Social media! A phrase that can’t be ignored today. It’s everywhere! Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and myriad other interactive communications technologies are transforming the world. On the one hand, it’s a wonder. On the other, there is a lot to wonder about.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak can give one perspective. The capability for everyone to communicate with everyone else, in real time, and with no appreciable cost allowed a nation of people to bring together a critical mass that could change the status quo. They were able to coordinate activities and unite -- with safety in numbers.
Without communication there is a tendency for individuals to assume that their thoughts and ideas are not shared. Social media have opened channels for sharing, and like an avalanche, certain ideas that resonate with others gather steam. The ability of dictators to rule is largely based upon the fact that they already have a large body of resources at their beck and call (e.g. a military) which can suppress dissent before it has the opportunity to coalesce into a significant counter force.
Fortunately, for the Egyptian people, Mubarak decided to listen to the overwhelming message he was receiving after initial attempts to suppress were met by a growing sense of unity by the opposition ... all fueled by these ubiquitous web-based communications media. (Unfortunately, the Libyan people don’t seem to be as lucky -- perhaps Moammar Gaddafi isn’t linked in and didn’t get the message). This ability to bring people together in a common cause is nothing short of a modern technological wonder.
Charlie Sheen provides another perspective. Turn on the TV during the last week or so and what is going on in parts of the Middle East has been eclipsed by his “Sheenanigans.” Amazing where we place our interests!
There has always been a debate as to how much of the news coverage we see or read (on TV or in the newspapers) is the result of public demand and how much is pushed on us by the providing media. Perhaps social media provides some of the answer.
According to the Wall Street Journal, in less than a week, Sheen had more than 2 million followers on Twitter. The L.A. Times reported this Monday afternoon he posted a message looking for an intern and in the first hour, it received 127,000 clicks. Even more amazing, over the weekend, he did a show on UStream.com which pulled in 100 million views. Yes, that’s correct! It’s not a typo. You’ve got to wonder what this is all about.
Clearly we are operating in a totally new communications environment. We advanced from the written word (books, newspapers, etc.) to the visual (movies, television), but now we have gone far beyond -- where everyone has the potential to be linked to everyone else, information (good or bad) is transmitted in real time, and it is all extremely mobile.
We have just begun to see the implications and the types of applications to which this will be put. On the other hand (at least in this writer’s opinion), as we see all the infatuation with Sheen pushing most other significant news items to the rear, one has to wonder about our goals and priorities.
There are other aspects of the today’s communications transformation that should be taken into consideration, however. They relate to a subject that we don’t really like to face. Clearly the industry that has grown up around the technology has no desire to see these issues aired. And millions -- no, billions -- of users also don’t want to think of them. Like asbestos and cigarette smoke, there are many forces that work against a dispassionate look at what is going on.
Some of the most confounding aspects of what is taking place may be found in the impact on behavior. We already know that Twitter is leading the way to the development of a new version of English, substituting short acronyms for words and phrases. I wonder what the poetry of the Brownings and the Keats of the future will look like. Face to face interaction is no longer what it used to be. Youngsters in the same room prefer to communicate by texting rather than speaking, and they are literally connected 24/7. Sleep deprivation has become an issue.
People are forming lasting relationships (at least so far) over the Internet. Match.com estimates that, in 2010 17 percent of the people who married met online, and Dating Sales Reviews places a $4 billion figure on the world-wide dating industry. There is also some evidence that “Internet addiction” is also causing some marital break-ups. It’s changing the way we interact and behave with each other.
But there are other impacts, perhaps physiological. Cell phones now come with warnings. Bet you didn’t read the fine print in the booklet that came with your phone telling you to keep it a certain distance from your body.
There is an interesting parlor “trick” that you can try -- either as the subject or as the “performer.” Ask someone to hold an inert object (like a cup) in his/her weakest hand and place it against his chest and then hold his strongest arm straight out to the side. Tell the person to resist as you try to push the arm down to his side – using reasonable, but not excessive force. For most subjects with any strength, it’s tough. Now replace the cup with a cell phone that is on and repeat the experiment. You may be surprised with the result.
Scientific evidence is also building to indicate that all of the “connectivity” is impacting more than superficial behavioral patterns. A Kaiser Family Foundation report found that children between the ages of 8 and 18 are interacting with electronic media more than 7.5 hours a day, and if one includes “multitasking (e.g. texting while watching TV), the figure jumps to almost 11 hours.
Numerous studies now show that children who often multitask and spend considerable time engrossed with the web are poorer problem solvers than those who do less. Brain scans indicate that short tasks of limited attention actually use different parts of the brain than longer, more concentrated efforts. The brains of children in the first environment seem to develop differently from those in the second; and subsequently, when they solve similar problems, they use different parts of the brain.
We already know that different human functions are influenced or controlled by different parts of the brain. Will we find that one of the aspects of all of this electronic change is the acceleration (in a matter of a few years) of new evolutionary processes? If so, will they be for the better or the worse?
What does this all portend for the future? It would be nice to have a crystal ball. At present, we have a few clues here and there, but it’s mostly guess work. But it would seem that this needs to be placed on the front burner. We may have less than a generation to figure it all out -- otherwise we will just have to live with the consequences, be they good or bad or a mixture of both. Again, there is much wonder here and much to wonder about.
Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.