Why New Media is Old Fashioned
My first experience with social media was way back before they even called it social media. Back when getting a digital picture involved bringing film to a store and asking them to put the pictures on a CD. Now, almost a decade later, I continue to be deeply, richly, intensely happily married to the result of that first foray into human connection via bits and bytes.
Let me be clear, I am a Luddite at heart. I am a lover of books, weather, water, mountains, dirt, calluses, bruises, broken nails, things handmade the long and hard way. But I registered my personal name as a domain name almost a dozen years ago. I recently hired a specialist to help me develop and implement a Twitter strategy. I just bought a Droid. I did all this because I recognize something about these technologies: new media is where the people are.
This is what led me to Match.com. I wanted to meet people – well, male people – that I wasn’t finding in my so-called “real” life. Since the dissolution of my first marriage, I’d dated steadily, but was running out of eligible bachelors. Match.com was a means to open up completely new populations of potential mates. As the online male universe was enormous, I focused on looking for men with three prime qualities: athletic, educated, and extremely passionate about something, either work- or creative-related. I was not disappointed. Within 8 weeks, I met more interesting, accomplished, highly educated men then I had in the previous 8 years. I eventually married the one who was the most of all these things, as well as handsome, kind, funny, generous, entrepreneurial, and creative, to boot.
Besides unearthing this trove of undiscovered male bounty, what struck me most about the Match.com experience is what strikes me still about Facebook and Twitter: It’s so old fashioned. Yes, I mean that seriously. Think about it. On Match.com you get to know people by writing letters. Sure, you’re using a keyboard instead of ink and onionskin, but what’s more quaint than penning letters to one another? The careful crafting of phrases, the wondering if the other person will understand the implied humor, the anticipation of waiting for a response, the obsessive checking of your mailbox…it’s positively Victorian. I’d met plenty of men in bars, at dinner parties, on snowboards and bikes. But what was so delightful about Match.com was the feeling of being courted. Slowly. Over weeks, not hours. With engaging words, not seductive looks.
I feel the same way about Facebook. Unlike the let-it-all-hang-out, confessional culture of television, Facebook lets you get to know someone slowly, bit by bit. You learn that they have a rescued dog, tend toward clumsiness, love to crochet, take archery lessons on Friday nights, have talents with jewelry making, are unabashedly right wing, or are as crush-worthy at 47 as they were when you last saw them in 8th grade. Facebook is like a virtual Main Street where most of the information shared between people is of a disposable nature: the weather, small snippets of news, a joke, updates on health, work and travel. But if something pops up in these quotidian interactions that shows a small sparkle of self – an interesting hobby mentioned, a shared interest revealed, a crisis or circumstance that requires aid – then a deeper engagement may ensue. On Main Street, you’d suggest sharing a cup of coffee; on FB, you’d drop them a personal note via email.
The connections I make online are mostly trivial, to be sure. However, it is clear to me that these sustained and continuous light touches can add up to much more. There is my husband, of course, as object lesson number one. More recently, there has been the support – and sales – for a book I wrote about my mother, released just over a year ago. The “atta girls,” and purchases have been great, but even more so are the gratifying letters I have received from real readers. Technology allows us to find each other in a way never before possible. Overlapping that happy news was my much less fun, 10-month battle with breast cancer. My husband and I posted our progress on Facebook and a blog, and the sustenance we received in both venues was beyond sustaining. In my most frightened moments, my weakest days, times when I wanted to be physically alone, I still sought out the online comments of friends and family for cheer and strength. In addition, our friends, family, and many, many people I never met wrote that they were deeply grateful for the opportunity to share in and learn from an experience that would otherwise have been completely off limits to them. We had more than 8,000 visits to our blog – there is nowhere in the so-called real, physical world I could have accommodated that kind of support.
When I hear people bash Facebook and blame it for a universe of evils, I am reminded of the wise words a river guide once said to me. During a trip to the Galapagos, I asked our guide, a world-class kayaker, if there was something wrong with our boats, as one, very experienced member of our group was complaining about their performance. Which seemed fine to me, a relative novice. He smiled and said, “It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools.” To me, the online world is simply this, a tool, in the most venerable sense of the word. If you use a hammer to break things, don’t blame the hammer. If you use it to build things, well, do credit the carpenter. Twitter gives you 140 characters. Well used, that’s an entire world of opportunity to build something beautiful to share with the world.