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Social Media: Good, Bad and Surprising, brought to you by CNN

“Take some time to just be human, off-line.” Those were the parting words of musician Pete Wentz – 2 million Twitter followers! – at the close of last Thursday’s CNN Dialogue, a community discussion at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The topic: Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Surprising. My fellow panelists were Wentz, comedian Baratunde Thurston, and TwitChange founder Shaun King, plus the moderator, CNN anchor Don Lemon, all sharp, thoughtful and wholly steeped in the online world. There was so much texting, tweeting and continuous partial attention going on backstage before the talk that I felt too sheepish to pull out work on a mere piece of paper, or … sit and daydream.

When the Dialogue began, there was a fair bit of oohing and aahing at the whiz-bang beauty of it all – we can change the world, I’m in touch with everybody, always, we’re all happier now. But to my delight, there was candor too, and realism, underscoring my view that the level of discussion around technology is maturing, albeit slowly.

We talked about proliferating weak ties, and their limits. In job hunts, weak ties – our acquaintances, friends of friends etc. – can provide information, but little more. Socially, our online friendships strain the definition of the word; a third of Facebook “friends” are strangers or people with whom we have dormant relations. And yet, as Shaun pointed out, he sometimes feels closer to an online stranger-turned-friend across the country than he does to his own family. Social media is powerfully connective.

What’s the impact on strong ties? I pointed out the corrosive nature of punctured presence. When we’re all in the same room, are we having a rich, textured conversation or are we sated by disjointed, fragmented talk? One eye on the gadget, one eye on our flesh-and-blood friend or colleague, we divide ourselves in pieces. The rise of the “blackberry orphan” says a lot. I used to hide my parent’s cigarettes, now kids hide their mom’s pda – or just stay glued to their own.

Shaun told of a “humiliating” moment when his elderly neighbor knocked on his door – her husband had just died – and Shaun couldn’t think of his name. We are islands, despite all our hyper-connectivity, Baratunde said. “Nobody cares about you!,” he said, half-jokingly – and the audience clapped. Shaun worried about the effect of living virtually on the social skills of his four children. Pete told of the many fans who approach him, knowing so little of his music, but expecting a piece of him.

One last scene from the evening: an English major in a jacket and tie asked about the “attachment” people have for their gadgets. His friends tremble if their batteries die, he said. “I never let my batteries die,” said Shaun, to laughter. I talked about the digital detox – a 24-hour mandatory detox from media – that I witnessed at the U.Maryland – and the angst so many students felt when the plug was pulled. Do we have time to listen to the depths of our inner selves anymore?

In witnessing such extraordinary connectivity throbbing around me, I sensed a paradox – a time of heady excitement and creeping unease, of deepening insecurity and the thrill of the hunt. Being steeped in the Net entails keeping up, keeping up, with it all. But are we better people as a result? I agree with Pete: we need to step back, pause and remind ourselves more often simply to be human.


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