I have been confronted with a perplexing puzzle. On the one hand, I am an avid user of social media. I use it professionally to promote what I think are important policy goals and I use it personally to stay in touch with family and an large network of friends I have gathered since I was a young boy. On the other hand, I am hosting an advanced screening in Washington, DC later this month of Men, Women and Children to discuss the "deadening, dehumanizing impact of social media on our lives, and our sex lives in particular."
Clearly, my personal experience with social media is not deadening or dehumanizing (though I should probably survey my friends to see what they think). In fact, I often wax on the ways social media increases the social capital "the people" can leverage against the financial capital of more privileged political interests. And I spend a lot of time developing strategies and tactics to help that along. I live my life to use social media to create more meaning in life.
But there is this conversation going on out there about how bad social media is; how it disengages us from reality and lets us mediate our own relationships; how we should live our lives in fear of social media. (I often wonder if by emailing myself to remind me to do things, I am creating an impersonal relationship with myself.) Is social media making us isolated and depressed? Or does social media give us a way to conquer the isolation and depression that comes from life in the 21st century? Or better still, as I tend to think, some people are depressed and others filled with life; and those dispositions manifest themselves both offline and online.
The research is all over the place. For all the talk that social media deadens and dehumanizes us, research also shows that people who use social media have more friends, are able to create meaningful relationships online and are able to maintain relationships with friend and family they don't see often. There is no universal social media experience.
Certainly, when it come to political and social movements (think Arab Spring), social media brings people together in meaningful and impactful ways, despite great geographical, security and political obstacles. In fact, social media allowed people who had previously felt politically isolated and depressed to find solidarity across virtual boundaries, which led to real, on the ground change. How can something with such power be deadening and dehumanizing.
And don't let Malcolm Gladwell confuse you with his talk of weak ties and strong ties. If you are keeping a friendship alive over thousands of miles with a childhood chum via social media or making a long distance romance work (think soldiers sent abroad leaving their loved ones at home), it is hard to accept Gladwell's claim that social media relationships aren't strong enough to change the world. It changes your world and you know that is true.
Just as there were people learning about the vast world via television as well as those getting lost in in its vast wasteland, there are people using social media to be better friends; better brothers, sisters, parents, sons and daughters. There are people using social media to raise money for diseases and to force national conversations on race and the abuse of police authority. There are people using social media to create good.
The truth is that social media simply isn't one thing. It is a web of connections that tie people together in many ways, complementing offline connections.
But just as some people can get lost in an offline addiction or never learn how to interact with people, the same is true on social media. Getting a positive experience from social media requires a set of literacy skills that has to be taught, learned and practiced. Web literacy, media and information literacy, and social literacy are all essential and overlapping skillsets we need to survive and thrive in this century if we are to avoid the deadening and dehumanization we might fear.