It may come as something of a surprise to learn that Gwen Bell — who makes her living teaching others how to navigate and leverage the Social Web — checks her email just once a day. “I’m doing my best,” she explains, “to lead a minimalist life online.”
Bell’s decision to set some limits on her connectivity came about gradually, as she realized that being constantly “plugged in” was harming the quality of her relationships, both online and off.
“My inbox was becoming a real source of overwhelm,” says the Boulder, Colo.–based social media strategist, who has built a thriving consulting practice and was recently named by Forbes as one of 14 Power Women to Follow on Twitter (she’s @gwenbell). “Pulling back has allowed me to be more focused, more mindful, more present,” she says. And that shift, she’s found, has made her more effective and productive, not less.
Bell sees social media as an unlimited source of discoveries, interconnections, personal insights and business opportunities. And she is passionate about her work helping clients leverage those benefits. But she has also witnessed how social media can distract and divide us.
“How many times do you meet with someone and they’re like, ‘I’m so busy — I have to check my BlackBerry right now.’ You’re sitting at lunch and you just want to look them in the eye, but they’re looking at their device,” Bell says.
The way she sees it, the quality of our attention directly influences our quality of life. “The more attention, the better attention, the purer the attention I can pay to whatever I happen to be doing or working on at the time, the fuller my life experience.”
That dedication to a life lived in the present moment comes from Bell’s commitment to yoga — a practice she wants to bring to the Social Web. “When I’m speaking at a conference, I teach what I call ‘laptop yoga,’” she says. “I’ll have all the technologists in the room put down their devices, close their laptops and take a few minutes to center. We’ll meditate or practice mindful breathing; we’ll do a little bit of yoga right there at the tables. I find that, more than anyone else, technologists need these grounding practices.”
Bell, not yet 30, has cultivated a meditation practice for more than a decade. It was her desire to deepen that practice that brought Bell to Japan after she finished college at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2003. And it was during her time in Japan that she began to immerse herself in the Social Web.
“I started to blog in 2003 because I wanted to keep in touch with my family and friends back home, but I figured out really fast that nobody was reading it,” Bell recalls, laughing. “No one I knew blogged back then. But one thing led to another; I just kept the blog up and used it as a personal diary. Eventually, I heard about this site called Zaadz — a social network for people focused on conscious living — and decided to keep my blog there.” (Bell’s blog is now at www.gwenbell.com.)
Very quickly, Bell became an ambassador for Zaadz and consulted with them on some projects. She loved the work and the chance to connect with other like-minded people from all over the world.
The opportunity to turn online camaraderie into in-person friendship is one of Bell’s favorite aspects of the Social Web. “I can’t overstate how much of an impact it’s made — it has completely changed my life,” she says. “I’ll be reading someone’s blog for a year or two and then we’ll meet up in a conference and it’ll be like we’re old friends.”
In fact, Bell first connected with her now-husband, Joel Longtine, through Twitter. The two share a home in Boulder, which Bell describes as “a place where it is totally cool to be a technologist and a spiritual person.” And, while she’s set limits on her Social Web usage, Bell is quick to note that, with the right attitude, the new technology definitely has its benefits.
“If you have the readiness of mind to really leap in, it’s tremendous,” she admits. “It’s changing daily. At my worst moments, it’s what I fear — like I can’t keep up. It’s going too fast. At my best moments, I’m like, ‘I’m riding this. It’s awesome.’”
Go behind the scenes at our cover shoot with Gwen Bell at experiencelife.com/videos.
Live in the Boulder area? Join Gwen Bell for the local Zine Tour, where she’ll be signing copies of Experience Life and offering social media tricks for those interested. Kicks off on April 29th! For more details and to register for this exciting, social-media-centric event, visit www.zinetour.com.
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.