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Social Media and Our Changing Sensibilities

 

Firstly, I’m not here to bemoan the shortcomings of our generation resulting from our social media use. It is growing, it is fascinating, and surely unstoppable, and I’m a part of it. We use this technology—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of it—constantly, with finesse and (usually) with propriety. I’m not saying this is all bad, I just think it’s time for some forethought on what it means.

For example, there’s the classic conundrum: if you didn’t post it, did it really happen? Of course it did—you know that for certain. The answer is less clear in the minds of others, however. When a friend tells about an intriguing person she met or a memorable event she attended, we have greater trouble envisioning it without documentation on one of her outlets. If you tell someone a story, he or she is more likely to be interested if there’s a memorable image or a clever one-liner to link it to—most people are visual learners and thus visual ‘rememberers.’ We tend to make connections, to develop a sort of aura around a story rendering it more memorable. In short, the high volume of information we expose ourselves to daily makes us poorer listeners, in part through no conscious fault of our own.

And social media orients us more easily toward jealousy – she’s interning at the Cannes film festival and I’m not, he knows how to take photos with exquisite lighting and I don’t, she is more informed than I am, his Tweets about the unpredictable weather are wittier than mine, etc. Ingrained in our consumption of social media is an inherent practice of judging ourselves according to others, something that we do in any setting but with nowhere near the alacrity and intense anxiety that we do now.  

Social media also compounds the uncertainty of early adulthood. When we possess access to portholes into the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people we’ve encountered over past years, many of whom we wouldn’t otherwise hear about ever again, we see alternative paths, possibly missed opportunities that we could have taken. Like that girl you spoke six words with during a season of high school softball but is now catapulting herself into summer with ten weeks in Rwanda at an orphanage. Or the guy who lived on your street during childhood and who eschewed college for a crazy-artsy life in New York, offering him a different yet still enviable sort of education. A natural and usually harmless desire to please swells into a need to impress people you barely know, insidiously clouding out your own aspirations.

Then there’s that eerily addicting quality; most of us can’t tear ourselves away, even when we’re in our favored element: at coffee with close friends, say, or at a favorite band’s concert, we have trouble being present, truly being attentive to our surroundings. Even if you use social media lightly, being away for a day or two leaves you feeling like you missed something big. In an almost inhuman way, social media offers a way to occupy multiple folds in space and time, to experience (or at least gain visual knowledge of) numerous goings-on in different places.

I’m not so much alarmed by the social media phenomenon as I am unsettled. Whether we notice it or not, our incessant use of these websites is literally changing the way we think, the way we process information, and the way we understand ourselves. At what point does it cease to buttress our relationships and instead begin to define us? 

Photos 1, 2

Sharon Rose

Notre Dame '14

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