Thursday, September 17, 2015

I tweet, therefore I am?

We've quoted Descartes often enough, but perhaps we're doing a lot online that we're not even thinking really hard enough about. Younger folk might find it hard to imagine, but there was a time, not too long ago, when people didn't share their every waking moment with literally millions of complete strangers. Do I feel the need to post what I did at the gym, a new pair of shoes or every meal that comes my way in a restaurant, together with the ubiquitous pictures? To put out there in the cybersphere for all eternity?
I am the first to admit I can't keep up with what's coming out on social media. Just when I've gotten the hang of Facebook and dipped my toes into the world of Twitter, now there's Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and a host of other apps and sites in which people can post stuff about themselves, their likes and interests.

I come from another era in which we wrote. Literally with pen on paper. My handwriting was the despair of every schoolteacher, one of whom described it as "neat but ugly". Nevertheless, everything I expressed was written down in longhand. When I went off to college halfway around the world, my correspondence with my family consisted of letters written on aerograms, a square-shaped thin sheet of paper which was then folded over twice and glued together. This was the cheapest form of airmail letters and took about a week to reach its destination overseas. Phone calls were exorbitant and limited to once-a-year affairs on my birthday. My parents and I had to carefully coordinate our timing because there was a 12-hour time difference, and limit ourselves to the barest minimum of conversations, being well aware of the minutes that translated into a high phone bill.

Whatever news I had to share with home was cramped onto this 10-square inch of flimsy aerogram paper. I had time to ponder what I wanted to say, and craft my words carefully. Not wanting to worry my parents needlessly, I edited out news I considered irrelevant. Receiving news from home that was already one-week old also allowed me time to savor and process every tidbit - what my mother cooked, the fruiting of a mango tree, an admonition to get enough sleep.

Young people today with smartphones and tablets in their hands probably have a hard time imagining what life was like before the digital era. Images and videos are shot, edited and uploaded in a matter of seconds in real time for the world to share, doing away with the need for even words.

Frankly, I am quite taken aback by the kind of "conversations" between total strangers on social media. Recently, one of my acquaintances started an exchange of words on his Facebook page. It started out innocuously enough on a political note, but steadily descended into accusations and ugly name-calling. What struck me was how childish it all was, of the "I've got more toys than you" and "my father is more important than yours" jibes. It reamed though the entire thread which lasted more than 12 hours. Would it have continued, and in that demeaning way, if it had been a face-to-face encounter instead of in the anonymity of the internet?

Whole generations  are being initiated into this world of communication that has shrunk into a computer screen, smartphone and even watch face. Even the way people are meeting up and dating is all happening on this screen. Again, I can't keep up with what's happening on Tinder, Lulu and a host of other dating sites. I didn't even know of the existence of Ashley Madison until the whole story of its hacking came out on the news.

In my younger days, getting to know someone involved face-to-face communication and keeping in touch meant putting down pen to paper. I do make use of social apps to stay in touch and express some of my views. I still believe in maintaining ties in person and on the phone. I don't think I can wrap my head around the idea of someone's identity and sense of self-worth being defined wholly by the persona they put out there on social media. I tweet occasionally, but surely there's more to life than the 140 characters I tap out?

Recently, I came across a couple of videos in which seniors are introduced to online dating sites and express their incredulity at the whole phenomenon. They're all kind of bewildered at the speed and ease at which young people are conducting their social lives, but totally get it that it's the way of the future. Have a look and see if you can relate!

• What happens when senior citizens learn to use Tinder
• Seniors try to understand what “Man Slut” really means

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