Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Social Media and Pen Pals

After reading this article from Charles Arthur about a study supposing (and not much more) a link between Twitter and Cancer in which he recounted a fellow Twitterer's comment 'it's a problem of paucity of language - we don't have a word for friends you haven't met and might never meet in person.'

I tweeted him the following: 'people used to have friends they never met. they just sent letters, not tweets. all of this has happened before. just slower'

Leaving aside my obsessive need to misuse the first half of the mantra from BSG, I was of course talking about pen pals. Yeah, that crazy quaint custom of being matched up with some complete stranger in some far away never-never land (like Paris, or Idaho) and exchanging letter. People used to do that- honest. Google it. You don't get anything involving 'prison' until the fifth hit...

The first point here is I read a good piece by a good journalist- whose new articles I find out about via his tweets- and tweeted him back. You know all those times you've read something in a magazine or the paper and swore you were going to write that person and...

How often have you done it ?

And he responded.

Which really isn't the point. The point of the original article was that our lack of closeness and intimacy, that being solitary, leads to a higher cancer rate through some sort of genetic pseudo-link. The point of Charles Arthur's article was to point out that the 'science' basically wasn't in what's normally a peer reviewed journal. Going a step further, there's the question of just what these online interactions really mean. Clearly the journal article's authors see these online interactions as having zero value towards social interconnectedness, and while I think you could argue that, it seems like that would be piling fuzzy science on top. And I'd disagree...

But that comment about paucity of language got me thinking to while I was running. Social media is a really mixed bag and some social media 1.0 tools really did a lot of damage to our language. I'm talking about texting, which I have never really adopted- and you can tell, because when I do text you, it will be with complete words, not l8r brb gtg.

Twitter forces you to be concise, yes. I love to write, and at times I find its 140 character limitation stifling. But I actually see it as a challenge, editing my overlong tweets down, like a word-level version of Scrabble. They are still complete thoughts, compact, but complete, and I find that the people I follow tend to do the same. Well-worded, even euridite, just in that 140 character word space.

I think this also helps Twitter to be more social than that other social media 1.0 flaming ground, the message board. Too many message boards (and no, not just the Hitek running board) turn into the landing ground for people with questionable social skills and a desire to turn the internet into a virtual verbal sort of Fight Club. Except that everyone talks about this fight club. If you find yourself reliving the glory of your past tweets or holding grudges against other tweeters, you probably aren't using Twitter right.

Twitter really is an interesting tool, and I'd argue that it doesn't lead to less social interaction. Or a paucity of language-and to be fair, that's not what the original commenter Charles Arthur mentioned in his article was suggesting. But social media is often mocked for a disturbing dilution of social interaction- 'friends' on Facebook, 'followers' on Twitter. But I disagree. On twitter I've made people laugh, provided emotional support, solved people's technical problems, acted and interacted with the famous, the funny, the president, and most of all, the intelligent. The power of social media is the speed with which you can tap the collective intelligent of a group consciousness for feedback and knowledge.

And it's also how I stay in touch- and feel connected to- one of my close friends, who is across the country and also in IT. Our tweets span topics technical, philosophical, and beerical.

Is it a replacement for real human interaction ? Of course not. Is it an augmentation ? Maybe.

Does it cause cancer ? I doubt it...

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