Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Social Media: Icon or Idol

My most recent paper from AP Lang/Comp. Constructive criticism is welcome! 

          There is a significant difference between a real painting and its reproduction on the web or in print. The “real thing” is more engaging than its flatter reprint, isn’t it? The same goes for letters of correspondence. In a world blessed with millisecond communications, a letter from a friend has a comforting warmth that a text message does not carry. You may be able to delete a conversation from your phone without a second thought, but ripping apart a handwritten letter seems nearly barbaric. Yet, as of 2013, the average Joe and plain Jane spent roughly 4-6 hours using social media during the day. The ATUS study from Bureau of Labor Statistics also showed that, between work, school, and other activities, the typical Joe and Jane spent less than two hours a day interacting with their loved ones. According to these numbers, the distant and digital person appears to be more interesting to the average man than the present and palpable one. What applies to the painting and the letter does not seem to apply as readily to people. Why? The answer rests in the nature of social media. Since it encourages an imaginative yet editable image of people rather than a flawed yet realistic one, it not only advocates for the normalcy of digital relationships, but in doing so, risks promoting superficial and unbounded ones.
1. Definition of Terms—
          Since the term “relationship” has an expansive range of meanings and implications, it is first necessary to define and delineate a “relationship” according to its health, strength and value. The Ancient Greeks, not surprisingly, had words such as “icon” and “idol” (εἰκόνος and εἴδωλον) to help describe the differences between a healthy and unhealthy relationship with a created thing. Understood as it was in Medieval Byzantium, an icon is an image, a thing, or a person which represents a real relationship. Like the painting and the letter, it has presence to it—an “umph.” A person’s relationship with an icon was, according to these Hellenic Christians, considered both symbiotic and reverential. Thus, a healthy relationship with someone is “iconic”—it is tangible, substantial, and complete. The word idol, on the other hand, is commonly translated as “phantom:” an image, a thing, or a person which is believed to have an actual presence, but is actually a deceiving mirage. It causes someone to think it is real and that he is connecting with it. Unlike like the icon but like a reproduction or text message, the Hellenic Christians understood the idol as an empty, potentially parasitic, and generally unhealthy relationship. 
          Malcolm Gladwell, an acclaimed author and speaker, wrote about another way to categorize relationships in his article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” He argues that relationships are different based on the strength of their “ties.” There are weak-tie relationships which are primarily logistical. They provide the summarized, easy-to-access, mini-bio information that allows people to form acquaintances and make efficient connections. A philanthropic campaign can be very successful on the Internet, he claims, because the Internet allows people to exploit “the power of these distant connections with marvelous efficiency.” In these abilities, the weak-tie relationships of social media find their strength. Strong-tie relationships, on the other hand, are much messier and much less efficient, but profoundly more deep and effective. They give the physical closeness, vulnerability, company, sincerity, and well-roundedness that allows people to become friends rather than just “friending” each other on Facebook. These relationships, Gladwell argues, are the kind that start revolutions because while they may take longer to form, their roots go much deeper. Few would deny that meeting their online friends in person is much more meaningful than simply messaging or Skyping them. In light of this, social media clearly falls under the “weak-tie” category, but is it an icon or an idol? In order to answer that question, it is first necessary to see the broad range of relationships social media affects and how it affects them. 

