A couple months ago, I was listening to Here and Now on NPR and they did a story about Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, which was in the middle of a mandated “one-week blackout of instant messaging, Twitter, MySpace and Facebook.” If you have two and a half minutes, you should go listen to it – the audio link is halfway down the page.
Here’s the general gist of it: the school didn’t allow any students to access social media via the campus internet (although they can easily do it from smartphones, as the host notes) for one week. At the end of that week, they have to write a response paper about the experience. Before I go any further, I should state that I am wholly against any sort of “response paper” in just about any situation. I think that’s just stupid and a waste of time. Class discussions (if they have small classes) would probably be more interesting for everyone involved. But that’s not my point.
When I heard the story, I was frustrated at the apparent generation gap between the interviewer (and host) and the interviewee, a student at the school. I freely admit that I go into this with no small amount of established frustration on the topic, but I felt like Jane Clayson made it clear that she had an opinion on the matter when she said, “Heaven forbid, [students] actually have to talk to each other.”
I see your quote and raise you one, Ms. Clayson:
“The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect.”
– Esther Dyson, Interview in Time Magazine, October 2005
To me, it seemed like Clayson was implying that students without social media would turn into some kind of hermit society because talking to each other was too difficult or passé. However, in my experience, people who are active on Facebook or Twitter are similarly socially active in actual reality. I consider myself a fairly social person, both online and off. If I had to live without the internet for a week, it would be a little weird. But if I had the ability to tell all of my friends that I was offline (so they called me instead of using Facebook to tell me about an event tonight, for example), it would be fine. The only things I wouldn’t be able to do would be: passively “hear” my friends’ funny or interesting thoughts, find out that one of my ex-boyfriends is now married and get Facebook recommendations of funny videos, great photos or interesting articles. There are lots of other ways I could acquire this information, if I wanted to. And you know what? If I wanted to chat with someone? I’d call them.
The student who was interviewed didn’t seem to be significantly affected by the blackout, but she said that she thought it was helping her classmates realize that they were “enslaved by the media.” I’m not really sure what that means, to be honest. But here’s my thought on the matter: The internet doesn’t change who you are or how many social connections you make – it just greases the wheels so you can make those connections more easily. Could we live without cars? Sure. It wouldn’t be tons of fun, but we’d still get wherever we wanted to go.
As an example, think of the guy or girl you work with who is always overly friendly, or the person you went to high school with (who could only be described as an acquaintance, not a friend) that gave you a copy of their senior photo with a phony message on the back (Love ya! Stay sweet!). I would bet money they were some of the FIRST people to find you on Facebook when you joined and wasted no time before writing on your wall. They’ve been doing this stuff since long before Facebook made it so easy.
Now that I’m done ranting… What do you think? Am I missing the point? I’m interested in hearing other people’s feedback.