The New York Times' Executive Editor, Bill Keller, wrote a piece for New York Magazine entitled "The Twitter Trap" in which he laments the pandora’s box of continuously connected social media he has just opened for his 13 year old daughter by allowing her to have a Facebook account.
“I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely “social.” There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter...The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.”
There’s a valid concern in here somewhere—that our youth is actually becoming less social—but the cause of this problem isn’t social networking. For many teens, online social networking is both a symptom of and a remedy for their increasingly sheltered lives and limited freedoms provided by parents. Yup... that's right. It's not the tech. It's dear old mom and dad--paving the road with only the best of intentions.
Parents are doing more harm to this generation’s ability to socialize than Twitter could ever do. When you take kids off the streets and out of the playgrounds, locking them… err… protecting them from the dangers of the outside world, you force them to turn to the computer in their room and now, the one in their pocket. The reason why your kids aren’t communicating with you and they’re texting all the time is because they’re not actually given the freedom to just meet their friends when and where they want to. I can't speak for Mr. Keller's own parenting style, but, in general, parents are becoming more and more protective. I think about that when I do my job as a venture capitalist. My job basically revolves around strangers and technology--letting people I've never met that wind up in my inbox come into my office to pitch. It's a function that I find the kids in my entrepreneurship classes at Fordham would be increasingly uncomfortable with, because they're not good with new people in person. The assignment they hate doing the most is the one where they have to do 3-5 informational interviews of industry professionals. They'd rather just talk to their suitemates--and their online social networking behavior reflects this. They don't really tweet or blog, but Facebook--the social network meant to connect you with people you already know--is the standard.
I grew up in Brooklyn. There were over a dozen kids that lived on my street alone. At noon, I’d run out of the house and, after a brief return for dinner, wouldn’t came back until 8, 9, 10, then 11. I was always in the neighborhood somewhere—usually never more than a block or two away—but I had no cell phone, and there was no way to get in touch with me. If I was on my bike, I was going even further. This freedom meant that my friends were always within easy reach—and we didn’t have to escape anywhere online—not that there was an internet at the time. We got to have private conversations, to meet new people (strangers!), and, most importantly, to make our own mistakes. When the internet did make its way into our house—somewhere in the mid 90’s—it was always a late night activity after I was called in for my curfew. I was awake, had nothing else to do besides watch TV, but the key was that I had *nowhere to go*. TV was boring because it wasn’t social and wasn’t interactive. It was just a way to tune out—to be told what to think and to insert images into my head that didn’t orginate with me. The internet was a lifeline.
Same with my usage of the phone. I started using the phone a lot when I was in high school and had to travel from Brooklyn to Manhatten to go. My parents were strict about getting home before a certain time, and so conversations that would have otherwise happened in Manhattan in the neighborhood around my school became phone conversations in my room later on. I was going to socialize by any means that I had, and if I couldn’t do it in person, I was going to use technology. I wanted to connect to people and actually interact. The internet was a means to do that, and still is. Did we talk about anything particularly earth-shattering? Nope… it was mostly drivel about who we liked and didn’t like—the same crap kids text about now.
Today, the tighter the leash we put on our kids, the more likely they are to dig a hole in the ground to escape—and that’s the internet in their rooms and in their palms. We're forcing our kids onto these platforms by giving them no where else to play and connect. The same holds true for adults. When we use the tool to help catapult ourselves into the real world—to discover the shared interests of others, to find meetups, sports, concerts—things to do in the meatspace—we’re using the internet to increase our socialization. It actually reconnects us to the real world when we can't always be, as opposed to taking us away from it. (Farmville being an acception, of course--but that's not really "social media", even though you play it on Facebook. It's just a video game.)
Anecdotally, that holds true in my observation. My social media adept friends, the ones who participate on open social networks like Twitter the most have the busiest real life social calendars. My friends from home—the ones I went to elementary school with who aren’t on Twitter, Foursquare, Meetup, etc.—they’re the ones who fell into the most routine. They hangout with the same people they grew up with and haven’t ventured much past the world that mainstream media and pop culture has served to them via the broadcasted silver platter of TV. They obsess over American Idol while I make plans via Twitter to meet someone new who I share a common interest with.
I recently talked to someone from the UK who told me that Americans have an irrational fear of pedophiles and terrorists—that it seemed like every move we made, particularly as parents, seemed in response to the belief that these were the two biggest dangers our kids face. To “protect” them, we keep them indoors and sit them from of the TV safe, secure, and full of Hot Pockets and Mac & Cheese—destined to become a heart disease and diabetes statistic. Occasionally, they’ll get taken to a two hour long soccer pratice, and that will be their exercise for the week.
At least they’re not getting touched in places they’ll one day have to point out on a psychologist’s doll, seemingly goes the logic.
So before anyone goes blaming Twitter or Facebook for causing the next generation to lose the ability to make new friends and interact socially, perhaps we should rethink our notion of “stranger danger” and what other alternatives we provide our kids for socialization. How much do we let them out in the real world with the freedom to learn, or are we spoon feeding them contrived, overly organized, “safe” socialization because we’ll afraid they’ll get exposed to something terrible. Of the nearly 800,000 cases of kids going at least temporarily missing each year, only about 115 are the result of classic stranger abductions. It’s not 115,000. Just 115. Yet, we’re driving teens and kids to the internet as the main and sometimes only method of socialization, because we’re closing off all of their other free range opportunity to meet and discover new people. These could be other kids whose interests might align more with theirs than the kid who just happened randomly to grow up next door.
You should fear that humanity is getting sucked into the “false” socialization on social media because our real life socialization is getting poorer and poorer—not the other way around. We don’t go out anymore—that’s the problem—and that started well before the internet showed up in our houses en masse. "Bowling Alone in America” documents this well and it inspired Scott Heifernan to create Meetup.com—an online social network—in an effort to get people socializing in real life again. Online social tools can very much increase the amount of socialization done in the real world.
It’s the kind of perspective that Mr. Keller has on this social connectedness—that social media represents an “aggressive distraction” and is the “enemy of contemplation” that contributes to a severe missed opportunity for younger generations. I struggle to teach kids in college classrooms about the opportunity that social media presents—the opportunity to meet and speak with people in just about any field of study or career pursuit imaginable. If you think you want to go into a particular career, there’s usually a person who writes a blog about it whose e-mail address is listed in the sidebar. When you dismiss the relationships that you can build online as ones build on nothing more than “snark”, you’re inevitably going to produce rather dismissive offspring as well. The most difficultly I have in getting my students to do any assignment is one where they have to go use the internet to meet a stranger. It might sound sketchy, but many more social media savvy people simply take this to mean professional networking—and they gain a tremendous career advantage by being able to complete this task with not only ease—but enthusiasm, excitement, and curiousity. Is Mr. Keller’s daughter going to enthusiastically reach out to an artist she sees on Tumblr and get inspired to pursue a career in that field, or will she assume the whole thing to be much less socially acceptable and even potentially more dangerous than letting her brain rot in front of “Real Housewives”? For her sake, I hope he teachers her all about how much people can gain from the medium than warning her away from it like a drug.