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Network Fatigue

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While participating in the wrap-up of a stimulating R&D workshop at the Educause Learning Initiative Conference, I found myself inwardly groaning when someone suggested we keep the discussion going on Slack. It was not because I didn’t value the conversations I had just had with colleagues or find some of the ideas proposed intriguing. Quite the opposite is true, in fact! However, I knew I could not take on the burden of participating in yet one more virtual network or collaborative endeavor, no matter how interesting. I was and am weary.

Initiative fatigue, revolution fatigue, change fatigue, decision fatigue…

Fatigue…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fatigue”, generally, as “lassitude or weariness resulting from either bodily or mental exertion,” and in mechanics as “a decrease in the elasticity of a material after a long period or repeated applications of stress, followed by a gradual recovery after the stress is removed.” [“fatigue, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 5 February 2016.]

While the latter definition applies to materials under study in the physical sciences, I think it is also quite fitting in reference to what human beings experience. People under chronic stress become less elastic – less willing and able to change. The other revealing, albeit unsurprising, notation in this particular definition is that there is a solution for both objects and people: recovery occurs gradually when the stress lessens. That means that (1) the cause of stress needs to be removed and (2) we cannot expect ourselves or others to rebound immediately. It takes both time and the absence of the stressor to recuperate and regain our energy, flexibility, and creativity.

The types of fatigue mentioned at the beginning of this post have been topics of conversation and reflection in education, psychology, and business in recent years. Each refer to circumstances that are often the result of top-down decisions, of imposed duties. Upon further reflection of my recent experience and response, I would like to add a new type of fatigue to the list, but one that is frequently the outgrowth of grass-roots movements, rather than executive mandates: network fatigue.

While some have discussed social network fatigue [see references below], I am describing something slightly different. All people exist in a networked world. Human beings are social animals and live in community with each other in the physical world. Today, to a greater or lesser extent, most of us also live in a networked virtual world. We connect with others through digital media, in addition to our face-to-face communication. While there are many benefits – staying in touch with friends, family, and colleagues at great distances – there are concomitant burdens as well.

As a “digital humanist” now working as a Digital Scholarship Coordinator and deeply engaged in face-to-face local intercollegiate networks, I also must engage with virtual networks to stay up to date in the field, exchange ideas, share resources and training materials, and develop new digital projects. This is fascinating, meaningful, worthwhile work that allows me to marry my day-to-day work with my passion for social justice and knowledge accessibility. It also appeals to my extrovert, people-centric, service-oriented personality – maybe a little to much.

I want to share what I’ve learned with others and learn from their experiences to continue to expand my own knowledge and skills. I want to work on projects, programs, and initiatives that are far-reaching and meaningful. I want to contribute to the good work that others have started around the globe, as well as in my local community. I am guessing that this will resonate with others as well.

But there’s a danger lurking in these good intentions, and it’s not a new one: over-commitment. While this has also posed a challenge to motivated people who get excited about ideas that align with their values and/or career goals. However, in our hyper-networked world, it has become even easier to collaborate, generate new ideas with people in disparate locations, create still more network hubs, develop additional cross-institutional projects… ad infinitum. The desire to build out those ideas is often just too tempting, and we jump on board without examining our other commitments and priorities. At least I know I do. I just want to help! And yet, when we take on too much, it’s difficult to do much well. We already know the result: fatigue and burnout.

This is network fatigue: over-commitment to participate in face-to-face and digital professional networks, which can include, but is certainly not limited to: committees, listservs, Slack groups, online discussion forums, and remote collaborative working groups, in addition to social media.

We get involved in so many different communities that it can be difficult to remember everything we belong to, let alone our passwords to access the site when we do finally remember to log in. Currently, my plate is beyond overflowing with value-added collaborative projects, my listserv folder often overwhelms me, and I cannot participate in one more network without damaging my ability to fulfill current obligations. And so, it is time, at least for me, to begin to practice what we already know works for both inanimate physical objects and human beings to recover from fatigue: remove the stressor and be patient through the gradual recovery process.

What does that mean in practice? First, it does not mean that we need walk away from every network we’ve ever joined, but it does mean the following:

  • Pause before saying “yes” to the next cool, collaborative idea
  • Stop to consider whether we have time to contribute in meaningful ways to yet another online community and say “no” (nicely) when we realize that we cannot
  • Define our priorities and ensure that each new project is in alignment with them and does not detract from present commitments
  • Ask for help when needed (and it’s needed!)
  • Be intentional about self-care, especially, when work and life are at their craziest

References on Social Network Fatigue:

  • Ravindran, Thara, Alton Chua Yeow Kuan, and Dion Goh Hoe Lian. 2014. “Antecedents and effects of social network fatigue.” Journal Of The Association For Information Science & Technology 65, no. 11: 2306-2320.
  • Bright, Laura F., Susan Bardi Kleiser, and Stacy Landreth Grau. 2015. “Too much Facebook? An exploratory examination of social media fatigue.” Computers In Human Behavior 44, 148-155.

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