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Confessions of an expat social media addict

By John Smith

Call me John Smith. Call me Ishmael, if you like. I’m a recovering social media addict and I’m too embarrassed to show my face.

I wasn’t always an addict. In fact, six years ago when I moved to Ecuador, I thought social media was something teenagers did (it was certainly something my granddaughters did).

Within a few months of relocating, however, I became acquainted with the big, wide world of Facebook group pages, blogs and comment sections on websites, including this one. Some of my new friends in Cuenca were participants and I slipped into the habit of checking in and commenting on a regular basis. At first it was strictly entertainment but soon I began to participate and my participation grew. Rapidly.

In addition to expat sites, I started reading and responding to several forums and websites back in the U.S. I became hooked on several U.S. political websites even though I left the country, in part, to get away from that stuff. Within six months of my introduction to the interactive cyber world, I was spending four or five hours a day in front of my computer monitor or on my cell phone. A few months later, according to my wife, it grew to seven or eight hours a day, and sometimes more.

Often, I was switching furiously between sites to see if someone had responded to one of my posts or my response to a response, cursing the slowness of my Internet connection. I also cursed the commenters who didn’t agree with me as well as the moderators who blocked my often mean-spirited comments.

Sometimes, I became so immersed in a “conversation” I told my wife I couldn’t go out for dinner.

That was when she had had enough and threatened to find another apartment. About the same time, a friend who had introduced me to social media in the first place — but who never got hooked — dropped by for a conversation. He pointed out that I had gained a lot of weight and looked like crap. He reminded me of my goals when I first came to town: to do some serious trekking, even attempt some mountain climbing, which I had loved as a younger man in Colorado.

“Get off your butt and start doing it,” he said, or something like it. He also said that the last thing Ecuador needs is “another social media expat expert.”

I got the message and began a slow, steady withdrawal from my monitor and phone.

My withdrawal quickened as I read research about internet and social media addiction. Among other things, I learned that my kind of obsession with Facebook pages, website and blog comment sections, etc., was primarily a problem for people over 50. Young folks have their own Internet addictions, of course, but they are not commenters. In particular, I found an on-target remark from a researcher at Michigan State University who said that a disproportionate percentage of addicts of my type were “angry, lonely old men with big egos.” Ouch!

The withdrawal process was further aided when another friend, an Internet geek and hacker, showed me readership statistics for a couple of Ecuador Facebook group pages I had been hooked on. I was shocked to see how few people were actually reading my posts — or any other posts, for that matter. On one popular Ecuador expat Facebook page with 15,000 members, the average daily readership is less than 900. And I had thought I was speaking to the masses!!

Don’t get me wrong. I think expat social media provides a wonderful service. I picked up valuable information (as well as a lot of bad info too) there, and met a couple of friends. I opened a Facebook page which I happily use to keep up with the family back in the States. Thanks to my granddaughters, I now have a WhatsApp account and we message several times a week.

The lesson for me is one I’ve known since I was a child: Everything in moderation. I still check my favorite websites and forums each morning but limit my online time to an hour. After that, it’s time to read a book, stroll through El Centro and, two or three times a month, to hike in the Cajas.

When I run into other Internet addicts — those angry old men with big egos — I’m happy to counsel them over a beer in my favorite bar. I haven’t given up all of my addictions.
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John Smith (not his real name) is a former bank president from Colorado. Since his “weening” from the Internet, he is devoting much of his time to volunteer work with a Cuenca non-profit organization.