Staying Sane in the Pandemic

I live alone.

I generally like living alone. I like being on the internet. I like working on projects by myself. Left to my own devices, I will sit in my eyrie looking out over the Fillmore and read, argue, type, play games, and so on until the end of time.

I guess people call that kind of person an "introvert," and when I compare myself to other people I can't deny that's what I am. It may seem like our present isolation must be comfortable and familiar to someone like me, but I've found that finding happiness as an introvert can't be done alone.

Well, not totally alone. I do have a demanding cat. But a cat isn't a person. My projects and my cat and the internet aren't enough. I've found that keeping up personal relationships is the most important thing I can do to keep my head on straight.

Sanity is found in groups

Running is great. Waking up early is great. Having a pet is great, meditation is great, eating well is great, and there are so many other things I can do that are great and that will help, but even if I did them all like clockwork they fall short of satisfying all my needs.

There's not a lot of analytical evidence that this is the case. Analytical techniques require focusing on and isolating elements of interest, so it's much easier to apply them to people as individuals.

But there is some out there: in Bruce Alexander's famous "Rat Park" studies and later followups he focused on how socialization related to the problem of addiction. Simply put, rats are active, social creatures, and if they have an active place in rat society the phenomenon of addiction doesn't emerge.

In Alexander's later research and writing, he broadened the scope of his investigation. He made the case that addiction is a more general phenomenon, and that most addictions are not the kinds of substance abuse we usually associate with the term. Spending too much time on Instagram? Can't stay off the internet? Binge watching TV?

Alexander claims that these kinds of addiction happen becase we are missing something: "psychosocial integration." Psychosocial integration means being a psychological part of the people around you, a well-integrated part of your community. I use it for a simple idea: being a person among people. It is an awkward term for a great truth:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Our friends and our family, our cities and our nations are as much a part of us as our fingers and our toes are. We all want to find home: home for me means psychosocial integration. Or just home, if I want to use words like a normal person.

And while it doesn't mean I'm never sad or anxious or disappointed, the benefits go far beyond not being addicted to watching YouTube videos of Edmon playing Battletech (Which I am, and about which I have no regrets thank you). The fascinating Rat Park studies are still only analytical and thus fall short of showing the full scope of how connection affects my life.

So that's point one: when I'm living alone or alone-ish, lockdown is a heavy blow to my integration with others. So prioritizing connection is a direct salve to my most grievous wound.

Connection is a high bandwidth activity

We aren't called social apes for nothing: most of our brainpower and development growing up and most of our literature and culture is concerned with our relationships with one another.

And we can't be fooled with technology, either. Our hearts know the difference between a photograph and a friend. We can smell our lovers, and we can feel their hands. We know. It sounds obvious enough, but how many of us try to fool ourselves anyway?

Facebook knows this, too. The most memorable talk I saw at my orientation at Facebook was Chris Cox's analysis of where the company's different businesses fit into the world of communication. It was an exegesis of the mission of social connection.

A key point was that text doesn't make those connections as well as pictures, pictures not as well as videos, and videos not as well as VR. These all take up different amounts of our bandwidth — our attention bandwidth, and our megabytes bandwidth. When I can't leave the house, that communication bandwidth is the most valuable asset I have for addressing my social needs.

What are you spending yours on? I spend a lot of mine on text — Facebook, Slack, Twitter, and messages of all kinds. For me it's been a pennywise tactic. I can and do hang out there all day and find myself worse off than the days where I work in a thirty minute phone call.

We're like people who've lost the ocean, and are trying to replace it by wetting our hands under a faucet. It's convenient. It's better than nothing. It doesn't work.

So that's point two: bias towards high bandwidth modes of communication as much as is feasible. Video calls beat phone calls beat text messages. VR? Sure, why not. If I could find a way to smell a loved one, I'd do that, too. And a socially distant walk in the park with them is even better.

Make your own social network

When you see someone driving a car on the road, what thoughts pop into your head?

Have you ever backed away from someone in public? Why?

How do you navigate a crowd? Or talk to someone new at a party?

What do you do on the weekend? Who do you see? How do you decide who you want to see?

This all may sound like an extended anxiety attack, but if we are out and about on any given day, our brains are doing people work. It's like balancing on two legs: at great cost we learn it in childhood, and now we do it constantly without thinking about it. We swim in social space like fish.

A lot of that is work deciding who we will and will not associate with. The biggest decisions in our life are about which people we will be around: college, marriage, employment. And while there's a lot of ceremony on the way there, we chisel those decisions into stone by using physical space, by putting ourselves physically near what's important to us. Even working from home makes a statement.

Well, guess what? I don't have the tool of physical space anymore.

What I do have are a raft of technical tools that would seem to solve that problem. Facebook (and Instagram) is the exemplar: their mission is to connect the people of the world, and in my view they've done the most thinking about what that means. But other smaller scope tools like Slack, Discord, Twitter, and even point to point messaging apps like WhatsApp and SMS are doing the same thing, too, to a greater or lesser degree.

But they also take charge of this work for me. When I spend time on Facebook, Facebook does the people work for me. And while Twitter's linear timeline doesn't do the same kind of selection Facebook does, I still cede that day to day people work to the timeline. There's no equivalent to what I'd do in the real world: "Tim is talking about politics again? I'll sit at the other end of the table today."

When it comes to actually building a social network that works for me, these tools are inadequate. They sure do hold my attention, but on their own they don't serve my day-to-day needs. How could they? It's no wonder that so many people reach the same breaking point I did: "Wait, am I really happy here? Is this really a good part of my life? I should quit."

So that's point three: build my own social network! Let Facebook reflect what I've built in my life, not the other way around. Social media is not evil, but it is not fit to bear the precious burden of people work. Our tools fall short here, but I've made a habit of remembering the people I want to reach out to. I've even got a list on my desk. And I go to VC dinner parties. (I'd organize them, but that's real big ask for me. Let's not go crazy.)

Take it easy

The last thing I want to say is something I also said earlier: take it easy.

I did not write this big long essay because I am worth emulating. The people worth emulating right now are the last people who would ever sit down and spend three hours on a Wednesday afternoon crafting an action item list explaining how important socializing is when isolating at home. They would just be doing it, because that's what they know to do instinctively.

As I said at the start, I wrote this big long essay because I am bad at this. Much like paying the bills, I have tried not doing it and have found that the results do not meet my standard for joy. Hope springs eternal, though, and I keep trying to skip this hard work or forget about it. None of this is obvious to me; if it were, I wouldn't need to write about it.

That's okay. I do not have to be perfect to get through the day. There will be tough days, but the tough days will come to an end.



Thanks to Marianne Philipp for an editorial pass over this piece.

Thanks to the unnamed folks on an unnamed Slack for the conversation that inspired this reflection.

Bruce Alexander — The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit

Jaron Lanier — Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I don't think I'm parroting any of his ideas exactly here, but I wouldn't think the way I do today about social media if I hadn't read this book.