OP-EDS

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May 22, 2009

Status update

Modern media damages the art of communication.

If I ever told my mother that I was about to write something on her wall, I think she’d kill me—I’m not even allowed to touch the walls at home. My neighbor in Snell-Hitchcock, on the other hand, would know exactly what I mean: that I’m going to send her the details of our Sunday picnic on Facebook, even though we live right next to each other and I could just get up, open my door, and take a sharp right. But I don’t have to, so I won’t, and later maybe I’ll go on GChat and talk to people I could just call.

Taking a cultural step back, that sounds really weird. I usually justify my having a Facebook by explaining that I have cousins who live in England and friends in Israel and it’s just so expensive and inconvenient to call them. But what about an e-mail? Those things that were supposed to replace the traditional letter? I haven’t written a really long, comprehensive e-mail in ages—one to my uncle, perhaps, as a thank you for something or other, but that’s because he’s the sort who still sends me an actual birthday card every year rather than a “virtual gift” online. More often, I use e-mail to jot down a quick note to my dad (who hasn’t caught up with the texting fad) or to send information out to one of the listhosts to which I subscribe. Technology has made instant communication so easy that it’s just not necessary to devise a long response to a question covering all possible avenues of doubt, because if I have anything else to add to my reply or if I need to answer another question, I’m only a few clicks away. If I’m not by my computer, a friend can quickly text me, ensuring that we’re still on for tomorrow.

I wonder if this habit signals a growing problem with the transition from thought to communication that’s only been exacerbated by services like Facebook’s status updates, Twitter’s instant update feature, or even blog posts. At any moment in the day, I can share any thought I have with the entire world. It doesn’t need to be particularly clever or well thought out—in fact, most blogs floating around the Internet are a waste of space and time, and you wonder how anyone could think his or her life was so absolutely engrossing that it needed to be detailed so absolutely and publicly. The Internet has provided a soapbox to anyone with the ability to type, and the accessibility of that box has increased with every move to more immediate updates, to a more direct way to access content. Twitter boasts on its homepage that it provides a way for “friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”

Wait. Since when has communication ever only been about the transmission of information? Where is the dialogue? Where is the aspect of discussion that I always find so rewarding about actually meeting my friend for lunch and conversing about our classes, professors, and our summer plans? Are we losing sight of the importance of interpersonal interaction?

Technology seems to have allowed us to slowly replace dialogue with monologue, and I’m not sure that this is a step for the better—with the elimination of discussion, we introduce a sense of isolation. Perhaps these feelings of alienation and insulation are the reason why the use of services like Second Life (a Web site on which users create alternate identities and interact with each other in a virtual world) and Omegle (an anonymous chatbox allowing you to “talk to strangers” and “meet new friends”) have become so widespread—they force strangers to do what they would not ordinarily do in real life: communicate.

So while I do see the value in instant communication, or the ability to broadcast thoughts instantaneously with the touch of a few buttons, I’m skeptical of the overreliance on the Internet that our generation has begun to cultivate—Wikipedia isn’t a substitute for real research, however interesting an intellectual experiment the Web site might be, and GChat’s emoticons can’t really convey the same subtlety as someone’s actual reaction.

So even if I’m still going to tell my neighbor that I’m going to have to reschedule our picnic by writing on her Facebook wall, I’ll probably ask her to take a walk with me in a bit––if only to tell her what I’m doing and ask for her opinion.

Eliana Pfeffer is a first-year in the College.