Several weeks ago, I was on a local panel discussing selfies and the self portrait when one of the panelists stated that they thought social media and online time in general seemed one dimensional. After all, how could connecting with people online possibly compare to the “real” life experience of spending time with people? It isn’t the first time that I have heard such sentiments but it seems that as social media use has become a staple in modern day life, not a month goes by without an article or think piece lamenting the demise of our society and the concerns that people should spend less time online and more time connecting with their “real” life. In fact, it was this piece a few days ago, that pushed me over the edge!
As someone who fully admits to being a heavy user of social media, I admit that over the years, I have had the occasional moments when I wonder am I online too much? Of course there were the years before social media became ubiquitous where I often had the darndest time explaining my online activities to my non social media using pals in my real life. I even made a joke of it, explaining my online world as my imaginary life complete with my imaginary pals!
Yet the reality is that whether I am online or offline, it’s all part of my very real life. In recent years, my online life and the connections made in online spaces helped fuel not one but two books that I contributed to; had it not been for this very space, it’s highly doubtful I would have ended up as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show some years ago. My online presence and my ability to amplify messages played a factor albeit a small factor in landing my current job. It is doubtful that considering how small the state of Maine is that I could have shifted my career without social media.
Outside of the professional, there is the personal side of social media as well. I live in a small, insular town where making connections beyond the surface has proven damn near impossible for me. At this point I have accepted the fact that I will always be an outsider here but it is the rich and deep conversations that I have online that keep me going when the very “real” people near me treat me with disdain or keep me at arms length.
My plight is not that unusual, many people are unable to connect in their so-called real lives and yet they can find community online that sustains them. For today’s LGBTQ teens and young adults the internet is shaping their generation and letting them know early on that they are not alone. For many marginalized and disenfranchised folks the internet is a tool of empowerment, especially when mainstream gatekeepers keep certain voices from ever being heard. For all the complaints that so called hashtag activism is empty, there are many activists and organizers who use the internet as yet another tool in their arsenal to work towards change. Hell, sites like Twitter can now break news faster than most mainstream news channels. By the time a story shows up on CNN and MSNBC, chances are that it broke on Twitter first!
It’s only speculation but my unofficial guess is that the vast majority of folks extolling the need to unplug and plug back into our real lives are not marginalized or disenfranchised individuals, in other words they are coming from a place of privilege. It’s a bit easier to unplug when you have a robust network that you didn’t have to build from scratch relying on people who never met you yet trust you and your work. When one lives near family and friends and the relationships are warm and supportive, taking the summer off is a lot easier to do than if a big chunk of your support system can be found on a discussion board, Twitter, Tumblr or some other online community. There are numerous reasons why people look for support online and they are all valid!
Change has always been a part of our world and social media is not the big bad wolf destroying our society that some would have us to believe. Instead we would do better to look at growing economic inequality and a world of work that keeps so many of us plugged into jobs that don’t meet our needs or give us enough time off to renew our spirits. Too many are dependent on jobs where schedules are not set in stone and change weekly never allowing us enough time to get off and connect in our so called real lives.
As for me, whether I am online or offline, I am the same person no matter where you find me. My only rule around my use of social media is to allow myself some time every day to be fully present and alone with myself, that generally takes the form of taking 10-12 hours a day where I am unplugged. Otherwise catch me online!!