2. The Types of Relationships Social Media Affects—

          Human social networks are elaborately interconnected and one change, such as the use of social media, can have a ripple effect on every relationship in a person’s life—from his work to his wife. It begins with the most familiar and intimate human network: the family. According to Farah Stockman—a journalist for the Boston Globe, a Kenyan school teacher, and a Harvard graduate—there is a significant difference between being “lonely” and “alone.” In her Op-Ed article, “Lonely, or Just Alone?” she explains how company has become an unnecessary commodity in the days where “individuals can meet all their basic needs with one click on a computer.” When we want to know our heritage, she states, “we subscribe to Ancestry.com” rather than spend “an afternoon with grandma.” We are no longer as reliant on our families, and thus, “less willing to make compromises to stay in their good graces.”
          Romantic relationships are equally affected. Nearly every modern couple uses social media to stay in touch, connect, or even show their affection for each other. According to the study “Couples, the Internet, and Social Media” conducted by PEW Research Center, 74% of adults claim the effect of social media on their relationships has been positive, while only 20% claim it has been negative. However, a little under 50% of every adult couple claims that their partner is or has been excessively distracted by social media. If nearly half of every couple experiences this unwanted distraction, then it can be assumed that many more have become either positively or negatively dependent on it—unable to separate their relationship from some aspect of social media.
          In non-family relationships, such as friendships or professional relationships, the effect is more subtle, but possibly more profound. In a video series where YouTubers Benny and Rafi Fine ask a panel of teens about certain issues, such as social media and smartphones, one responded about texting on her phone: “I just block out all my friends!” Then, when asked what most of them would do after the interview, they bashfully admitted they would “check their messages” before anything else. 
          In the professional world, any form of social privacy can be an illusion. David Williams, a writer for Forbes magazine, brings up the endless possibilities of the Deep Web in his article “How Much Is the Internet Really Telling Your Boss,” saying that “many young people are unaware of how easy it is for their parents, prospective employers, or even prospective dates to see everything they’ve posted.” With the Deep Web and even with public search engines, employers can not only scan through a prospective applicant’s social profiles, but find out whether he has “been arrested, filed for a bankruptcy, or been investigated by the SEC.” If someone is an employee, his “public self” does not return to his “private self” on social media—it is on 24/7. 
           Almost all of a person’s external, daily relationships are affected by social media, but his internal relationship with himself is also affected. In her TEDtalk “Connected, but alone?” Sherry Turkle discusses that we are setting ourselves up for “trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our ability for self-reflection.” She describes the internal life of the social media user as slowly growing lonelier as he or she becomes even more “plugged in.” Before, she says, it was “I have a feeling, I want to make a call” and now it is, “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” The origin of social media’s involvement in daily life may seem to come from the outside, finagling its way into the human psyche. The opposite, however, is true. It is a battle from within—it always was. Social media does not dominate people’s lives—they allow it to do so. It is a willing surrender rather than an unavoidable effect.
3. The Spread of Weak-Ties and the Promotion of the Idol—

           Social media, by extending into every human relationship and appealing to the instinctual social desires of humans, has advocated for the normalcy of weak-ties. According to Dr. Ban Siegel from Business Insider’s “How Social Media Is Changing Our Brains and Reshaping Our Relationships,” there is a psychological reason for why social media is so appealing. He explains that the brain is the “social organ of the body” and “the reason social media took off is because the brain is social and people really want to connect with each other.” In his book,The Shallows, Nicholas Carr also argues that technology has shaped our brains and the metaphors we use to describe our lives. Our brains have become the machines they created, turning into “simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again” (119).  Similarly, as Dr. Siegel summarizes, the brain created social media and social media, in turn, shapes the brain.
            Like the industrial machine compared to the craftsman, social media is often more efficient than its nitty-gritty cousin: “face-to-face” conversation. There is no longer a need to go to the store. Everything can be purchased online through mega-warehouses like Amazon. The United States Postal Service is slowly being outdated by emails, e-cards, and online job and college applications, among many other things. With the exception of a few situations, there is rarely a need for a pen and paper if a computer is nearby. People often do not think twice about these minor lifestyle changes and when they do, they appreciate the newfound social efficiency. However, what they fail to realize is how deeply dependent they have become on the products of social media: the ability to create a customized “social self,” the luxury of hiding behind a digital wall, the control of not having to hold an organic conversation. In Sherry Turkle’s New York Times article “The Flight from Conversation,” she describes how social media, with its attractive efficiency and comfortable “distance,” has only fueled our internal desire for intimacy without risk or vulnerability. Technology is even taking on undeniably human jobs, such as therapy, in the form of “sociable robots.” Social media, she says, “provides so many automatic listeners,” but we “have sacrificed conversation for mere connection”—believed and accepted an illusion, an “idol,” as the real thing.
4. The Increasing Normalcy of Weak-Ties—
          Since these weak-ties are becoming increasingly more normal and habitual, relationships are, by consequence, becoming more superficial and unbounded. As Carr elaborates in The Shallows, a medium like social media affects our perception of value and our thought processes. Not surprisingly, it also affects how we relate to people. A neuroscientist who consulted with CBC’s The National told his interviewer that the areas in the brain which experience empathy and emotion “turn-off” when social media is being used. In addition, he affirms that technologies “are not activating these brain areas that are important for self-reflection and reflection on others.”  In essence, the positive social aspects of a person’s mental make-up are weakened when they attempt to use social media. Carr recounts how social media has made him function in new and unseen ways—almost as a merciless, emotionless machine (Ch. 1). Not surprisingly, neuroscience supports this as well. Social media, while more efficient and less risky, removes much of the humanity from social interaction. This is the “catch-22” paradox of social media’s effect on relationships—it provides people with less accountability and yet more liability; more connection and less communion; more socializing and less society.
          We are unknowingly forgetting the value of strong-ties as our minds and habits slowly, sometimes unconsciously, change. By habitually using technologies that support weak-ties, we are both changing and contradicting our instinctual need for real relationships—for strong ties. They are becoming museum pieces. The face-to-face conversation is not as welcome anymore. When Sherry Turkle asked people, "What's wrong with having a conversation?" they responded, “I'll tell you what's wrong with having a conversation! It takes place in real time and you can't control what you're going to say.” People still interact with each other every day—teachers, family members, bosses. They cannot avoid physical contact and connection, but is such a relationship becoming more of an anomaly than digital contact and connection? One teenager, when asked what she would do without her phone said, “I wouldn’t know how to talk to people.” Social media naturally fosters different types of communication styles than the ones which real-time conversations foster. It gives the speaker a filter and a barrier of time, control, and perception, whereas face-to-face conversation is more immediate, more telling, and requires more work from the speaker. In a world where Joe and Jane spend up to six hours on social media and less than two hours physically interacting with people, it seems like the media style of communication will naturally overthrow the real one, the present one. It seems that people no longer attach the same value to strong-ties. Or, if they do attach same value, then they have over-valued weak-ties. They have favored the phantom over the person—the idol over the icon.
5. Methods for Countering An Influx of Weak-Ties and Supporting the Icon—
          The problem may seem immense, but the solution is simple. When the weak-ties of social media overpower strong-tie relationships, when the phantom seems more appealing than the real person, then a person must examine his private life. Being more self-aware, he must become the controller and not the controlled. As Dr. Siegel revealed, every part of the brain and body wants to be social, but what “kind” of social will you let it be? What kinds of relationships do you value—iconic ones or illusions of them? As Turkle encourages: be willing to hold conversation about the topic, understanding the nature of technology as a tool rather than a creature—as separate from the human essence. With this understanding, the use of technology should be tailored to specific circumstances—need versus desire, chastity versus gluttony, and vulnerability versus feigned intimacy. And lastly, the scales require balancing. An idol and phantom reveals the “what” of a person—his external nature; the first layer of his personhood. By its nature, social media often only presents a person as an idol—a shell of what he really is. To be able to see that same person as an “icon”—to understand him for “who” he is in the deepest and most intimate sense—requires the characteristics of a strong-tie relationship: vulnerability, physical closeness, and real conversation. It is the discipline, moderation, veneration, and respect for the human soul which makes a relationship “iconic.”  The “what” cannot become more important than the “who,” the weak-tie more prevalent than the strong-tie, and the idol more preferred to the icon.
6. Conclusion—
          The invention of social media is, by no means, a bad thing—it is a neutral tool bereft of moral value. However, it still has the ability to mold and influence the human psyche, and thus, the nature of human relationships. As an efficient facilitator of “weak-ties,” social media can certainly broaden the horizons of a person’s social life, while simultaneously decreasing his interaction with society as his relationships become less and less “iconic.” The mind, in its desire to be social, oftentimes cannot distinguish between the phantom “what” of a person and his iconic “who” and with that, comes the widespread and constant use of social media. However, with this delightful new phenomenon of expansive networks and instantaneous connections, it is important to understand how gravely social media can damage real human relationships if not used with discretion or awareness. Media, while not the culprit, must still be balanced by the introspection of oneself—a balance which leads to healthy, strong, and iconic relationships without destroying valuable weak-tie relationships. For as R.W. Emerson once pointed out, the “reason why the world lacks unity”—the reason, in this case, that social media has come to be a more negative than positive influence on our relationships—“is, because man is disunited with himself.” To better unite with others, unite with yourself. This is the key to social media.
Works Cited
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