Is social media creating a generation of cowards?

I’ve been asked about my perspective on Malcom Gladwell’s article, “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”  My take on it may surprise you … and provide uncomfortable reading if you are a parent or social media junkie.

Social media and leadership

Mr. Gladwell is a master storyteller, but usually starts with the history of fire to make his point so I will summarize his premise:

Social media will not be the agent of social change that many say it will be because it is built on a network of weakly-connected links and lacks a central leadership structure.  He compares the passive changes built on social networks with the risky and courageous acts needed to confront racism in the U.S. in the 1960s.

His article prompted quite a backlash, including a lengthy article on Mashable with illustrations of social good created through the web.

Perhaps I am the only blogger around who agrees with Mr. Gladwell.  And, in fact, I will take the story even a step further.  Not only do I think the social web is incapable of enabling significant social revolution, it is probably conditioning young people out of the leadership and communication skills they need to lead — or follow — any change at all that requires personal risk.

The end of human social skills?

Here’s a small illustration of what I mean.

Recently a teen-aged girl I know met a new guy and started dating.  He came over to her house, dropped off a CD she wanted to borrow and then left the house five minutes later to go home and have a Facebook conversation with her into the morning hours. They dated for a short time and when he broke up with her (over Facebook-induced jealousy) it was via cellphone.  Not talking — texting.   She said he preferred to argue this way because the delay in response while text-messaging afforded him the opportunity to think of a snide remark. When his Facebook relationship status changed to “single,” a whole new round of nasty claims and counter-claims were levied — to the world, on status updates.

Here is a young couple using technology to avoid the small amount of personal courage it takes to even have a phone call.   The loss of an ability to communicate or even relate to humans in a face-to-face environment is not a mere observation but the subject of a growing body of research.

Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at the University of Oxford, said we are “enthusiastically embracing the erosion of our identity” through social networking sites.  She said children using these sites can  lose sight of where their personalities finish and the outside world begins.

She further claimed that sense of identity is being eroded by “fast-paced, instant screen reactions,” so that the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others instead of their own self-worth.

The neuroscientist even testified before Parliament that “Social network sites risk infantalizing the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

In other words, we may be creating a generation of insecure cowards.

The toxic childhood

Greenfield referred to one subject as saying they had 900 friends, and the fact “that you can’t see or hear other people makes it easier to reveal yourself in a way that you might not be comfortable with. You become less conscious of the individuals involved (including yourself), less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about how you will be evaluated.”

Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the ‘flight or fight’ region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning.

Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, writes about “screen saturation” eroding basic social skills.  “We are seeing children’s brain development damaged because they don’t engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia.”

Greenfield warned: “It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world.”

Generation Farmville

The Mashable article misses the point, or perhaps avoids it. Undoubtedly lots of social good can be accomplished with a Paypal account and a “like” button.  That is all wonderful and I love to read those stories.  But what Gladwell is saying, and what I am expanding upon, is that a systematic re-conditioning of our children is occurring.  They could be losing the very behaviors required to participate in dramatic social change.

Hopefully, we will always have individuals willing to lead.  But will we raise a generation of children courageous enough to  follow?  Courageous enough to risk criticism, risk a reputation —  or even a life — in the name of truly revolutionary change?

Dramatic social change — like Gladwell’s example of confronting racism — takes leading and motivating followers to make a real sacrifice.  Can this still happen in the Farmville Generation?

An open letter to France

Dear Country of France,

I’ve crawled around your country about a dozen times over the years and each visit has been filled with beauty, culture, history and fine food.

But I have to ask … How did you become such a great nation with such lousy bacon?

Indeed, I believe the foundation of  American’s strength — not to mention its girth — is fortified by its wonderful bacon.  As an act of selfless diplomacy, I’d like to suggest that I can help you out in this area.

Bacon provides important nutrients from the five basic food groups: salt, sugar, fat, cholesterol and pork.  Hence, it is Nature’s Most Perfect Food.  In fact, I think the only food that rivals bacon in nutritional value is Beer Nuts. You can probably skip those, however.

