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May 16, 2014

Commentary: With social media, we’re not withdrawing, just adapting

Users who connect online are building community, just like in the “real world.”

Smart phones and Facebook aren’t killing everyone’s social lives. I promise. Nor are online games like World of Warcraft, League of Legends turning us into vegetables.

I’ve seen a lot of viral videos and blog posts recently decrying the advent of social media and how readily we’ve incorporated it into our lives, claiming that digital interaction has killed our social lives and made us recluses.

The one I recently saw, entitled “Look Up,” opens with “I have 422 friends, yet I am lonely.” The video tells the hypothetical story of a man falling in love and leading a wonderful life. He has chosen to share moments with loved ones instead of using his phone to talk about it. The message implies that unless we power down our devices and wake up to the “real world,” we’re doomed to fall into a social media-induced coma.

I politely disagree.

Admittedly, there’s something to be said for face-to-face interaction. No one should ever be completely without it.

While cyberbullying is still bullying, digital interactions and friendships are just as real. There are real people sitting behind the other end of that Internet connection, and we know it. Where harmful words from our peers can tear us down, helpful words can build us up. The fact that they appear on our Facebook timeline instead of coming straight at our face is moot.

Some people meet up after work at the local watering hole to discuss sports, gardening or other hobbies. Some have cookouts, dinner parties and bowling nights. Others prefer to come home, boot up their gaming system of choice and talk to their friends using Skype or a similar program while playing their favorite online game.

These have equal worth. Just because something’s different from the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it’s inferior.

I’m in the camp of those who engage in most of their social interaction from home.

And while I do enjoy a good cookout or a meet-up at a local restaurant, my friends and I often spend our leisure time gaming. We talk with one another, discuss what’s going on in our lives, and do what anyone else would do when they’re hanging out.

We just do it through a different medium. Connecting online lets me play with my friend in the U.S. Air Force who’s stationed in Everywhere, U.S.A. just as easily as my friends in Cary and Greensboro.

Obviously, all things should be taken in moderation. I shouldn’t spend all my time playing on the computer any more than a guy should spend all his time at the bar watching sports.

I enjoy having friends over to play things like card games. I have other friends who don’t game, and I find ways to spend time with them that we both enjoy. But just because I’m not in the same room as my friends for the majority of our interaction doesn’t mean that interaction doesn’t count.

We do, however, need to watch what we’re sending to people and posting online.

Specifically, you shouldn’t send or put anything online (even in a “private” profile) that you wouldn’t want all to see. The Internet is comprised of a huge group of people — the same people you might find at a bar or a sports event or a concert.

There are potential friends there, but there’s liable to be a bad egg or two as well. Online interaction is like face-to-face interaction in good ways but there are ways it can be abused.

Through playing games, browsing online forums and spending time talking to people online, we have the ability to interact with more people (and in more diverse settings) on a day-to-day basis than we otherwise would.

And here’s the kicker: we’re not limited to the people we just happen to run into. We can choose to meet people with interests similar to ours by deciding what our online activities are going to be.

We have a deeper, wider pool of friends to choose from than ever before because of the Internet. Online interaction teaches us to deal with more diverse groups of people and exposes us to individuals and schools of thought that we wouldn’t normally run across in the work/school/church environments that tend to act as a filter for the kinds of people we meet.

Being online provides us with the opportunity to widen our experiences in ways that didn’t used to be possible.

So don’t jump to conclusions if you see someone sitting at a bus stop with their eyes glued to the phone. It’s OK if they don’t talk to the person beside them, even if that’s what would have happened before the era of the Internet.

It’s entirely possible that they’re making new friendships or deepening existing ones using the marvels of ever-evolving technology.

Or they could be playing Candy Crush.

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