Have you ever wondered where social media is taking us as a culture? Can you imagine what the next step in instant connectivity might be?
In the past people connected face to face. You walked or you took a horse and cart to the nearest village where you learned the news face to face. Most people spent their entire lives within a twenty-mile radius of home. That’s still true in some parts of the world, although even isolated communities are linked in to the outside world. A few years ago my husband and I visited a Roma settlement deep in rural Slovakia. The homes were no more than wood and corrugated metal shacks, but there was a cell phone tower nearby and a generous sprinkling of satellite dishes. This near-universal electronic connectedness is something quite new.
From ancient times, messages were sent and received by hand-written letters carried overland or across oceans by couriers—or sometimes just a willing traveler. Until the early 17th century, for example, letters from Boston to England (and vice versa) were sent with the captain of a ship about to sail the Atlantic. Then in 1639, “regular” mail service was established when the city of Boston arranged for letters to be dropped off and picked up at Richard Fairbank’s tavern. It wasn’t until the 1890s that most people in the U.S. had home mail delivery. Even then, by the time a letter was received, the news was old.
Advances in technology changed the speed of communication. By the end of the 19th century, messages could be sent by telegraph, winging their way across continents and around the world at previously undreamt-of speeds. On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo—“the shot heard round the world”—was communicated almost instantly to far-flung capitals by telegraph. A few years later, the telephone was the next new thing. The first coast-to-coast telephone call in the U.S. was made in 1912, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that telephones became a fixture in most households. But no matter how urgent the call, someone had to be home to receive it.
Then we got answering machines. And fax machines. And computers. Email became the fastest way to connect. How quaint. Today email has been eclipsed by newer, faster methods of communication. We now text. We connect via Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter (to name just the “Big Three”). We no longer talk; we blog and micro-blog. A whole new vocabulary is emerging to turn words and ideas into sound bites. This is changing the culture. We don’t have friends. We have “followers” or “peeps.”
I had lunch with a friend, an administrator with a large community service provider. Her biggest problem in hiring people today, she says, is a lack of social skills. They can text, but they can’t speak clearly. They can tweet, but they can’t write a coherent paragraph. They can tell the world where they are at any given moment of the day, but they lack the skills necessary to work with others or to interact with the public. In response, my friend has developed an in-house program to teach such novel concepts as kindness, integrity, team work, and service. They love it.
So what’s next on the social-networking horizon? Can you imagine a way to connect with others even more quickly and with even less depth? Don’t get me wrong—I love social media, and I use it (although not with the savvy of some). But I’m wondering if we’re headed for something really new. Like spending time with people. Like having a conversation. Like substituting an actual for a virtual relationship. LOL