Is social media a social contagion?

I remember a time before Facebook.

I mean, I’m sure that most of us do, but think about how it really was: back in 1993, things were so different, weren’t they? I was first a sophomore and then a junior in high school. My favorite pastimes were reading, writing, drawing, and trying to stay awake in class. The most fandangled thing I used was a mechanical pencil. The most sophisticated device I had was a pocket translator that looked pretty much like a calculator. I had stacks and stacks and shelves of books, and most of them I had actually read. There were times when I was reading a book a day, no lie. But then there was this thing that came along.

My friend Didi told me this recently:

Here’s a crazy story..
I go into a coma the time i wake up prodigy and aol…true story.

…and it really was like that, except I really didn’t realize it until later. There was this rush of cool, this push toward exploration that pricks our very human nature with an all-consuming interest – I was Captain Kirk, Ferdinand Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci; I somehow had the means while my friends did not, and so I watched it grow while I took the time to tank my PC again and again, each time learning a little bit more about how it worked, and how the software worked. I had this IBM 386DX4 open-architecture computer that my Dad got me for Christmas 1993, from the computer store that had gone in next door to his auto body shop in Warren, and at the time I didn’t even know how DOS worked, and although Windows 3.1 was intuitive enough, good luck getting it to work consistently without some basic computer skills. The computer was a machine, but so was the software. Just for comparison’s sake, consider that this computer had 8MB of RAM and a 400MB hard drive – no CD drive, but you could still fit a lot on a 3.5″ floppy.

Part of that era, when small computer shops began popping up and somewhat before the word geek began to take on the air of techno-chic, was the online. America Online and Prodigy. We had to connect our computers to the phone line and use a noisy little component called a modem to get our data, but it was the most fascinating thing in the world, to know that information was literally being converted to 1’s and 0’s; that these digits were being converted into sound, sent over the phone line into your computer where they were converted from sound back into 1’s and 0’s, which were converted back into the information that you saw on the screen. It was astounding not for those transparent facts, but for the implications. I talked to people from all over the world in chat rooms. We congregated there, like a bunch of religious zealots looking for partners in crime, looking to connect with each other in a meaningful way. My thing was to find someone interesting to talk to and then move into a private message so that you weren’t having this conversation in the morass of people looking for someone to chat with. I drove my Mom’s phone bill up, and could you believe AOL used to charge by the minute?

So AOL was my drug of choice, and I did a lot of BBSing – I once spent several hours downloading a full copy of Duke Nukem 3D from a BBS in Texas. This is just the backdrop, though. I remember when I first heard about Napster. My friend David Levin was telling me about MP3s, and I thought it was a hard sell because what could you really do with them anyway but play them through a computer? Of course, he had a Mac, a DSL Internet connection, and something called Napster. It wasn’t much later that I was able to get my first cable connection to the Internet through Comcast, and then I was hooked on Napster and MP3 music. At that point, AOL went out the window; I was pragmatic after all, to the point of cheapness. The uphill battle was in convincing others that if you had the Internet connection, there was no reason you had to pay for AOL – or anything else, for that matter.

The Internet was wild and free, and everyone likes free. Everyone still does, but are we really free? Because here’s the thing: the Internet is no longer free. Our footsteps are tracked by the most dogged digital rangers and catalogued by the most diligent databases. The librarians are made of software and the patrons are advertisers. Everything is sold to us online now – who even looks up at the banners in the mall when you’re texting away on your phone? But you see the ads on your free Angry Birds game, and you see the ads served up on countless other “free” apps. Our free Internet lunch ended long ago, but everyone is still eating because the costs are just that transparent. No problem. It’s all services after all, and it’s making our lives better.

But let’s talk about Facebook. Facebook is the next big game-changer and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that this was a foregone conclusion for at least the past several years. I had just gotten started with Facebook in 2008, after deciding that MySpace was just a digital slum where your friends could practically halt your Internet connection by enticing you to visit their animated sparkling pot leaf-bedazzled page while some creepy rap song plays without your permission. With friends like that, who needs Janet Reno, am I right? I was looking for simple, and Facebook was dead simple; in addition, their philosophy was to continue to keep it simple. Nobody had heard of Mark Zuckerberg, and his famous pig was still somewhat lacking in famousness, but people were starting to get on Facebook.

So think about it: Facebook will be ten years old next year. I’ve been on Facebook for five years, and in that short span of time – just longer than it takes to earn a Bachelor Degree at full-time – practically the entire world has hopped on this bandwagon. Our grandparents are on it. My mom could never set an alarm clock or program a VCR, but she can Facebook. So what’s wrong with something that seems to have brainwashed the entire world into jumping online? Do I throw down the rant, or go with the compelling analogy?

Forget the annoying stuff – people who constantly post crap, people who invite you to play games, people who tag you in photos that you’re not even in. Don’t worry about being tagged in photos even when you don’t have a Facebook account; after all, if you’re in the photo, there’s always going to be someone who can confirm that. You don’t need Facebook to put that in a database. And we do privacy issues to death – there’s the question of how much sharing is too much, how much information online is too tantalizing a target, whether young people shouldnthink before sharing because they simply can. I have this different idea, and like many of my ideas, I’m not sure whether it makes Facebook a good or bad thing.

Facebook has really changed how we interact with the world at large. Before Facebook, I get this picture of how humans were interconnected in more local communities; with the world getting smaller and smaller, we have been changing, but Facebook has brought it to a head in record time. We were like neurons, and our axons hooked us to our friends and neighbors, people we saw IRL, people we connected with for reals. With Facebook thrown in the mix, we have a world where every single one of us is connecting over long-distance, it’s like sacrificing the IRL connections for quantum-tunneled interactions with distant others who we may never even be in the same country with. It’s not like Alzheimer’s per se, where connections are destroyed, but the changing social landscape of Planet Earth is more akin to The Butterfly Effect; is the paradigm changing so rapidly that we have to worry about irreparable damage to the body of mankind? Is anyone conducting research into how a widespread social contagion might cripple the human race?

Fact: I have this problem talking to people for no particular reason. I’m not necessarily shy, but I don’t feel a need for small talk either; and this is only in person, by the way. I respond when spoken to, but will let an awkward silence hang or kind of ignore people around me. And what’s even weirder is I feel an urgent need for community and connection with others – as though something is wrong with me – but I’m somehow held back. Facebook only makes that worse by allowing me to strengthen the easy means of connecting over the more rewarding connections with those around me.

Long story short, I think Facebook threatens our social lives with a digital replacement. And that replacement has been largely of our own choosing – call it convenience or maybe an addiction to those digital interactions but I think that the world at large could do worse than unplugging and getting away from it way more often than we tend to.

What do you think? Does that make sense to you? Tell us about it in the comments!

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  1. I am with you..have had these thoughts on an almost daily basis. Things once enjoyed…now avoided: talking on the phone…being physically social IN REAL LIFE..Small talk is nonexistent …i cant do it.

    The more we’re connected…the more we’re isolated.
    We need human contact…at least i do..lately i wonder if Im dying from the disease I have or drowning in technological isolation.
    Thank you for writing this…and including my coma story.

  2. I detest Facebook. As much as I love being able to meet people like you, Rob, people with whom I would hang out and be face-to-face friends if that were possible, quick blips on social media are no replacement for eye contact, hugs and personal connection. I am so grateful for the few people who choose to remember my birthday with a card now. Happy Happy on FB just doesn’t cut it. I am forcing myself to shut off and read more, exercise more and be in the moment more, too.

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