Someone suggested recently that I read Dave Egger’s novel, The Circle. I opened my iPad app where I can borrow books from my library and within a minute I had downloaded the borrowed book. The story is set in the not too distant future and its premise is what if—what if we consider social media today and imagine a logical extension for its path. This book does just that.
Having lived for nearly 72 years, I find it interesting to compare the past to the present and to imagine what lies ahead. Technology, for better or worse, has changed how we do things as well as our expectations. And social media leads these changes.
Social Media Yesterday
When I was growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, social media consisted of basic, low-tech possibilities. We had a three channel TV with rabbit ears, snail mail, dial-up limited call number phone and the families in our neighborhood. We were limited with our talk time on the phone since we shared the same number with the neighbor across the alley. With snail mail, I waited several weeks to receive a reply from my Japanese pen pal. If I wanted a library book, I had to leave my house, go to the library, and use a card catalog to look up its location. The librarian hand wrote the due date on a form pasted inside the book’s cover. Music was played on vinyls, 78 rpm, 33 rpm and then 45’s. To get answers to my questions, I could ask my parents or open our family encyclopedia or research at the library. It usually took a while to find answers. In those days, if you wanted to send a message fast, you sent a telegram which involved Morse code and going through the post office. You paid by the word. Perhaps this is similar to modern-day Twitter’s character limit. If I wanted to hang out with my friends, I knocked on their door and we hung out on our porches or at church if there was a youth event going on there.
Social Media Now
Today I embrace how easy it is to communicate with friends and find quick answers to my questions. I no longer need to keep a dictionary on my bookshelf because I can more quickly look up words on line. And I can enlarge the definition on my screen rather than looking for a magnifier to read the small print in the dictionary. Speaking of small print, I never use a phone book any more either because there are better and faster ways of finding contact information. I like the ability to use my iPhone to navigate when traveling and to let friends know if a traffic jam will make me late for our lunch together. Digital books help with house clutter and free up space in my environment. If while I’m reading on my iPad, I come across a word I don’t know, merely pressing my finger down on the word will call up the definition. I am a septuagenarian who loves the convenience and speed of today’s technology but…
We now have instant access to a phone, email and social media but the downside is that we are becoming less patient and more impulsive. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project a study about the dangers of hyper-connected lives on people under the age of 35: “Negative effects include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience.” Not only does this expectation of instant gratification rob us of the beauty of subtlety and deny would-be pleasures, but it can also be dangerous. I experienced this danger in road rage when a young driver, impatiently waiting in a line of five cars waiting to pull out into rush-our traffic, suddenly and violently screeched into the oncoming lane and pulled into the intersection into on-coming cars. Lucky that other cars stopped as that driver was venting.
In classrooms today, teachers are challenged with student use of cell phones, students who constantly text because they refuse to delay a conversation while in the classroom. Their distraction pulls them away in the classroom as well as when they are hanging out with friends. Educators are teaching students who have grown up expecting instant gratification. Students expect this in the learning process too, as if the push of a send button might send the new knowledge into their brains. As a lifelong learner, I wish this were true but I understand the turtle pace that can be part of learning. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes painfully frustrating, but the reward at the other end is great. Today when students encounter learning that does not satisfy their instant gratification craving, their disappointment often results in giving up.
When the compact flip cell phone was becoming popular, my immediate reaction was that I didn’t want one. I did not want people having immediate access to me. I did not always want to be connected. Of course, I could always not answer my phone, but there was the nagging ring or buzz. I have an iPhone today and find useful for good immediate gratification: I’m in a traffic jam and will be late for dinner; my car broke down; what did you want me to pick up at the store; Google tells me those weird things in the fruit section are cherimoyas and that I should not eat the seeds but the rest is delicious…maybe I’ll buy one.
Smart phone on the fly is useful but it has invaded our time and its ubiquitous presence can be destructive and even ominous. To use some apps, you must give location permission. You can use Find My Friends to locate where family and friends are at any moment. Good for parents, bad for teens who don’t want their parents knowing where they are.
People expect us to be at their beck and call. Yesterday I was chastised twice online for not responding or posting fast enough. Yes, I am guilty—by choice. One person told me that I was wrong to post on Facebook something so late into a conversation that had begun two hours before my post. I reminded him that I do not live on Facebook. A young person sent me a chat message that he expected me to respond to immediately. Two days later, when I had not responded to the “hi” message, he told me that if I didn’t want to talk with him, I should unfriend him. I tried to explain that I have a life and that I respond to chat messages in my own time. (I also discovered Facebook was open constantly and that I had chat turned on all the time so it appeared that I was online 24/7.)
These days, sharing is the vibe. As a child, I learned that sharing is good but today it has become insidious. There is Pinterest, Google, Twitter, Linked-In, Instagram, Facebook and much, much more. Facebook alone tells me in a few minutes that: Jean Howard mentioned me, Sam Wilson updated his status, four of my friends have birthdays, someone has responded to my post, three people have shared my post, nine people want to be my friend, seventeen people want me to like a page, three more want me to follow them, eleven people have sent FB messages, four people want me to take a survey and then share with others, etc. It is good to be connected but too much of anything can be bad. If I’m connected to my nearly 700 Facebook friends all day, then I am swallowed, my remaining life is swallowed by the stranglehold of connecting and sharing.
Photographer Stephen Wilkes puts it succinctly: The act of sharing has become more important than the experience itself.
A conversation 16 years ago about what we lose with technology: