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Knowing the difference between Twitter and LIFE

August 14, 2012

I read an interesting post in the Atlantic today about Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei and his love for Twitter. I respect Weiwei for his courageous stand against the repressive Chinese government, but I hesitated when I read the following statement:

Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response. They know me better than their relatives or my relatives.

I understand Twitter’s immense value to Weiwei, especially since the Chinese gov’t placed restrictions on his freedoms last year. The ability to communicate with like-minded people around the world, no longer limited by geographic proximity, is one of the huge benefits of social media. Through Twitter I connect with teachers and thinkers around the world who are equally passionate about the things that I’m passionate about. I’ve discovered resources that I’d likely never known about if it weren’t for Twitter.

But I can’t imagine saying that the people I communicate with on Twitter know me better than my relatives. A statement like that seems out of touch with reality. I’m not picking on Weiwei; it’s just that his statement illuminates a common mentality. All over the world, people are turning to social media when they find their flesh-and-blood relationships unsatisfying.

Relationships are the hardest and most rewarding aspect of life. Whether you’re talking about the frustrated teenager turning to internet porn, the married man or woman seeking out an old lover via Facebook, or the parent ignoring his or her children to spend hours a day using social media, the opportunities for people to turn away from their flesh-and-blood relationships in favor of digital connections are endless.

And gosh, more and more people seem to think, those digital connections just seem to understand me more – they get where I’m coming from. That mindset has been common with teenagers for a long time, but now we hear it and see it practiced by grown-ups. Teenage narcissism characterizes more of the population as a virtual narcissism takes root.

What is really occurring with folks like Mr. Weiwei? How has it come to the point that mature adults believe they are more understood by those who know them virtually than their own family? It is the abstraction of life, the abstraction of relationships. When we start to think that someone with whom we have mostly exchanged thoughts, ideas, and questions via text knows us better than the ones who know the sound of our laugh, the way we bite our nails, the piercing look in our eyes when we ask a question, the way we get frustrated or impatient or nervous, the loudness of our voice when we get excited, the sensitivity we show when others disagree — then we have succumbed to the abstraction of life.

Abstraction is a great thing. The abstraction that was made possible through the alphabetization of the mind is responsible for the  majority of modern human progress. This post I am writing (that has grown larger than I expected) is a practice in abstraction. I love this stuff, but I also recognize it for what it is: I’m thinking through writing, and sharing it with others in hopes that it will stir your thinking, maybe spark further online exchange of ideas. But it is not LIFE.

As I’m writing this, the cool of the evening is calling me outside. The humidity has dropped this week, making it pleasant to sit out there and  listen to the cicadas whirling, the trees sweeping, and the kids playing next door. Maybe I’ll cook on the grill and enjoy my family gathered on our back deck, poking fun at one another like we tend to do. There’ll be laughter, and storytelling, and probably a joke or two from the comedian in the family (the middle son). Some discussion will probably take place about what is going on in our lives. The point is, we know each other in a way my Twitter friends will never know me. Even if my best friends and family have no interest in discussing narrative theory or the impact of social media on identity, they “get” me – good and bad – in a way no one else possibly could.

There is LIFE, and there is discussing life. No matter how much I enjoy the discussion part, I don’t want to confuse the two. I want to live life, with the friends and family who know me best, to the fullest. Everything else is icing.


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  1. I appreciated this piece, Gregg (as I do all of your posts :-). I also read the original Atlantic post for reference. I am reminded of a former amazing Taiwanese student who would never speak up in my Communication courses, but after class, he would send me these eloquent e-mails to tell me what he thought about the topics we covered that day. I begged him to please contribute his ideas, but he said simply, “Please let me be President’s advisor behind the screen” and then he went on to explain that in his culture, it would just not be acceptable for him to speak out in such a way (this student was not going to remain in the U.S., so my arguments for “standardizing” him to our low-context ways did not hold). I suppose I had to be thankful that at least he was communicating in some way, right? When I think of people who would not make deep connections with relatives or “others” anyway, but can find a way to do so via social media, I think that it is better than nothing.

    But I, like you, find that the connections via social media are not the end in and of themselves. In fact, in my now year-plus on social media, I have talked to more and more of my tweeps on the phone and have met several in person when they’ve visited my city. I think we have to remember that social media is meant to be the bridge… back to the social part. Let’s hope more and more people catch on to that. :-).

    Thank you for this insight. I read the piece this morning during kid camp drop-off and have been thinking about it.

    Ellen @chattyprof

    • Ellen, Thanks for your comment. I agree that digital tools are great for those who are otherwise limited; for many of those people they have been a true God-send. But my concern is for those who develop a dependence on digital connections simply because they are easier, cleaner, less demanding.

  2. Reblogged this on Ish Ism and commented:
    This is a really interesting post about relationships and digital connections. Read it : )

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