Monday, April 11, 2011

How social media can make history: A blur of green, pink, white and brown

"I sometimes think drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly," she said. "If you showed a driver a green blur. Oh yes! He'd say, that's grass! A pink blur! That's a rose garden! White blurs are houses. 
Brown blurs are cows" (8).  
--Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

It has been an interesting juxtaposition, attending my graduate "Social Learning" class while teaching Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and dealing with the contradiction the two create.  On one end, we celebrate the technological advances offered by social media and the internet, the speed and ease of being able to connect with thousands, even millions of people globally, resulting in the proverbial "flattening" of the world.  We welcome opportunities to share our thoughts, like I've done in this very blog, while hopefully stirring hearts and minds into making change when it comes to anything from a local food drive to fundraising for Japanese earthquake and tsunami survivors. So many opportunities for change, for learning and for reflection.

On the other end, Bradbury leads his reader through a path of intellectual destruction, a place where speed is the necessity and where characters become extensions of technology rather than technology being an extension of the people.  He speaks about a world, much like the one Clay Shirky is talking about in his video "How Social Media can make History." A world in which governments shut down things like Twitter, Facebook and Google to prevent their own citizens from communicating with people because the rate of communication and lack of control frightens the powers that rely so heavily on regulation. As a result, the very medium used to exercise their freedoms is manipulated to bastardize it. 

With the freedoms associated with social media so comes the responsibilities and the consequences Bradbury prophetically warns us about in his novel. The more "progress" made technologically, the more likely communities might become overstimulated (constant barrage of world news, reality television, online gaming, computer-based learning rather than face-to-face instruction), overwhelmed and apathetic because they can't cope with the amount and types of information being delivered from every direction.  I have students who never turn off their phones, who sleep by them and wake up to answer texts and calls throughout the entire night.  So the question isn't whether or not social media can make history. It's more a matter of when does it become our history and how will we manage it so it will remain a useful tool and not become a weapon or an excuse to "Cha-Cha" the answers rather than come up with an original idea?

I embrace technology and I love social media and its potential, but I'm terrified that its very existence will dismantle the critical thinking skills that have evolved through real-time, real-life, face-to-face conversations unless we teach the limited nature of these freedoms and the art of balancing so much information. Otherwise, we will find ourselves living amongst millions of people online without really knowing anyone,  and life will become a blur of green, pink, white and brown. Just remember, stay ahead of the social media monster and remember to tame it rather than be tamed by it.

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