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We've lost more than we've gained with social media

• Apr 25, 2019 at 3:00 PM

My daughter mentioned on our normal morning drive to school that she thinks it’s a good idea to shut down social media, as Sri Lanka did, to prevent the spread of misinformation.

I was a little surprised to hear this social media maven suggest that her “rights” should be curbed to serve the masses, and a little pleased, too. It got me thinking about what losing all social media would mean. It started in me a nostalgia for the good old days of writing letters, making phone calls from a home phone, meeting people in person.

I wonder if the good old days really were more civil. I wonder if we can’t help but remember what it was like to stretch the phone cord down the hall and into the broom closet in a way that is sort of rose-colored.

Recently, I’ve had a couple of run-ins on social media with folks I don’t even know, folks who certainly don’t know me. So much is lost when our feelings, tone of voice and facial expressions are reduced to 10-point characters on a screen, so much is misunderstood. It’s far too easy to say things we would never dare say to a person’s face.

Being a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, my mind took me on a bit of creative spin, imagining the useless tablets on shelves, the iPhones grown dusty in a junk drawer as the wall phone is reinstalled in the kitchen. I imagined all of the things we could not say to hurt each other just because we can.

Being right on the edge of cellphone and computer technology places my generation in an interesting spot. We remember when cellphones were introduced, most of us didn’t get a flip phone until we were in our late teens or early 20s. We remember answering machines and recording funny or prank messages, we remember going on long family trips knowing that the only way to communicate with friends or significant others back home was to send a postcard or a letter. I remember playing “Oregon Trail” when it was new, using AOL instant messenger.

The pace of new technology has flourished over the last 20 years, but like all rapid and unchecked growth it has grown too fast to be managed well. I think we’ve all possibly lost more than we’ve gained.

We’ve lost much of our privacy as our cellphones continuously ping out our locations and our devices listen to us even when we didn’t specifically ask them to. We’ve lost our ability to connect to each other on a human and face-to-face basis, something that I believe strongly is much of the cause for very high rates of teen anxiety and depression. We’ve self-induced our own virtual bubbles, where we can follow only the people we agree with, listen to only the “right” news, all from the comfort of home — a place where we don’t have to confront how ugly and broken but beautiful and full of life this planet really is.

Looking at video of a burning cathedral isn’t the same as having that cathedral be your home church. Sharing images of missing children and lost dogs isn’t the same as knowing your neighbors, joining them in caring for all the neighborhood children, hunting down a lost dog that isn’t yours.

I think we’ve lost, and quickly, our ability to empathize. That’s why we can say we want to build walls to turn back children whose parents have been murdered and who are themselves fleeing certain death. That’s why we can lower the number of immigrants and refugees we will take even as Canada opens their doors to refugees from the Middle East. We seem to be cycling back to that same head-in-the-sand stance we had as Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and marched to concentration camps.

We look like toddlers “hiding” behind the curtains — if you can’t seem me I can’t see you.

I can understand why my almost-15-year-old would be OK with a world where every person’s status is not up to the minute with drama. I get why a world where people say what they think to her face once they actually know who she even is would be appealing. It’s appealing to me, too.

Often when I’m out and about, someone I don’t know will look at me just a little too long. And I wonder if I’m being recognized by someone who reads this paper — and I wonder if it’s one of the anonymous commenters who have also sunk low into passive-aggressive virtual hate speech. And so I always make sure to smile and make eye contact, because I try to practice what I preach, and my message for all of my columns has been one of radical welcome and love.

Our elected leaders are called to decency and morality, though we haven’t seen much of either one lately. We, too, are called to be decent people, but it’s hard to be decent when we aren’t looking at each other, it’s difficult when we don’t know the whole story behind what hurts or offends another.

Maybe one day our world wide web (ha!) will crash just for a few days. I can imagine us all emerging from our homes and offices, blinking in the bright light of the real world.

— By Alicia Hager, Tribune community columnist

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