Antisocial Media

It’s interesting how the phrase “online community” has come about. It suggests that there’s something social about these network hubs. If any and all communication is social, then perhaps they are. But I feel something’s missing. The history of electronic communication goes back to the telegraph. No one would call that social. The phone soon follows and for over a century it has served humans well as a substitute for being there. Although it doesn’t quite fully hit the mark, at least hearing someone gives us the unique sound of their voice along with their vocal inflections and speech patterns. It can, to a limited degree, be somewhat social. Video calling adds a useful visual element, nevertheless, it’s still being filtered through an electronic medium. There is an unavoidable disconnect created by miles of air and wire. The virtual is not real. But when both sight and sound are dropped out, we are left with raw text. Words may be powerful, but words on their own are missing mountains of information that we humans put into our social communication. The subtle differences in meaning and inference get lost in print. Someone’s tone of voice or sidelong glance that makes sarcasm perfectly clear in person can’t be expressed in text. (Enter emoticons—a feeble substitute.) Try as hard as you like, written communication is far more difficult.

Teachers tell us to, “Write as you speak.” This dictum, if taken literally, is a disaster. Record your speech, transcribe it verbatim, then go back to read it. Not pretty. Language that was understandable in person turns into a mess in writing. The problem with writing is that it’s void of the clues we put in our direct, personal communication through tone, rhythm, facial expression, hand motions and body posture, etc. Writing is completely stripped of extra-verbal information which stresses, modifies, and clarifies meaning. Texting and virtual communities cannot substitute for face-to-face contact with others—and as a result, they can’t honestly be called social.

This social media stuff is kinda like passing notes in school, sneaking behind teacher’s back. This might explain some of the appeal behind the current social media madness. It’s handy for quick little messages. It’s nice to get an occasional note from people we know that we don’t see frequently. But do you really want to be notified every time someone farts? Do you really want to be on public display 24/7? I don’t care about someone I’m connected to because they are a friend of a friend whom I met three years ago when I was in Podunk for the weekend and for some inexplicable reason I “friended” them.

Thumbing ur way thru life w emoji, abrvs. txt sp keeps u bzy and dstrctd. It’s cold, it’s distant. It’s missing the nuances of face-to-face interaction. Most of the time it’s doing exactly the opposite of keeping in touch. It’s keeping us away from live, realtime conversation with the people who are right here, right now. You know it, you see it everyday. Electronic “socializing” is isolating us from real breathing life, from the irretrievable present.

I love technology. It’s better than sliced bread. But the virtual will never take the place of the actual. When you’re with real people and you drop everything in mid sentence to grab your phone. . . stop, antisocial media can wait.

Listen to the TTBOOK interview with MIT professor Sherry Turkle talking about her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. [To the interview] or listen to the entire TTBOOK program on [Brainpower]. 

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