Reading Marshall McLuhan this week has caused me to reflect on the media forms that have had the biggest impact on our world. Though it’s hard to beat the printing press for sheer revolutionary impact, the first thing that popped into mind was social media. Of course, the distractive properties of Twitter and Facebook are well known, and each probably eat up way too many hours in my day. But each also has revolutionized the way we know and interact with friends. It has been observed that today’s “digital natives” will not have the experience I did of “rediscovering” long-lost friends on Facebook–they will grow up never having lost contact with their childhood friends in the first place. Their entire lives, they will know what their friends are doing in real time (if they follow them on Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter or whatever) from the moment they meet them and exchange screen names.
The other difference I note in myself based on about five years of daily Facebook use and one year of intermittent Twitter participation is how these media have changed me. Each has decreased my tolerance for engaging with media that takes longer to engage with than a minute or two. If a friend links to a New York Times opinion piece, that’s probably the gold standard of getting me to actually read and comment on something. I’ll feel like I’ve learned something, and it takes little time to read. But if a friend tweets a link to a three-minute long video? I’m not watching that thing, that’s way too long! I have things to do, do you know how long my feed is? I’ll confess this too–the reason my use of Twitter is so intermittent is that I get frustrated with my inability to keep up. I can’t seem to shake my completist mentality, formed in my early months with Facebook, when it was possible to “finish” catching up on my feed within a few minutes’ time.
Now I’m rambling, so I’ll quit, but you get the gist. Twitter and even Facebook have well-known abilities to increase engagement, make us feel connected, and reduce the social distance between us and our idols, whether they be star academics (in my case) or pop stars. Twitter has been credited with assisting real-time organization amid revolution, such as during the Arab Spring and the Ferguson protests. In the more mundane day-to-day, however, social media also take up increasing amounts of time, while leaving us feeling like we’ve got little to show for it. I can finish a book, a newspaper, or a TV show, but my Twitter feed is a perpetual hamster wheel of news creation and opportunities for engagement. The potential for liberation is there, but on any given normal day, it can feel like a trap.