(Un)Social Media

We’re social, I promise. 

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No but really, we talk all the time. We’re besties. I know so much about them. 

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Alright, I’m starting to pick up on your point. 

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I divide my life into two periods: pre-smartphone and post-smartphone. Just a year ago I did not have a smartphone. I had a Pantech Laser – a skinny sliding phone with a full keyboard that afforded me the ability to text, call, and take blurry pictures. I didn’t need a fancy phone with a ridiculously expensive data plan. I never answered people’s calls and I usually texted people back three days later. I could access the Internet on a laptop and I had an iPad for any unlikely mobile needs. Why would I need a smartphone?

AND THEN I went to college. I made friends. We hung out. We laughed. We bonded. All was good and dandy until we occasionally couldn’t fill the awkward silence…. Or we were waiting in line for something… Or we just didn’t want to talk to other human beings. Every time one of these instances occurred, my friends would stick their faces in their iPhones the way turtles retreat into their shells. They acted as though their phones were cloaks of invisibility. If they hid behind the screens of their phones that clearly meant they were busy doing something oh-so-important. They would never be caught not talking to someone. OF COURSE they have something to do, because not having something to do or say is lame. Well you know what, I CAN SEE YOU HARRY. I CAN SEE THROUGH YOUR INVISIBILITY CLOAK.

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I smell your fear. I smell your inability to handle the situation at hand.

And I guess… I smelled my own fear. I hated being the only person fiddling with my hands rather than accessing a portal to another world, an infinite world through a small, mobile screen as we waited for our food at restaurants. I hated relying on my friends’ smartphone map apps to guide us through the city. And most of all, I hated having to take pictures with my gigantic iPad. So I caved. I got myself an iPhone.

There’s a duplicity to social media people fail to realize. While it does eliminate the boundaries of time and space (Baym 3), thus forging new opportunities for communication, it also eliminates the here and now. In her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age Nancy Baym voices all the questions we’re afraid (and too oblivious) to ask:

How can we be present yet also absent? What is a self if it’s not in a body? How can we have so much control yet lose so much freedom? What does personal communication mean when it’s transmitted through a mass medium? What’s a mass medium if it’s used for personal communication? What do private and public mean anymore? What does it even mean to be real?

If you’re physically present in one place (let’s say you’re eating dinner with friends) but you’re mentally and emotionally engaged elsewhere (maybe texting your new boyfriend or girlfriend who you’re head over heels for), where are you? If in reality (the traditional definition) my friend Natalie is hanging out with me at Joe Shanghai, then why does it feel as though she isn’t really with me as she giggles and blushes at the text conversation she’s having with her boyfriend Taylor? If my friends and I are visiting Europe for the first time but all we do is take photos of everything share or like-worthy we encounter, are we really experiencing Europe? Or are we seeing the world through a rosy Instagram filter?  As Ellison and Boyd point out in Sociality Through Social Network Sitessocial media offers many possibilities to actively construct a representation of how a person would like to be identified. I strongly feel that the digital savvy members of our generation are more concerned with how they are portrayed online rather than who they really are as people.

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Three years ago the only social media sites I was on were Tumblr and Neopets. I said I would never use Twitter because it seemed pointless, my mom wouldn’t let me have a Facebook, and smartphones hadn’t full penetrated the market yet. Now I conduct social listening at a digital marketing agency for leading brands like Oreo and Kraft, I have 580 Twitter followers, 1,168 Facebook friends, and I take my iPhone with me to the bathroom.

Although I love being connected to the world, I hate the disconnect I feel between me and whoever I’m with. There’s a saying that the most precious gift you can give someone is your time and attention. Social media is supposed to connect people, to make formerly impossible conversations possible. That’s why my biggest social media pet peeve is when people use social media to be unsocial. Put your phone away on the subway and just chill out; you don’t have to constantly be doing something. Look at that world landmark and take it all in rather than snapping 43241434902525 photos of it. And most importantly, when I’m right here in front of you talk to me, not your screen.

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