Monday, April 1, 2013

Is Social Media the New Front Porch?

     Few things better emphasize the gap between generations as much as the proliferation of social media.  At 35, I find myself on the borders of that gap.  I can well remember life before the internet and social media, but I was young enough when it came along that it doesn’t frighten me.  My purpose in this article is to try to help generations to understand each other a little better.  They might actually have much more in common than they realize. 
     An older generation remembers the day when folks sat on their front porch at the end of the day.  Here they would catch up on the news of the day by talking with one another.  They talked to neighbors that might pass by on the street.  They knew their neighbors… by name… and what was going on in their lives.  It was a day when face-to-face interaction was valued highly.  Whoever was nearby was who got their attention, whether that be in a waiting room, a restaurant, or a checkout line. 
     This older generation looks at a young person focused on an electronic device, oblivious to his immediate surroundings, as being disconnected and anti-social.  In truth, he actually may be actively connected and socializing with dozens of people through electronic media.  Younger generations don’t wait until the end of the day.  They catch up with what is going on in each other’s lives instantly through Facebook, Twitter, and other social mediums.  They may not know their neighbor, but they know what’s going on in the lives of 900 Facebook friends.  They still care about people very much, but the way that they interact is quite different.
     Here is the key to understanding the difference between the “social media generation” and the” pre-social media generation” – for the first time in history, physical proximity matters very little in relationships.  Of course it still matters some, but it matters much less than it ever has before.  Young people are as likely to “meet” someone online as they are in person.  A cherished best-friend may live 300 miles away, but be a part of daily life.  Pictures, prayer needs, funny stories, and life news can all be shared with more people than ever, faster than ever, and farther than ever.  Skype even allows a “face-to-face” conversation with someone across the globe. 
     Younger folks still value people.  They still talk about politics, news, and even the weather.  They just don’t necessarily do it to the person sitting in the room with them.  They reject the notion that the person physically closest to them is inherently more worthy of their attention than anyone else.  They are simultaneously super-connected and completely disconnected. 
     I’ve heard people of the older generations ridicule younger folks for texting one another while in the same house.  But what’s wrong with that?  Why is yelling across the house better than texting across the house?  Younger generations reject the notion that vocal communication is inherently the best.  Personal communication is still occurring when texting or instant messaging. 
     Maybe these generations could learn from each other?  Many in the “social media generation” do need to do a better job of paying attention to those who are nearby – especially their families.  Turn off the devices and talk to each other sometimes.  Limit parallel screen time (that time when everyone is in the same room but each on their own devices).  Use some etiquette and remember that it is still worth taking more than 140 characters to communicate sometimes. 
     Some in the “pre-social media generation” need to remember than new ways of interacting are not inherently inferior to the old ways.  Remember that people who are not in the room are still people too… real, actual people… they are not just digital, imaginary friends that young people play with.  Take a look at your kid’s Facebook page, and you might just find yourself interacting with them and understanding them on a level that you didn’t before.  Hearing and seeing the laughter of a friend is definitely better than the occasional “lol”, but when that friend is miles away an “lol” can really brighten a day.
     I acknowledge that I have made some over-generalizations.  I know some people who more advanced in years who make great use of social media.  I also have some peers that fear it as if everyone on Facebook is there to steal identities or start affairs with their exes.  The whole point is that we seek to understand one another rather than making judgmental, fearful, assumptions.  Even though the mediums are changing, the messages are still largely the same.  People are still people, no matter what era they come from.