I read this article by David Brooks in the New York Times, and it got me thinking. I read it partly because he mentioned speaking at Davidson College, and that’s where my daughter goes to school, but the attitudes of the current college-age students matter a lot to me. I’m hopeful about their generation, hopeful that they can fix some of our mess, but I understand that they face some huge challenges. The line from the article that stood out was the one from the student who said, “We’re more connected but we’re more apart.” To me, that’s the paradox of our time. The Internet has made this a much smaller world. We can be in constant contact, but in many cases, people seem more isolated. I have no answers or solutions, just wonderings:
One wonder: Are we less tolerant of solitude? Some of us like it, but others seem unnerved by it. I personally don’t need to feel that I’m in “constant contact” with people. My daughter discovered during her last break that some of her friends talk or text with their parents multiple times a day…while they’re away at college. They were shocked that Sarah speaks with us once a week. “Are you guys okay with that?” Sarah asked. We both said that we thought going away to college probably ought to mean having some time away from parents, so yes, we were okay with it as long as she knew she could reach us if she ever needed us. That kind of “apart” seems healthy.
Another wonder: Does our hyper-connection through social media feed our need for instant connection or make us dissatisfied with the connections we have? I’m not sure. I think, though, that we have access to a lot more of the superficial connections, and sometimes that takes away from the deeper ones. Sometimes the technologically enhanced communication cuts into our more human, manual connections, like dinner conversations. Now, I’m not one to judge, either. When I was growing up there weren’t smart phones to distract us at meals, but my family still managed to be silent at breakfast, each of us hidden behind a different section of the newspaper. Not a word spoken. That’s not so different from the kid who’s texting throughout a meal. Our dinners, though, were very interactive.
Still another wonder: Has “like” warped kids’ ideas about relationships? I had a kid in my class tell me that it’s important to be popular and cool. When I asked him what he thought it meant to be cool, he said, “It means you get lots of likes on your YouTube channel.” Yikes. In my class, I have to spend more time than I used to spend practicing how to have a conversation. Sitting face-to-face, listening with your eyes as well as your ears, nodding your head occasionally, connecting your thought to your partner’s. Those things don’t matter much when you’re gaming or snap chatting or texting. I also think that, while there’s craft at work in many texts and tweets, the craft often veers toward clever, funny or outrageous (getting likes and retweets). That sometimes leaves out adjectives like sincere, caring, or concerned.
I sound like an old fart complaining about today’s world. Guilty, but at the same time, I’m very much a part of (not apart from) that social media world. What I’m finding, though, is that the Slice of Life process is more meaningful than the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram process. I’m finding that I’m learning more about people’s struggles, not just their vacations, triumphs, or rants. The subjects are similar: families, pets, quirks, jobs, and trips, but the treatment isn’t the same. The “look at me” quality is not part of the Slice process. There is a “listen to me” quality, but that seems more constructive. It’s saying something more along the lines of “I’m a human,” instead of “I’m cool.” There’s also the thoughtful responding. The “like” button is not sufficient, here. People are expecting and giving more. I think this medium is a form of social media, but it’s a connection that makes people feel like they are a part of something rather than apart from something.
Perhaps there’s a trend in that direction. The Pantsuit Nation entries that flooded Facebook around the last election had that quality of meaningful storytelling. So have other recent movements. Maybe we can put more emphasis on stories and dialogue and it will have the effect of pulling people closer. I wonder.