Social media is a horrible blight on humanity. At its best, it’s a malevolent time suck that erodes the world’s economy and happiness by consuming our lives, making us unproductive at work and unresponsive at home. At its worst, it’s a destructive cancer of forced cultural assimilation attempting to turn the world into consumer sheep that stare at screens and tap on shinies to put more coins in the pockets of the already elite. Or is it still leet?
To defeat the enemy, you must meet the enemy on their own territory. Like Riker and the rest saving Picard from the Borg collective, I’ve taken steps to enter into the territory of social media and learn how to defeat it from the inside. It’s a risk I feel is necessary. Fortunately, there are others who dare to take this risk, too. Others with voices, voices that have spread. Take this poem, for example:
You may have seen that before. It’s gotten nearly 50 million views since it was uploaded. It’s likely to get a few million more. It shows that not only are there people out there spreading the message, but that message is reaching an enormous number of people.
The poem is by a gentleman named Gary Turk. It’s powerful because it’s not just some ranting essay or dry manifesto; it’s a morality tale with a potentially plaintive ending. The words, on their own, are powerful, but it’s the visuals and what they represent that really make it stand out. Look Up is the story of a love found, and the possibility of that love being lost if we continue to separate ourselves from each other. It reminds us all of those little what-if moments that guide our lives.
Some question whether social media is an epidemic. To them, I tell an anecdote.
When I was living in Beijing, I had a fairly diverse circle of friends. It was the kind of group that could only drift together in a place like that. And because the weather in Beijing is so beautiful, it was the kind of group that often drifted together indoors.
It was about this time that the Zynga style time-suckers were first becoming popular, and there was one called “Farm Town” that spread across China like a zombie plague. Ours wasn’t the kind of group that bought into distractions like that, but as I said – we were diverse. There were a couple that caught the itch.
One girl, in particular, wouldn’t stop “farming” for anything. Because this was the days before smart phones were a thing, unless you were fortunate enough to own an iPhone, that meant she was never without her laptop. Even in the middle of a party with favors flowing and bass bumping, she would rarely be found a cord’s length away from the most out of the way receptacle she could find.
The number of missed connections she’s had in her life is too large a number for the human mind to comprehend.
Look Up is a piece of art, but does it really have substance? How does one substantiate a poem?
Here’s a look at another video, with only a few million views, that takes a somewhat more clinical look at the subject:
That video is titled The Innovation of Loneliness, and it’s the final project of a design student that’s presumably graduated by now, Shimi Cohen. It’s a more measured, rational look at the subject – a visual essay rather than a dramatic harpoon. It hasn’t been seen as widely, but it was released nearly a year before Look Up, so it likely helped pave the way.
Cohen cites a Sherry Turkle TED Talk, “Connected, But Alone?“, as an inspiration, going so far as to borrow a few quotes directly (with proper citations, of course). He also cites studies and other sciency stuff, proving that this is for real.
For really real.
You can see it everywhere you go. Listless eyes and inattentive gazes, wondering when that next chime or buzz or whatever kind of signal will go off and let the wandering sheep know that they have been poked. They only care that they are a part of something. Someone or something needs attention only they can give.
The smartphone is gradually becoming ubiquitous. I’m one of the few, desperate hold outs. My phone is capable of making and receiving calls, sending and receiving text messages, and it can even store and play my music. It’s enough that I was able to turn down my carrier’s offer of a shiny new something with lots of whirlygigs and the like. I’m pretty sure it could make breakfast and vacuum curtains, and it would only cost nothing, so long as I promised to hang around for a couple more years. Since I’m probably not going anywhere anyway, it would be foolish not to take the hundreds of dollars of free swag.
Dammit, I almost talked myself into it. Since I mentioned three videos, let’s take a look at that third one and try to change my mind back:
The woman that stars in and wrote that video is Charlene deGuzman, and she connected with nearly 50 million people by creating that work of art. That’s saying something. In less than two minutes, she’s able to capture so much.
But watching over it again, I’m able to have another realization. In the story she’s telling, she’s living in a world where she’s surrounded by assholes. In understanding that, I also understand that I’m okay, because I’m not one of those assholes. I connect with the Charlene character.
The truth is – I don’t live in Charlene’s world. In my world there are a few assholes, but there were always a few assholes. Long before the internet was something we carried around in our pockets, there was always that person or persons that was somehow disconnected. They would come to visit, but bring a book with them to read. They would stop by the party and then sit in the corner, then listen to music while they stared at the ceiling.
Kids today spend too much time in front of screens is something the kids in my neighborhood probably don’t agree with. Most of their parents probably spend much, much more time online with virtual “friends” than they do. They’re busy running around the neighborhood making friends – and enemies! – of each other, not much differently than I did many years ago. And the parents are the kind of people I wouldn’t normally hang out with anyway, so no real loss there.
That reminds me of another anecdote. Recently, someone close to me passed away. In the days that followed, I helped do my part by taking a shift with the kids so the adults could deal with more important things. I’m responsible and capable of dressing a wound long enough for an ambulance to get there, so it was more of a help than I would have been being just another extra set of hands in a place where there were already plenty.
The kids spent the day running around playing giant monster with each other. The difference between them and my friends at that age were which IP they referenced as they played. For the record, it was something I had never heard of and don’t care about. I’m getting old.
I also taught them how to make a chute of sofa cushions down the stairs. A finger was sprained in the ensuing melee. I still get shit for that.
In the evening, they did the lava thing after pizza, and when one of them fell in, they stopped for a movie.
I’m not so sure we’re doomed. I am sure there are a lot of idiots and assholes in the world, but that’s always been the case. Social media hasn’t invented the self-absorbed asshole, it’s just provided a new way for people to be that way conveniently.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t had any adverse effects from social media. I’m not lonely, and if I were Charlene, I’d tell my friends to fuck off and find new friends. More Charlenes.
These videos are great because they touch us in a place we like to be touched – the “nostalgia when we’re bored” button. Yeah, you thought I was going to say something else.
They’re plaintive, they’re emotional, and they make us want to be around our friends, to engage in real human contact. I’m cool with that.
But social media isn’t a malevolent force. It’s just a tool we can use to connect digitally with other people, groups and organizations. Some of us are bound to misuse it and abuse it, but that’s no reason for the rest of us to refuse to use it.
Besides, without social media, I wouldn’t be able to share this with the world, as rambling and disjointed as it is.
Here’s a bonus video for just making it all the way through this: