Social Media

Look at this Cartoon .

Social Media. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, G+, Reddit, Livejournal – those are only the ones I’m somewhat familiar with. Those are the generalized ones. There’s many more that are specialized too. Videosift, Youtube, dailymotion, Foursquare, Linkedin…

All virtual meeting-places. Forums, communities, groups, hangouts, guilds elists and PMs. We know what they are and how they’re used. Despite different tools, commands and symbols, they all do basically the same thing: bring people together online to share with each other.

The general consensus is that it is sucking up our socializing. We no longer rely on “real-time” or “face time”. We don’t interact on a daily basis in a “normal” way. Social media is making us all strangers. Social media is stealing our potential quality time. Social media is engulfing us in virtual reality and we are letting life slip by unnoticed. Our children are neglected, our work is sub-standard and our interactions are minimized. We are addicted to unreal relationships.

What did we do before social media?

The general consensus is that we actually made plans to see each other. We had conversations, went out and got to know each other. We looked at each other. We acknowledged one  another. We had “real” relationships.  Parents paid attention to their kids, SigOths went on dates, and we had hobbies that didn’t require looking at a screen.

Did we really?

All my life I’ve been fascinated with paucity. I read Lois Lenski and the “little house” series. I imagined what life was like without electricity, indoor plumbing or interstate commerce. Reading by candlelight, sitting on a latrine and relying on a garden for dinner…. not things I romanticized or wanted, but fascinated by nonetheless.  All my life I’ve been grateful to live when I do; no slavery, women can vote, and modern “conveniences” like light, heat and ready food. There’s many thing I remember “the old fashioned way” – stick shift driving, gas heaters without thermostats, fans instead of air conditioners, ovens that had to be lit.

I remember everyone using cash to pay for things. A check was a huge hold-up at the store and a calculator that you could put in your purse was an amazing thing. Credit cards were for emergencies or rich people. In fact, rich people didn’t use credit cards much either; they had “line of credit” at stores and could simply walk in, pick things out, and have them delivered to their home and billed later.

Being billed later… the doctor, the grocer, the dress shop,… that’s what rich people did. Everyone else did “lay-away”  Credit was a luxury.

When you were growing up, what did you think was “luxurious”?

I thought having a house with more than one floor was luxurious.  One of my earliest dreams was to own a house with a master staircase. And have a credit card. And two phone lines.  And being able to buy a new tire for my car. A NEW tire. That was “luxury” to me.

I remember when answering machines arrived. My parents refused one for a very very long time. My parents are not luddites, but they are logical: “if we buy an item, it will be because we NEED it” was their main philosophy on purchasing things. Because of course, we were very poor.  So an answering machine? “Pah! If we’re not here, what’s the point of a machine telling people we’re not here? they can call back later!”

Then “call waiting” happened. It annoyed my mother. But I was a teenager and my penchant for phone conversations that lasted all night forced my parents to rationalize paying for call waiting. They saw the logic in the purchase the same day we got it. But they didn’t buy an answering machine until they became landlords.

I remember car seats for babies. Shoulder seat belts. VCRs.

But what I remember most?  What changed everything for my family?

Programmable calculators.

My father bought one as soon as they were available. My father has a degree in physic engineering. Nuff said, right?

My father loved the programmable calculator so much he bought the next version as soon as it came out and gave me his old one. I was eleven. That was my first lesson in programming. Looking back, what I learned would be akin to what’s called a “script” or “macro” today- a short program that tells the computer to do a series of steps it already can do. Instead of having to input every step individually, the script or macro calls up the series of steps with one button. We thought this was amazing. I’d been to IBM on a field trip in school more than once so I knew what a computer was. And here was something very much like a computer, that fit into my backpack. Amazing.

So of course PCs came out. Of course my father got one. Like most early nerds, he bought a kit and built it himself. He learned rapidly. He taught some to me. I knew basic before high school. I fiddled with machine code. I learned to make pictures with ASCII.  Fun times.

So what were we doing, socially, back then? Were we really a culture of people going outside all the time, walking around looking at each other, making eye contact and starting up conversations with strangers? Were parents paying rapt attention to their kids in the evenings? Did families go out and do all sorts of “organic” fun? Were we all really acknowledging each other all the time? Were we all full of so much social time that we engaged one another constantly? or even continually? did we use the phone to call each other all the time? did we write letters left and right? Were we a nation of hobbyists and athletes and artists producing and creating and generally making life pleasant without gadgetry?

Well yes, we were.

Did we do it so much more than we do now?

Well no, not really.

We didn’t stop doing any of those things. We haven’t retreated into a silent world of screen-gazing and info-sharing while neglecting the real flesh and blood of relationships any more than we used to sit every night around a campfire and sing kum-bah-ya with locked arms and loving glances.

What we did was trade. In some cases, we traded one type of communication that was cumbersome and time-consuming for much more efficient version of the same.

Do people sit down and write letters that they will later mail at the post office later? Some.  Mostly, people write emails. It’s an exchange that actually broadened the scope of communication and made interaction more commonplace.  Because “snail mail” letter-writing required a significant investment of time, money and mental energy, it wasn’t something everyone did. When a person did choose to write a letter, it was an endeavor which could take up much of their resources and as such meant the letter had to justify said effort. Of course, some people didn’t write their own letters to begin with. Many people would hire someone else more skilled to write on their behalf. Because of this, letter-writing was considered something of a talent; one could actually gain a reputation as a “good letter-writer”. Sending someone your thoughts, ideas and questions wasn’t something to be done lightly. So many people didn’t do it at all. Think of all those thoughts, ideas and questions that never got put out. All that information, clarification and interaction that never happened.

Email erased that and gave the power to exchange to everyone almost equally.

