Monday, January 20, 2014

Social media -- super, sickening or somewhere in between?

Read an interesting article in The (London) Times yesterday.

The gist of it was that the popularity of TV period pieces like "Downton Abbey" (its Series 4 premiere two weeks ago drew the highest ratings for a drama in the history of PBS) and "Mr. Selfridge" are striking a chord with viewers worldwide because it reminds us of a slower, simpler time.

Hang on, hang on. Before you think, "Here Mabe goes again, waxing poetic about the past, hear me out a minute.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the long-term effect that social media will have on a society with an already short attention span. People used to gripe about MTV and sound bites. Twitter has reduced talking to 140 characters. Facebook is a shining, seductive online soap opera.

And we don't even have to be sitting at a computer anymore. Smartphones have made the whole thing portable! How many times have you seen couples sitting in a restaurant doing everything but talking to one another? I once watched two kids, who were sitting side by side at a baseball game, "talk" to each other by texting. And, no, they weren't watching the game.

Something's happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear, with apologies to the Buffalo Springfield. Communication skills are shrinking. A sizable number of children and adults, at least judging by their cyberspace chatter, appear to be barely literate. That could be an indictment of American education, or users could just think online observations don't have to be grammatically correct. Either scenario stinks. I meet young people all the time who can't carry on a conversation.

Now, having said all of that, there's a flaw in this flue, too.

Period dramas have been popular for years. Paging "The Waltons," the original "Upstairs Downstairs," "The Wonderful World of Disney" and any Sherlock Holmes show set in the proper period. (Holmes is the most portrayed fictional character, and his motion picture adventures started in the silent era.)

I meet many, many people of all ages who use social media daily and are smarter and more articulate than I.

And, perhaps most importantly, nostalgia is a two-edged sword. Sure, watching "Downton" makes me wish I were a leisurely English lord, but as the Times article pointed out, the "good ol' days" were also filled with rudimentary medical practices ("Downton" dealt with that last year), terrible attitudes toward women and minorities and many social issues, illiteracy and little access to information.

Social media outlets have also created needed national and international conversations, given users unprecedented access to news, helped flame the fires of revolution, connected us to classmates, relatives and others we'd never see on a regular basis, and -- let's face it -- are just plain fun.

Sobering thoughts before one starts wishing it took a carrier pigeon to bring you this blog.

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