Your Complex Relationship with Your Phone

Posted on January 6, 2016. Filed under: startups |

Every New Years for the last 10 years or so my close friends have a tradition. We used to travel together ever year, before people got older, found girlfriends, etc…but even as the group stopped assembling, we always send each other some reflections on the past year, goals for the next, and what we hope to improve over the course of the year. In the past, there has been a lot about career development, relationship development, physical fitness and health, mental awareness, etc…but this year I noticed a striking pattern. Between this close group, and a broader set of folks who shared their resolutions with me, I noticed that what feels like 80% of people, myself included, were focussed on changing their relationship with their phone. For me it was “be more conscious about when I use my phone. Make every session a conscious choice.” For my friends it was “no phone in bed,” “don’t check email until 8 AM, “use my phone less,” etc…

Here is a part of our lives that we engage in very frequently, that on some level it feels like we are all trying to limit, or reduce, or pair back. I sit next to a woman at work who has a game with her friends, where everyone has to pile their phones on the table at dinner, and the first person to reach for it before the meal is over has to pay. It is clear that we don’t feel in control of this beast that is getting stronger, and better, and more prevalent. For all the merits that come with a super computer in your pocket, there is an undeniable anxiety associated with what we are losing in the process. People feel harmed by their habit of engaging with their phone “more than they should.” When I graduated from college, many of my friends smoked. Resolutions at that time would be “quit smoking,” “smoke less,” and “get down to half a pack a day.” A behavior, which provided pleasure, social utility, and enjoyment…that was known to be harmful by the user…that people couldn’t quite take control of.

Addiction: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)
– Meriam Webster Dictionary

If you have ever felt addiction, to say smoking, or coffee, or alchohal…you know the feeling when you want it and you are trying to resist. It calls to you, like the ring in lord of the rings…and no matter how many times you recognize or tell yourself that you don’t want to give in, the fight is persistent, and unwavering, and almost physical.

This morning I woke up at 6:15AM and I refused to look at my phone until I left the house at 8:30. First battle was right after the alarm clock went off…all those push notifications…waiting for me…and I immediately turned my phone over. Next, while waiting for the coffee to brew…Olivia is still getting ready…I’m just sitting here…VERY STRONG urge to occupy myself with my phone. The amount of energy needed to say no, look out the window, and think a little bit, independent of a device, was immense. The pull of the phone passed, and I proudly shared with Olivia that I hadn’t used my phone once since we’ve been up…Next challenge, 30 minutes later…the bathroom…what else am I going to do during my morning business? Then…we’re waiting for the elevator…stopped at a traffic light…you get the idea.

As a consumer facing startup, you optimize around metrics like sessions per day, time in app, days used per week. The panel in Mixpanel to measure user engagement is titled “Addiction” for god’s sake. You have this incredibly motivated, incredibly intelligent population of entrepreneurs and technologists trying to addict you…they are the force, behind that lord of the rings pull, that collectively, but not independently, are helping you to lose control of this powerful thing in your pocket…It isn’t mailicious, each one, is hopefully trying to deliver value, and not just take attention, but there are litterally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people…on the other side of whatever discipline or restraint or boundaries you are trying to set for yourself.

The other day I saw a new feature in Slack, one of the most powerful forces at least on my phone, pulling me in, that showed true user first design thinking and real empathy for this complicated relationship we feel with our phones. In a world where a different organization would be optimizing for maximum engagement of their addicted users, Slack introduced a feature called “Do not disturb,” which, in the their words, is “so you can take a little time to yourself when you need it.”

This is a subtle point, but it takes a lot to recognize that people, and I think most people, are truly feeling this pain and lack of control around their phone usage. This moment reminds me a lot of when Snapchat caught fire. You had an entire population engaging in this extremely prevalent, and rarely questioned behavior, of uploading their lives to be consumed on demand, persistently, by those around them, and along comes an entrepreneur who represents a reaction to this built up, partially afflictive, state of the world, by making everything disappear…ephemerality in the face of permanent and public. I believe there is an equal sized opportunity to react to pent up anxiety around our truly persistent relationship with our phones…and I’m interested in who will come along to help ease the distress.

You might ask yourself, well, as a founder of an app that cares about user engagement, and sessions per day, days per week…how do I reconcile this awareness with our decisions as a company…and I think I land where Slack landed as well…which is to focus on the value of the information that we are providing to our users, and to strive to make every session conscious, and thoughtful, and about something more than the pull, and the stat, and the business level optimization…and where possible, to make decisions that hold empathy for this complexity that comes with adding to people’s lives in a way that also may be detracting…over the long run I think this is the right thing to do, and also likely good for business.

It’s not an easy topic, and like cigarettes, I believe we will continue to operate in the status quo for quite some time before concrete science and consensus begin to change the broader consciousness around this issue, but it’s one that I think is important to talk about, especially to an audience that is making the decisions on the other end of people’s phones, because it’s we have a responsibility to think along this dimension.

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2 Responses to “Your Complex Relationship with Your Phone”

RSS Feed for Jordan Cooper's Blog: startups, venture capital, etc… Comments RSS Feed

Very thoughtful post Jordan. Happy new year 2016! Would love to see you soon. Could we do lunch together?

Happy Wednesday! On Wed, Jan 6, 2016 at 9:59 AM Jordan Coopers Blog: startups, venture

Think you are definitely not alone in this sentiment… the pendulum is certainly swinging – just heard a similar story to the one you shared re the colleague you sit next to at work – At CRV, if you’re caught on your phone during a meeting, dinner (and a likely expensive wine pairing) for the entire team is on your dime… A nice subtle reminder to be present in the new year.


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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I think there is one metric that can be used to measure the value of a human life and that’s impact. How did you change things? How many people did you touch? How different is the world because you lived in it and how positive was the change that you affected? (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it) You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com

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