With the global financial crisis and political controversies you’re facing, I believe a good slab of bacon would effectively distract your foes and delight French citizens. Who would not be much happier with a nice plate of thick-cut, maple-smoked bacon?

Now I know you have a lot of national pride and are probably thinking you can establish your own bastion of bacon. Forget about it.  Our technology is far too advanced.  Let us help you get over the learning curve and ship you a couple of truck loads.  Don’t worry, we have plenty to go around.

I await your call.

Your friend,

Mark

P.S.   If you are a new reader or otherwise confused, this is meant to be humorous.  At least to me.

Illustration: zazzle.co.uk  I can’t believe I found this picture. Damn the Internet is great.

A place where bloggers are royalty (video)


During my recent trip to France I had a chance to catch up with {grow} community regular and video blogger extraordinaire Michelle Chmielewski, who is now working in Paris.

Our friendship started through an innocent tweet (“Go Steelers!”), and has become one of my favorite stories of connecting through the social web.  This short video documents our first face-to-face meeting, highlights an international “blogger party,” and also addresses the very interesting blogging culture in France.  The top bloggers are treated like media royalty over there.  Hey America, what gives?  : )

Any way, I think you’ll find this little interview fun and interesting. And be sure to check out Michelle’s blog. One of my favorites!

A World Without Flaws – The Social Media Stepford Wives

An email with a subject  line of “You Made Me Cry” gets my attention!

And that is exactly what Jamie Lee Wallace wrote to me last week after reading the post “Social Media and the Big Conversation Fail.”

I guess it hit upon some profound feelings as she thought about the importance of the social web as a lifeline for a single mom trying to make it with her own business. With Jamie’s permission, I have taken excerpts from her message to me to share with the community …

As a single mom who works from home, I don’t have a lot of time or opportunity to develop and nurture the kinds of deep, relationships I’d like to have.  I know it sounds like a cop out, but – at least for right now – my life is moving at such a pace and scheduled so tightly that one glass of spilled milk can throw the whole day off.

So, I have the Internet – Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. It’s a godsend, really. My mom has told me how she wished she’d had access to a virtual community when she was young. My dad was stationed in Texas with the military and mom spent long, solitary days at home in their apartment with me and my younger sister. She had no car and no prospect for friendship within walking distance. I can hardly imagine the loneliness.

… except that, sometimes, I can. Even though I’m wired up to my eyeballs, even though I’m active on all these virtual platforms and engage in dozens of conversations each day, I sometimes feel so lonely. As one of the {grow} community members explained, I’m longing for “life beyond 140.”  I love my “virtual” friends, and many (if not all ) of them know more about me than my Real Life acquaintances, but there’s something about a real, human connection that gives more.

And, of course, that’s missing from the Web. There’s also a sense, for most of us, of keeping up a certain appearance. Even when we’re being personal and honest, we’re still able to control what people see. It’s not the way your true friends get to see you – the bad parts, the snits, the tears, the flaws.

And that’s what is missing from the social Web – flaws.

I know people share them, but even the confessions are “managed.”  Sometimes it seems we’re an online community of Stepford Wives.

Our flaws and human failings are a big part of what bring us closer to each other. A “real” relationship is one in which both people are not only aware of each other’s flaws, but experience them on a daily basis … and love each other anyway.  A real relationship is one that has value of its own, without having to exist in the context of some larger community.

I don’t want this to come across as being anti-social Web, it isn’t meant to be. I love the connections, opportunities, and magic that happens.  I guess your post just reminded me that there’s another world of relationships right outside my door which, despite or maybe because of their flaws, deserve as much attention as my virtual relationships.”

I like the way Jamie brings her heart to her writing and calls out the fact that we often try to be super-human on the web.

Ironically, I’ve found that in the few instances where people are “human,” something special ignites. Sharing honestly seems to connect much better than a cold topic like “the Five Biggest Mistakes on Twitter.”

What are your thoughts? Are you a Stepford Wife on the social web? Or something more?

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