By Aaron Stoner
Before Facebook was well, Facebook, there was an entirely different, new, and exciting social networking site called Myspace. It was innovative and fun, and allowed users to personalize their pages with not just photos and cool layouts, but also with music by some of their favorite artists to be played on their homepage. I remember bands like The Killers, Kings of Leon, Interpol, and my girl Katy Perry were some of my go-to’s. There was something really unique about being able to personalize your page with a song and getting to go to your friend’s pages and checkout whatever they were listening to. This made for a really interactive networking experience. There was a simplicity to Myspace, a “less is more” vibe that was more than enough for its users. It’s B.A.N.A.N.A.S. to think that not even 15 years later, the plethora of options that millennials now have at their disposal. From Tumblr to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Messenger – the list goes on. I haven’t even mentioned the endless options of insanely overwhelming dating apps which are free and offer 20-somethings a sea of hookup/dating opportunities. All this social media advancement madness got me thinking, what exactly does this mean for millennials, and for us as a society? Not to mention, how the H.E.-double-hockey-sticks did we get here?
Myspace began in 2005 and at the time was revolutionary in how it offered users an ability to connect via the internet. It wasn’t just that you could stay in touch with your cousin from Nashville, or your best friend who just moved to Portland, but Myspace allowed users to explore and make new connections with people all over the world. Myspace also offered musicians and bands alike the option to upload their music for free, ultimately creating a platform for the music to be listened to and even potentially discovered by agents and producers all across the country. For myself and my brother Benjamin this particular option was especially exciting as we had been playing music together for most of our teen years and into our 20s. We were called The New Verona, an homage to Romeo and Juliet, and for us to know our music was available to millions of people around the globe was incredible. A record deal never did emerge for us, but it didn’t stop us from continuing to record and make our music readily available on our Myspace page, not to mention continue to dream of someday making it big like Bieber, or at least land an audition on “American Idol.”
The thing is, to really understand how this “cray cray” advancement in technology happened so quickly and how it entirely changed the game in how we communicate, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the cell phone and the introduction of the game changing, TEXT. It was 2002 when I got my first Motorola cellular device. It was long, rectangular and thin, had a screen the size of a 50 cent piece, and yes, it also had an antenna. This phone was capable of doing one thing only, and that was, wait for it, yup, make phone calls. And, guess what? That was more than enough for me. I now had at my disposal, my very own cell phone on which I could call my girlfriend every night. That was of course by the time I finally mustered up enough courage to finally push SEND, and my list of 10 questions to keep our conversation moving during its entirety was completed. Keep in mind, I was 15 at the time, there was no option to tweet, snap, selfie, or status update, I still had to exist and communicate essentially face-to-face. (Insert shocked emoji face.) What happened in the next roughly 10 years was phones began to advance rapidly. From the original, groundbreaking Sidekick, to the sexy LG slider, and who could forget the sleek, so edgy Razr?! It wasn’t just that the phones physical look was changing drastically and made teens and 20-somethings just have to have these new devices, but it was that they offered more, and most importantly an option to no longer have to call, but something faster, with far less effort than talking: sending a text.
The Facebook takeover happened around 2008, and what they (yeah the nerdy, but wicked smart Zuckerberg dude) did and have continued to do was true genius. Exclusivity became a thing, and phrases like, “Facebook me” or “friend me” became terms that were recognized globally and one had the option of either accepting or rejecting. Were you cool enough? Hot enough? Smart enough? Entirely up to the user. One’s options when signing into Facebook were no longer constricted to checking out some music or shooting a friend a quick Myspace message. Now one could scroll a news feed endlessly, status update like it was their job, (“OMG Trader Joe’s is just the best, shopping is like, actually fun now!”) or comment and “like” friends photos for hours. Again, what Facebook was able to do was offer more, much, much more.
When researching the average amount of time the average adult spent on their phones in 2017, the numbers that came back were pretty staggering – borderline scary. According to numerous industry sources like Pew Research Center and Nielsen to name a few, the time spent per day was approximately 2 hours and 51 minutes, which equates to roughly 86 hours a month. That’s practically a quarter of one’s entire day looking at a screen, scrolling through timelines or tapping away “likes” on Instagram. To think you could instead be dialoguing with your co-worker or classmate, investing in a conversation. Even if it was just as trivial as how insanely sad last night’s episode of “This is Us” was, or about that amazing burger and beer you had at that super cool new brewery last weekend. But I know, trust me I get it, that takes actual work to converse and communicate in the real, it’s just so much easier to look down as opposed to say, looking up.
