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Monday, June 13, 2011

Social media as a social sickness

Splashing

There was the cutest kid outside Starbucks the other day.

It was sunset on a warm night. The lights outside were twinkling. Inside it was cool and quiet and empty.

Wasn't on the computer, for once. Knapsack sat next to me on the floor. Collecting dust. I felt guilty.

Instead we were watching the kid outrun his mother.

The tiny toddler had huge blue eyes, bright curly blonde hair, and an infectious smile. He caught the audience's eye (those of us watching through the windowpane), looked at her, and took off running this way and that. The minute she swooped down to catch him, he would giggle and find some other escape route.

I leaned forward on the counter, head in hands, blankly staring. It looked like a viral YouTube video. Like "Dancing Baby."

"You're not going to work on the book? Or your teaching? Write a blog? You actually have five minutes to spare?"

The question was half-serious and I started laughing. Awww, boo-hoo, I'm a workaholic who is more of an observer of life than someone who actually lives it.

My daughter tried to get me near the pool this vacation. It was an enormous, beautiful collection of blue water, shimmering and clear. It was 90 degrees out. But I'm so uncomfortable in my own skin that I said, "No no no, I'm going to be cold."

Kicking and screaming I let her take me to the water. Sitting on the edge, on the steps, I said, "That's fine. Somebody has to watch the backpack." 

"You're kidding me. You're not even going to go in?"

"This IS in." Motioning to the backpack.

I wasn't looking for a second and she took a huge armful of water and splashed me in the face with it. "What the hell was that for?"
Laughing. I am a silly idiot.

It is ridiculous to live every minute as though it were a story, rather than real life.

Yet that is exactly what social media has done to all of us.

Last week my dad sent over pictures from a family luncheon. I got an invitation to see them in Picasa. There were literally 483 shots. What can you take 483 pictures of in two hours? 

Well I sure did find out. There is (name of person), eating corn on the cob. Wiping corn off chin. Smiling. There is corn in the teeth.

And do you know what? Like a treasure hunter looking for gold, I waded through all 483. 

When I was a kid we used to have little flip books where you flipped the little pages and you saw an animated feature.

This was sort of like that except on a wireless connection and with more of a "static" storyline.

I've mentioned before the mini-birthday party they had in FrozenYo. A teenage girl was all dressed up, her friends sang Happy Birthday, and they took cellphone pictures while she posed with the spoon before taking the first bite. 

And said, "Let's put this one on Facebook."

Sad to say, I am no better. I read books to find quotes to share on Twitter.

Once in the airport there was a huge family fight. It was so typical, and so bad, that it was funny, and the entire TSA line was cracking up. My only thought was: "Damn, it's too late to get that on video."

In the olden days we met people. Now, it's called "networking" to collect business cards so that we can send a bunch of LinkedIn invitations when we get home.

Bottom line is that nowadays, we're so busy sharing with the hive that we are not really bringing anything of ourselves to it anymore. 

Instead we are living our lives as if we were the Kardashians. Every little moment we are mugging for the cameras.

This reminds me of a book I had as a little girl. I loved that book, but it gave me nightmares.

It's about these two kids in the forest who discover a magical ball of yarn. When you pulled on the yarn, it made you get older. So you could grow up fast instead of having to be a kid. Which was so appealing to me I can't tell you.

In the book, the kids pulled on the yarn too much. Ending up old and gray and nearly dead before they realized that they should have just left the yarn alone.

It's like that in the social media world. We're fast forwarding through everything before the thing has a thingness-in-itself, just to make it social. 

The German sociologist Georg Simmel called this the transition from "subjective" to "objective" culture. Meaning that normally things have meaning for me, and then meaning for the collective, and that once the transformation has occurred, the subjective meaning is absorbed and gone. (In a sense, this is what a brand goes through as well on the way to becoming successful.)

Think about the word "friend."

In the past a "friend" was someone who had been through stuff with you. Over time. The word was a noun.

Now we use it as a verb. You "friend" people out of nowhere. It's like, "Hello, do you want to friend me?"

In New York we would say, "Who the hell are you?"

But in social media land we say, "Sure, whatever."

In a way, living in the mosh pit is liberating. Like in the video for the Avril Lavigne song "What the Hell." She jumps out and knows that the audience will catch her. 

But doing this all the time is disorienting. You stop knowing who your friends are. You stop seeing a boundary between real friends and social media ones. And you don't understand how badly you've screwed up until afterward.

It kept striking me that the politician currently the subject of a Twitter scandal used the words "dumb thing" when describing his activities on Twitter. I compared those words with the transcripts that the media reported. The number of relationships with strangers, the lengthy period of time, the things that were said on both sides - what an incredible disconnect. A married person doesn't do those things, should know better, should admit that this was really bad and not just dumb.

But if they're sick, they don't know. 

If they're part of a larger social disease, they are shielded from knowing.

Kids at a very young age nowadays are doing exactly the same thing as this politician did. Sending inappropriate pictures of themselves to each other, having very adult conversations, joining a realm that is so far from innocent childhood that it frightens me. And when you ask them about it, they honestly have no idea what is so wrong. "Everybody is doing it," they say, "that's just the way it goes."

You can confiscate all the cellphones in the world, but if kids already have their minds set this way, they will find another way to express it.

Of course it is so unfair to blame social media for all of society's ills. I am a huge proponent of same. I have seen it cure a lot more than harm. Bring openness, transparency to a society all-too-comfortable with leaving doors closed that cause people harm.

But at the same time, one does have to step back and look around every once in awhile. And ask ourselves if the mental illnesses associated with social media - and make no mistake, we are seeing a lot of pathology crop up - are the kind of outcomes we really want for ourselves and our children.

The world is praying for an individual to seek treatment. But isn't it just as important that we use this opportunity to diagnose ourselves, looking for a similar infection? As great as it is to "tweet for freedom," have we been pulled into a distorted world? One where the individual, personal experience and the capacity for intimacy has been destroyed and replaced by superficial connections that are normally meaningless in the end?

Definitely, with social media, let's take the good stuff and run with it. Let's fly. Especially when it comes to using our minds, and our connections with others, to crowd-source solutions to the world's most pressing problems. And of course to improve our opportunities in life.

But when it comes to our personal relationships, maybe it's time to slow down a bit. Take a breather once in a while. Splash around in the pool with our kids, disconnected.

So that we can live the lives we were meant to. Without the pressure of being a Kardashian.

Giving up our selves just isn't worth it.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

___

Photo by OctopusHat, here