Sunday, January 15, 2012

Think About Social Media

I was a reluctant neophyte to the social networking scene.

I like to consider myself a non-conformist, but so do a lot of other people, which effectively defeats the point. It's just another label, anyway, and I'd prefer not to place a label on myself. I'm just me.

Generally speaking, though, if the proverbial "everybody" is doing something or seeing a certain movie, I refuse to. I don't necessarily think everyone else has poor taste, but I want to form my own opinions and do or see something based on its merit, not its popularity. I've too often been disappointed when I've seen movies that multiple people told me I just "had" to see.

There are exceptions, of course. I had refused to see Forrest Gump for a long time because "everybody" kept raving about it. I've always enjoyed Tom Hanks, though, and I also have a lot of respect for my parents' taste in movies. When they told me that I'd like the movie, I trusted them. They were right; I loved it. (Incidentally, I prefer not to see movies that have been adapted from books, unless I've read the book first. In this particular case, though, I read Forrest Gump after I saw the movie. The book, though, is so different from the movie that it neither affected my view of the movie nor tainted my enjoyment of the book.)

So, before I joined Facebook, I mulled it over for months, with this singular thought running through my head: Am I being duped into joining? As silly as it seems now, I was so afraid that I was giving up something of myself. Like my dignity or my self-respect.

Joining Twitter was easier. In my research of that medium, I read a number of articles about how essential Twitter is for a writer. Sure, you can connect with other writers/publishers/editors on Facebook, but certainly not in the same way you can on Twitter.

As with most ideas, I like to take into consideration the views of someone "external" whom I respect, someone who carries weight as a kind of mentor. Yesterday I watched a short video clip of author Margaret Atwood expressing her views of social media. She offers an interesting perspective, as she sees social media as just an "extension of the diary" and as nothing different from anything we as a society were already doing, like sending letters to people. She even compares a tweet to a telegram. I found her point of view fascinating. She is, especially, an enthusiast of Twitter and actually sees it as a chance to boost literacy. I must acknowledge that what she says makes sense. Much more than on Facebook, "tweeps" (Twitter peeps) read and share articles and information, regularly exercising their minds and entering into discussions. (I realize that this is not the main purpose of Facebook, so this is not meant as a negative comment. I know that each form of social media has its own motivation.)

While I realize many of the merits of Facebook, I'm still hesitant. One part of me wants to ask, "Why do so many people want to share all the personal and often mundane details of their lives with the world?" But, the other part of me answers, "You idiot, that's exactly what YOU'RE doing." Touché.

When I first joined, I checked Facebook religiously. It's addictive--you sit on pins and needles waiting for people to post what they're going to eat for their 3 o'clock snack, how long it took them to shower that morning, and whether or not they've recovered from yesterday's root canal.

For me, it quickly lost its luster, though, largely because of the poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling I kept witnessing (In case you didn't know, my nickname in both high school and college was the "Grammar Nazi." Dude, I take this stuff seriously!) It doesn't bother me as much on Twitter because when you only have 140 characters to work with, you have to give a person some slack. Same goes for texting.

What really inspired this particular post on social media, though, was an online discussion in one of my classes (Teaching Literature). After muddling through 50 pages of a chapter on literary theory, I learned that literary theory, by definition, might not really exist. And, what about literature? How is it defined? As much as I love literature, you'd think that this would have been something I'd thought a lot about. I hadn't. My answer (in (very small) part) was: "Like Justice Potter Stewart on the definition of pornography, I say about literature: I know it when I see it."

So, how does this apply to social media? Any learning, in my opinion, in order to carry weight, has to have some relevance (personal relevance, political relevance, social relevance, whatever, as long as it has relevance for the student). When we teach literature, perhaps we need to start with a prompt (intuition-based or not) and see what a particular piece means to a large scope of people. If relevance is what we need to get at, we need a broad (and diverse) scope of people to look at it. To this point, maybe social media/forums are the best ways to teach (and learn) literature. You get a wide variety of responses under the guise of anonymity. You reach outside of the classroom. Isn't that the fad nowadays anyway? (And I'm not using fad as necessarily a negative term here.) Learning doesn't (and can't) take place in a vacuum.

