Back in the days when cards and letters took days (sometimes weeks) to reach their destination and calling a distant friend on the telephone cost more than a decent dinner, people tended to make each contact count by including as much recent news as possible. Generally, the communication was aimed at a specific person or family so the contents were often personal, based on the relationship the sender had with the recipient. Not always, of course. I still recall receiving end-of-year “form letters” from friends who thought it was simpler to just dump the news of one’s latest adventures on everyone at once. But, more often than not, the result of the contact was usually a genuine, heartfelt connection; a real feeling of two people having caught up with each other.
When email became the default mode of communication for more and more people, it became possible to keep in touch with mere acquaintances, in addition to close friends. The speed with which the messages were delivered was somehow reflected in the speed with which the recipient expected to dispose of each message. The emphasis was on short as opposed to detailed. “Nobody wants to read three or four paragraphs of prose when a simple ‘Howdy do’ will suffice”, became common advice for managing email connections. Moreover, the ability to send the exact same message to multiple recipients, each of whom could then forward the message to their own contacts, meant that email messages were increasingly less personal.
Then came blogs. Anyone who has been online for a while will remember some of the early names like LiveJournal or MySpace. People hopped from one to the other as the “next new thing” became available. At present, there are probably more people regularly using Facebook than there are people in some smaller countries. At first, these blog sites were used to tell the world-plus-dog what their owners ate for lunch that day or what mood the boss was in. Fortunately that’s mostly been replaced by more “useful” things like restaurant reviews or photos from someone’s vacation. Still, the emphasis was, and still is, on telling the world what one thinks, as though one were giving a late-night TV monologue.
Then along comes Twitter. Here’s a medium that’s so terse, your every waking thought can be blasted to everyone who cares… and even to many who don’t. Since, like email, these short missives can easily “grow legs”, often reaching people we don’t even know, there is usually no personal feeling included in the content. No “reaching out and connecting”. Just blasting like so many mini broadcast stations.
The term “social media” came into being in order to describe the collection of Internet sites that enable one to broadcast their thoughts to whomever would listen. But there’s nothing all that “social” about telling people that you probably don’t even know about what you’re feeling, thinking, or doing at the moment. A much better term would be “narcissistic media”. That would include things like home pages, blogs, and any other media where the focus is on one-to-many information transfer more than on genuine one-to-one connections. I’m not condemning such actions. In fact, I have my own home page and I’m publishing this article on my personal blog. But I don’t feel like I’m being “social” when publishing content on so-called “social media”. I don’t even feel I’m being particularly open. Since I have no idea who might be reading my content now or in the future, I tend to limit the monologue to those things I wouldn’t mind saying in a public venue. But because I can publish these thoughts now and have them read at some other time, maybe months or years later, there’s no human connection… no “social” component… involved at all. Just information, an ego that yearns to be associated with that information, and a medium that makes it simple to do.
Maybe another good term for Facebook and Twitter and the dozens of smaller but vaguely similar sites would be “Anti-social media”.
What worried me is that it seems the more of our thoughts and feelings we relegate to “anti-social media”, the less we tend to engage in genuine communication with others. At least I see that trend in myself, anyway. And I sometimes see it in others, too… folks who used to send occasional personal emails or drop by for drinks are less likely to do so because they’re spending all their time publishing on “social media” or reading what everyone else has published. If this is a long-term trend… if we’re all going to learn to interact by publishing our thoughts in public spaces and hoping someone comes along who gives a shit… if we’re going to define “social” as the proclivity to blast our every thought to a readership that doesn’t really care anyway… how long will it be before we forget what communication was supposed to be all about?