhones and Social Media?


I pride myself on being prolific. I have to be. I need to keep churning out content for this website or the delicate economic foundation upon which it is based will begin to crumble. It’s a glorious hustle that has allowed me to continue to do what I love for a living but it is exhausting and all-consuming.

I’m a writer so even though I work incredibly hard I almost always feel guilty for not working harder. I’m perpetually dealing with some nagging, permanent guilt over not getting more done, for perpetually feeling overwhelmed and defeated, like it will take some manner of minor miracle for me to ever feel truly caught up on things, and even then that magical feeling of “Holy shit, I’m not behind on anything!” would last at most two or three days. 

I’m not as prolific as I could be in part because I am hopelessly distracted by the irresistible time-wasters of the internet era: Facebook and Twitter and Squarespace analytics and everything else online angrily competing for my attention, energy and time. Oh, but I bitterly resent Twitter and Facebook even as I am wholly dependent upon them in so many ways, emotional, professional, business and otherwise! 


I resent the hold social media has over my imagination. I resent my addiction to social media. I resent the way social media has re-ordered my brain, the way it has shrunk my attention span to microscopic levels and rendered me wildly dependent upon the cheap artificial validation and approval of likes and retweets and thumbs up and smiley emoji.

My mother abandoned me when I was a baby but if people who are famous for telling jokes think my one-liners are funny then I think I have worth and value as a human being and something to offer society. 

My love-hate relationship with social media is tremendously complicated and contradictory but it has made me wonder, on many occasions, how on earth I managed to distract myself and waste my precious, precious time in the decades before the rise of the internet in general and Twitter and Facebook in particular. 

In the days before iPhones with the power to bring the entire world to us in a fraction of a second, not just make and receive television calls, and Facebook and Twitter, how did we, as a society, manage to suck and destroy our attention spans/psyches? 


The primary answer to that question is, of course, television. Before I was addicted to Twitter, and addicted to Facebook, and addicted to being on my fucking phone all the goddamned time when I really would rather not be I was a boob tube addict. In my memoir, The Big Rewind, I wrote about watching television eight to twelve hours a day as a rage-choked juvenile delinquent. 

That’s not an exaggeration. I would literally watch television from the moment I got home from school to the moment I had to go to sleep. There were movies and television and cassette Walkmen to distract me in those awful, unbearable moments when I could not physically be in front of a television screen, worshipping my God, but TV was my primary addiction, my primary obsession, my primary way of simultaneously engaging and not engaging with the outside world. 

There was a time when television was synonymous with the dumbing down of our culture and shortening of our attention spans. Now I marvel that at one time we had the concentration and ability to sit in front of an entire half hour long episode of Mama’s Family, complete with commercials, and not do anything else for 30 solid minutes. 


At but we didn’t generally have that level of concentration even back then. That’s where the remote control came in, to save us from the agony of having to watch an entire show when we could be sort of watching three or four different shows at a time or nothing much at all. 

Before the internet, there was the remote control. And the newspaper and magazines and of course books. And the movie theater and video games. We had the same sorts of entertainments and distractions, but they were nowhere near as powerful or efficient as they would become in the age of the internet, when we can seemingly do and see and experience anything instantly. And that’s just on Youtube! 

So while our attention spans may have shrunk thanks to the internet and social media much has been gained as well. The communities that I have helped cultivate here online, both in terms of this website and my Facebook group Society for the Toleration of Nathan, have allowed me to survive the near-devastation of my industry and connect with readers in a deeper, more personal level. 

I wish I wasn’t so dependent on social media but on the whole I think the internet has been a boon for humanity as well as my career and life. It’s shrunk our attention spans but it’s also brought us closer and made us more informed and knowledgable as well. 


As my son likes to say, the internet and social media are good and bad. They’re unfathomably complex cultural forces that certainly have their malignant qualities but their oft-overlooked upsides as well. If nothing else, The Happy Place would not exist without the internet, and would not be as popular or economically viable without Facebook and Twitter to promote it and that would make me, at the very least, deeply unhappy. 

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