Facebook and the Internet–Let’s Face It

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A lot of online social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter in particular, rest on the human need for connection. For letting people into your life, no matter how insignificant the post may be.  Still,   regardless of how inane the post may be, it’s still not the same as being there.  There is no intimacy or sensory experience involved.  Only reading.  There is FaceTime,  a more intimate connection than the  phone time. And why is that? FaceTime provides hearing and visual pleasure at the same time. It is because, since we were babes in arms, the face and the  sensory experiences of taste, smell, touch, and hearing come in to play for a  primal sense of intimacy we all cannot live without.

For some Facebook and Twitter users I feel there is a  kind of a loneliness in which we post our lives in hopes that others will “like” or respond in kind. In which the “Friends” validate one’s existence.  Or at least, relieve the boredom of daily life.   To some users Facebook can be like a drug–heightening a need that is never completely fulfilled, requiring more “likes”, more “friends”, more comments.  Is that why I have to set the timer to make sure I don’t spend the entire day on Internet in a virtual time suck?

In a time when even the smallest thought or feeling must be shouted out and displayed to the world, the idea of what constitutes a friend has been dramatically changed.  How can one have 1000 friends?  Don’t we mean “followers”, and even that  has a marketing or self-promoting connotation.  No wonder every business has to have a Facebook “presence”.

The Internet doesn’t actually offer any of us  a true sense of friendship–but more a  pamphleteering of events for the community.  In this sense Facebook, Twitter, blogging and other social media are phenomenal means to getting the word out about news, great and small, in an individual’s life.  Maybe reading that post will result in a phone call or even something as extraordinary as a visit. Let’s just remember that the more we rely on social media as a substitute for human connection, the more we are actually doing the opposite:  isolating ourselves from the very thing we want. Friendship still has to be cultivated the old-fashioned way and by definition, no one has one thousand friends.  I’m waiting to be the exception.  Where are my thousand true FB friends?

 

News as Political Agenda: Whatever Happened to Cronkite?

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Our news programs have become promoters of a political agenda, no longer a broadcast of both sides of a position.  But isn’t that what Walter Cronkite did–present both sides?  Instead we watch Fox News or MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, hardly ever both.  When did our news become so one-sided? When did we start choosing which news to watch based on our predilections?

It seems to date back to the landmark repeal by both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush of the Fairness Doctrine, first in 1987 and then again in 1991. The 1949 Fairness Doctrine had required all TV news coverage to present opposing viewpoints.  Once it was repealed, newscasters could push a political agenda.  Websites who cover current events often follow suit, with video clips to support their views. The media lesson was straightforward: News is not about the truth. It is about viewership aka advertising dollars.

News coverage is indeed evolving…and rapidly. All we need is a smart phone.  With the iPhone we become our own broadcasters. Think of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The photos and video may not have the polish of a professional news organization, but they capture the uncensored immediacy of the event.  Live, instantaneous news feels truthful  even though it precludes previewing the content to verify its authenticity .

We’re now able to take people quickly where they couldn’t go before. Take the Arab Spring, for example.  Or Mitt Romney’s muffled comments. It’s changing news one smart phone at a time. This is a milestone. But is it journalism? In some ways, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Social media increasingly shapes what constitutes newsworthiness. Competition for viewers’ interest has never been more intense. Viewers have always voted with their eyeballs. While the Fairness Doctrine was in effect we voted on whether to watch Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley.  We chose who delivered the news not which news to deliver. Now it is in the media’s commercial interest to try to match active social media participants’ desires. It is not so difficult to see how an issue which is a major story to one television station or one major blog can be ignored by others: if  the story doesn’t match the participants’ desires. And it is not so difficult to see how the same set of facts can be reported on so differently: “facts” are aligned with the beliefs of the viewers.

And with top priority placed on news events that affect  Americans, some foreign news is completely absent. Compare BBC America or Al Jazeera with CNN or Fox and you will wonder if you are on the same planet.

