The social media enthusiast lives in a parallel universe: on the one hand he is isolated from human contact by being totally focussed on his PC, tablet or mobile device, thumbing away to an equally anonymous community of friends, on the other his life is now a public one where every photo, joke, threat, bias, peeve and airport check-in is on display to the whole world.
Social media seems to be a panacea to our continuing spiral inward from community towards individuality and the resulting need to be noticed from among the crowd. For it really is about the “I” isn’t it? At the extreme end of this desire lie examples like the recent flesh-eating high profile murder case in Toronto where the “I” went rabid, or the lone guy who shoots up a public place for fame. Now, to be clear, we are all not a bunch of looney tunes, but after boxing ourselves into jobs in isolated office cubicles or home offices, middle-of-the road soc-meds emerge as street-corner politicians on soapboxes that they wish would go viral one day, establishing their legacy globally and liberating them from their President-for-Life role in their Republic-of-One. Our very isolation creates this craving for human contact and validation.
But the craving comes with a caveat these days, we don’t want the touchy feely bit—we want no body contact any more. Contact is limited to a neutral screen, which could be switched off if we do not like what we see or hear, an interface that could be put on mute while we multi-task on other activities in an attention-deprived state. At work, how often have we succumbed to the temptation of choosing to attend a traditional face-to-face meeting virtually, via conference call and laptop, so that we can multi-task in private and not have to sit in a room with a bunch of fellow humans, trapped into paying attention to a single topic, and be nice?
As for privacy, I guess there is none of that anymore, much as we desire it. Privacy began to slip when people started having cell phone conversations in public places. It was like practicing for a naked parade down the information catwalk. After that, it was just steps away to uploading personal profile information on a myriad of social networks, including the names of the spouse, the kids, the dog and photos of the family vacation. Not forgetting, ingesting all those bots and cookies that tracked our every online movement in perpetuity. Today, when asked a question about someone unknown, replying, “I don’t know her” is not acceptable anymore. One is supposed to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Link-In before replying. And we are likely to find “too much information” on that person. Going into a sales meeting with a prospective new client has a different set of dynamics now: you are expected to launch right in with the qualified ice-breaker: “So, how’s your 5 handicap in golf these days?” or “I read your recent book” (the free Google executive version, most likely). Even companies are beginning to allow their employees to text and tweet because if an employee is going to hang himself (and the company), then the employer may as well provide the rope, and yank it in before much damage is done on the public sidewalk.
Yes, the more we want to be noticed, the more we want to be left alone, untouched in a world that refuses to afford us privacy. Social media appears to be a viable solution offering this happy medium. But is it isolating us even more, creating an even sharper divide between the conflicting forces of fame-craving and privacy-seeking that assail us? I wonder….