I have a Sunday morning routine when I’m alone and have no reason to get up early. I sleep in, then I make a latte (or two), gather my cat, a bowl of oatmeal and my iPad, open the curtains and sit on the couch.
I’ll glance at my Facebook notifications, look through the first few posts on Google+, check my email and then turn to Twitter, where I find an ever-fascinating stream of articles and commentary on just about every topic, trending mostly to science, but with other things thrown in.
Am I a bit of a social media addict? Yes. Am I isolated? No. No more than I would be if I had a newspaper spread out in front of me.
At my sister’s wedding in October, my father gave a beautiful speech. He talked about togetherness and communication, about love and strong relationships. Even my normally-stoic brothers and I had tears in our eyes by the end. The man is an amazing speaker.
One of his main points was the distressing trend he sees in people constantly having their heads bowed over electronic devices. It’s a fair enough complaint. He sees people not communicating with each other as they sit in the same room. Our family does this a whenever we’re all together. We all have laptops, iPads, cell phones out, and we’re all doing our own things.
My dad sees this as isolating, and to an onlooker, it probably is. We’re all caught up in our own separate streams of information. My sister is on Facebook on the iPad while her husband is playing a game of their laptop. My brother is surfing reddit and showing us cute animal pictures he finds, in the effort to get an ever-more rapturous squeal of “aww!” My mom is on ancestry.com, gathering research about our ancestors. My father is reading the newspapers. And I’m on Twitter, catching up on what the science communication community is talking about.
We are isolated, in a way. But we’ve always been this way. even when there was no computer in the house, we would all be in our own little worlds: the worlds of books and magazines, of newspapers.
We are information-seekers, all of us. The typical advice for turning your child into a reader is that you need to read in front of them. They need to both have books around and see the people in their lives as People Who Read. I grew up in a house where my parents were always reading. I saw them read every evening before bed. Even if one was watching a tv show,the other one was usually in the same room with a book. My siblings and I adopted this same behavior. We all read constantly and voraciously.
It is a common refrain that the Internet has made us lonelier, that we no longer talk to people around us, that we live more in a world of “likes” and “retweets” and “+1s” than a world of true, person-to-person sharing.
I look at my Twitter feed on Saturday morning and I know this isn’t true. My feed, at any given time, has links to the most thought-provoking articles in mainstream media, the best blog posts, breaking news, and beautiful works of art. It has my friends sharing their triumphs, and asking for a shoulder in their sadness.
Twitter is not just a world of sharing what you ate for dinner or making inane comments about celebrities. Sure, that’s there, in the same way it’s everywhere. Like any other medium. You choose what you want to see. You can choose to read the celebrity-stalking pseudo-journalism of People, or you can choose to read the cultural touchstone of The New Yorker. You can pick up a romance novel or formulaic thriller, or you can read the newest Paolo offering. You can watch Transformers, or you can watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
They all have their place, and the same person will switch between all levels of media depending on mood, interest level and time. Yes, we are all in our own little worlds, our own little filter bubbles or hall of mirrors, or whichever trendy phrase os chosen, but those worlds are no different than the media consumption worlds in which we’ve always placed ourselves. They are no more deserving of exaltation or recrimination just because they happen on an individual device rather than the more public tv or library selections.
I may not be sharing the same newspaper that thousands of others in my city are reading, or watching the same tv broadcast, but I never would have been. I would have always been selecting the articles that I wanted to read, the segments that I wanted to watch. And often, I would have left the room for the tv parts that weren’t interesting to me.
Yes, our heads are bowed over our separate digital worlds, but they always have been. And they still look up when we find something interesting, whether a quote from whatever my father is reading, a clever way of solving an in-game problem from my brother-in-law, an update on a family friend from my sister, an obscure fact about out history from my mother, a science factoid from me, or The Most Adorable Baby Goat Video Ever from my brother. We may have all created our own media streams, but we still take pleasure in the sharing of something delightful from those streams, the moments where we all can enjoy the gem that someone else has found without having to wade through the parts of their interests that are boring to us.
After all, we can share those little moments of togetherness because we can all be in the same room, experiencing our individual worlds in the way that works for us.