What has happened to our news?  Opinion dominates, but not necessarily in a transparent way. Should news seek to be objective or skewed to appeal to a targeted audience? How are we to be informed about the world-at-large if our news is one-sided?

Genealogy–Seeking Connections Past and Future

How much do we know about our own parents, let alone grandparents? To one degree or another the lives of our parents remain a mystery.  Some families assign the responsibility of “family historian” to a designated relative to create and maintain a family tree.  Our daughter, Maya,  has just been entered into her husband’s family tree, immediately after her wedding. We are at a loss ourselves about our family trees.  Keith, for a high school project about family history, found faces on the Internet that remotely looked like us and made up first names (and some last names) for great-grandparents and great-great grandparents on a family tree.   Doug’s brother hired a genealogist/historian from a local university to interview their ailing father and write his biography as a Christmas present for all members of the family.  But, for even those who know the names, places of birth, and names of children of past generations of relatives, that does not mean one can claim to know their essential experiences, only external facts.

Genealogy has become a growth industry.  Partly this is due to fundamental shifts in U.S. demographics, increases in Internet social networking,  primetime television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?”  and documentaries about remote parents and their “hidden” lives. The target user for family history databases is 45- plus, an  age-group that is growing rapidly.   Advancements in scanning technology and indexing operations have facilitated online-record accessibility and searchable indexes available through websites like USGenWeb.org, Archives.com and FamilySearch.org.   Analysts project that blogging about genealogy will double in growth by the end of this year.

In addition, the seasonal spike in online genealogy searches starts around Halloween and continues through January or February (according to Google search analysts) due to pending holiday celebrations with family.  But family history is an interest to many of us in an ongoing process of seeking meaning. The ultimate need is not a fact or date, but to create a larger narrative, connect with others in the past and in the present, and to find continuity in one’s own life with not only the past but the future.

 We conduct genealogical research not only to better understand our roots and to get to know ancestors as people. Connecting through time with our forebears is a means of personalizing the past, carving out a place for one’s family in the larger historical perspective, a sense of responsibility to our children and grandchildren, and preserving collective memories.

For some of us who can no longer ask our parents or grandparents about their stories, there is a poor substitute for learning about our forebears:  genetic genealogy— a person’s DNA. Websites like 123andme.com, decode.com and navigenics.com promises to provide a complete genome of the customer, screen for the likelihood of developing an inherited disease, and describe information passed down relatively unchanged from early ancestors.  Sites like the National Geographic project trace migratory pathways out of Africa, based upon a cheek swab mailed to their headquarters.  While this is no personal connection with the past or future, it is a more universal signature of how the human race is connected in its birthplace Africa.  Or, is all this interest in genealogy just a thinly disguised attempt to leave a mark after death for future generations– that we did in fact exist, if only as a square on a chart of the family tree?

Social Networking–A Mixed Bag of Tricks

I received so many public and private comments from readers about my last post on Internet usage (see “The Current Digital Divide”–Instant Gratification Anyone?), that I started to think some more about how social networks have transformed our lives.  People (yours truly included) are spending more and more time on the computer. I set a timer so I don’t spend all day in one never-ending time-suck glued to the computer either web-surfing or social networking.  For discipline’s sake, I look at Facebook only once every other day or so.

I do agree with social network supporters that Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of more specialized websites not only promote increased communication with friends and family but open new information resources– lesser-known websites, highly specialized associations, and political forums.  Besides the oft-mentioned dangers of exposing the vulnerable to predators and other criminals, or bemoaning the loss of literacy or longer attention spans, there are benefits to using the social networking tools we have available.

One of the most surprising articles I read this summer (Wall Street Journal, “Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?”, August 16, 2011) is a case in point.   Researchers have found that those who have difficulty communicating in person, especially teenagers, are more comfortable interacting via the Internet.  They are not using digital communication to reach out primarily to strangers, but to interact more frequently with those they already know but may feel shy around in face-to-face situations.

