Let Me Communicate Something to You…

A video everyone needs to see. An extremely important life lesson for our youth. One of the most vital messages that everyone needs to hear. We need to spread this message before it’s too late!

It’s total click bait, and the “vital message” could be anything really, from the deadly truth about plastic bottles to the three weird foods that will make you stay young forever. In this case it’s the deadly truth about the internet and an urgent request that you “take in your surroundings and make the most of today” instead of going online. It’s a video of a spoken work piece called “Look Up” by Gary Turk and it is absolutely everywhere along with very serious remarks about how important it is.

Look up what? You mean like on Google? [A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

Look up what? You mean like on Google?
[A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

I said on Facebook – where I saw dozens of friends sharing the video – that I wasn’t going to watch it, but I figured if I was going to write a blog post about it I probably should. Maybe it would contain something surprising that I hadn’t heard before and completely change my perspective.

Guess what? It didn’t.

I found the emotional appeals very heavy handed (and I enjoy sentiment; I regularly cry at baby shampoo commercials and episodes of Grey’s Anatomy) and the overall message pretty boring and unoriginal. The sheer hilarious irony of a moral panic about social media going viral aside, this stuff is not even a little bit new. We’ve been lamenting the way new technologies will destroy us all since time immemorial, particularly with appeals to romance, nostalgia and fear for The Children™. To highlight the ubiquitousness of such panics, a friend of mine shared this great collection of quotes on Language Log [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2177] from older people lamenting the good old days and the decaying behavioural standards of contemporary youth throughout history. I especially love the last one, a diatribe against obnoxious youths acting up during a lecture in Ancient Rome. Roman kids sound like jerks.

For the most part, the isolation and lack of authentic interaction that Look Up describes isn’t actually happening. Do you know what most of the internet is full of? PEOPLE. COMMUNICATING. People writing blog posts and commenting on blog posts, people posting their thoughts, jokes, photos, experiences on social media of all kinds, people sharing and discussing news, hobbies, craft projects, parenting advice and everything else you can imagine. It’s hugely social. Social interaction with the aid of a computer is still social interaction, and it is perfectly authentic and perfectly capable of moving people and conveying emotion. If Gary Turk really didn’t believe it was possible to convey emotion and meaning through the medium of a computer or phone screen, he would not have made a deliberately emotive youtube video to express his message. Look at that, guy expresses opinion on internet, thousands of people all over the world receive his message and have feelings about it, then express those feelings to others! Just look at all that communication going on!

For some people online communication may be the best interpersonal interaction they have, whether because they’re geographically isolated or have anxieties or other conditions that make it difficult for them to access face-to-face interactions. Or because they’re just extremely shy. For others, it may augment their daily face-to-face socialising and expose them to people and ideas they might not have had a chance to encounter locally.

It’s probably true that there are some people who lose themselves in the internet and find it overwhelming, isolating and a drain on their lives, and that’s unfortunate. But it is not true that everybody who expresses love or caring for each other via a Facebook post or a text message is getting less out of that interaction than they would do in person, nor is it true that nobody expresses authentic emotion online. The outpourings of sympathy and support that come through avenues like Facebook when someone gets fired from their job, has a breakup or loses a parent or a child are proof of that. Nobody ever worries that a handwritten letter is incapable of conveying true feeling. What’s the difference? That letters take longer to arrive?

It’s reductive and plain silly to presume that because somebody talks about something online they never talk about it in person, or in more depth than the brevity of a tweet.  Supposedly Gary Turk has 422 friends, yet none of them really know him, which is baffling because you’d think someone who feels so passionately about communication would talk to his friends offline as well.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my modest 282 Facebook friends really know me, because I tell them about myself all the time, and I even see some of them face to face!  It’s very romantic to think that people who didn’t have the internet were more emotional and connected than people are now, but it’s just not true. If anything they might have been less connected, because it took more effort to talk or write to someone. Today if I am feeling depressed and spend the day in bed I will probably talk to a dozen people across the course of the day and some of them will respond immediately. Twenty years ago it might have been nobody, and I would have ended the day feeling worse than I started.

This is me right now, but I'm fatter and the room is much messier. [A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

This is me right now, but I’m fatter and the room is much messier.
[A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

And honestly the idea that you might miss meeting the love of your life because you’re texting and don’t bump into them on the street is idiotic. Most people do not meet the love(s) of their life in some romcom meet cute, they get to know each other through a shared interest or job or mutual friend. As a matter of fact, I know far more people who met their beloved partners on the internet than met them by knocking them down in the street.

Don’t you dare tell me socialising online doesn’t count, or dismiss the additional access it gives people to all kinds of information – including non-mainstream ideas – that they would never have encountered otherwise. The internet gave me the Fat Acceptance movement (which saved my life), taught me to be a better anti-racist ally, made world news and politics into topics I felt competent discussing and forming opinions on, and made me a better writer and communicator, two skills for which other people often praise me. The internet has given me many new friends – whose friendship is extremely real and important, even if I have never seen them in person – and made some of my face-to-face friendships deeper by facilitating more frequent and in depth conversations.

The internet is not evil any more than it is without flaws. It’s a tool, and an extremely effective one for a lot of things.

I’ve been commuting on public transport since before smartphones and Facebook existed, and people didn’t talk to each other then, either. If anything, commuters were less social when their travel entertainments were music, books and newspapers, because smartphone users are probably communicating with someone somewhere, just not the complete stranger sitting next to them. I don’t want to talk to strangers on the train. I want to talk to people I know, or meet new people in contexts like special interest groups (both off- and online) where there’s a chance we’ll have something in common.

Children still play outside. They do. My street only has a couple of young families, and their kids are always outside making a racket and dashing out of the way of cars. When I was a kid I didn’t play outside very much myself (although I did sometimes). You know what stopped me going outside when I was a kid, in the nineties, when our house didn’t have an internet connection? Reading books. I spent hours reading. I read at the dinner table. I read while walking around. I read under the desk in boring classes. Can you imagine if the Look Up video were about the evils of reading? Better yet, can you imagine if someone wrote a novel about how reading too much is ruining children’s lives and tried to get it on the bestseller list?

Sounds about as sensible as trying to get a video that says social media stops people from communicating to go viral.

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