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Two things just came to my attention about the nature of online life and interaction therein.
The first was published yesterday in the New York Times, entitled The Twitter Trap:
The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?
My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.
I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!
Balancing this is a presentation at last week’s fab social media conference at UBC, Northern Voice. The title of the talk was “Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life.” It was given by a digital media director named Alexandra Samuel, and based on an article she wrote earlier for her Harvard Business Review blog:
Still, the fact that life online can occasionally surprise and delight us points us towards the truth: it’s not the Internet itself that leads to pathologies like cyber-bullying, spam and identity theft. Rather it’s our decision — individually and collectively — to separate the Internet from the context, norms and experience that guide human behavior. It’s our decision to engage in online interaction as if it were fundamentally different from offline conversation. It’s our decision to label the Internet as something — anything! — other than real life.
There’s no denying the differences between life online and off. In our online lives we shake off the limitations of our physical selves, perhaps even our names and consciences, too. What remains are the fundamentals: human beings, human conversations, human communities. To say that “reality” includes only offline beings, offline conversations and offline communities is to say that face-to-face matters more than human-to-human.
Who do you believe? Are your online interactions and relationships real for you? Or do you view Twitter merely as distraction? What I do know is that part of the challenge (and potential) of social media lies is shifting your online life into something more than just epehemera. It takes time, practice, and meaning, to find reality in online life.