In my previous post, “Does social media redefine neighborly interaction?” I put to bed the myth that the downfall of western civilization is being caused by a bunch of Gen Y-ers banging out status updates on Facebook and Twitter.  But I recently found myself in the same situation that anyone with a Twitter account has undoubtedly found themselves in:  Having a non-user ask: “What the hell is Twitter?  Explain it to me.”

I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you’ve had a conversation that has gone something like this.

Baby Boomer:  “So what’s this ‘Twitter’ I’ve been hearing so much about?”
You:  “Um…well, it’s a website.  Actually more like an application.  You can post status updates there for anyone you’re friends with to read.”
BB:  “Status update?”
You:  “Yeah, like on Facebook.”
BB:  “I don’t get the fascination with Facebook either.”
You:  “Well, um…okay.  I guess it’s only necessary for certain people.  I work in marketing, so I have to be up on this stuff.”
BB:  “Okay.  But I still don’t get what it is.”
You:  “You just write a little blurb answering the question, ‘What’s up?’”
BB:  “But nobody asked me.  If they wanted to know, wouldn’t they call?”
You:  (incoherent mumbling)

(Now, before anyone gets all huffy, I have previously pointed out that there is not much of a generation gap when it comes to technology and social media.  Early adopters have been and will be early adopters at any age, and the Boomer generation is the fastest growing set of online users.  But in my personal experience and my twenty-something friends’ personal experiences, this is a common occurrence.)

Twitter’s headline of “What are you doing”? is pretty accurate.  I usually use the line above, that it’s simply answering the question “What’s up?” for people to read.  As to why Twitter may be a more beneficial and time-saving way to keep in touch than traditional email, I’ll again refer to Clive Thompson’s New York Times Magazine piece.  In an earlier post, I relayed the term “ambient awareness” to describe a person’s Twitter feed.  Thompson relates Twitter updates to current media forms that everyone will understand.  “…Awareness tools aren’t as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message. E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It’s personal; someone is asking for 100 percent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines.”

So this is where you, the reader, use the comments field.  Because unlike the newspapers of yesteryear, this is an interactive forum.  How do you explain Twitter?  As you can see, I have a tricky time doing it, and the message isn’t always consistent.  But that doesn’t for an instant make me think that at this day in age, at least some form of social media contact is a necessity to function in the modern technological world.

Its a jungle out there.

It's a jungle out there.

I like social media.  Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat.  I think it’s a valuable tool for communication, and can even be a source of entertainment.  It’s definitely increased the flow of information between people.  But I don’t think that social media is radically changing the way that people communicate.

As Ivor Tossell points out in his audio piece in this article from Canada’s Globe and Mail, there seems to be an equally ridiculous prevalence of people on both sides of the social media spectrum:  a) the so-called Social Media Experts who are regular people who just really, really like playing on Facebook and Twitter, and b) the Get-off-my-lawn brigade, whose “underlying philosophy is that social networking websites…are one big frivolity and anti-social distraction.”

The dichotomy between the reality of the situation and the drivel that both of these camps spout off brings to mind this GraphJam.com chart about political coverage on television:

US Political Belief vs Media Attention Given

US Political Belief vs Media Attention Given

And just like the never-ending political debate, rational thought is really somewhere in between.

Here’s where I get defensive about social networking.  Because online networking is done in front of a computer, there are those who equate the decline of western civilization to the abundance and prevalence of online friendships.  The hypocritical people who decry social networking practices as information overload or invasive of privacy are often the same ones who shake their heads and grumble about how it’s a shame that people don’t know their neighbors anymore.  How is communicating with an acquaintance on Facebook that different?  As Tossell notes, the get-off-my-lawn camp “…operate[s] on the presumption that online friendships are fraudulent or somehow debased, as opposed to the kind that are maintained over telephones, or nurtured in stoic silence, or maybe those extra-special friendships that are maintained by sending stacks of Christmas letters once a year.”  For the vast majority of us, our online networks are filled with real people who we know and care about at least on some level.  Of course, there are the few people with 10,371 Myspace friends that raise a red flag to the get-off-my-lawn folks.  But really, they’re no different than the guy from the early 80’s with the massive black book of phone numbers:  nobody is taking either of them seriously.

The most common complaint I hear about why Twitter (or any status update) is trivial goes something like “I don’t care that my college buddy in Omaha is making a sandwich.”  (Yet millions of Americans tune in each week and get emotionally tied to the contestants – most of whom the average viewer does not know personally – on American Idol or any other reality show.) Even the most independent of us – I’m definitely included in this camp – still naturally crave a certain level of human interaction.  The behavioral information you pick up about a person – whether through status updates on Facebook or through picking up her subtle body language out of the corner of your eye – pretty much tells you the same thing.  Social scientists refer to it as “ambient awareness,” as defined in Clive Thompson’s New York Times Magazine piece “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy.” So maybe deep down, on a subconscious level…you do care about your buddy’s sandwich.

So what’s my point in all this?  It’s that there is a point to all of this.  Social networking isn’t radically changing the way that human beings communicate and behave.  It’s simply opening another avenue to allow real people to do what they’re going to do anyway:  group together in little bunches, make friends, socialize, and share their lives with each other.  We’re just doing it a little faster now.