It's been said in the media that soon more will happen online than does in the “real” world because social media is outpacing other forms of communication. As everyone gets electronically connected, they bypass the physical impossibility of speaking to hundreds in a matter of seconds. At some point, though, this speed seems counter-productive. Messages or ideas are glossed over, quickly forgotten and replaced by new ones. This frenzy of communication lacks considered thought. And that is probably something we need even more in the technological age.
Electronic communication is happening constantly. We're surrounded by people on the street or elsewhere engaged with either a phone or pod or tablet. In restaurants, people are sitting at the same table not speaking to one another but instead fingering the electronic gadget they’re holding. And now we hear that Facebook use has become the leading cause of divorce. All of these signs point to the power of the medium. No wonder many claim they are addicted, saying they can’t ignore their phones or other electronic devices and are constantly checking them. After all, who knows what enticing tidbit awaits to be discovered in cyberspace?
It’s easy to see how people become hooked. Humans clearly like to communicate, and now they can do it like never before. At the click of some keys, they don’t have to feel alone in their space; they can join cyberspace, any time. I find it amazing, though, that not so long ago we couldn’t communicate so widely or so quickly, yet we seemed to survive quite well! Were there mostly frustrated individuals in our midst, all wishing to make a comment not just to the people around them but others across the globe? The new age of communication has given them that power. But how well is that power being used?
I’ll admit I’m a Luddite compared to most these days. I don’t own anything but a computer. No cell, so no texting. I'm new to blogging (this is my first!) and have never Skyped or joined Facebook, for that matter, mostly because none of my friends have either. Facebook seems to me to be most useful to teens or young adults, needing to assert their identity in a wider world or to keep in touch with school or travel mates who moved on. My then-teenaged children became Facebook users when their friends insisted on organizing parties and get-togethers through the site. Five years later, they still check their walls daily and will converse with "friends" there (instead of the old-fashioned email), butthey have lives too. (One young woman I know has observed that she’s noticed her friends that use Facebook for hours a day are the ones that “have no life.”) Of course, corporate interests have seized the Facebook platform to further their customer bases, which seems to put the whole “social” aspect into question.
Texting or phoning seem to be my offsping’s premier communication means, because cells are more mobile. Of course, they are behind the curve here, since they don’t use smart phones. And though they spend more time face-to-face with others instead of on their phones or computers, even that time is “hacked into” by them checking their text messages when arranging the next social engagement.
They shun Twitter, though. When a friend admitted to liking Twitter, I joined on to see what drew her there. Her Twitter persona exhibited a verbosity that I'd never seen in person, as she retweeted or tweeted with hundreds of followers. She uses the medium mostly for advertising, whether plugging a business with which she's had a pleasant exchange, or mentioning restaurants, concerts, books or what activity occupied part of her day. The amount of activity she engages in didn't surprise me, just that she felt a compulsion to mention it to one and all in the Twitterverse, which includes not just close friends.
I found it too noisy on Twitter. At 140-character chunks, no one is having a real conversation. Opinions are made, either cynical or lighthearted, and quick rebuttals or agreements follow. I try to gauge the person behind the tweets, which is probably a mistake. Nothing terribly profound is going on. Some are obviously just seeking publicity, positive or negative. Others are “soapboxers,” angry about some injustice, be it personal or more global, and must be heard NOW. Some try to send out the happy vibe, posting little stories or thoughts or pictures aimed at making others smile and rise above the discord. And many just use the forum to have a little fun, making jokes about something, probably passing the time during a boring meeting or commute.
There’s no time in this cyberworld to forge a real connection. This is a place for quick repartee—something once only experienced in person at a large gathering of people. (At least in person you can’t hear absolutely everyone at the same time!) This arena is huge, with lots of people, including some more well-known public figures, and everything they say on a subject is available to read. You have to be speedy to keep up. And after you do, you might wonder why you bothered.
Maybe I’m too reclusive by nature, but I’m really not that interested in how others are filling up their time with this or that activity, putting forth a brief observation or opinion, and generally just communicating quick repartee of wit or whatever. I prefer a forum where a thought is sustained for longer than a sentence or two. So I’m still happy to email or blog. My time is not so precious, and there are others who join me in this slower form of "dialogue."
The only time this instant form of global communication seems truly useful is when organizing demonstrations or rebellions, as we saw during the Arab Spring. But for those of us mostly content in our lives, the medium is being mostly wasted. And it seems to me that instead of being more connected, we are more fractured as a society—with too many individuals communicating in quick and multiple directions and rarely sustaining any meaningful contact.
Although we might feel less lonely knowing that we can connect immediately with someone out there, is this connection one that will truly enrich us, give us “food for thought,” as it were? Don’t we need time to digest our interactions, to learn who we are among the others in our sphere, given our responses to the words spoken and the messages delivered? Or do most people not want to question themselves and only want to feel that they are a part of the mainstream, connected in some way in cyberspace, creating and maintaining a presence there?
I wonder if electronically addicted people feel more enriched with their busy communications, or are they endlessly seeking something that seems to be missing in their lives? Addiction can leave a person in that state: never satisfied for long. The rush of so much communication is short-lived; there’s no lasting connection to refer to later. The moment goes by too fast, and the thought that might seem new and interesting is replaced by yet another. It takes time to understand a point of view and to formulate one’s reaction.
If we could go “cold turkey” for a week and experience life without a cyber connection, we may discover that we don’t really miss that electronic link. And if we do, we might ask why. What is missing from our “real” lives? Are we not surrounding ourselves with a nurturing environment? How can we find self-expression within a limited sphere of family, friends, co-workers or neighbours? These are questions worth considering, as they lead us to a richer understanding of what it is to live our lives, here and now.
Socrates expressed this idea best so long ago when he wrote this: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” [Plato Apology 38a]