Monday, December 05, 2011

social media rocks the universe part I

I think this would take an entire book, which has been written already, probably, a time or two, but I thought I would add my own personal testimony to the general body of knowledge that we consider to be the answer to the question of how social media has changed our lives as we know it. I don't think the answer is simple (relationships are more shallow) or even all bad/all good (you can't have any deep thoughts in 140 characters or less). I think the changes are profound and there's no going back. I think the good is outweighing the bad for the vast majority of people who are finding Facebook in every language and staying on it, and for the much smaller minority of people who are finding Twitter to be a very useful personal part of their daily life & communication. But to get more specific: what changes have the social media caused? Let's get started.

1. The pool of people who I see, relate to and talk to is widely expanded. I now communicate with people I have known all my life, people around the world, old college friends, people I just met once but wanted to stay in touch with, etc. We share pictures, videos, favorite music, daily life experiences, etc. At first I thought it was like running into all my old friends in an enclosed village (like the college was) where you didn't say much but you still got to know what they were interested in, what was on their mind, whether they were leaving town or reading a good book. But now I realize that, with people throwing articles, movies and music into the mix it's a little more like living together, where you actually see or hear the stuff they're interested in. No wonder it draws people in! And it makes the world smaller; I have a much better picture of life in various countries around the world.

2. You still choose your friends, but there is no privacy, and you don't choose your friends' friends, so there is a much wider possibility that virtually everything you write, say or do will get out there where it can be read by anyone including your worst enemies who could pop up at any time. This I think could have a much more profound effect on communication than the 140 character limit, for example. What you say has to fit under "for everyone's eyes" and a lot of people aren't quite used to that, and therefore either avoid the social media or overcontrol themselves (which in turn makes things more bland, I'd assume). The privacy issue has spooked a lot of people, but virtually everyone has to have a (at least one) Facebook account or risk looking like a neanderthal, liking having no phone, or not getting a job because some employer just can't believe you wouldn't have some extensive online presence that he/she could do research on.

3. The effects on the language itself are vast and profound, because now 90% of the writing in our world is informal, whereas 90% of it used to be formal. And there is hundreds of times more of it (writing, I mean). The vast amounts of informal writing speed up the pace of change and set into motion other things which people have only begun to notice. For one thing, all writing is not bound to association with oral language; you can no longer assume that every word (or character) has an oral equivalent. Entire languages could now pop up (if they haven't already) that are entirely written, with no oral correspondence at all. People have become lightning-fast at chat, texting, and finding information.

4. The live, face-to-face social world has become more and more frequently interrupted by the online world, as people find themselves unable to ignore their phones for more than five minutes at a time, and often allow themselves to be drawn into its endless possibilities while they should be driving, or participating in a social event, or eating. People have little electronic appendages which are apparent everywhere they go, attached to their hand, drawing their attention away, speaking to them in some form or another. If there is real news, the vast majority of us know it within seconds. Anyone who goes hours without checking their online world risks being the last person to know something, falling way behind, losing track of entire strings and messages. What we used to know as the 24-hour news cycle is ridiculously obsolete; for most people, it's more like a 24-second news cycle, but the news is all personal and only the blockbuster headlines make it through the clutter. They will, however, let their car stand in a busy street for a minute, while they check.

5. To address the people-are-more-shallow-because communication-is-more-shallow argument, I would say that, yes, young people read serious books less, and do less serious thinking, less critical thinking. They do more pure reading, and more diverse reading, since they read chat languages and adjust to different kinds of grammars, some without punctuation. Their thinking develops along with what they do, and if you text twelve hours a day but only read academic English a half-hour a day or less, text becomes standard and you have to monitor yourself when you write formally. I don't think texting has made people dumber, less able to read, less able to make critical arguments or less able to think critically. I don't think it has ruined what otherwise would be nuanced adult relationships. They still have those relationships and they still have time to change them or enrich them, if they make the time. It's like building construction has moved in next door; it's not that you no longer hear music, or listen to it, it's just that there's so much clutter, it's hard to concentrate. I think people will adjust by making time to do the good things (like listen to music) and limiting the clutter in order to restore balance to their lives. But the clutter has its purpose; it's not pure noise as construction was to the uninvolved.

6. Time, however, is the key to understanding the changes social media have caused. If people are spending four or five hours a day on Facebook and Twitter then there are a lot of things they are not doing that they used to be doing. For the socially awkward the online experience opens up a new world; without it, they'd be home staring dumbly at television, and we've already heard a lot about how television rotted their brains (and it may well have done more damage than FB could ever hope to do). For others of us the assumption is that without Facebook we'd be out at parties or having a social life that would allow us to speak, socialize, and share ideas in such a way that we somehow can't or don't on Facebook; I don't buy it. I think we also would be home watching television, and that, furthermore, we are doing on Facebook what we would be doing at those parties, but it's in writing, with pictures and little embedded video boxes, and we do it on our own time as opposed to having to arrange a venue and a time when everyone can gather. The only difference is that it's saved in its virtual warehouse, forever, where it could conceivably be archived and collected by virtually anyone.

Enough for now...those are the six biggies, with my specialty being #3, but I think there's enough in there to say that life has changed profoundly forever, and there's no going back.

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