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Opinion | Tim Cockey

An elevator pitch on escaping social media

(Pep Montserrat for The Boston Globe)

Change is in the air. Lately, a number of friends have been sharing with me their decision to make a momentous change in their lives: They’re confronting their social media addiction.

After years of viewing the world through the screens of their customized echo chambers, they’re shutting down their Twitter accounts. They’re scaling back on Instagram. The truly brave ones are cutting the cord with Facebook altogether, leaving behind hundreds of friends, some of them even real.

As with any addiction, however, breaking away is not easy. Some are experiencing the rupture of disconnection. The virtual crowd has vanished. It’s as if they’ve spent years residing in a huge mansion of limitless people-filled rooms, and now suddenly the rooms have all been vacated. The old house is empty. No pats, no pokes, no alerts, no notifications. Virtually nothing!

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The experience can apparently leave one feeling desolate. One of my distraught friends says she’s thinking of getting a T-shirt made showing hundreds of thumbs-up icons and emblazoned with the slogan, “Like Me!”

For those at a loss about where to go to replace the array of human connections that their social media dangled in front of them, I’ve got a suggestion: my elevator.

My what?

I live in Manhattan, in what local lingo refers to as a “prewar building.” And it contains a barely-postwar elevator, a little run down, a little breaks-down-all-the-time, a little slow to arrive and slow to deliver. Which is to say, if there is zero else to talk about with my building neighbors as we either wait and wait and wait for the elevator to arrive or, once in, watch our fingernails growing as the old thing huffs and puffs up and down its prewar elevator shaft, we can always talk about . . . the elevator. It’s the equivalent of the weather. Always present. Tricky to predict. Fairly neutral.

However, as it turns out, my elevator possesses the nature of a regular chat room. Lots of buzz. Far from being episodes of dead space, my elevator encounters are more often than not a source of great amusement, or debate, or gossip, or news-sharing, or just downright silliness. In other words, the same benefits or consequences we amass from our social media encounters. Except, with live people.

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I find myself waiting for my elevator’s arrival with a sense of anticipation, not unlike that insidious rush of checking one’s news feed. For the most part (barring those full-on breakdowns), these elevator encounters are characterized by brevity. You hit one topic, possibly two, and you’re done. You hear about the new baby, the new job, the broken dryer in the basement, the rage over the NFL’s concussion-problem denial (I just heard that one about an hour ago), all sorts of stuff. And I repeat: It happens with live human beings! That is to say, honest to goodness flesh-bearing emoticons. Double thumbs up. Super Like!

Okay. I’m not inviting everyone to come crowding into my elevator. I really don’t think that would end well. But I’m reminded every time the door slides open and there stands the opera singer from the 10th floor, or the lip-studded barista from six, or the sweet elderly cat fanatic from the top floor, just how enjoyable it is to launch into the brief moment of engagement and chit-chat. One minute friendships. Some of these even develop into something beyond those 60 seconds. A friendship we can take “offline,” as it were.

Now, it feels pretty goopy to say, “Find your elevator.” But I think you know what I mean.

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To my friends who are struggling with those feelings of loss in setting aside their screens on a more regular basis, please relax. You’re going to be fine. There’s plenty to “Like” in even the unlikeliest of places. Trust me. Raise your chins. See?


Tim Cockey is a postwar novelist who lives in prewar building with a barely postwar elevator in Manhattan.