So, my now-definitive conclusion about social media is that it is, in no uncertain terms, good for something besides displaying one's poor grammar and lack of proofreading skills: it's good for prompting discussions about "real" things in the the social implications of literature!

Perhaps this is precisely what Margaret Atwood was getting at.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Think About Courage

It's hard to say good-bye. Even to an abstraction of time, such as a year. What does it really mean to say that 2011 is over and 2012 has begun?

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions. I don't need to wait until the beginning of a new year to try to better myself. For me, it's a daily process, a weekly process, a forever process. As it happens, though, 2011 was a tough year for me for a number of reasons, and the unpleasant whirlwind began in January. Consequently, for most of the year, I struggled to center myself again and it seems that the end of December is when I started to find some sort of balance, or, at the very least, some kind of peace for myself. It's not solidified yet, but these things rarely are. So, despite my aversion to New Year's resolutions, it seems that as the new year has begun, I am also beginning again.

Still, it's hard to say good-bye to a year that seemingly passed me by, as I merely went through the motions much of the time...just trying to get through each day. In my haze I often forgot to be thankful for all of the positive elements and people in my life, of which there are many; and I'm remembering to be thankful now.

I see, in my memory, a collage of the many new friends I met this past year--smart, creative, unique people whom I'm fortunate to have crossed paths with. These new friends (along with my other already "established" friends...and family, too, of course) mean more to me than they probably even realize. (It's also amazing, by the way, how some small words of encouragement from people you've never met--but feel like you know anyway, merely because you're experiencing (or have experienced) similar situations--can make such a difference. My Twitter friends--you know who you are--I thank you as well.)

And here's something I've learned: it takes courage to heal; it takes courage to live your life the way you want to live it, the way you need to live it.

In October I signed up for a Grand Canyon hiking adventure trip for the week between Christmas and New Year's. I couldn't easily afford it, but I knew I needed to do it, so I dipped into my savings. I needed to start the new year in a different way, in a way that would help me shake off the pain and sorrow of 2011. But signing up for a trip three months in advance is different than the looming reality of it when it's two weeks away. By mid-December, I was nervous. Taking a trip with a bunch of people I didn't know? What was I thinking?

But I had also started reading a book called Only Pack What You Can Carry: My Path to Inner Strength, Confidence, and True Self-Knowledge by Janice Booth. Although it may sound like it, it's not a self-help book (I don't read those, on principle). Published by National Geographic, this book is part memoir, part adventure story, part geography lesson, and part history class. Booth, a travel writer, writes about her adventures as she combats her fears and finds the courage to be an active participant in her own life.

Booth refers to courage as a muscle that gets strengthened with use. As a teenager I made a rule to myself not to avoid activities that I really wanted to do just because the prospect seemed scary. Shy and awkward back then [as now...], I convinced a friend to audition for the junior high play with me. I landed a part. I had always loved acting but, at the same time, I was terrified. Of what? Of being judged by my peers? Probably, but after I got the part, that supposed judgment didn't even matter. My courage muscle became stronger.

Once you do something that's somewhat frightening, the next time it is not so intimidating. I acted in plays throughout high school; it was as natural to me as breathing. When I went out for roller derby a couple years ago, I was petrified. I loved it, though: the fast-pace, the danger, the intense workouts. I'm not dissuaded by physically demanding exercise: if you can do roller derby, you can do anything!

After spending this past year just trying to keep up with the day-to-day, my courage muscle needed strengthened again. My trip to the Grand Canyon (just over a week ago) was amazing, possibly the perfect antidote. Five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, and less than one percent make it down to the bottom (a smaller amount actually hike down, since some ride the mules), and now I am one of that small percentage of people who have hiked down to the bottom and back up again.

And I'm ready to do it again.

My courage muscle is flexed; bring on the next adventure!