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.

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