Over the course of the day yesterday, from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, I was connected with others, if not directly through a social medium then indirectly through other activities (writing down ideas to share, emailing a query) that ultimately came about because of a connection I’d made through social media.
I’ve been using message boards since the launch of AOL, circa 1990. I started this blog in 2006. I’ve been on Facebook for around a year and a half. I’m a relative newbie to Twitter, but now use it extensively. At this point, the impulse to connect and share is so frequent, ingrained and automatic that I don’t even think about it anymore.
It’s incredibly easy to dismiss blogging, Twitter, Facebook, online message boards and other components of social media as time wasters. The implication is that we don’t benefit from being in this realm so much as we fritter away our lives. The relationships formed in these media are often similarly rendered illegitimate because they are “virtual” and, as such, assumed to be of lower value by virtue of some assumed ephemerality.
I would like to counter that point of view in this post, by describing the ways in which social media has enriched my life.
It’s helped me find my voice. I’ve always gravitated toward writing and knew that I was good at it. I began making a living at it around 10 years ago, and I enjoy a lot of the writing I do for money. As a profession, writing and editing copy is both fun and challenging. But over the past few years my biggest source of satisfaction has been the personal writing I’ve done for this blog. Now I’m branching out and seeing if I can write for other media and forms of delivery (stay tuned). Finding my voice online has helped me to find it offline as well, which is uber valuable for an introvert who often has trouble dealing with people in general.
It’s made me a better writer. From a practical standpoint, writing for social media has helped me to hone my writing chops, beyond the improvement that comes simply from writing something every day. Web readers demand brevity: short paragraphs; simple sentences in the active voice; tight composition and structure. The extreme, of course, is Twitter. With just 140 characters at my disposal, I’ve learned a lot about editing and rewriting.
It’s helped me to help others. I’m reading a book right now, one that violates the brevity rule (at least in terms of its title). It’s called The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Aside from resembling my daily to do list, this is a book about how our brains work, specifically why certain behaviors trigger the brain’s reward mechanisms. If you read the title carefully you’ll see that “generosity” is among those addictive behaviors. I like helping people by sharing my skills and knowledge and lately I’ve used social media to identify opportunities to lend a hand in ways that go beyond the obvious.
It’s helped me establish new relationships. I have quite a few actual, in the flesh friends whom I would not have met ever were it not for social media. As a side point, I’ll also note that whereas I used to view purely virtual relationships as somehow lacking, I now think they have their place and can be valuable in their own right. If you want an old school example, consider the lowly “pen pal” relationship. I’ll bet lots of pen pals never met each other, but that doesn’t lessen the value of the connection that can be forged through a virtual exchange of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes a friend can be someone you never meet. But I’ll grant you that IRL friends are the bomb by comparison.
It’s deepened relationships I already have. I have a few friends who I knew long before the advent of social media, but for various reasons we drifted apart, only to eventually rediscover each other through social media. In other cases, I knew someone through a non-friendship venue (such as a work project) and discovered a lot of common ground through social media, which helped to advance the relationship from the friendly acquaintance or “work friend” to “friend friend” stage. This is great.
It’s given me the opportunity to try new things. Social media is directly responsible for my running journalism career (such as it is), my having joined a running team, my becoming a host of various podcasts, my decision to travel to certain places, and my exploration of new forms of creative outlet or consumption, just to name a few. Social media gets me out of the house and around people pretty regularly.
It’s provided me with a free publishing platform. For a quiet person, it seems that I have a lot to say. Social media lets me say those things. Whether it’s writing haiku (well, three years ago), or satirizing the kind of taglines I get paid to produce on a regular basis, or presenting an interview project, or just telling some stupid jokes, all I have to do is start an account and I have my own megaphone, instantly. I even have a secret blog that no one knows about.
It’s helped me find support and solutions. Like you, I have problems. Lots of them. Through social media (message boards especially) I’ve found members of my various tribes who are chock full of information, ideas, resources and empathy.
It’s kept my serotonin levels steady. See “problems” above. I don’t know whether I did too much acid in the third grade or something, but my mood will easily plummet without constant vigilance. I’d say about half of the people I follow on Twitter are either professional comedians, comedy writers or regular Janes and Joes who happen to be hilarious. I also write lots of funny stuff (or at least I think it’s funny) throughout the day. Reading and producing this stuff on Twitter elevates my mood. It’s that simple.
It’s shown me that activism is still alive and well. Lastly, there’s other peoples’ use of social media for the greater good. You’ve got things like the It Gets Better Project, which strives to keep gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered youth from killing themselves. Or the Enough Project, which seeks to dismantle warlordism in Sudan and the Congo. Then you’ve got activism that demonstrates social media’s unintended consequences, like Nancy Upton’s hijacking of an ill-conceived American Apparel contest for use as her own personal platform for scathing social commentary. Fucking brilliant. Try doing that with television.
What has social media done for me lately? A lot. What’s it done for you?