By: Robert Louis Stevenson
Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad in foreign lands.
I saw the next door garden lie,
Adorned with flowers, before my eye,
And many pleasant places more
That I had never seen before.
I saw the dimpling river pass
And be the sky’s blue looking-glass;
The dusty roads go up and down
With people tramping in to town.
If I could find a higher tree
Farther and farther I should see,
To where the grown-up river slips
Into the sea among the ships,
To where the roads on either hand
Lead onward into fairy land,
Where all the children dine at five,
And all the playthings come alive.
To help understand the social media landscape, it is sometimes useful to imagine different social media users as citizens of “Foreign Lands”. If we look at digital technology users as existing in separate countries, with separate languages, laws, and customs, we begin to understand differences in usage, but we also start to gain clarity around the attitudes which one set of users hold about the other.
From this perspective, we can imagine adult digital technology use: practical, efficient, business-like, productive, serious. Here, newly developed technology is functional. Valuable hardware allows for communication, software is used industriously, social media helps to make business contacts and to retain business relationships and social networking is one-to-one, relationship maintenance. When content is created, it is purposeful and solemn. The self-censored, mature self is presented carefully.
In another country, digital technology provides an opportunity for “play”. Technology is used frivolously, creatively, messily. Hardware and its value matters little. Software is used incessantly, social media helps to maintain close friendships, social networking and content creation is one-to-one and one-to-many. The online self changes, it amuses and, oftentimes disappears after 10 seconds. In this fun land, citizens compare themselves to others, they aspire to ideals, they obsess over image, they emote, and they have fun.
There is a third country, landlocked by both these countries. Here, is the best of both worlds. Citizens were born and raised here and while there are borders, they are not “hard borders”. Movement between countries is permitted; it is even encouraged. The chief export from this country to their neighbours has been digital technology. Here, valuable technology is used, equally for its functionality and productivity and for its playfulness and frivolousness. Software allows users to maintain relationships at numerous levels; close personal ties and more informal business contacts. “Friends” number in the hundreds. Residents of this land “invented” social networking and so, are familiar with its nuances and capabilities; content creation comes naturally and flows from the user. Social media applications were adopted and adapted by these nationals, in fact, most application design is by and for these burghers.
Seeing the landscape like this allows us, in the first place, to explore each. We can examine the citizens; we can almost look at them ethnographically. It is also possible from this vantage point to position ourself in the world of the other. We can look at each of the “lands” from the perspective of another land. How do serious people view the frivolous? How do the unconcerned see the serious and the messy? Importantly, it is also possible to see whether our attitudes, laws and customs apply in the foreign land of another. We can imagine, as a tourist, what it would be like to impose our customs, laws, morality and fears on the behaviour of the other and we can even see if our ways of being necessarily apply here.
Think for a moment of an article published on line by the Independent in the UK, where an addiction expert is quoted as saying that giving a young person a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine or a bottle of wine. Leaving aside the fact that this statement is made without any supporting evidence, isn’t it fair to ask whether this person is imposing her beliefs on the residents of a “Foreign Land”? Is it fair to say that this person is speaking to the residents of her own country about the residents of another country; one which she has never visited, one where they speak a language she doesn’t understand?
Making statements like these is deeply unfair. It terrorises parents, while at the same time, diminishing their parenting. It is disingenuous to young social media users, making it seem as though their online activities are somehow nefarious, illicit and dangerous. And, it trivialises substance abuse and addiction. When we make statements about the outcomes of social media use, we really need to do better.