Losing our humanity one click at a time, or What has social media wrought?

The year was 1998 and I had returned to school to work on my undergraduate degree. It was my second year in when I took a research class that required being online. Let me refresh your memory: In 1998, less than half of U.S. households had personal computers, barely a third of Americans had cell phones, and smartphones didn’t exist. Social media as we know it didn’t exist. Livejournal wasn’t even created until 1999. It was still a fairly analog world.

However, I fell in love with the Internet despite the fact that most of the people in my life were utterly confused by my fascination with it.  In a few short years I would become immersed in discussion boards that ranged the gamut from learning how to manage my hair in its natural state to learning about my mother’s cancer and, later, from living with the death of a parent to learning how to parent the second time around.

In my early years in Maine, the Internet allowed me to stay connected with friends and my Blackness. The connections made online in the early 2000s would literally become my life preserver at times; those connections have sustained me through some of the darkest moments of my life. Many of the people I met online in the early days have become lifelong friends and associates.

Given my overall familiarity and comfort with being online, my decision to start blogging in 2008 wasn’t completely out of line.  The decision to blog coinciding with my son’s teen years and the rise of social media with the advent of Facebook being made available to the general public and later the rise of Twitter propelled me into the modern-day world of social media.

Initially, Twitter made no sense to me, after all. Why would I talk to myself? However, after a few readers of my local work discovered me online, Twitter changed the trajectory of my life in many ways. My initial connections were primarily with Maine-based people but it later grew. And, as I realized a few days ago, I have been on Twitter eight years now. I have been on Facebook nine years. I also have a few other social media accounts as well but unlike the old days, my feelings about social media have shifted.

It was bound to happen. After all, we have a president who freely tweets on matters that frankly he knows nothing about and often raves about other things he ought not to be wasting valuable presidential time on. Once upon a time, the idea that the leader of the free world might tweet us into World War Three would seem preposterous but that’s no longer a far-fetched concept. The Internet has always had dark corners but lately it seems like the dark corners have become neighborhoods and entire states.

There is no mistaking the power of the Internet and the potential it holds for good; after all, the world has shrunk to a common space. No longer are we beholden to our local media or the cable channels to tell us what’s going on. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the odds are high that someone near to the situation can share with us right away with a few tweets. With smartphones and cameras being a societal norm, many people who thought overt racism was dead have realized that racism is still very much a problem as we have seen with the many  of the well-publicized cases in recent years.

However, even these tools can be used for evil as seen a few days ago in the tragic death of Robert Godwin Sr., an elderly man in Cleveland, Ohio, walking home from Easter dinner  who was senselessly killed by Stephen Steve, who recorded the killing and uploaded the video to Facebook. In recent months, other violent and horrific acts have been recorded live on Facebook. In almost all of these cases, the videos are viewed and shared countless times before they are finally taken down. We have become psychological rubberneckers feasting on the sorrows of others as a way to mindlessly kill time.

The dark side of the Internet has become personal to me as I have watched an article written online and circulating in racial justice spaces nationally create a great deal of angst for my organization, colleagues, and friends. It most certainly has added to my workload as I have been asked my views on the piece. This isn’t the time or place for my thoughts but as I joked recently, in all my years of running non-profits, I never thought that I would see an article become a point of crisis.

In recent weeks, I have watched people I know ripped apart online by what at times feels like packs of wolves circling the wagon. Just a few nights ago, I found myself being confronted online by someone demanding to know why I would allow space for the Average White Guy to share his thoughts and was referred to as trash for doing so.

The same type of polarization that has crippled this country has infected the Internet too. No longer can we agree to disagree; instead, if we hold opposing views or don’t agree with others, we risk being labeled and disposed of. Increasingly anyone and anything that does not work for us is simply disposed of because with the click of a button, we sic our pack on the offender or we can end our connections sometimes even our familial ties. The ease at which we dispose of people is staggering to me.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am very aware that life and people are far more complex than what we are privy to online. The older I get, the more I realize that there are few absolute truths and that it is possible to hold two opposing truths simultaneously at the same time. Rarely is life truly black and white. Instead much of it is shades of gray. Yet in a world where emails are too much trouble, phone calls are tedious and even a text can feel tiresome to many people, when we rely on these electronic mediums to shape our world and connect, we are risking losing a piece of our own humanity in the process.

