Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Virtually social'

Me: Good day (I make a waving gesture to great a ‘friend’)
‘Friend’: No response.
I take my seat beside this senior colleague. His eyes intently fixed on his 3.5’ screen with fingers scrolling down on his touch screen.  Was he absent minded? Had he noticed my greeting but disregarded it as a random person greeting him? I started having these thoughts because this was the second time I was meeting this colleague who seems to have no idea who I am. Not that I was offended for thinking myself important to him while I was not. But I was perplexed! I was at a loss as to how my ‘friend’ could simply ‘know’ me so well in the digitalized world and have no clue who I am in the real world. Never mind, he was busy on his iPhone checking his Facebook comments and now I could see him smile reading some comments or whatever pleasant thing he was reading on his ‘wall’.
But this is a colleague known to me very well, okay at least very well known to me in the social world and whiles he was in school too! He is a friend on Facebook, a follower on twitter and a fellow in some groups we both belong to on Facebook!! He had made comments on my ‘wallpost’ in Facebook before. I ‘follow’ him on twitter and he follows me back. I have in the past ‘re-tweeted’ some of his tweets even! Of course I knew him personally too! As my senior colleague, I remember having this encounter with him whiles he was in his final year in medical school. For obvious reasons, I won’t divulge information on this encounter with my colleague here.
As I mulled over these thoughts, I began to contemplate the possible impacts social media might be having on our generation with particular emphasis on our relationships with others; what I call our real social connection. I share my perspective on this matter in this article. In a sense, these are largely shaped by my personal experiences as a heavy user of social media particularly of Facebook.
So I am on Facebook, have a twitter account, Google+ account in addition to the two blog sites I manage both on google blogger and wordpress. I use applications like tweetdeck and hootsuite which brings these social networking sites together. And yes, I have forgotten some sites I signed up for something like Facebook created by Ghanaians – I think two of them or so. I belong to uncountable groups on Facebook having created and managing a lot of these and I have a BranchOut account on Facebook too. Quite a lot huh? Some of them, either I have forgotten the name of the site or I have forgotten the password or even the username for such.
In this information age, you must be connected so you can make the best use of technology around you productively.
But just when is social connection, especially an impersonal one like these online connections too much? Just how many of these can be considered one too many? How personal or how impersonal should it be? How much information should we give out publicly or how secured and safe can we be on a daily basis with the current proliferation of spam messages on these sites and the impuned invasion of our privacy. The price to pay for our free usage? Interesting observation; these days you can have a conversation with someone on a daily basis without ever seeing or meeting the person! 
On the productive side, you can plan and organize events, have meetings and raise funds for projects. Social media has increasingly become the portal for news delivery – most of us having to feed on news stories from these sites. I particularly have found it useful in these past weeks when I have had to rely on it for making announcements to medical students in Africa and also for reading announcements/ notices from my class wall on Facebook. People share news about events both blissful and mournful. Conversations/ discussions about topics ranging from politics, sports, religion and other social issues are held on such sites with news channels taking advantage of this to reach out to their listeners.
You can share photos of memorable events with loved ones on these sites (albeit you may not know most of your friends on Facebook). ‘Prominent’ people have Fan pages. Politicians are taking advantage of this too likewise the ministers and evangelists.
Seems to me people have rather become quite philosophical churning out volumes of wise sayings on daily and sometimes on hourly basis! Never mind the blatant plagiarism or the frequent infringement of copyright laws. People have rather become very expressive and confident in a sense.
Question still remains, what are the limits? What is considered too much?
Some of us have thousands of friends and we barely know 40% of people on our friends’ list! I have known a lot of people from within the IFMSA and also during my term as a FAMSA official and even from my exchange program and numerous conferences attended worldwide. I am not quite sure I know up to 50 percent of the 1,345 people on my friends’ list! Even more compelling, I am not sure I know on a personal basis up to 20 percent of my 'friends'. For ‘fanatics’ like me, we just click the ‘accept friendship request’ button anytime we see that red notification on our page. Some of us even have anonymous profiles on these social sites and only God knows the intention of such sketches.
