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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Social media has made us weird

I know I hold on to strange things sometimes. But I can’t forget that
woman in Borders who sat there clipping her nails in full view of me
and the rest of the store last weekend. She was watching the Michael
Moore movie about George Bush play on her notebook computer, focused
intently on the screen, nails flying this way and that. It was so
gross and disgusting. I wanted to move but then again I had the cushy
leather chair in the corner. Plus I was sipping my soup. I chose
instead to hold my ground and hope the little fingernails wouldn’t fly
my way.

So I observed that woman absently, the same way I observe people on
the train and in the food court and wherever I go. I watch people like
you reading this right now, gripping your Blackberry intently, staring
hard at the screen as if it were going to reveal to you all the
mysteries of the universe. You, like a flock of geese, standing
outside on an open-air terrace the other day during a break in a
meeting, waving your various smartphones around in frustration, trying
to get a signal. Asking each other, and me, if it’s just an individual
problem or if it’s Verizon itself that’s broken.

It’s not really just you – it’s me too. I just didn’t want to say that
I was the only weird one.

I have a theory that when I’m working on the computer my mind gets
fused with the technology somehow. It’s like I can’t see or hear
what’s going on around me. I get kind of rude when I’m writing,
actually, which is ironic considering that I often write stuff about
being nice to people as a way of working with them and selling them
things. It’s not that I am a bad person. But when I am connected to an
electronic device my brain goes into another dimension.

I saw on the news the other week that this is a common phenomenon.
Child development specialists are worried about kids who routinely tug
on their mothers’ arms only to be shrugged away because they’re “on
Blackberry.” The very device that is supposed to enable someone to
freelance while she’s watching her kids, said the CNN reporter, is
also the device that’s alienating her from them. It was sad because I
recognized myself on that show, all those years pursuing the Ph.D. and
trying to prove myself as a freelancer, and the work always somehow
took me away.

Anyway. There is a scene in the Adam Sandler movie “Funny People”
where he makes fun of all the people on MySpace. (I have to tell you I
can’t relate to the concept that there are actually people who use
MySpace but let’s go with that for now. It’s a kid thing so
whatever.) He says, in this sort of mocking tone of voice, “Look at
me, I have ten thousand friends on the compuuuuteer!” Sandler captures
it exactly. We are becoming a society of people that interacts with
things or with people through things. Not with each other. Tired old
cliché I know but it is both true, from what I observe, and sad.

I went to FrozenYo on F Street the other day. A young woman was
celebrating her birthday with some friends. She was enjoying her
yogurt. So was I. But she was also very intent on having her picture
taken. Eating the yogurt. So she could get the picture on Facebook. It
wasn’t going to be a memory until that photo went up. What does that
say? Where is her brain? Is it in the physical world, in the moment?
Or is she one with the digital and it’s only real when it goes live
and gets published?

I have another theory. Forgive me if it sounds silly. But I think we
all really want to be one with G-d. It’s the spiritual side of our
natures. When we go online and participate in the stream of
conversation, sort of openly, sort of blindly, it’s like we have
surrendered ourselves to a mosh pit made up of friends and fellow
seekers of the same oneness that comes with a loss of ego and self. We
want to say what we think, but also have that saying of things be
sublimated into something much larger than ourselves. The something
larger, in our minds, somehow represents G-d. The unity behind all
things – the creative force that underlies this world.

It’s just a theory. But it would be one way to explain why we as a
society are so taken by all things digital. Why we chase every
opportunity to interact in an electronic way. Even when it infringes
upon our own time, because the interaction has to do with work. Even
when the interaction is really meaningless, because we don’t know who
we’re speaking to and sometimes even when anybody else is listening. I
truly think that if an alien were to descend upon our world and watch
us on our devices, ignoring each other yet frantically Facebooking and
Twittering and livestreaming and uploading literally every thought
that comes into our heads, the alien would wonder what the heck was
going on.

It’s just like that lady in Borders. I’m sure she has a living room
for watching TV or reading books; a bathroom where she can clip her
nails; a desk where she can work on the computer; and so on. But she
chooses instead to camp out with the rest of us nomads in public. She
doesn’t talk to anyone, she doesn’t look around even, actually, but
she appears comforted and connected just from sitting there. Just like
I do. Looking at her and forgetting for a moment that she is not
actually my real life neighbor; getting irritated with the nail
clipping thing as if she were. Sipping my soup, staking claim to my
cushy leather chair, and surveying my “second living room,” the
bookstore. Feeling a part of some strange community of complete
strangers. Wondering how long it will be until our $1.50 coffees and
2-hour lounging sessions put the bookstore out of business and send us
back to our living rooms where we will try and think of another “third
place” to hang out when we’ve finished reading the paper at Starbucks.

(Got my official Gold Card today by the way…Yahoo!)

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