Contributed by Columnist Dirk Ellingson
The headline isn’t to suggest I’m against social media. The jury is still out on that. Rather I contend that social media makes us less inclined to participate in the traditional conversation and so we are really being anti-social. Social media strikes me as the quintessential oxymoron. When I see friends and family members pecking away at their phones while I’m attempting to initiate conversation, I’m tempted to repeat the criticism so often directed at me to “Be social.” I don’t because I never liked to hear it either. And they are so tethered to their handheld devices that nothing can tear them away. Certainly nothing as prosaic as an old-fashioned conversation.
I was relatively late to social media, starting a Facebook page in 2015. I left a job knowing I was on the cusp of moving south and realized the only way to keep up with interesting young friends I would no longer be working beside was to stay in touch via the internet. I remember my daughter Claire had something called a Myspace page as a teen. But she used foul language on it and a friend’s grandma suggested her impressionable granddaughter shouldn’t play with Claire. But old wrongs have since been forgiven and Claire’s onetime Myspace friend is now a Facebook friend.
I think the people most addicted to social media are the ones with too many accepted friend requests. The people following too many people. They should winnow the herd. Assessing the quantity of my Facebook friend’s friends (some show total sums, others reveal only mutual friends), I see they range from 4,951 to 34. That high number must be some sort of statistical aberration. That person is far from the worst offender I know who wields a modern phone.
The most blatant social media addict I know for ignoring others while staying glued to the phone ranks fourth among my friends for total number of friends. I can see she recently crested 3,000. Cannon fire could not distract her from scrolling through the machine-gun fire of new posts. I’m older than her but I don’t think I even know 3,000 people.
My friend list holds around 200 people. Many rarely post. Many post updates and witticisms frequently. I can scroll through the latest in minutes. I don’t unfriend the politically offensive. I treasure diversity (and the outright weird) among my social media friends and want to read the posts of people who think differently than me. As long as they’re lucid and witty. I just have to be careful upon what posts I bestow the blue and white thumb-up. Like so as not to offend friends of a different political stripe. Because some are quick to take offense.
If I’m out of town for a few days, I’m okay without checking social media. In order to look at Facebook, I have to fire up the laptop at home. My flip phone lacks internet powers.
I was also relatively late to owning a cellphone. I don’t remember the precise year I starting carrying a portable telephone but I remember how shocked friends were when I didn’t have one. My stepdaughter Amanda expressed the funniest rebuttal to their concerns about my phoneless state when she said, “Well who’d call him!?”
But the flip phone is cool for its durability, its nostalgic appeal, and its eponymous flip. It’s like a Star Trek communicator. One friend saw me take it out of my pocket and wailed, “Oh Dirk, a flip phone? We need to talk.”
It was several months after I secured my first full-time job in 1984 that I even invested in a landline phone. Just didn’t need one. I rented the back half of a house (I called my residence the half-house but people always misunderstood that I lived in a halfway house) across the street from a pool with a payphone I could use when needed. I was undaunted even though this was around the time payphone fees skyrocketed from a dime per call to a quarter. Yet I could afford the occasional call. Half-house rent was only $140 a month. I had an electric typewriter but no computer.
The pandemic isolation forced us to rely even more on our cellphone lifelines. The oft paraphrased quote of Karl Marx states, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” The full translation reads, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That’s from the 19th century. You could substitute social media for religion in the 21st. Distraction from our grim existences.
Television was my opiate. Not as much as it used to be but it’s still a challenge. Even if I’m not watching it, so long as the volume is not too loud the background sound doesn’t bother me. But the audio from social media posts is often piercing yelling or grating warbling and always unwelcome. Sometimes multiple people with multiple phones are playing different posts in the same room. Please make it stop. I’m so often forced by others to endure videos that are “hilarious” or “awesome” when they are rarely either that it just makes me want to throw in the towel on showing even courtesy interest.
Most of the local compliments I receive for my column are from people around my age. The demographic getting long in the tooth. Perhaps they too are disheartened by these kids and their phones. Or even our contemporaries and their phones. Perhaps the handheld devices are an escape from the grumpy tirades of we marauding curmudgeons who fondly recall a time when phones were used for talking. It was a poor substitute for chatting in person but could be relied upon if necessary. Say if you were quarantined during a pandemic or something.