Spilling coffee on your keyboard April 23, 2012Posted by The Typist in Fortin Street, literature, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Conversation, Facebook, Sherry Turkle, The Flight from Conversation, Tumblr, twitter
Oddly enough, this all started with a Facebook post about an online article on the pernicious effects of modern social media on conversation (really, more generally on people’s ability to interact with each other in recognizable ways, but I found the part about conversation the most interesting.
Once there were social media technologies that fostered something like real conversation even among folks like Ray and I who tend to be shy, especially in social situations full of strangers. Back around 1990 the main form of technical social media was Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). These usually consisted of a computer with a single modem, with software supporting a tecnically single-threaded conversation, although the posts could cover several separate conversations, rather like a group of people sitting around a table talking.
The beauty of such systems and social networks was that you typically had to be invited to join a BBS, a friend inviting you to a party where you weren’t going to know anyone else. One benefit for the shy among us is you didn’t have to size up the room, decide who you were going to talk to or follow your friend around like a faithful dog waiting to be introduced to people. You lurked a bit for a while, began to enter the conversations slowly, and over time found yourself a part of a genuine if very slow motion conversation.
Actually, BBS systems were at the juncture of old fashioned conversation and letter writing. Only one person could be on the BBS at a time, so responses were often delayed. People wrote longer, and more thoughtful messages. It encouraged a conversation with people not present that only the pre-telephone, pre-Internet generation understood: sitting down and writing a thoughtful reply. The BBS in my experience were not an entirely solitary exercise. Because a group of users grew to be friends over time, we would regularly meet in person: we would go to see a play in which the BBS owner was performing, or meet for drinks or to eat crabs in Maryland. The BBS environment fostered genuine connections, thoughtful interaction and in certain ways improved each user’s about writing craft, careful writing that today’s social media do not provide room for. It was as close to the genuinely epistolary as many people in the post-Baby Boom generations were ever going to get. The blog world can encourage thoughtful writing if the author chooses to use it that way, blogging become not a social movement but simply another publishing medium. Blogs once encouraged something like conversation in the comments section but blogs are rapidly being supplanted by systems like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter that have precisely the opposite effect on conversation and writing. Comments sections on most blogs sit empty, especially if you cross post to your Facebook and Twitter account.
Its possible that the detached, surface-obsessed and highly ironic writing of the emerging generation is influenced by their time on social media, but it is too facile to find one cause for anything. One could just as easily blame cable television, the feeling of connectedness to the world from the solitary comfort of one’s couch. Television has been a central, organizing aspect of casual social interaction for fifty years, providing a common subject for conversation among casual acquaintances and recently introduced strangers. Perhaps our social attachment to the television fosters young writers obsession with the surface as the expense of emotion. If your main source of news is John Stewart and Steven Colbert then the archly ironic could easily become a primary voice in writing and conversation. (To judge how ubiquitous television is, I just now typed in the single world Colbert into Google to find how whether he was a Steven or a Stephen. Apparently there are no other Colberts of note in teh world).
I don’t agree that the prevailing social media are diseases affecting society but tools. Young people (my daughter for example) mostly use text messaging to organize themselves socially, the way an earlier generation used the telephone. Environments like Facebook are only socially pernicious if the user allows them to supplant all other communication. Social media are a serious distraction from putting words thoughtfully on paper but are only harmful to real writing or conversation if you never shut the damn computer off, go out and look someone in the eye with the phone in your pocket (or better, off for a bit: try it; you will not die). You might even find yourself in a conversation with someone you know only as a Facebook friend of a friend if you encounter each other in the real world. We had to make this happen in the BBS world through what were called “meet-ups”, but the scope of friends and followers you develop online expands the possibilities for a chance encounter. Your mutual friend doesn’t even need to be at the party to introduce you, because you’ve already been introduced. Go out. Risk spilling coffee on yourself because you are so engrossed in an actual conversation rather than on your keyboard because you are trying to manage work, personal email and your Facebook account all at the same time.