Going back to the opening story, is it possible that I might I have considered many of my ‘friends’ as random people I met on the streets or on a bus? Is it possible I sat next to one of them at a place and never opened my mouth to say hi cos' I has no clue who they were just like my 'friend'? Did someone start wondering where they knew me? Was my face seemingly familiar? The affirmative to these are all possible and I don’t know what effects these may have but certainly these are not connections you would give thought to or expect positive outcomes from. At best, they make us appear sociable when in fact, we really are not. I have been culprit a number of times cutting conversation short and continuing essential discussion online via chat or email. Seems to me real friends are becoming distant even though they are so close on these social networking sites. We can have long chats with our friends online and only visit their room which is only four doors away from us occasionally. We so much want to get inside our rooms and switch on the PC and see what people are saying, doing or to put it in a more apt way, posting. We want to comment on their post, join in the celebration, sympathize, advise or comfort and yes, share God’s word with our friends. We want to do all these but on a digitally social platform! Makes me sometimes feel we are heading for an era like in one of those sci-fi thrillers where computers take over human race and control everything – in this case our communication and relationships (which is everything actually). I sometimes get the sense we are just sitting back watching the computers do all the communication for us. We shouldn’t forget communication is more than just words. What about the smileys you may argue now. Well, I think they are just characters typed out. Nothing can replace the smile on a human face or the warmth of an embrace or the pleasure of a kiss. Nothing can take away the tears on a face, or the moans and groans of an ailing friend. Nothing can take away that touch of healing. The soothing touch of a loved one, the nudge or shove or the poke of a friend – these are human and cannot be replaced. Action indeed speaks louder than words. Video massaging you may now say. But hey, it's just an image (it being a moving image of a person) but not the person. There is something ritual about having the person in person to communicate with. 
My dear reader make no mistake, I am not against social networking but what I am highlighting here and advocating against is the dehumanization of these relationships. When we remove the element of humanity from these connections so it seems we have another life out there encrypted and encoded in computer messages or even multimedia. We seem to have that sociable and expressive personality only he cannot touch or be touched. Only he cannot see, hug, kiss or dry our tears no matter what sweet words he may write. I have heard action speaks louder than words.
The social profile we create out there must of necessity conform to our very own personality. What we represent out there must also represent us indeed. For safety reasons it is not wise to give out so much information about ourselves out there but whatever we choose to give must reflect our being – religious, Christian, or whatever creed we profess to believe in. That is the challenge for us. We may not know all the people in our digital social domain, but we must value personal relationships above these. These must not supersede the personal relationships we have with people. Sometimes it's practically impossible to communicate with people without the aid of social networks and that is fine. After all, you have in mind that the network is just an aid to the relationship you have with A PERSON! That is fine and good reasoning. What I am against is the removal of the person element in this relationship.  
For other purposes, we may reach out impersonally to people sometimes but to wallow in the virtual world of socialization is to deceive ourselves of our social well-being. That is not healthy according to the WHO.
Easily the adage that the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know comes to mind. We must mend our broken physical relationships, consolidate the good ones we have already with people and then build genuine virtual relationships to our benefit and that of those around us. We must reach out purposefully and as widely as we can through social media to achieve the best we could possibly achieve and help our generation. We must put back humanity into social media and make it more relevant to our human relationships. My thoughts to you via social media!

Safe in the arms of His love

He was amongst us as one of us

He showed us the way to victory and beckons us

He loved us and died for us

He defeated life’s most feared foe and gave us hope

He was glorified and seeks glory for us in Heaven

One day, He will welcome us,

Sinners turned Saints into His Father’s house

He saved us so we may live for Him!

Lift His royal banner high.

His name is Jesus!!!