I decided I wanted to get some perspective from a professional, someone who had a little more insight on technology and how we communicate in this digital age. So I spoke with professor Dennis Sutton who teaches numerous communications courses here at Grand Rapids Community College and had a 20-plus year career in radio. If there was someone who could keep me from jumping off a virtual cliff and instill some hope into our “techno zombie” culture, it had to be this guy.
“We really do live in a very complex, amazing time as far technology is concerned, and how we’ve progressed really is incredible,” Sutton said. “But whenever we have discussions in my classes it usually has to do with the vast difference between the quantity versus the quality of communication at our disposal. What seems to have happened is due to a culture that I believe is quite self-centered, has this intensely strong need to connect. It seems now someone finds their self worth in a ‘Like.’”
Sutton continued discussing that despite our addictive nature, there are still wonderful things about technology and communication so long as we’re mindful of how we’re using them. “It’s funny, just the other day I was walking down the hallway between classes and I saw a girl, head down, totally lost in her phone. And you know what happened? She walked straight into the elevator doors! I wanted to laugh but at the same time it was just another example of the incredible amount of time millennials spend glued to their phones.”
Sutton pressed on, “But the reality is, we truly are the most social, and yet socially isolated culture to date, and myself and my students are definitely conscious of the fact that we are in some ways losing awareness of our reality. The fact that we can Facetime across continents to loved ones is profound, but in the same breath, we must be conscious of how we’re communicating, and especially how often.”
Here’s the rub though. I’m just as bad as you. (Well maybe not as bad, because I refuse to tweet, and also have yet to walk into elevator doors while texting.) But I still wonder, what have we lost? What have we given up with this incredibly impressive advancement in technology and with all that advancement affords us, especially in the world of communication? Are we better at it? Do we invest more in others now because we can snap or Facetime? Sure it’s easier and so much faster, but I would argue that sincerity and a genuine desire to dialogue and actually connect, has slowly but surely become a thing of the past. What we once had and considered a priority has now completely been swiped away, and now what holds value is an ambiguous tweet or Instagram picture of your $11 bloody mary, all the while anxiously awaiting for your screen to illuminate, validating you with the first, “Liked your post” notification. I believe this desire we have for validation stems from us as a society no longer existing and investing in the “real world” as much or as often, but instead spending exorbitant amounts of time in a “digital world.” It is here where we now connect and communicate, “like” and “wink” so it’s really not that surprising to think that this is where we seek our approval now.
When I think about where exactly the need to give so much of our time to a device stems from, I believe the answer is actually quite simple. It has to do with the availability of information at our fingertips and the immediacy in which we can receive that information: from stock tips and the latest CNN news update including President Trump’s most recent hilariously divisive tweet, to any and every sports score from the night before, not to mention your local seven-day weather outlook. When just a short time ago these were things we had to actually look up on computer screens using dial up internet or read about in a newspaper. (Remember The Grand Rapids Press? It’s ok if you don’t. *sigh) Now these things are literally a click, swipe and tap away.
But after reflecting on my journey through space, and all the years in which I got to witness and be a part of all the vast changes in technology and the ways we now communicate, I found myself remembering something else the sage professor Sutton said. It reminded me that while the current trajectory of our communication and technology slope is dangerously rocky, there’s reason for hope. “So my wife and I will go to dinner and I’ll see families a couple tables away, mom and dad are on their phones and even the kids are plugged in, playing a game or watching some video on their iPads. That’s a product of the television, and it just irritates me. But what’s funny though is years ago people were convinced the television was going to destroy us, and in some ways some might argue that it has. The truth is though, we’re still here, and so long as we stay cognizant of the value of face-to-face dialogue, the richness and weight that real conversation carries, and remember to truly invest in others, then I really believe we’ll be ok.”
You know what, I think we’ll be OK too, but just do me a favor. The next time you’re head down, walking and texting, ask yourself this question, “Is it reeeeeally worth walking into elevator doors and ending up with a mild to severe concussion?” Easy answer, probably not. #wink 😉