Ben Harkaway, ‘20
Social media is a reactive communication method. It is instant and responses are immediately expected. This column explores the philosophy of "instant gratification" associated with social media. Thus, the philosophical question is, "Is the instant gratification of a reactive communication method used at the expense of reflective and thoughtful discourse?"
Walk down any street, in any town — suburban or city — and one will see a multitude of people — young and old — with their hands clutched and faces turned toward a small handheld device — notably the cellphone. This ubiquitous tool is much more than a “phone” though. It has transformed how people engage in communication.
What is the philosophy behind social media? Most would answer “instant gratification.” In other words, while the “cell phone” allows verbal conversation, social media extends the use of the device by providing the user with the ability to talk, text, post, tweet...in short, REACT.
Social Media is a reactive form of communication in which everything is instantaneous and responses immediate. This new age platform allows for contacting friends, capturing memories, posting activities, identifying locations, and more — all at rapid speeds. Social Media is reshaping how people initiate and cultivate social situations, relationships, and interactions with each other.
What was the alternative to this lightning-fast interaction? Flashback to the year 1980. No cell phones. No email. If you want to approach someone — e.g. ask out your crush — but are too nervous to talk face-to-face. The house landline is out of the question since your little sister (or worse, your parent) might pick up at any time and listen in. Plus, you’d likely be forced to interact with his/her parents who answer the phone. So, you take a few days to write a detailed letter. Once delivered, you wait anxiously for a response. This lengthy form of non-direct communication was the reality for the average kid during this time period. Burdensome? Yes. However, this nostalgic depiction of the delivery of a hand-written letter outlines the importance of meaningful and thoughtful discourse.
The year is 2018. Everyone has a cell phone. And everyone has social media accounts. Anyone can text, Snapchat a funny story, or post on Instagram. There are many choices for internet communication, yet they all have instant messaging...and the expectation of a swift response. Though there is a benefit of immediate feedback, not responding to someone’s message provides a tone of “disinterest,” which may not be accurate — an unintended consequence.
Thus, back to the philosophical question: "Is the instant gratification of a reactive communication tool of today used at the expense of reflective and thoughtful discourse of yesterday?”
Though handwriting a letter was arduous, the slow speed of the process allowed for the writer to carefully record his/her thoughts in a well-crafted piece. He/she had sufficient time to convey the message and also to incorporate authentic expressions of feeling — something Social Media does not readily provide. In short, chosen words reflected true sentiments. The writer has opportunity to discard the message before mailing should it not accurately reflect the intended response. In other words, the letter is not sent until it is ready to be sent — not so with Social Media as “send” can’t be “un-sent.” Also, the recipient intuitively knows that the letter response reflects thoughtfulness — whether the response is positive or negative. The recipient knows the writer took time to address the subject personally and not indirectly.
Fast forward to today’s reactive form of communication — Social Media. The differences between the two systems are notable — quick and impulsive versus methodical and reflective. Regardless of speed benefit of communication, social media can be detrimental to considerate and serious dialogue. Social media allows the user to send a message in minutes — or even seconds. Quickly “thumb-tapping” the phone screen with their thumbs, the user puts his/her thoughts into words at instant speeds. But this rapid pace of communication comes with a price. After hitting “send” he/she is anxious for a reply if a response is not given within a few minutes. The sender doesn’t just hope for a response, they expect it. As the recipient is aware of the “social protocol” of a quick response, he/she typically replies in short order — often providing a “timely response” albeit without sufficient weight. Contemplation is sacrificed for speed.
Another drawback of social media is the incendiary nature of getting attention or “likes.” Incendiary is used as “provocative,” e.g. posting for immediate awareness. Users often post in a very crowded media field, forcing attention-getting comments or posts designed to rouse an audience rather than provide thoughtful content.
Technological advances continue to speed along and the result is more and more immediacy demanded — “I want it now!” As society progresses and communication accelerates, a retrospective view is important with the knowledge that sometimes slowing the pace yields better results.
After all, the tortoise did beat the hare at the end.