I suppose there is a certain rich irony in the fact that a writer whose work grew in prominence due to the Internet is admitting that they have grown to fear the Internet. After all, one misstep can end a career or a relationship and occasionally even a life. I know there is a lot of good work still happening in these digital spaces, especially in activism spaces but for this old-head, increasingly I wonder if I am getting closer to the end of the line. I am just a simple woman, writing simple truths and sharing my musings with the world while grappling with the realities and complexities of life.
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Birthdays gone wild…the day of the extravagant celebrations

Lately I find myself feeling old, and despite what some say feeling old is not necessarily a bad thing. I have no desire to be young forever, with age comes wisdom or at least that is the I tell myself. So what’s got me feeling old today? Well the girl child is getting ready to celebrate her sixth year of life on the planet and while I am excited and stunned that we are already looking at six, part of me laments the way things have become when it comes to birthday celebrations and our kids.

As I have mentioned on this blog before, I grew up in a family that was fairly extreme about birthdays, celebrations were pretty much just affairs held with immediate family members. There was no hoopla, it was a simple acknowledgment that you were born, perhaps with a treat but always with well wishes. To date I have only had two full on birthday parties with bells and whistles…my 8th birthday and my 19th birthday. The 8th birthday was pretty much due to the fact that my mom was due any day with what would be my only sibling and the stinker was actually due on my birthday. Thankfully he had the good sense to arrive four days after my birthday. The 19th birthday party happened because my then husband and former mother in law felt bad that I had only had one officially birthday party and decided that needed to change. Oh, and did I mention was 9 months pregnant at the time!

For years I felt a tad bad that I have had very few big blow out birthday celebrations, but the truth is with a small family and a small circle of friends, how big can a celebration really be? This year, one of my closest friends took me out to dinner at an upscale place in my town and really it was lovely, despite my initial desire for more.

Though I admit when it came to my firstborn, I really made a point of having what a I felt were true celebrations. For his second birthday, we held it at the Lincoln Park Zoo, over the years we have rented out his favorite restaurants, done the Chuck E Cheese thing, etc. We basically stopped doing stuff when he announced a few years ago, he really didn’t feel the need for it, add to the fact the kid has no sweet tooth so even birthday cakes don’t make him smile.

All this now would probably make you think, well you must really want to go all out for kiddo #2, also known as the last human that I will be creating…thank you very much. The answer is I am really mixed on today’s birthday celebrations. In the past year since girl child started kindergarten she has been invited to a slew of parties, we even occasionally attend one, note I said occasionally. But gone are the days of a party in the backyard with family and friends, hell even ole Chuckles the ugly as mouse is pretty passé with today’s youngsters. Nope, its all about the experience, let’s see we have had dance parties win studios with dance instructors, swim parties, parties at rock climbing places and so on…upon going to these parties, it is no longer enough to simply attend, gotta bring a present and as I learned recently simple gifts like a lovely book, get the raised eyebrow. Nope the birthday kid gets a mountain of gifts that rival Christmas Day. To be blunt birthday celebrations feel very heavy on consumption and light on celebration.

My daughter told me months ago that she was willing to forgo a party if we would all go to the local amusement park on her birthday, and bring along her best bud. OK, this sounded like a simple request until a few days ago when I decided to look up the price, basically the entry fee for our crew of humans would be damn near close to $200.00! Of course it’s an all-day thang so humans must be fed at the snack stands, add in a cake, a few small gifts for the kid and voila I just spent a good $300 or more on a six year-olds birthday. Now I took my vent to twitter where I learned many parents see nothing wrong with this, in fact in many parts of the country these would be considered inexpensive plans. Let me get real here I don’t spend $300 on my own damn birthday nor does my husband…we be simple working stiffs.

I could spend the money and probably will though I am thinking deeply about it but I feel this is a deeper issue than just the birthday party. In a country when more than half the people have no long term savings and despite the middle class appearance are essentially a few checks away from economic calamity, are these good values to instill in our kids? This past year has found me battling the demons of consumption with my little one, since she started school everything is about consuming. Half way through the school year she decided she wanted to eat the school lunch instead of the lunch we made at home packed with her favorites. Frankly school lunch is gross and at $2 a pop, it adds up. Or there is those damn Scholastic books, back when I was a wee lass, I really don’t think we had book orders every few weeks plus an on-site book fair. Of course books are good but much of what Scholastic hawks is trash and simply more advertisement for more shit…SpongeBob anyone?

