Things usually come full circle. Sometimes there’s a bit of a tweak the second, third or fourth time around – like when the clothing styles from the 70’s made a comeback but there were a few fashion updates – but in essence, the basics stay the same. It just seems that we need to go through cycles of varying degrees as new things come along offering us a little bit of something we didn’t have before.
So I’ve been wondering a lot lately about social media and communication in our present day world, how it’s developed and where’s it’s headed, and what it has taken with it little by little along the way until we suddenly realize that we are back to where we started.
But first, I need to backtrack.
Seniors today will probably remember a time without telephones in every house when letter writing was the norm and mail took a long time to get from one place to another. But I’m not a senior – yet – so my starting point is a little further on. I do remember having only one rotary dial phone in the whole house.
I was a letter writer from a young age. I was taught to write thank-you notes whenever someone sent a gift, and I had pen pals through an elementary school program. I loved writing letters and getting replies and it was exciting to get mail addressed specifically to me. I don’t remember being a “phone” person until I was a teenager and could spend an hour or two on the phone with a friend I had just said goodbye to after school. How I did that, I’ll never understand because I’m definitely not much of a phone person now! But it was a big deal then because it usually ended up causing some kind of issue when someone else needed the one and only phone.
Fast forward to the availability of extra phone lines, and the cordless phone, which allowed us to walk around the house, do dishes, laundry and cook all while chatting with a friend. There was no more curling up on the floor under the wall mounted phone trying not to stretch out the cord; we could take the cordless phone out into the back yard and never miss a call.
We still wrote and received letters, though, and at Christmas, most people included a short note with their cards in their own handwriting and it was exciting to catch up on all the news from family and friends we didn’t see often during the year. Then one day we got a photocopied Christmas letter. My parents were not impressed, and I wondered – as a letter writer myself – why anyone would just write one letter and copy the same thing out to everyone as if we were all the same person with no individual relationships with the sender. My mom continued to write personal notes and each year the photocopied ones grew in number.
Eventually, of course, once I was married and had gone through the rejection of the form letter to the pain in my hand as I wrote the same news to everyone, we developed our Walsh Christmas Newsletter, making it humorous, sarcastic, and something that would be fun to do. We have a binder with a copy of each letter written over the years and it’s still fun to look back at them.
Then came the first cell phone. I went shopping with a friend and came home our big black Motorola flip phone (weighing in at about 5 pounds) and Pat shook his head. I was generally the one who enjoyed technology; he used it as he needed to and I don’t think he would ever have used the word “enjoy” to describe his experiences….
Fast forward again to the internet and the onslaught of computers in many households. Our first desktop system had a whole 4 MB of RAM and a modem, which at that time was top of the line. We had a printer and everything. Now I could really fancy up that Christmas letter! But the email idea was still a side show because most people we knew didn’t have computers and we used ours more for educational purposes.
Gradually email became a regular thing, our cell phone was upgraded to a smaller version with more bells and whistles (and then there were two) and we were staying on top of things, moving along in the changing world of communication. But the regular mailbox wasn’t as full anymore, most of the envelopes had windows, and people started emailing Christmas letters instead of sending them in cards.
One day, I heard my kids talking about something called Facebook. I couldn’t imagine what I would ever do with it myself, as it seemed to be for the younger set, and appeared to be replacing those long drawn out teenage phone conversations. But because I wanted to learn and understand what was new and popular (and have a handle on what my kids were doing) I signed up and began my Facebook experience.
My new cell phone had a text feature on it and I wondered why people wouldn’t just call instead of working so hard to tap those annoying little keys just to say “hello there”. And once I found out that it cost extra money every time a message went one way or the other, I made up my mind it wasn’t for me.
As often happens, though, life events threw me into a situation where my one constant means of communication was my cell phone, and I had to start using it every day, all day, for emails, calls, and eventually texts as I strove to keep in touch with family and friends from various hospital settings. I became attached to it out of necessity and now it’s part of my life. So I’m not immune to this shift from conventional communication to technological advancements that offer convenience and security in various situations.
Now I’ve noticed that emails are much less frequent as people are able to sign into Facebook daily and look at pictures and read snippets about what their friends and family are doing – all of which seemed very cool when it was first available but now makes me think that we’re losing out somehow. The emails diminished gradually, to the point where the only messages I get anymore are things I’ve subscribed to and not from anyone I have a personal relationship with.
But more than that, even the Facebook communication has changed. What used to be a place to read little things about a person’s day, something happy or something sad, or just something fun they shared, now seems filled mostly with “other people’s” stuff; by that I mean things that people on my list have liked or shared from other people’s posts, probably because they are only seeing these things too. I enjoy using Facebook for buy and sell groups, sharing pictures and stopping to chat with someone I see online, so I’m not finding fault with it or with anyone who uses it. I just rarely see a personal post anymore, and from the things I’m reading on the subject of social media, this appears to be a general experience, not just my own.
Yet this new lack of personal interaction hasn’t resulted in more emails, more phone calls, or more good old fashioned letters. It’s like the personal communication has diminished altogether, while we have more and more means of engaging in it! I can’t even wrap my mind around the need for Twitter, Linkedin, Google Plus or any other thing I’ve heard about that just sounds like more of the same.
So, back to my introduction at the top: things go in cycles. I wonder if we’re getting to the end of a cycle when we’ll eventually stop and realize that we’re more involved in the circulation of online information, jokes, articles etc. than we are in our actual personal relationships? I wonder if these systems which seemed to make personal communication more convenient have in the process drained something from that communication and made our experiences superficial rather than real and personal?
Let’s face it unless you are sunshine and flowers every minute of the day – which I don’t believe anyway – you can’t say what you really want to say in a Facebook post or comment without it causing someone some kind of upset, whether you mean to or not. And then we learn from those experiences to guard our words, hide our emotions, or at least cover them in some way so they don’t come across quite as truly as they are felt. And if “communication” goes awry, we limit what people can see, or unfriend them. The only really personal things we can say have to be in private messages anyway, which shows me that the Facebook world is a sort of front that can be useful in some ways for certain purposes, but that it should all be taken with a grain of salt.
I won’t be giving up my cell phone anytime soon, and I haven’t written a Christmas letter the past while because on one hand there just hasn’t been much happy news, and on the other, with all the Facebook stuff I doubt there’s anyone at all who doesn’t know what’s happening in my life! But I admit I’ve been thinking that while it’s a fast and convenient way for me to catch someone online or share something, I don’t think Facebook is really helping me to stay “connected” with anyone at all. I do think it’s showing me that real relationships are nurtured in personal ways, which for me might be getting back to basics. I want to have real conversations about important things and to know the real side of others. Social media has its place, but that isn’t it. Just my two cents …