The Ottumwa Courier

Columns

June 6, 2013

The Perils of our eternally connected culture

OTTUMWA — I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter and Facebook, those two modern marvels of the hyper-digital era.

There are times when I'm chomping at the bit to post my latest tweet — or twitter, a deliciously uncool phrase used by those of us who take pride in our lack of hipness — or express my latest viewpoint on Facebook. But there are other times when ... well, when I wish I wasn't so hooked on these brevity-friendly modes of communication that so perfectly encapsulate the pros and cons of our eternally connected-disconnected culture.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about Facebook and Twitter. Facebook keeps me in touch with old friends, let's me invoke my Freedom of Speech rights and allows me to post various articles and petitions — the activist part of my personality hasn't totally withered away since college — that I think are important. And, more importantly, there have been times when Facebook has been used as a platform for genuine grassroots democratic movements around the world.

Meanwhile, Twitter allows me to see what's on the mind of some of my favorite personalities — whether they be athletes, political commentators, comedians, colleagues or musicians — and it allows me to post my stories and offer my own genius ideas to the twittersphere. To be honest, while I'm only a casual user of Facebook, Twitter, for whatever reason, has proven to be a little more addictive. During the day, when I'm not being especially vigilant, I find myself mindlessly checking my Twitter every other minute. "Maybe I have more followers today (sigh); nope still the same. So it goes."

Of course, Lord knows there are worse things to be addicted to than Twitter — or Facebook for that matter. After all, there are times when I genuinely enjoy reading people's tweets because they are relevant, witty, informative, thought-provoking, etc. And, some tweets (or twitters) are festooned with links to stimulating and informative articles about this, that and the other thing.

Yet, even with these tangible benefits, I can't remember a time when I logged off of Twitter or Facebook feeling especially happy or spiritually self-fulfilled. It's not that I felt bad, I just didn't feel REALLY good.

At least not the kind of good I felt while fishing for brook trout in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a pretty little stream; or while casting a spinnerbait for Northern Pike on Lake Inguadona in northern Minnesota while staying in my family's cabin; or while fishing a mountain lake in scenic Durango, Colo.; or while listening to Bob Marley or James Taylor on my CD player while riding in my Jeep Patriot; or while playing a pickup game of basketball; or while wading down the creeks I haunted during the days of my misspent youth in Prairie Village, Kan.; or while gazing at the Grand Canyon; or while reminiscing about memorable experiences with old friends. Those events filled a void in my soul that a thousand tweets (or twitters) or a hundred new Facebook friends could never come close replacing. Comparing those experiences to the virtual worlds of Facebook and Twitter is like comparing a piece of sturdy wood to a usable yet artificial-looking piece of plastic.

As the incomparable Jimmy Buffett aptly observed in the song Holiday:

"All that fiber optic gear,

still cannot take away the fear,

like an island song."

Sometimes I think this cultural pull to always be "connected" is more of an albatross than an asset because it's anchored so many people — including yours truly, at times — to virtual realities that offer only a small dose of togetherness and connectedness to other people. When they are used habitually, instead of bringing people together on the information superhighway, Facebook and Twitter leave us more isolated from each other than ever.

They also, along with the short-hand texting we all indulge in from time to time, have given birth to a culture that's bred for impatience. Phone calls and face-to-face interaction have taken a backseat to more impersonal forms of communication like emails and texts. Heck, writing a letter today isn't just an act of literature, it's a rebellion against the zeitgeist, the symbolic lonely fish swimming against a tidal wave of short-term gratification and instant communication.

When it comes to the trappings of the twittersphere and planet Facebook, no one has been more guilty than me. The number of people I follow on Twitter far exceeds a hundred. While I still plan to indulge in each social network on a regular basis, I've vowed to not allow either of them to become the indespensable part of my social life.

There are simply too many people to meet, too many fish to catch, too many new places to see and too many memories to create for me to allow that to happen. So use Twitter and Facebook — they are great ways to keep in touch with friends and stay up to date on current events — but don't let these virtual worlds prevent you from exploring the great big world that exists far beyond the grasping tentacles of the Internet.

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