Facebook. Creative Commons CC0

The Train Has Left the Station

The proliferation of social media arose cultural concerns from distracted students to psychological disorders. Are we getting further from reality or closer up? Here is Sal Snaiderbaur, technology expert and Professor of Global Business and Media.
Sal Snaiderbaur

A friend of mine recently asked me whether or not he should grant permission to his adolescent children to join Facebook. “I can’t decide, because I just don’t know,” he said. He reminded me that, when I was in eighth grade, my parents forbade the use of television in the house. The restriction did not last very long, and the medium ending up winning, but this episode revealed my parents’ concern. They were not aware of Marshall McLuhan’s compelling theories–considered the cornerstone of the study of media theory–but, in their own way, they agreed with him and believed that my watching television was having a stronger impact on me than the contents of the instructive documentary I was emphasizing as an argument to oppose their firm decision. McLuhan, in 1967, when I was four years old (before he had impersonated himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) stated that “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” He synthesized this concept with the famous aphorism: “The medium is the message.”

A Morphing Medium

Going back to my experience as a media user, I recall that my television restrictions made me discover the radio and, even more notably, the cinema. I remember my first time at the opera in first grade, but I do not have vivid memories of the impact of my Internet discovery. Instead, I recall frustration with the outrageous slowness of connecting. A few years later, I become director of a trade association in the textile industry, and I had to create my first corporate website. The real surprise for me was that, for some inexplicable reason, visitors not connected to the association were browsing the corporate website. They found visiting my webpage relevant to their Internet experience, even if the content was not relevant to their interests. They were zapping rather than watching: surfing. I also discovered, later on, that, through Amazon, people were researching my preferences for food and books. To search and to be searched on the Internet, in an era when information seems more important than knowledge, when we are apparently unable to control our public digital identities, creates general concern. A new generation of media emerged to address all the problems of depersonalization and partial representation of the self. MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks are in some way claiming to be able to give us back the power of representing our selves, as extensively as only movie stars used to be able to do. Even Google, the giant, was put off balance by this new approach. It all began small, like a block party on the Web, limited to the college community, where no one was allowed to enter without a college e-mail account.

Eternal Youth
“Facebook is great because it is just for college and it gives you unlimited space for picture uploads,” stated one of my students only five years ago, in the Golden Age of Facebook, before a horde of high school students and adults not only started their own digital block parties, but crashed the college ones. “Is there anything better for an adult than going back to college?” a friend asked me, when he learned that I had decided to become a college professor. With Facebook, the dream has been realized for many.

I was unaware of how Facebook would impact my professional life, given the phenomenon’s growing relevance for marketing and business in general. On the personal side, in time I found myself overwhelmed by bilingual postings and humorous complaints about them, with acquaintances “friending” my students and some other socially awkward situations. I decided to take better control and limit my participation to primarily the college network. I invited professional connections to find me through LinkedIn and promised my overseas friends that some day in the future (and closer to my retirement!), I would return with another profile dedicated to them. While adults have almost abandoned blogging for “linking” or twittering, other social media designed for grownups have started to demand our presence. Surprisingly, college students have begun to use them as well. This is a strategic move for, for example, those looking for jobs or internships. In effect, they bring their groomed profiles to visit dad’s online country club, reaping the advantages of an ever-widening network of connections.

Disturbing Trends
Human resources managers are terrorizing the job market with uninvited visits to Facebook to see profiles of current and prospective employees from their college days, raising previously nonexistent privacy and personal branding questions, but still deeper concerns are being raised. For example, psychologists and neuroscientists are registering acute forms of social and neurological disorders among a significant number of Internet users. Perhaps the heart of this matter is that the Internet experience–and, in an even more ambiguous way, the social media experience–surrogates human interest with brain stimulus, attention with distractive curiosity, and adherence to reality with superficial mingling. The social media technological platforms seem designed to make us “amused to death,” as we are reminded by the title of a book by Neil Postman, McLuhan’s disciple and renowned media theorist and cultural critic.

However, we all know that the presence of technological communication in our life is unavoidable, and while limiting its usage is certainly an option, this does not address the magnitude of the phenomenon and its impact.
In 1995, Postman wrote The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), on the use of technology in education. He argues that “what we needed to know about cars–as we need to know about computers, television, and other important technology–is not how to use them, but how they use us.” Postman suggests making technology itself an object of inquiry so that young users will be more interested in asking questions about the computer than in getting answers from it.

Postman also points out that religious educational institutions run fewer technology risks than public ones because they have a “narrative” about truth and reality that is more capable of attracting the attention and the interest of students, with a lesser need for special effects. Postman’s analysis confirms the realistic and positive view toward technology that comes from the Catholic Church, certain that the Christian Announcement is more powerful than the form of communication that it can take.

Pope Benedict XVI–in his message for the 2010 44th World Communications Day, entitled, “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word”–identifies the opportunity for communication that social media bring. “The increased availability of the new technologies demands greater responsibility on the part of those called to proclaim the Word, but it also requires them to become more focused, efficient, and compelling in their efforts.” He also invites them “to make astute use of the unique possibilities offered by modern communications.” The position expressed in the document does not ignore a level of risk involved in pursuing this digital literacy: “Priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a ‘soul’ to the fabric of communications that makes up the ‘Web.’” With the contextual differences related to secular responsibilities and work-related necessity, the point is the same for every adult who is an authoritative figure for today’s youth.

Disrupting the Usual.

Facebook has been compared to the office water cooler, where people gather for small talk. Of course, the conversation might change when the boss is around. Personally, at least in the American college environment, it reminds me more of my experience at a local bar. For example, my friend Fr. Meinrad and I sometimes, after my night classes, go to visit one of the local bars. The place, populated by our college students, is famous for its spicy chicken wings. There are differing opinions about the bar’s reputation–which makes the place even more interesting. When we enter the bar (Fr. Meinrad is six-foot-five and dresses in the black Benedictine habit), it does not take more than five minutes for the line of students and alumni to form. Our physical presence does not change the style of the bar, the menu, or the general social dynamic, but it certainly introduces something new: a disruption to the usual, a connection with the external environment, with past college experiences, or with tomorrow’s test on Benedictine spirituality or international marketing. The environment has to note the impact of a different humanity; it has to register the interference of something new. The experience for an educator present on Facebook and other social media can, ideally, be the same (except for the wings, of course!).

Young People at a Bar. Creative Commons CC0

Hanging on for the Ride?
While there is still much legitimate discussion about what to do or not to do about this issue of giving “soul” to the fabric of communications, the train has already left the station, and an incredible number of individuals have found themselves on board without really knowing the destination or the positive or negative experiences that may arise. I agree with Postman that the importance of this responsibility requires adequate preparation and proportionate commitment. For this reason, it is also legitimate to decide to step off of the locomotive, recognizing, however, that our public images will continue to be on that train. The alternative is to accept the challenge and take the risk, continuing to ride, committing to understanding the platform, and, when possible, “contaminating” it with specific proposals and strong links to real and ordinary life or, even better, to reality in general.