Scholar Langdon Winner is concerned with technological progress and how people adopt these new technologies with (or without) critical inquiry. Winner has introduced the notion of mythinformation, the almost-religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems, along with access to electronic information, will make the world a better place for all. We see this ideology at work all the time in the marketing of, say, Apple products, or the earnestness of the propaganda surrounding the One Laptop per Child program. It’s a nice idea that, with technology, we can make the world the best possible place.
Winner, however, argues that while technology will bring about change, that change won’t necessarily be good because technological advances will replace human jobs and will only benefit those already capable of taking advantage. He adds that while technology can contribute to powerful positive social change, that change won’t happen simply because the technology exists. We cannot escape the necessity of humanity, no matter what technology makes possible.
Technology has brought us many things, including social networking, which has become so pervasive it has given us a new vocabulary. We have “friends” we have never met. We “favorite” and “like” and tweet, retweet, and subtweet. This is our brave new world.
Certainly, a large part of social networking is grounded in the banal and utterly human. Here is what I had for breakfast. Here is how I am feeling right now. Here I am offering some part of myself to you. Here I am quietly yearning for your attention. See me. Hear me. Here I am.
At times, social networking has a far more significant function. In 2009, protesters in Moldova used Twitter to coordinate their efforts against the government. When Iranians protested the 2010 and 2011 elections, they communicated with one another using Twitter. During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking platforms played a key role as a source of information for activists within Egypt and interested onlookers from around the world. Here in the United States, Twitter was a valuable place for the exchange of information during Hurricane Sandy, as people turned to their smartphones to find out what was going on, to find out where they might seek shelter, to mourn the destruction, to find solace.
When we debate modernity, we tend to engage in all-or-nothing propositions. Technology is either wholly good or wholly destructive. Somewhere between these two extremes is where we will find the truth.
There are all kinds of arguments for and against social networking. Lately, we’ve been talking about Jonathan Franzen and his now notorious dislike of Twitter. He worries, with regard to young writers: “I see them making nothing, and I see them feeling absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion.” In another talk, he called Twitter the “ultimate irresponsible medium.” The man really, really doesn’t care for the medium. Each time I read Franzen’s opinions on Twitter, I feel rather defensive because I love Twitter as much as, if not more than, Franzen hates Twitter.
I believe Franzen is genuinely concerned that if writers waste time on Twitter, if we spend more time promoting writing instead of writing, we aren’t focusing on what matters — creating good art. Change is hard. Perhaps he is afraid. Perhaps he doesn’t recognize the world as it is reshaping itself. Regardless, it’s easy for Franzen to take this stance. He’s one of the most famous writers in the world. He doesn’t need to promote himself. There are legions of people who will do that work for him. He is unburdened by the quotidian concerns of other writers.
Conventional wisdom about being a contemporary writer tells me I need social media. This wisdom may or may not be true. Many writers have found success without a social networking presence. Being active online may introduce you to a wider audience, but it’s hard to know if that exposure translates into something more tangible, like book sales. It can also be exhausting to know so much about other writers, how much they’ve written in a given day, where their latest work is available, a particularly frustrating rejection, and on it goes. Skepticism is reasonable. We forget, though, that we opt in to this constant stream of information and it is rather easy to opt out. The real challenge of social networking is grounded in human weakness — we don’t know how to step away. We don’t know how to look away. We don’t know how to stop craving knowing so much about each other.
I wish I could say I use social networking because I’m savvy about marketing but, in truth, I use social networking because I live in rural America and have few local friends. I am lonely. Rational thinking about technology and its complications pales in comparison to loneliness, the most vulnerable and human of emotions. We cannot think our way out of loneliness no matter how hard we try.
I am something of a loner and an introvert who enjoys other people. I am comforted by the chatter of others when I participate in social networks. I want to know about your baby’s laughter or having a child home sick and how it’s keeping you from getting any work done. I want to know your frustration with a poem you’ve been working on for weeks. I want to know about the book deal you just signed. I want to know your parents are driving you crazy. I want to know that you love or hate your job. I want to know everything you’ve ever wanted to share because it makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel like I’m part of a community.
We use this word, community, rather cavalierly, and community is certainly not for everyone, but now in my late thirties, I’ve found a lot to be said for community and finding that perfect imperfect place where you belong. Social networking has given me, and many others, that place.
Social networking does not offer a universal panacea, but it is something far more significant than “constant self-promotion.” The bonds of this community, at least the one I have found, are sprawled and unruly, but these bonds are not merely virtual. I travel all the time and wherever I go, I meet people with whom I am acquainted online. There may be initial awkwardness, but always, always, there is familiarity. We may not know each other but we know something of each other. We are a little less alone. Sometimes, the change technology brings is simple, intimate, and still significant.