Social Media are the Social Message

More of my Saturday morning musings:

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how technology has changed education and communication.  At a recent meeting in Toronto, I sat at a table with my colleagues from around the country as they described the ways in which students’ use of technology was interfering with the art of conversation and critical reasoning.  Me?  I’m not so sure.

In the 1960’s, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message.”  He also wrote that for most people, the experience of the morning newspaper was akin to stepping into a warm bath.  By the mid 1980’s, Neil Postman skyrocketed to the top of the cultural critic charts (okay, I may be the only one who thinks this) and began a fresh critique of media, particularly television, which he purported would soon replace teachers.  Because of a good “information-action ratio,” Postman purports that television creates a much richer learning environment.

McLuhan died in 19080 and McLuhan in 2003.  I wonder what they would make of social media and mobile technology.  I think about this a lot, while writing on my wireless netbook in preparation for posting on a blog which I will be able to read from my phone.  Others may or may not choose to comment, that is, get into a discussion, using the same technologies at any time of the day.

Clearly, times have changed.  Newspapers are struggling and have moved to online formats, though we still get the Houston Chronicle delivered to the house.  My television service comes bundled with my phone and internet; however, neither of my grown children has a landline, and both stream television through their computers.  Let’s not even begin to think about what changes have happened in the music industry.

Never at any time in human history have so many people had access to so much information in so many forms with as many ways to share it at any time of the day.

I return to Neil Postman.  In 1989, he published an article in The Atlantic entitled “Learning by Story.”  In essence, he maintains that what we lack in this age of information overload is the narrative that gives meaning.  We see that every day in our sound bite world:  words and actions taken out of context, YouTube snippets that create unintended consequences for peoples’ entire lives.  Without the story, the shared meaning, we lose civility, we become polarized when we disagree, and society becomes fragmented.


Social theory often breaks down when we begin to look closely at human interactions.  Last week, I sat with a group of college students in the Student Center for about 15 minutes.  Every single one had a netbook or laptop opened to Facebook, and they were studying!  This group of three students had made a Facebook group with others in their sociology class, and all were preparing for the midterm exam.  One was simultaneously texting  – – about sociology.


Last night, we had dinner and lively conversation with a group of friends and neighbors, all younger (some WAY younger) than me.  Other friends who had been invited had other commitments and couldn’t attend.  At a table of ten people, I spied six cell phones.  Through conversation and laughter, there was the flash and upload of pictures and videos.  Heads tilted together over phones, and I watched as friendships solidified over the shared experience both present and at a distance.  And others not present shared similarly.

Woody Allen said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Either that’s no longer true, or we have to change our definition of showing up.  Clearly, conversations now occur in real time at a distance in environments never before conducive to interaction.  And clearly, learning is occurring in ways education does not yet understand.

Social media are the social messages.  Perhaps these media and how we use them are creating our narrative, and as a society, we will learn again by story.

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