Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Why Do We Hate Social Media?

Picture sourced from Facebook
This. This is the kind of thing that makes me mad. No, not the idea of people walking around using their phones and missing an alien first contact, but the negative reaction to people using their phones, and social media in particular. People share this kind of thing so often (on social media, of course; social media is about sharing, isn't it?) They like to present themselves as compassionate souls deeply concerned about the human race, and spend a lot of time denigrating the social media that they post on. The above cartoon is an example.

Of course the people in the cartoon are ignoring the alien. It's a piece of satire. They have to. Of course they're all blue while the alien is bathed in light. Of course they're all identical, of course they're all staring at identical screens with miserable looks on their faces. But is this the reality of social media?

This historical image reminds us that it's not modern technology that somehow makes us inward looking and antisocial. It's not the only image of its type either. A quick Google search brings up multiple similar images of men, and sometimes women, with broadsheets unfolded in front of their faces, totally ignoring their fellow human beings. And yes, they would also be reading it at the breakfast table, on the park bench, in the living room. If an alien landed how would these men see it through the paper? We still don't know if this is a representative image any more than the alien cartoon. It's there for a point. But ignoring your fellow human beings and staring at a piece of data isn't entirely new.

Why do we denigrate the use of phones and tablets as a new and selfish phenomenon? It's part of the age-old habit of denigrating the current generation which has gone on for centuries. Socrates is reputed to have said in the fifth century BC 'The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.' (Source) So what's changed in two and a half thousand years?

But it's worse than that. It's not just about doing-down the current generation. It's about the attitude that if a person's not looking at you then they must be antisocial and phone-obsessed. But for so many people a device like this is an escape. It's an amazing thing. It's a means of communication that lets you talk to friends and family pretty much wherever and whenever you are. If you, like me, hate to talk on the phone, you can text or message. You can keep up with what's going on in the lives of friends who live so far away that dropping in isn't an option, whether that be a hundred miles or five thousand. You can connect with someone who sleeps when you're awake and is awake when you're asleep. You can write a heart-felt letter and have it arrive instantly instead of spending weeks in the postal service. Smartphones make people social. Frequently my looking at something on my phone leads to my sharing it with friends or family either through my phone or by looking up and sharing it physically, passing the phone over and talking about it. Conversations begin, either online or face to face. Smiles are exchanged, physically or by typing in characters.

I think that a lot of the hostility from people towards social media essentially stems from a selfish motivation. If I'm looking at my phone I'm not looking at you. If I'm reading I'm not talking to you. I'm not looking up. I'm not making eye contact and smiling and engaging you in interaction. No matter that I might be engaging with and interacting with five different people in five different ways while I'm looking at my phone. I'm not looking up and talking with you, and whether or not you're the type of person I want to interact with doesn't matter. You're left out in the cold. You would be whether I were reading D. H. Lawrence, browsing the Guardian, looking at funny memes, or chatting with friends through cyberspace.

Through Facebook I have made friendships that I couldn't make in person and finally been able to meet those people in person because of that. I'm in contact day to day with relatives and friends who would otherwise be a fond memory. On top of that I have access to world news and art and other wonders. You can use a brick to throw through a window or to build a house. You can use a smartphone to play on Candy Crush or to read Homer. Or you can do both. You can meet friends face to face to get blind drunk and vomit on your shoes, or to visit an art gallery, or to argue, or enjoy a country walk together. You can use a smartphone to give virtual hugs and love to people you couldn't reach any other way, to chat, to share, or to fight or denigrate one another. These things are what we make of them. Ultimately they are subjects of human agency, and if they allow someone with social anxiety or autism or severe disabilities, someone far from their loved ones, someone living like a fish out of water, the chance to be part of a greater network and support one another, or just to get some respite from a world which often seems at odds with their way of living, then that's a wonderful thing.