UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on June 5, 2013.
Social media is spending a lot of time getting beaten up lately. Expert after expert warns about "social isolation" and "fraying community ties" all due to too much time spent on "social media" and not enough time spent on "social connections".
In fact, I just googled "negatives of social media" and 3.22 million results came back within less than half a second. Of course, the concern is that social media allows people to feel like they are making "social connections" while never leaving their own homes. It allows people to abdicate their responsibilities to be a functioning member of society -- and not just functioning, but someone who takes on responsibilities, period.
For example, it used to be second nature that neighbors looked out for one another, and yes, knew each others' business even. If you think back to the dawn of telephones, there were no private lines at all, let alone private mobile lines, you had to speak on a "party line" at all times.
To take a liberty, there was no business, like your business. Privacy was a concept, but not always much of a reality. Certainly there were negatives to this situation as well, but the positives are well known: a sense of community, of shared responsibility, of looking out for one another, caring for one another, stepping up in a crisis to help, having one another's backs.
These are definitely wonderful attributes, and even critical attributes. Society as a whole cannot function if these attributes don't exist in some small amount on some small level. And the corollary is that society as a whole functions much better when these attributes exist in large amounts on all levels.
Just consider some of the recent big domestic news stories: tornadoes (repeatedly) causing death and destruction, three women rescued after a decade in captivity, bombing at the Boston Marathon, and more. All of them are large-scale tragedies that require not just large-scale responses of donations and support from across the country, but also small-scale responses of friends, family, and, yes, neighbors pitching in to help those affected.
In fact, in many news stories, it often comes to light that it was the a neighbor's involvement -- or lack of involvement -- that made all the difference. Clearly, community ties and a societal fabric matter a great deal.
For these reasons, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and more receive such bad press. They are constantly hammered with accusations of increasing people's isolation, allowing people to choose not to participate, not to get involved, and not to, well, "be in other people's business."
And yet. And yet. Reddit users not only tried to "social medialize" the hunt for the Boston bomber, but immediately set up platforms to offer virtual "lost and founds" to help tornado victims recover precious belongings. Twitter "social medialized" sympathy, grief, shock by providing a platform to #PrayforOklahoma and be #BostonStrong. Facebook, meanwhile, straddled both forms of "social medializing" by providing pages for virtual lost and founds, as well as a community of support and sympathy.
For that matter, many people -- especially in younger generations -- report finding out about most breaking news via social media. I know that I almost always get more information more immediately by checking out a tidbit of news via Facebook and Twitter. Far faster than the television news -- even the 24 hour news channels -- can respond.
Granted, this opens up potential for serious errors -- reporting made too quickly to verify facts and information. Yet it also provides quick feedback on rapidly unfolding situations. Not to forget tragedies like the protests and crackdown in Turkey right now, where a news blackout in the country means only social media is capable of providing the gritty details on what is really happening on the inside.
Even more important though, is that social media does actually provide a community -- and not just an online one. It is easy to spend hours alone on one's computer or mobile device sifting through one's Facebook News Feed, for example. As a friend points out, it is an incredible time suck. Certainly I'm guilty of wasting hours in this way.
At the same time though, many of these social media platforms also provide a way to create what is first simply an online, virtual community, but what eventually becomes a real, in-person community.
For example, Facebook specifically has brought me closer to people. Thanks to being connected via Facebook, I have multiplied my friends -- real, not just perceived. I have visited with in person -- in many cases, repeatedly -- friends from decades ago that I would never have seen, spoken to, or been in touch with in any way, shape or form were it not for Facebook. I have made new friends with people who previously were merely acquaintances, work colleagues, or friends of friends.
Especially during my time living all by myself in my isolated mountain home, Murphy's Cabin, with limited connection to the grid, my occasional ability to be in touch with the outside world via Facebook made all the difference. I was no longer quite so alone, quite so isolated, quite so without a community. I had friends -- people who worried about me, paid attention to my business -- despite being, in many cases, thousands of miles away. Friends who were not just the wildlife that regularly strolled by my door.
We made a connection on Facebook, a connection that became a friendship. A connection that caused us to decide it was worth spending the time, effort and money to connect in the real world as well. And this is not just true for me.
Granted, I haven't done a scientific study, but in my anecdotal discussions with the hundreds of folks I know on Facebook, certainly the majority of those who are regularly active on Facebook report having made friends (or re-made friends) through Facebook with whom they followed through to a face-to-face meeting. Many of those meetings then led to an ongoing and enriching connection and friendship.
In the same way, but in a lesser, less deep manner, the virtual communities that spring up after tragedy via hashtags or News Feed postings offer an enriching connection as well: a way to express solidarity and sympathy -- yes, express community -- after such an awful event.
So, the critics be damned: certainly any form of "virtual" interaction can lead to more isolation not less -- more social fabric fraying, not less; more broken community ties, not less -- but not all the time. Many times, virtual interaction can lead to the exact opposite: less isolation, more social fabric, more community ties.
And in that, social media like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and more have an important role -- one which we should defend, not just attack. Let them "social medialize"!