I see so many kids being raised without a care in the world when it comes to money especially kids of folks who are middle class. Yet many parents in the middle class struggle, maybe its deferring the student loan payments, whatever….I am not saying kids need to know every detail but based off what my eldest who is in college says there are plenty of kids entering college with no idea how to budget or live within their means. He was just telling me about kids on his campus who would get depressed when Mom and Dad said sorry no more money this month and it would create an almost depression state for these kids. Really? Seems the budget concept and living within means should be introduced way before a kid is away from home. Turns out my son thanks to my financially struggling ass and my early years being broke, was able to manage his monthly allowance and budget. In fact it’s been funny having him at home because so many things in the past he would want as treats he now says “Ma, that is a waste of money”.

I know some will say teaching kids about money and birthday celebrations are two different things…not so sure. If we as parents go overboard spending the equivalent of a week of groceries or a few utility bills on a kids birthday I think we are sending a message whether we see it or not. In the end I want my daughter to have a healthy attitude about money and a certain respect for the fact that money does not grow on trees. So while she most likely will get the outing she wants, gone are the large kids as we got one of the grandpas to buy a reusable gift of a membership to the Children’s Museum rather than a large dust collector. I am also thinking of forgoing the entire gift idea on our end explaining about Mom and Dad’s budget.

What are your thoughts on today’s somewhat lavish birthday celebrations? Am I harsh, I welcome your comments?

A weekend unplugged

Several days ago while relaxing with the Spousal Unit, I posed the idea that perhaps we should unplug for the weekend. In other words, no social media (blogs, Facebook, twitter, etc) and minimal use of our computers. I won’t say that I was met with resistance but I did have to clarify exactly what the goal was, and to sweeten the deal I did say we were allowed an hour of internet time since with both of our jobs, unless it’s been discussed with the powers to be and clients in advance not being accessible by email is not an option.

I admit Friday night I was nervous thinking about the often empty moments during the weekend that I generally fill up by being online. What about the gap between when the Spousal Unit puts the kid down for bed and then comes down to hang with me…what if? As you can see I was worried, it’s funny because I have never thought I was addicted to social media but it’s clearly become a time suck which I was aware of. I also had been looking to plug back into my own life after a series of online interactions that have frankly shaken me to my core to the point I had been toying with the idea of just pulling the plug on it all.

So Friday night I signed off and the weekend began. For starters I did in the end use more than my allotted hour of internet time but only because I read both my local paper and the New York Times online and even speed reading it took more than an hour for the two days. Both the Spousal Unit and I ended up working but without the sweet pull on places like Twitter, it turns out that I could churn out a funder’s report far faster than usual because I was not distracted. Funny how a simple tweet turns us into junkies as we toggle back and forth between our work and twitter seeing what is going on, what was 5 minutes then becomes 20 or more. Heaven forbid you become engaged in a good conversation, you can easily be on even longer.

Well I won’t give you a blow by blow, but it turns out that when I am not checking in via Foursquare, tweeting and updating photos to Facebook, I actually enjoy events a lot more as I can give them my undivided attention. When the girl child (I think she is outgrowing the kidlet moniker) asks me something, I found even when I was reading a book, it was far easier to simply put it down and tend to her need. Unlike the times when I am plugged in either to my laptop or Droid, and inevitably I tell her just a moment, baby. This weekend there were few just a moment baby minutes and I loved it.

As the weekend progressed and I felt really good, I decided to change things up for the Spousal Unit and I. Like many married couples with kids our go-to entertainment when the kid goes to sleep is often centered around television, or as I put it yet another screen. Frankly I have been feeling a bit out of sorts with that fact, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with watching television but the idea that what passes for daily quality time is focused on a screen that we sit passively and absorb well it seems wrong. So I asked the Spousal Unit if he would be up for a read out loud project, last night we started with a book of Pablo Neruda poems, nothing sets a mood like some Neruda! We are now starting to compile a list of books that we will read together; looks like the next up will Voltaire’s Candide.

It is now Monday morning, I have been up and hour and a half and while I have peeked into my social media haunts, I must admit I am wondering do I really want to jump back in? Knowing me I will but there was much learned by unplugging (I should mention that I tried to refrain from texting as well instead choosing to talk on the phone in real time) I definitely will be doing this on a regular basis.

That said, it’s great to be back too!