As you may well know, I'm struggling of late to come to grips with our fascinating and messy world of social media. What once seem so cut and dried to me as I worked with nonprofit and corporate groups to teach why they needed to update and tweet and tag is now a confusing minefield of statuses and likes. For me, this is amplified in my attempts to be a great parent and a good friend. It seems as though I'm not alone. This past Sunday, a lengthier analysis of what Facebook may being doing to us appeared in the New York Times. We may be coming for a digital reckoning, it seems. I don't care what these do for the profits of a now-public company. But I do care more than ever what our picture posting and online commenting is doing for us humans as we try in our fallible ways to build real community in our messy lives.
These aren't the gripes of an old curmudgeon, mind you. These are the concerns of someone who wants authentic friendship and meaningful relationships with those who help me feel significant and like I belong. I'm merely searching for the same things my ancestors needed while painting on cave walls and packing up camp when the seasons changed.
And maybe a season is changing for those of us who have grown accostomed to what all this newfangled technology was once able to do.
There was a delightful novelty to the way Facebook once helped you find an old summer camp buddy or peer into what your old high school classmates were up to. Half a decade ago, it was neat to get a friend request from your old teammate, use your lunch break to scan through some pictures of his family, read about where he works and what movies he likes, and then mention it in conversation with your wife over dinner. And now? Now he's hidden from your newsfeed and you kind of hate him because he really loves posting misleading information about the President or how he can't wait for the new Nickelback album.
We wrongly assumed that we wanted thousands of connections that lacked real depth. As another reporter put it:
We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.
A world without conversation is a world without give and take. It's a world where learning takes a backseat to broadcasting. And we're all a little dumber because of it.
Compare our lack of conversation to the lack of relationship depth we have, magnified by our logging in (over and over again) to view the constant stream of updates and tweets. If you think you can get deep in 140 characters, I'm sorry, but you're badly mistaken.
What's another way to say lack of depth?
Assuming that online connection points are a valid substitute for offline relationships means we're shallow. Another word for shallow?
Our relationship IQ is shrinking right before our eyes.
I'm undertaking some steps over the next few weeks to better get a handle on what these tools can do for us - and what they need to stop doing for us. Balancing the private world of Dad with the public world of speaker and author is getting harder. Tools that promised convenience seem to fall silent in the face of moral or ethical ambiguity. Then again, they should - they're just tools. Faceless, soulless tools that do a job. They don't make judgements, wrestle with dynamic notions of what's best, or feel regret when a connection is missed (or even destroyed).
That's my job.