8.17.2014

Communication Breakdown

At the Social Capital conference, which I attended last month, the closing keynote speaker, a post-grad student doing her PhD in social media (I shit you not), argued that a society of constantly tech-connected individuals was not denigrating the fabric of community nor contributing any more to the disassociation of humans to one another in any more of a way than generations past once feared the telephone, radio or television would.

I'm paraphrasing of course, but the gist of the well-given talk was, to me, that we have always feared new technology, and in the end, appreciated the benefits. Social media will, if it is not already, be viewed in much the same way, once the generation to whom the technology is still thought of as "new" (i.e. my generation) is gone. The point has much validity, of course. My generation never thought of the telephone or television as anything other than a perfect and comfortable necessity in one's life, because it was always there. As younger generations grow up with computers, cell phones and social media all in their life since day one, these things will seem as necessary - and as perfectly natural to integrate into their life - as the telephone and television was to Gen X.

But if I may wave my cane at you and act the curmudgeon for just a moment, I have some divergent thoughts on the issue.

Social media is becoming less social and more media. Less like the telephone and more like the television or radio. Social media is evolving constantly, but it is evolving out of being a tool for communication, like its ancestor, the telephone, and more like a television or radio - a broadcaster.

So many outlets in my online life are talking at me. Very few are talking to me.

Let me show my wisdom experience age once more - when I started blogging, our PhD student would have been in grade school, so she probably wouldn't have cared to witness first-hand the amazing, groundbreaking, storytelling, connection-forming, radical act that blogging used to be.

We wrote, and we read. Then, because it was our avenue to do so, we commented, and what a rich, intelligent, sometimes divisive but mostly supportive place the comment section used to be! There were no trolls, just talk. No keyboard warriors, just conversation. And if we wanted to leave the comment section for a more in-depth, more personal conversation, we headed to email.

And I don't want to sound like any evolution from there was bad, because it wasn't. As Facebook took off, bloggers flocked to it.

We started linking our posts through our profiles, and started commenting on Facebook pages instead of on the blogs.

Meanwhile, the online world blew up, brands noticed, blogging became a marketing and not a storytelling tool and posts became advertisements, not anecdotes about life. Fine, whatever.

But there's not much to say about the branded posts we began to suspect people were only writing for the swag, and even if somebody was taking the time to write an honest-to-goodness real story, we got jaded so we stopped even adding comments to Facebook links and started hitting the Like button; a most passive response that still conveyed acknowledgement without even having to do anything as radical as reading the post.

And if somebody does actually comment on our post, we don't comment back; we Like their comment.

And if we link a post through Twitter or use our 140 characters to offer an observation or thought or opinion, we don't tweet back, we Favourite.

We have funneled our messaging down to so perfectly efficient a system that we no longer have to read, write, utter a syllable or dictate even one word to "communicate."

I'm glad to know that things change quickly in the online landscape, because I'm not sure this is the social media world I want my kids to think is normal. Our student/teacher at SoCap suggested that the anti-tech push to unplug for periods of time is unnecessary and reactionist, but I'll do it anyway. I want my kids to look up, to truly interact with, and not just look down at, the world and the people around them. It's why I am also, at this point, not able to embrace a digital classroom or encourage my nine-year old to get her online profiles in shape. Why, exactly?

A few weeks ago our family spent a wonderful weekend at a sleep-away camp in Ontario's cottage country. The kids had an amazing time outside, ziplining and flying on the trapeze and kayaking and swimming and sleeping in a sleeping bag in a cabin. I'd like my children to attend the camp at some point, because despite it being costly, I'd be willing to pay not for what the camp did have, but what it didn't - hundreds of people were in attendance and not one was in possession of a phone. Nobody looked down at a screen, no drama was being played out over texts, and teenagers were having fun despite the absence of selfies to prove it.

I'll be interested to see what growing up wireless means to my kids, but for now I'll enjoy the fact that they're still young enough to live their life looking up, thinking of screen time still as treat time. That's not to say that an online life will contribute in some way to the downfall of the moral fabric of the next generation, or that the relationships I see degraded by the Like button would not have become tiresome or trite anyway. Communication breakdown - it's always the same.