We read a lot of think pieces about how social media and technology is disconnecting us from each other and generally causing society to fall apart. The typical mockery is a cartoon showing a table of teens texting, with a caption like, "Why are they ignoring one another?" Here's what that shallow mockery overlooks. Technology opens up possibilities for the elderly, the sick, and the disabled to be part of the active life of a community. Some examples:
- The elderly. My friend used Twitter to help her elderly father feel less lonely after his wife died. There were tears in her eyes when she told me, “He’s so much happier now that he can talk to people, while I’m at work and can’t take care of him.”
- The sick. The teen with cancer who inspired John Green’s best-selling book The Fault in Our Stars, was able to have an active social life despite being bed-ridden, because of the video-blogging community on YouTube. She was too sick to attend high school and make friends like a typical teen; but she made friends with an international community of video-bloggers.
- The disabled. Yesterday, my mother-in-law told me about a friend of hers: “She’s in her 60’s and she is a quadriplegic, she has a motorized wheelchair. Facebook is very important to her because she’s extremely isolated because of her poor health and disability.”
Ranting about how the Internet is destroying society is ableism, pure and simple. As well as overlooking the needs of people with disabilities, this can also be clueless to the needs of other under-represented groups.
- Consider the impact of social media on developing countries. I studied abroad in Senegal. The mayor of Guede-Chantier, the Senegalese village where I lived, use Facebook to stay in touch with his friends abroad and persuade them to donate money to important development projects in his village.
- Consider the impact of social media on artists who belong to ethnic minorities! Now they can connect directly with their readers, without needing to win over a biased gatekeeper. Just read this beautiful post from Medium’s Joel Leon. He writes, “My voice felt like it had to be put through a filter, that it wasn’t digestible enough for the majority. Or at least, the majority that held the keys to the proverbial gate that was keeping me from my dreams. Medium gave me an access code.”
- Finally, there are the people who are quirky or have social disabilities or who are severely introverted, who no longer need to be isolated and shunned. The Internet can help get them connected. I should add, perhaps there is a little bit of observer effect going on here. Folks complain the Internet is turning us all into neurotic shut-ins. When the reality is, before we didn’t KNOW about the neurotic shut-ins — because they didn’t have any good way of communicating with us! Now their voices are finally starting to be heard. The Internet doesn’t create these people, so much as it includes them. And that inclusion is a very positive thing.
I understand that it can be annoying when you’re trying to speak to someone and they’re distracted by their phone. I snap at my husband for doing this from time to time! But people who don’t understand the vast amount of social good the Internet is doing, are worse than ignorant: they lack empathy. I want to tell them, “The Internet might mean the world to someone less lucky than you.”
There is good hope that the intellectual discourse around this is changing. At the time of this writing, a piece ranting on this very issue is going viral. Also, one of our Berrett-Koehler authors, SC Moatti, has published a book called Mobilized, which explains the most successful apps, help us get more connected to the world.
Technology helps connect people and ideas to create a world that works for all.