By Kenlea Barnes
It has been thirty days, I have read three different books, discovered TED talks, filled out countless scholarship applications, developed new friendships, and many other acts that I seemed to “never have time for.” While this transition was something I was hesitant about, a month without social media has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I now take notice to the family out to eat all staring at their individual screens or the attempt to vent to a friend and she must continue to say “what did you say, I wasn’t paying attention.” While communication has drastically “increased” due to the rise of social media, the overall idea of communicating has morphed into one-sided conversations due to our inability to focus our attention on others.
I am not implying that I am any better because of this new found change I have decided to make. I am just as guilty. I am part of a generation that has become more consumed by the amount of “favorites” we receive on a picture compared to the people “favoring” them. We are overloaded with a constant stream of new information, new people, new posts, that we have forgotten the significance of the matters happening right in front of us. A few days ago, I was venting to my friend about how terrible of day I was having. I was driving, so I was not watching to see if she was listening. After I had finished, I looked over and she was scrolling down at her Twitter feed. I suppose that my silence had caught her attention, and she apologetically asked me to repeat what I had just said because she had not “heard” me. While my initial reaction was to get upset about the issue, I thought to myself how many times I had been just as guilty. A small study done in 2015 demonstrated how the human attention span has drastically decreased due to the rise of social media (Hays, 2015, para 3). Has our attention span decreased or is it simply the fact that we have lost the ability to listen? Our minds are now drawn to never-ending streams of post and videos, rather than the “boring” everyday people we see and social media sites are aware of this. Twitter’s, “refresh” button is placed at the top of the page waiting to be pushed even when you have not finished with the information you are already reading. We have lost the ideal of connecting with people, which takes our time and our effort. We would rather click a refresh button to view what pleases us and interests us, than have to focus on others.
With our inability to pay full attention to any specific matter, a more egotistic society is developing. We no longer have to concentrate deeply in order for thoughts to spark. Instead of researching or listening to ideas, we go onto social media sites to compare ourselves to whoever has the most likes on a “selfie” or to watch the newest mannequin challenge. Anything that pertains to our specific selves is what we value above anything else. Our culture has become superficial about the ideas we choose to value ourselves on. What happened to the perfect simplicity of reading that amazing new book, and not on your phone? Where did the awe of stopping, and admiring a sunset go? Since social media, the beauty of deep thought has disappeared, our minds can no longer handle it (Ives, 2012, p. 35). Society has turned into a fast-paced place where if we do not have exactly what we need then and now we turn away and social media sites are part of the cause. For example, Twitter’s character count for a post can only be a 140 character-count. Its reasoning for this is that users no longer “have the time” to read anything longer and they are exactly right. It is not that we do not have the time, it is that we choose not to. It is easier to post an insignificant picture of our dinner than to sit and talk to the person we are eating it with. Even without social media, there are times when I do not want to listen to my friend discus her scholarship applications for the 100th time because I am bored of it and I forget that all she needs is someone to talk about it with. Communication used to be about listening and empathizing with others, now it is something we passively go through as we look for ways we can mention ourselves.
A few days ago, I was talking with grandpa, and before you start to wonder what this has to do with anything, just stay with me. I started discussing with him my “social media cleanse” and how refreshing it had been. Before I even finished describing it, he went off on the usual “well back in my day” speech that our generation hears daily. While usually I smile and nod when I receive this lecture, this time I truly listened. He mentioned how he used to know everyone’s phone numbers and at the dinner table he would talk to his parents about his day instead of posting about it like our generation does, but then the most interesting part was when he told me to look over at my sisters, cousins, and even my mother and aunt. All of them, in their snazzy Thanksgiving attire, were staring at their screens. Of course, there was the occasional “watch this video” or “Oh my look at their Thanksgiving meal,” but for the most part it was each of them continually scrolling. He continued with the idea that we have all this “connection” and yet we are unable to even speak to one another. As this remark rambled on in my head, I realized how right he was. We can connect with millions of strangers with the click of a button, but are unable to communicate with the people right in front of us. The first thing you see on Twitter when you log in reads “share your thoughts.” Why must we post our “thoughts” when there are people across or beside us that are just as willing to listen? Social media has given us a false idea of what conversation is. We post our meals, our outfits, our selfies, anything that will boost our own image, and in return we expect communication to be like the comment sections of social media sites.
Whenever my generation is attacked over the issue of face-to-face communication, we tend to relate it back to the idea that we are in an age where we are communicating more than ever before. While this concept is completely right, we are missing the one crucial element in that phrase, face-to-face. We communicate with one another, by 140-character sentences, 10-second snapshots, or sharing a link. Any of us can discuss what we saw on Twitter or how many followers we have, but what our society is losing is the ability to truly have conversation with one another. In the beginning, social media was designed to connect us and now we have created it into a safe-haven for our own narcissistic tendencies. On social media, we can present ourselves however we choose to. We do not have to discuss with our online friends the insecurities we have compared to our “real life friends” who can tell just by a look in our eyes how we are actually feeling.
Last summer, one of my school organizations went to Dallas, Texas right after the police shooting had taken place. For our transportation, we took the in-city train and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. While my advisors were not excited about the idea, I made a goal that every day I would sit next to a complete stranger. I met the father of an up and coming boxer, the mother of a first-generation college graduate, recovering drug addicts, and plenty of “working girls” on the night train rides. I heard countless stories from people I would never see again. I saw the light in that mother’s eyes when she talked about how proud she was of her son and the shame of reliving the past from a former addict. These stories could have just as easily been posted on social media, but the significance of them would have been lost. An emoji or an exclamation mark does not do justice to real human reactions. Society has thrown away our ability to listen to others and to learn. We are consumed with being perceived by others as perfect individuals with these amazing lives and have lost all vulnerability. We would rather be “interesting than be interested” because it is our norm (Russel, 2015, p.2).
We are living in an ever-changing society that is not going to slow down any time soon. While my thirty days, and counting, cleanse is something that I do recommend everyone to try, it does not solve the issues of our egotistic society. Rather you use social media or not, we are living in a world that has lost its ability to engage in true communication. We no longer want to be perceived as broken individuals because somewhere along the way we were told it was not acceptable, so we live out our lives thinking about the next thing that will benefit us. Face-to face-conversation is the last form of connectivity we have that does not require character-counts or restrictions and is our duty to take advantage of that.
Kenlea Barnes is a college student at Texas State University and am majoring in political science with a double minor in psychology and philosophy.