We millennials get a lot of flack for our addiction to electronics. We text more than we talk in person, and calling someone on the phone is reserved for times of emergency or broken touchscreens. Social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or more specialized networks like LinkedIn and Snapchat—are a second home, a mirror of the real world that not only echoes aspects of our lives but takes on a shape and importance outside of them. Whose Facebook or Twitter perfectly reflects their personality, or garners the same type attention they do in the flesh? Our profiles are a way for us to present a curated version of ourselves, and a way to connect with each other without the flaws or awkwardness that plague our in real-time interactions. So it’s logical, that with these perks, with the assistance of autocorrect, when we can take the time to consider how to react to an email or text, and have the liberty to ignore a ping that strikes an uncomfortable emotion, that we’ve gravitated towards these virtual communications over old-school, in-person contact.
Older generations are notorious for despising this shift, and they aren’t wrong to lament a breakdown of social skills. We might have added a host of platforms for communication to our collective repertoire, but we still have to communicate and collaborate in person. Now, instead of only learning the unspoken rules for social interactions, we navigate different forms of internet lingo or platform-specific shorthand, depending on the electronic medium—and must take care to differentiate between those virtual environments and face-to-face connections. Mixing and matching voices and attitudes leads to an aura of ineptitude and social awkwardness, as the person who giggles “LOL” in real life seems just as out-of-touch and incapable of reading a situation properly as the well-meaning grandma who signs her Facebook posts as if they were handwritten letters. In fact, we cut grandma a bit more slack due to her age and unfamiliarity with these foreign media, but the tween who mingles chatspeak with conversation and whose Instagram selfies number as many as Kim Kardashian’s lacks that excuse: she grew up with these media, and is ‘digital native’ expected to know how to navigate them.
That’s a tall order. Each social network has its own unspoken and constantly evolving culture, due to both the attitudes and behaviors of its users (redditors, imgurians, or the miscreants of 4chan being notorious examples of virtual populations that have developed identities and slang specific to their respective networks) and the structure of the platform itself (LinkedIn, if you’ll allow me to personify the network, is trying quite hard to become a professional Facebook, with space to share updates and external content, while Twitter’s clipped format rejects the long-winded rants and opinions more common to Facebook). Every new mode of communication, from the common text message to the most exclusive social network, must be navigated according to a unique set of social constructs and is often constrained by its very design. But once a user has a handle (ba-dum-tssss) on how to interact with these environments, they have access to a powerful set of tools.
Through social media, we are capable of integrating our interactions online by cross-posting or following the same individual on multiple platforms, or separating them: perhaps using Facebook for personal purposes, but making our blog or LinkedIn public to friends and professional acquaintances alike. We can consolidate our own image-based content to Instagram and our virtual wish list to our Pinterest boards—and we can set these platforms aside one by one at will. We can connect with people we have met in the flesh, and with strangers across the globe. Distance and time zones are easily surmounted obstacles with the assistance of media that delay communication for parties in opposite hemispheres, when one participant is asleep or otherwise occupied, but can provide instantaneous communication when both are available simultaneously. Connections can be made over shared interests or commonalities found through specific profiles only sharing relevant information, building networks about subjects or in social circles that were never workable before.
There’s no substitute for in person interactions, but making use of social media can also be—in a terribly dry description of the vibrant virtual communities we’ve created—efficient and a great organizational tool. We can, as it’s said, stay connected. Granted, we don’t always need to be in touch; these media are a supplement to real life, not a replacement for it. Unplugging, taking time away, refreshing, recharging, going dark—however you want to describe your time when you’re logged out and your apps are closed—is invaluable. The beauty of social media is its accessibility. We can communicate from anywhere, and then put our devices away. One can remain connected just in case there’s an emergency at the office, but in the mean time, be re-connecting with an old friend in person or expanding communication to others around the world. By tethering ourselves to our devices and having near-constant feelers out to our many media, we can gauge where our attention is needed, where we would like it to be, and from there, decide how accessible we will make ourselves. We can and should reserve the right to draw back that reach. We must take care not to let our face-to-face interactions fall by the wayside, an easy pitfall of the virtual connections, as there is always something that we could be addressing or a post that we could be reading, an email we could be composing or a thought we could be tweeting. We still need to be able to talk to each other over the dinner table or while walking in the park. The beauty of our plugged-in state is that we can leave the office to do these things, and take a break to address the crisis du jour from a remote location, thanks to these networks.
It’s our responsibility to balance our virtual and in-person presence—a line past generations did not have to walk. The critique that we are too plugged in is a valid observation for some individuals, as that balance is easily skewed. What we should focus on is remaining social in person, as well through our virtual media. Like any other vice, in addressing an over-emphasis on digital communication, moderation is a key. The many benefits of modern technology—connecting with more individuals, the power to travel far (though not too far) from a cord and power source, organizing and curating our presence and content—should complement our flesh-and-blood existence. Without a real life to parallel, social media are impotent and inept. They cannot stand alone. If we are too heavily present online and fail to keep up our real-life relationships, we suffer, as the virtual cannot replace the real. For better or for worse, social networks have become a fixture of our world; in today’s environment, abstaining from digital communication can result in exclusion from conversations both mundane and crucial to personal and professional growth. But so long as these media remain a piece of, and not the entirety of our young lives, I optimistically maintain that they do not demand the death of real-time interaction. Social media are tools we can use to enhance our real lives, and an opportunity to prove the digital and the real can coexist.