I hear the lamentation that grammar and spelling have gone out the window with the advent of social media and the internet. Some think its because the internet has made people stop caring, taking pride in their expression. I think the internet, for all its egalitarian beauty, merely opened the floodgates for those who are not talented or skilled in letter-writing to attempt to interact anyway. No longer is letter-writing an intimidating prospect that could eat up considerable time and energy. Now anyone can do it, so long as the “rules” for exchange have softened.

Do people sit and have conversations via phone or gathering like they used to? Of course they do. But social media has changed that landscape too. No longer does one have to be subject to the influence of whoever happens to be in their vicinity; with social media, one can choose to interact with whatever type and strata of person they like at any time. Barely speak English? Know nothing about current events? Only interested in discussing llama farming? Find your group online and start talking! now!  Introduce yourself – ah remember that? “introduce yourself”  used to be one of the most dreaded phrases in social gatherings. Standing in front of a crowd of strangers, you had to on-the-spot come up pertinent information about yourself that would entice people to want to know you, accept you and validate you.

Strangers you say? Bah! Why waste time with strangers when you could find an online “gathering” of people you share things in common with. Take as long as you need to write your introduction. Read other people’s posts so you can get a feel for how this group functions and whether you are “on their level” or not. If you realize you’re out of your depth, or sailing above everyone else, you can leave quietly and no one will even remember or care that you stopped by. It’s all in your hands. And if you want, at any time the “real world” is still out there, waiting for you to go join it. But now when you do, you can set your stage beforehand using social media. Much of the dreadful, terrifying unknown has been swept away from socializing now. No more standing around with total strangers wondering how to break the ice, present yourself and find out who everyone is. When you get to your meet-up you come armed with important knowledge that allows you to bypass hours of awkward fumbling and guessing.

So what is all this really building to? What are we getting from social media that isn’t being talked about?

Social media gives us one thing we have never had so much of before in our long history of socializing: the power of independent choice.

Social media is so seductive, attractive and wonderful because while it fulfils our need to be social, it also allows us to control everything about our socializing. Even the power to retreat, if we want to. Often with very little repercussions.

Think back… when you first started getting online, what did you do? When you first started dipping into social media (in my case it was IRC) did you make “mistakes”? How long did it take you to figure out “how this thing works”? Once you figured one social media out -the rules, the rituals, the expectations and of course the tools, how hard was it to move on to another type of social media and figure it out?

Social media doesn’t define our culture. It doesn’t supplant “normal” socializing. It hasn’t killed “facetime” nor has it erased the need for relationships. It has expanded our reach, broadened our capacity for inclusion and lowered the price of interaction for everyone equally.  It has also allowed us to reimagine ourselves as social creatures. The person I am when I play an online game is not quite the same person I am when I discuss current events on a forum. the person I am on my public blog is not the same person I am on my friends-only blog, my facebook, my twitter, my emails… who I am is what I want to be, who I think I need to be for each unique online situation.

I have recently learned something new as well: I am not required to stay the same on any social media. I have grown all my life and social media is no different. My growth has included many lessons about myself, people I know and the world around me. But some of my favorite lessons have been about social media itself and how its changed my expectations and my interactions. I realized recently that I do not have to feel beholden to anyone for an explanation unless I am on a neutral-ownership place. If it is MY facebook, MY blog or MY twitter, I owe no one anything in explanation or expectation. But when I am on a forum, an email list, or any other group, I am no more important or less than any one else in that same  group. I have never felt more equality than when in online discussions. Despite the fact that there are still bigots, assholes and patronizing jerks, the general tenor of online groups are egalitarian. We are all anonymous to some degree and yet we all have reputations as well. We gather personality traits over time like any other form of socializing. Yet because of the differences in online interactions and “real life” interaction, those traits are seen more as individual traits than indicators of whatever classifications of humanity I belong to. I may have a reputation for being quick-tempered and mouthy but I am not taken to be the token spokesperson for all white, disabled, female bisexuals. My traits are indicative of ME. Unlike many “real time” interactions wherein any type of noticeable reactive traits can easily be considered hallmarks of “your kind”  The anonymity of the online world is good like that.

Lastly, I want to touch upon the intricate nature of social media’s place in parenting. Obviously, I am a big fan of parenting forums as my recent post about Special Needs Parenting forums clearly showed.  But overall, social media has given parents a gift that has no ‘real life” component: individualized networking.

Before social media, parents had magazines and some books. If you wanted to meet other parents, the best you could do was to join the PTA or church group. If you did, you had to hope there were other parents who had similiar parenting philosophies but more importantly, you had to hope that your philosophies were NOT the type to get you branded as “one of THOSE parents” by the majority of wherever you were. Because if you went to your local school and mentioned an unpopular parenting idea…  you were stuck for the next 12 years. You could be outcast, ostracized, gossip-fodder possibly even harassed through CPS if you said the “wrong” thing. So parents have gained solidarity in social media but they have also gained something more valuable: understanding and acceptance. Which goes both ways. Nowadays, even if you live in backwater USA and your entire PTA goes to church every day of the week, think Jesus rode dinosaurs and women must wear hats everywhere they go, even then, you still have heard of other parenting philosophies. You may not like them, you may think they are weird, but , you’ve heard of them and you know, whether grudgingly or happily, that you must have some level of tolerance.

And that first tiny foot-in-the-door of tolerance? Is better than humanity has had for the last thousand or so years.

Because of social media.

So yes, go out occasionally. Talk to people sometimes. Smile at strangers. Enjoy “real life” interaction. Its just as wonderful as its always been. But I suspect people haven’t stopped doing those things or craving them.

People just need to be reminded once in a while that social media enhances interaction, even as it doesn’t replace it. They live side-by-side, supporting each other. Use them both wisely.

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