Years ago there was a television programme on the BBC called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead? (I always took the hint, so I have no idea if it was any good). But the same is often said of the Internet. For years I thought that the web was the coolest thing ever and would happily spend entire evenings schlepping around online, while non-internetty people said ‘you have too much time on your hands’ and ‘get a life’. I took the view that there was loads of really interesting stuff you could only online and besides, I met a whole swathe of clever and talented people via the creative writing sites I hung out on.
Recently I’ve been considering the space between those views – is Web 2.0 life-transforming, or a zero sum game, or (whisper who dares) would we be better just switching off our PCs so we can do something less boring instead? If you don’t join in, do you actually miss out?
Socially, I am no longer convinced we gain that much from social media. Here’s why.
I’ve made a lot of real flesh-and-blood, go-to-the-pub, dance-at-their-wedding friends on line (gain) but some of my previous friendships have lagged a bit because so much of my social life is brokered electronically (loss) so I don’t necessarily have more friends or better friends, just different friends.
Zero sum, for me anyway.
A window on the world
The web gives us access to places and people which is not limited by cost or mediated by the media:
I get a first hand global account of life in other parts of the world. It is unlikely that I will travel to small town America for instance. I get to hear the sort of trivial day to day stuff that I find fascinating.
Blogs tell me what it is like to be a bookish woman living in Idaho, or to live on a dairy farm in the mid-west, or to be raising a child in south London, or to be a mormon battling crippling burns, or to be a sex-worker.
While this is clearly a rewarding use of time, is it more rewarding than spending the same time reading books or being with friends?
Zero sum. People-watchers only.
Net Gains for niches
It clearly is possible to get real benefits from social media, but most of these are for people in niche circumstances. For example:
Dealing with illness and taboos
Access to others in similar circumstances is a clear gain: no matter how obscure your illness or unusual your fetish you can find information and fellow travellers which you couldn’t get in any other way.
Could the time and effort spent on the internet give you equivalent benefits off-line? – Almost certainly not.
Net gain, if you are in a relatively rare situation.
Dealing with physical isolation
If you are housebound or physically isolated the internet’s a sanity-saver. And there are other forms of isolation:
For me, it’s communicating in English, amongst other things. This is something I can’t do where I live.
Could you use the time spent hanging around on-line communities to break down these sorts of isolation in any other way? Clearly not.
Net gain, depending on circumstances.
Almost everyone likes to have their voice heard, and the internet gives everyone a platform.
It’s a curious bran tub full of frustrated artists, musicians, agit-prop bloggers and the like but it does seem that a lot of talent is being elevated by 2.0 into spheres they’d never have a chance with outside of it.
Could the time spent being creative on-line produce the same satisfaction if it was spent any other way? Well, you can join an writers’ club or do a creative writing course, but only You Tube is You Tube. So that’s a qualified no.
Net gain. Mainly for narcissists and hobbyists.
Feeding a news habit
The web gives you access to foreign, specialist and alternative news media:
People I know who rely on the MSM [Mainstream Media] and don’t use web 2.0 have a very different view of the world than I do. It’s scary, because I don’t think people realise how specific the MSM is in what it presents and how.
Can you keep as well informed with mainstream media? Well, maybe: I had a friend who did so using Teletext and TV news and the very occasional newspaper, but it is clearly quicker and easier online.
Before the internet I had to go to the library and borrow ‘alternative’ magazines, or read counter culture publications and newsletters to get a broader view of news. Or go to meetings and gatherings and talk to people directly more.
And of course now there is Twitter.
Net gain. News-junkies only.
Net gains in the mainstream
There are some situations where social media does make a difference in the mainstream. But these are not life-transforming differences:
Keeping in touch
My guess is that more people in their 40s have dragged themselves online to keep an eye on what their kids are doing on Facebook than for any other single reason. And it works the other way round:
I resisted Facebook for a long time, but joined as my family want to keep an eye on me and now I have a window into lots of other families’ lives, the stuff you couldn’t discover from tourist holidays.
This is the contentious one. Is socialising on Facebook better or worse or just different? I suspect the answer is ‘all three’.
I succumbed to joining Facebook a couple of days ago BECAUSE my not-into-computers friends were using it to display all the photos / video of their newborn baby son. As they don’t use check or use email regularly I was feeling ostracised!
There’s also the alluring prospect that Facebook and Twitter’s frequent updates will make the Christmas Round Robin superfluous.
Net gain, but not necessarily a big one. Mainstream.
So there you have it. I really should turn off my PC and do something more interesting instead.
Fancy going to the pub, then?
Thanks due to B’elana, Bright Blue Shorts, Christopher, coelacanth, Kea, lanzababy, and Mrs Zen for the quotations.