Look Up: In defense of social media

You’ve probably seen this video already. It’s gone viral, which is somewhat ironic given it preaches the evil that is all things modern media.

As a proud member of “a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people,” here’s what I have to say in defense of social media:

1. This argument isn’t new

“A world where we’re slaves to the technology we mastered.”

Technological advances aren’t linear, they’re exponential. So it’s no wonder it seems technology has boomed more in the last 5 years than in the previous 10 – because it has. Still, technological breakthroughs have been happening since the beginning of time, and every time something new is born, it terrifies everyone. Radio? The death of public forums. Television? The end of the family dinner. Internet? Say goodbye to the Dewey Decimal System and your friendly school librarian forever. And don’t even get me started on video games.

But guess what? People still meet up in the real world. Concerts, lecture series, marches, town halls. They’re all happening every day. Family time didn’t die either – in fact, some of my best memories with my family are from when we all hunkered down with our hot chocolate and giggled along to a movie. And librarians? They tapped into academic networks of scholarly articles to enhance research capabilities for their students.

Social media is no different. Of course people are up in arms – they always have been, so why wouldn’t they be now? This video plays to that fear without addressing the reality. People learned pretty quickly that listening to the radio wasn’t the same as going to a concert. Families learned to turn off the TV during dinner and taper internet time. In the process they taught their children that conversation and connecting face to face are important – and they were able to do it without condemning the entire medium.

People can and will do the same with social media. Which brings me to my next point…

2. The idea of self-restraint isn’t new either

“It’s not very likely you’ll make world’s greatest Dad if you can’t entertain a child without using an iPad.”

I’m not going to sit here and preach that no one has a problem with social media. That there aren’t parents who are staring at their phones when they should be with their children, that there aren’t relationships void of emotion because the parties can’t tear themselves from their screens. That is definitely the case – for some.

I will also concede that it’s much easier to get drawn into media now than ever before because you can do it anywhere. Televisions and radios don’t travel with you to all of your social engagements. It’s that linear vs. exponential thing again – the stakes are certainly higher, but that doesn’t mean we won’t catch up.

It’s really as simple as monitoring yourself. Just like having the courage to say 20 years ago that the television would stay off during family time, it’s easy to do the same with social media. When my husband and I are out to dinner, taking a walk or even just engaged in conversation at home, we don’t answer texts or check our Facebook feeds. It’s a courtesy that has strengthened our relationship and consequently, our trust in each other. By making this choice every single day, we send the same message that we value the simple act of being together more than anything else in this world.

And guess what? It’s not that difficult, and it’s really not that much of a sacrifice. We both get home from work around 6 and go to bed around 11. Even if we go out to dinner, we don’t spend 5 hours engaged in meaningful conversation every night. So there’s plenty of hours to have quality time together without feeling like we’ve lost an appendage (our phones).

3. It’s not all or nothing

“This media we call social is anything but, when we open our computers and it’s our doors we shut.

What bothers me most about this video isn’t the point that people miss out on the “real world” because they’re consumed by their “digital worlds” – it’s that all people miss out all the time.The video seems to imply an ultimatum: either have technology or have relationships, but both is impossible.

“I can’t stand to hear the silence of a busy commuter train, when no one wants to talk for the fear of looking insane.”

I took public transportation all the time before the age of the smart phone – and if you randomly started babbling to a stranger, you were insane regardless of who was or wasn’t plugged into their Walkmans. But on the flip side, if I wanted to talk to a hottie on the street, him looking at his phone probably wouldn’t stop me (if I weren’t married, of course).

In fact, in my experience media has served as an excuse to talk to people I otherwise wouldn’t have. Just yesterday I was running in the park and a woman stopped me and asked me to take her photo. She told me all about the guy she was going to send it to. A few months ago, when I was on my lunch break reading on my Kindle, a guy stopped to tell me about the new e-reader he just bought. Of course none of these engagements turned into long-lasting friendships, but I don’t think they would’ve happened at all without technology.

But most importantly, the video ignores the good that social media can do to build relationships. Shortly after I started dating my husband, he went to China for the summer. Skype allowed us to talk every day, to keep our relationship alive in those critical early stages.

“Be there for your friends and they’ll be there too, but no one will be if a group message will do.”

My friends and I use group text and Facebook messages several times a week to make plans. There are 8+ of us, and we manage to get together on a regular basis. Do you know how difficult that would be if only one person could call another person at a time? The chances that we’d all get to be together as often as we are are slim.

And then there are those Facebook “friends” who you lost touch with long ago. Well, a little while ago I saw an old friend now lives in Atlanta. We’re having dinner on Sunday. Without Facebook, I may never have known we were living in the same city again after all these years.

Of course, these are just mundane examples from my daily life. Truly amazing things have happened – are happening – on social media that enhance real relationships in ways that have never before been possible. Like this father who filmed his daughter every week for 14 years. Imagine the bond they must have formed, how much he must love her to undertake such a project. Or this woman, who turned to Facebook to find her birth mother and in a beautiful moment of understanding, offered her forgiveness for leaving her on the steps of a church as a baby.

My point is that giving up media isn’t going to make your life better – in fact, you might be missing out on some valuable real-world experiences if you don’t find a way to balance technology with your relationships.

4. It’s not going to change any time soon

This goes back to my first point – people have been freaking out over technology for decades, and they’re not going to stop any time soon. With the introduction of Google Glass and other smart, wearable devices (watches, contact lenses, jewelry) on the horizon, it may not be long until we find ourselves saying, “What happened to those good old days when people would send a nice text message?”

At the end of the video, an old man stares at photos on his wall of his family throughout the years – a life lived right, we’re supposed to think. But almost as ironic as the fact that a viral video is preaching against, well, viral videos, is that this man is using one of the first mediums to reflect on the memories that mattered most to him.

You stop what you’re doing to take a photo of a moment you want to capture – whether it’s using a camera with film you’ll develop in a dark room or your smart phone. Regardless, you’re choosing to take an emotional moment that has value to you and turn it into something visceral you can hold onto forever. That, I hope, will never change.

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