The WSJ article implies that empathy and likability increase among young social networkers, even towards those less self-confident and with low self-esteem.  Perhaps more significantly, Internet users are retaining their offline friendships, not replacing them.  Among social outliers, the Internet can increase a  sense of community and belonging.

This made me reflect on how I personally use social networking and email.  I can communicate at off-times–meaning late at night–since I am a night-owl.  That way the early birds can read my email or Facebook while I am still dreaming.  I can send an announcement–for example, a new blog post–to friends and acquaintances with one message, not hundreds. Digital communication also saves me time –a telephone conversation is more fun, video-chatting even more of a blast–but both take much, much longer.  If I am just too frazzled, an email or Facebook message is “better than nothing” and that is fundamentally the motivation behind the less personal means of saying something I really want to say.  Just like snail-mail, before the invention of email, the telephone call has now graduated way up the “food-chain” to having major impact on the receiver of the call as a very personal effort to talk.

However, what if I had trouble expressing myself in person or on the phone?  Would chatting in a chat room be more relaxing, more of my true feelings and opinions, than face-to-face?

Although social networking sites were created to make money, not to improve peoples’ lives, they have changed the landscape of how people relate to each other and there is no going back. Future political and social movements will undoubtedly use these tools to a significant degree difficult to imagine now.  These powerful new technologies are changing  the way we live, but not always in ways that everyone likes.

I am by nature an optimist, believing that the disadvantages of social networking will be filtered out over time and benefits will emerge for users who apply these tools with common sense. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware. World-tilting technologies (think automobile, airplanes, telephone, television, computer) do not have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects. Social networking is just such a mixed bag of tricks.

 

The Current Digital Divide–Instant Gratification Anyone?

When a link to my daughter’s online wedding registry was sent to some aunts and uncles, it created some confusion. They had never seen an online registry before and couldn’t figure out how to find the gift list or how to purchase something online. This made me start wondering–what is the digital divide between the young “worker bees” and their parents who have to become tech-savvy on the Internet?

The current trend in wedding planning is creating a website–a sort of mini-Facebook page dedicated to posting photos, registering gifts, mentioning the “Save the Date” and wedding reception site plans, as well as giving “updates”. This is how the betrothed communicates in more detail than merely the conventional wedding announcement by snail-mail (still in vogue), telephone calls and face-to-face communication. Now there is constant digital communication with everyone, provided everyone opts to go online to navigate the website.

Much has been said about social networking as an instant but impersonal connection to friends, associates, and strangers. In other words, being endlessly available but seldom really present. There is even a website –Grubwithus–which lets the Internet user browse through lists of dinners in cities, buy a ticket for a particular night, post a few personal facts, and then join strangers at a restaurant for dinner–all in the hope of meeting someone new. It’s “digital barhopping meets personal dining”. The concept fascinates me–picturing small groups of people drinking, eating around the table, all on smart cell phones tethered to the palm of their hands. Does this avoid striking up a conversation in person–a truly scary situation for the shy, and also the not so shy? Does a pre-arranged dinner date with strangers help force the socially awkward to the ultimate goal– face-to-face interaction, so precious and rare? Or does social networking really decrease opportunities for friendship by reducing everyone on your “friends list” to reading the same “updates” that strangers and mere acquaintances also see online?

Those who stubbornly refuse to play are increasingly isolated, the same way that someone without an answering machine or voice mail is (arrogantly?) announcing “stay away” if you can’t take the time to give me a call until you reach me. A new digital divide has been created– between a generation of Internet users and those who still want to go from store to store to buy their wedding presents, appreciate the teller’s smile at the local bank branch, and like the feel of turning the pages of a “real book”.

The upside of digital communications is that the response and the gratification are instantaneous. Our family and friends can know a lot about our daughter’s wedding, even those who cannot attend or were not invited. This lets them know we want to share our excitement. The downside is we are not sharing this information in a more personal way, but can we really do that except with only a very few? Hurt feelings perhaps are diminished with more electronic messages at the same time that a de-personalization of parts of our lives also is happening. An equilibrium still awaits.