Don’t Blame the Medium

“We need to do something about cyber bullying,” a teacher laments.  Note to self: if someone is still using the word “cyber,” then he or she probably has a skewed view of social media.

“I know.  It’s a real problem.  But you know what’s worse?  Oral and pencil bullying.  I’ve found two notes on the ground where someone was bullied and you wouldn’t believe what I heard out in the playground,” I point out.

“Yeah, but Facebook is so public.”

“And a rumor isn’t?”

“But Facebook is a place where bullying is more prominent.  I just don’t think kids should be on it.”

“You know what site has the worst bullying?  The cafeteria.  That place is rife with bullying.  Maybe the kids won’t eat.  Or maybe they can eat in silence.  That would stop the bullying.  I mean, you could argue that it’s a condition of the heart, but I think we’re better off blocking a site instead,” I point out.

I get it.  I wasn’t nice.  I could have been more diplomatic in the conversation. However, I’m tired of blanket statements about how Facebook is “making us” into something, as if we’ve become unblinking, unthinking cyborgs who can’t figure out a respectful way of using a medium.

Throughout this week, I’ve been surprised by the depth of social interaction on Facebook.  Whether it was a meaningful dialogue with former students, an encouraging message from Brad the Philosopher or the often witty and thought-provoking discussions based upon status updates, Facebook felt intimate and meaningful.   Social media aren’t making us shallow.  Instead, each tool provides the potential for depth that is often missing in our urbanized face-to-face interaction.

*     *     *

“I bet you’re finding that it’s deeper in person.  You know Facebook makes us shallow,” someone tells me.

Tell that to the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy protestors who harnessed social media to create a revolution.  Or tell that to the people on my social network who are writing some of the most beautiful impromptu eulogies for a curriculum specialist who died two days ago.

If Facebook seems shallow, it’s because humans can be shallow.  If it seems boring, it’s because we can be boring, often when we are hiding out of fear. If it’s a place of bullying or sarcastic remarks, it’s because humanity can be dark.  But Facebook is also a place where students thank former teachers for the difference they made and it’s a place where we remember a life well lived and it’s a place where we rekindle old friendships.  If Facebook feels beautiful and broken, it’s because humanity is beautiful and broken.

True, technology shapes us.  No doubt the long attention span of the nineteenth century or the image-obsession of our current age are both formed by the most dominant contemporary media.  However, it’s more complicated.  It’s always a reciprocal relationship, where technology shapes our culture and the culture shapes the medium.

It is deeply human to use technology in positive ways.  It is also deeply human to use technology for destruction (think the nuclear bomb or Jamestown Intervention software).  But it is also deeply human to believe the lie that we are either deterministically programmed by the medium or that we can create a techno-dystopia where the medium never has any harmful effects.  The bottom line is that our relationship with technology will always be paradoxical in nature.

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Weekly Reflection: Embracing the Tactile

I could spend an entire day living in my mind.  Give me a day off at Starbucks and I’m good.  On some level, I could spend an entire lifetime avoiding the terrestrial here and now.  Let me blog and write, listen to Sufjan Stevens and speak in front of people.  I can debate ideas, tell stories and ask hard questions.  I can join chats on Twitter, post quirky updates on Facebook and manage life from a fourteen inch screen.  Not only can I live this way, but often times Ido live this way.  And the crazy thing is that people reward me for it with a virtual thumbs-up or a retweet.

The Living Facebook Experiment (does it need to be a proper noun when what we are doing often feels so overtly improper?)  forces me to engage in social interaction with my real voice and my two hands.  Whether I’m writing on a window (it’s a long story regarding why we avoided walls), scribbling intant messages on a church sermon handout or pulling plants in our Suburban Farmville, I’m stuck with real-time and real-space and all the insecurities that go with it.

On one level, the experience is humbling. I have clumsy hands.  Okay, not entirely.  I can sketch and paint.  But it’s not effortless.  It’s not as simple as dreaming up an imaginary fantasy land for a novel.  The tactile side of life always feels slower and more prone to mistakes.  And that’s why I need to relearn the importance of the five senses.

On another level, it’s liberating. It’s fun.  I forgot the feeling of sliding a letter into an envelope, licking the nasty glue and sliding the note into the mailbox, thus sealing its fate forever.  I forgot what it was like to use an Expo marker, not to illustrate a social studies concept, but to draw a virtual cigar or cup of coffee.

I need to live with my hands.  I need to learn to look and to smell and to listen.  I need to remember that life does not happen virtually.  So, do I abandon the online vapor me?  Do I keep away from social media and instead pursue social interaction?

It doesn’t have to be either/or.  In fact, it shouldn’t be either / or.  It is deeply human to pursue the imago, to live in the mind and to dream up fantastical ideas that may, at some point hit the terrestrial terrain before our eyes.  And yet, we are of the land and in the land.  Sometimes I forget that there is more complexity in the dirt between my finger nails than in the entire programing of my iPad.

Any Ideas?

Although Christy and I have brainstormed ideas for Living Facebook, I’d love to hear any ideas from people who read this blog.  What are some in-person things we should do that are similar to social networks? (This can include things like Twitter).

A Few Limitations

Although I want to do all things Facebook, I am recognizing some limitations:

  1. It’s really hard to avoid viruses in real life.  Brenna is sick right now and pretty much anywhere we go we have a good shot at spreading the germs.  In Facebook, it’s a lot easier to avoid.  “Check who’s looking at your profile” is  a dead give-away.  But what if it really worked that way?  What if looking back to see who is looking at you meant you got a virus?
  2. You can’t delete people in real life.  Okay, you can, but it requires you to do #3.
  3. It’s probably really difficult to actually join the mafia.  I’ve never met a single person who had a member of organized crime send a letter asking him or her to join.
  4. Poking.  I’m still thinking of a way to get away with this.  Perhaps a poke and then, “just letting you know that you still matter.”  In my head, it works.  In real life it might be creepy.
  5. I’m not going to join a sorority.  That one wins tons of points on the creep scale.
  6. I’m not going to take photographs of me standing shirtless in front of the mirror. If I do, I’ll lose friends.  Forever.
Look for this list to expand.